Fenian Military Officer Shoulder Boards

General John O’Neil in his Fenian Uniform circa 1867. He would later lead another failed Raid into Canada in 1870 wearing this same officer’s uniform.

General John O’Neill, Irish Republican Army circa 1867, later he was the President of the Fenian Brotherhood (Roberts/Senate Wing). Note O’Neill wears the United States pattern officer’s frock coat however the shoulder boards are Fenian Sunbursts (An Gal Gréine) signifying the officer as a General in the Irish Republican Army.

The Fenians copied the United States uniform mostly in style, since there was so much discounted surplus from the Civil War and many of the Fenian Officers had their own Federal uniforms from their service in the American Civil War, however the Fenians did make minor changes and Fenian Brotherhood Military Regulations were laid down regarding the uniform of commissioned officers in the Irish Republican Army.

Officers were to wear a frock of dark green cloth, black trousers, black hat, and a sash of green silk. A major general wore shoulder boards of two sunbursts in silver, a brigadier general only one sunburst, a colonel wore a Phoenix in silver (replacing the US Eagle for a rising Phoenix). A lieutenant colonel wore a shamrock leaf in silver, and a major, shamrock leaf in gold it is unclear what the background color was however it likely followed the branch of service similar to the U.S. military.

General O’Neill being captured by US Marshal, General George Foster during the Fenian Raid of May 1870. O’Neill is wearing the Irish Republican Army Officers uniform as his square belt buckle clearly shows the initials I.R.A. (Irish Republican Army)
Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, June 11, 1870

The Fenian Brotherhood Token Carried during The Fenian Raids into Canada, June 1866

New York City entrepreneur & engraver John Gault, looked to cash in on the Fenian hype that encompassed New York as well as other Irish centers within the United States after the Civil War. Gault was more famously known for obtaining a patent for a postage stamp case or as he named it the “New Metallic Currency”. A single US postal stamp would be placed inside a small brass case with the front of the stamp visible however on the back was an advertisement for a local business. The stamp which would be used as fractional currency with the stamp safeguard within the brass case.

Gault designed and sold a Fenian token or medal which was first sold in March 1866 through newspaper advertisements. This medal was designed with a hole at the top to be worn, some say, for a green ribbon or lanyard. 

Other reports claim that these token dies were cut by Sewell, a New York City die sinker of Irish origin and a member of the Fenian Brotherhood and produced by The Scoville Manufacturing Company of Waterbury, Connecticut in 1866.

One good Fenian had purchased Gault’s Fenian Brotherhood token and was in possession of it when he was captured by the British/Canadian forces at Pigeon Hill, East Wing in June 1866. 

On trial with the other captured Fenians at Sweetsburg (now Cowansville, Missisquoi, Canada), was Terrance McDonald, a 25 yrs old single laborer, born in Airdrie, Scotland and living in Waterbury CT. Like many of his fellow Fenian Raiders, he was a veteran of the American Civil War. 

Having served in the 9th Connecticut Infantry as a private in Co A, he was wounded at Cedar Creek, VA 1864 and mustered out in 1865. The 9th CTVI was established as an Irish regiment, with strong Irish Republican sentiment and carried a regimental flag which bore both an American red, white and blue shield as well as the Irish Harp with “Erin Go Braugh” proudly displayed on their battle colors. The 9th Connecticut regiment served in the western theater during the civil war.  

At his trial in Dec 1866, the British prosecutor “produced a medal taken from the prisoner, Terrance McDonald. “One side were the words “Irish Republic” and a ship in the centre, and on the other, “Ireland and America,” with a device of clasped hands, and the date of 1866, with shamrock and sunburst.” [National Republican, Washington DC, Dec 21, 1866] 

McDonald never denied he was a Fenian, like some of his fellow prisoners did. In fact, he was proud of it until his dying day, where he would later join the Irish Land League in his home state of Connecticut. Lucky for McDonald, he had only become a US citizen on March 10, 1866, before the ill-fated Raid, but this just so happened to have saved his life. 

The British Prosecutor was threatening to have all captured Fenian traitors hanged by the neck, since they were still seen as British subjects of the Crown. Britain did not recognize Naturalized American Citizenship and believed once born under the British Crown, a subject would always belong a British subject. (It wasn’t until two other American Fenians challenged this (John Warren/Augustine E Costello) causing an international affair that Great Britain would finally recognized the rights of their subjects to become Naturalized US citizenship (Warren & Costello Act of 1870)).

McDonald was however acquitted because he was a US citizen at the time. Great Britain also knew they did not want an international crisis on their hands with the United States and hoped it would quickly and quietly die down. Another reason was they did not want to make martyrs out of the Fenian prisoners. 

Thus this medal played a small role, during these 1866 trials, carried by at least one Fenian Raider and later used as evidence for the Crown; for owning it meant being a member of the Fenian Brotherhood. Despite owning one, being naturalized Citizens of the United States had a greater value which saved the several Fenian lives.

These token can be found from time to time up on auction websites as as numismatic sites. They had been mass produced and sold to the public during 1866 , through newspaper advertisements and one generally finds them in varying quality and condition today. Most have the hole knocked out, however there has been a few examples that the hole was not made and likely carried as a token.