The Fenian Forty is a rare veteran’s account of his and his comrades’ participation in the 1866 Fenian Raid into Canada.
The story appeared thirty years after the Raid, within the Buffalo Courier May 29, 1893 pages to remember the anniversary of the Irish attempt to take Canada by force. The author is a Civil War veteran from Buffalo who served in the 2nd New York Mounted Rifles and gathers thirty nine other veterans from his regiment for an “adventure”. While their part of Fenian operations has never been been documented (or verified) in other sources, it plays an interesting side story to the Fenian Raids. These civil war veterans, who were not under any formal command, did more reconnaissance and plundering in Canada then fighting, likely longing for and reliving the excitement they had seen for the last several years on campaign during the war.
Certain facts within the article do pan out as a true story. The mention of a “Mike Mahany”, is most likely Michael Mahanna of Co D of the 2nd NY Mounted Rifles. Mahanna enlisted in November 1863 for three years, promoted to corporal, however was later reduced in rank. He was mustered out with his company at Petersburg, Va on August 10, 1865.
The author indicated the Forty wore their 2nd NY Mounted Rifles uniforms into Canada. which were unique as their shell jackets had green cuffs and piping, very fitting for a Fenian Raid.
Unfortunately, tracking down the author, who is not mentioned purposely, still remains elusive. Several clues within this article narrow down the possibilities; from him holding a political office in 1893, being a high ranking officer in the veteran’s organization G.A.R., to joining up at a very young age with his brother and being of “French decent”. Hopefully after some sleuthing, we can uncover who this French Fenian may be.
** UPDATE ** The 1893 Author of the Fenian Forty story may have been found. After careful checking of military rosters of the 2nd New York Mounted Rifles for brothers, zeroing in on Co D as it’s mentioned in the story, French names as well as the mention of being only 13 years old at the time of his civil war enlistment. It appears that Private Joseph August Humbert is the man in the article. Other records show he was active politically in Buffalo and held several high positions within the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). Humbert also continued to serve in the National Guard after the war, rising to the rank of Captain.
A link to his grave is proved here which also shows a photo of him: https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/33335234/joseph-august-humbert
The Fenian Forty “Adventure” is below:
Fenian Overcoats for 10 cents, that’s a bargain not many could pass up.
In the winter of 1869, colorfully printed handbills were plastered around lower Manhattan and along the fences at City Hall Park, advertising this enticing offer that helped drive curiosity and foot traffic to the location listed on the flyer. Even in 1869, these printed handbill followed the long-standing marketing axiom: keep it simple (K.I.S.S.), reading:
Had one followed their inquisitiveness, they wouldn’t have found themselves at a military surplus clothing store but at the doorsteps of “Reagan’s Saloon” at 5 Beekman Street in New York City, a newly furnished elegant tavern with rooms available that also featured a plush parlor, fashionable furnishings, gas lamps, fine liquors and cigars, of course being sold “at the lowest market prices”.
William H. Reagan, who put out these advertisements was a liquor merchant with a knack for marketing published various ads in local New York City newspapers about his liquor dealership and fine cigars, from several of his locations. These ads were usually several lines long and ran in The Irish American Weekly, NY Daily Graphic and the New York Herald. Reagan was also a supporter of the Irish charities and Irish causes.
A Schenectady resident going by the nom de plume “Humanity” and drawn in by the Fenian Overcoat advertisement wrote to the local newspaper: “puzzled at the low price, and made enquires of a Hibernian. He said: “Why sir, it is aisy [easy] enough to understand, them folks wear their overcoats inside; it manes [means] a noggin uv [of] whiskey.”
A Fenian Overcoat was the name for Irish whiskey served straight, a single pour, unmixed, ungarnished and at room temperature. Several newspapers mentioned similar stories throughout the country of Irish whiskey straight now being called “Fenian Overcoats” attributing it to New York City.
The Fenian Overcoats was the hook, which drew in patrons, who knew the inside joke or believing they were getting a deal on winter clothing or maybe even wondering if the Fenian Brotherhood’s military, had accumulated so many overcoats in their quest to uniform their military that they were now selling overcoats at discounted prices, like the US military did right after the Civil War.
How the name came about is not exactly known, it could have been taken from an incident a few years early when thirty five winter overcoats were sent to Fenian prisoners captured in the June 1866 Invasions of Canada (West and East) awaiting trial and sentencing. During that winter, Fenian President William R. Roberts sent all of the Fenian prisoners overcoats, which were held by British customs until the duty tax was paid on them for coming into the county. This riled up the Fenians and caused delay in the much need overcoats reaching the prisoners who were suffering from the cold in British prisons because of their participation in efforts to establish an Irish Republic. Other speculation is the whiskey was Irish and so were the Fenians. It was a natural connection, plus a whiskey straight would warm one up in a cold winter’s day like an overcoat.
Whatever the reason, the “Fenian Overcoat” term for a whiskey straight lived on and seemed to have continued to be used during the height of the Fenian Brotherhood’s existence, well into the early 1880’s.
In November 1879, the Jersey City Evening Journal newspaper used this expression as if it was a common place phrase understood by their readers. It was reported: “a number of hoodlums employed at the Oil Docks Caven Point” went on a drinking spree up Monticello Ave, buying boots and flat topped hats, as well as investing in whiskey and old ale. “After a while they left off enriching their winter wardrobe and turned their entire attention to “Fenian Overcoats”. They got very “full” and correspondingly ugly.”
This was not going to be a good day for John Popka’s Saloon and taproom, where he served his own locally home brewed beer at 158 Monticello Ave in Jersey City. He advertised “selling the largest glass of good beer for the least amount of money”. After refusing to pay for their drinks, the hoodlums destroyed the place, and then wandered outside to other taprooms to eventually get into a fight among themselves. The newspaper pondered what their faces looked like the following morning as well as the oil docks must have been shorthanded the following day.
Then there was Poor Kate. Kate Ferguson was an Irish domestic servant and well known to the Jersey City police, the courts and the readers of the Jersey City Evening Journal. Her name had been mentioned numerous times within the newspaper’s columns over a span of more than 30 years, due to her arrests for her disorderly conduct, public drunkenness and being sent to the county hospital at Snake Hill to dry out. Kate had become a wretched serial tale within the pages of the newspaper because of her frequent antics over so many years as a perpetual nuisance. In another sad story to their readers, the paper chronicled yet one more episode of Kate’s on March 4th 1882:
She Went For Button
“Kate Ferguson, an old pensioner, left the Third Precinct station house yesterday to buy some buttons. At the first saloon she called on the woman who politely informed her that they did not sell buttons there, though they made a specialty of Fenian Overcoats. Kate promptly purchased an overcoat, and donned it paying ten cents for the article. She called at another saloon further up the street and was again astonished to learn that buttons were not to be secured even there. Her astonishment was so great that she was compelled to again secure another overcoat. She bought a number of other garments of the same sort before she secured any buttons – in fact, she didn’t get any at all. She got drunk, however, and created so great a disturbance that Officer Shandley took her into custody. This morning Justice Stilsing sentenced her to ten days’ imprisonment in the cell, which she has used right along as a pensioner.”
The “Fenian Overcoat” expression seemed to die out around the same time the Fenian Brotherhood organization was sputtering out and morphing into other similar Irish Republican groups, and we don’t see this term being used again.
So next time you decide to have an Irish whiskey, remember to make it a straight and raise your glasses to the Fenians and their heartwarming Fenian Overcoats.
Sources: Schenectady Reflector, Dec 23, 1869, Courier Journal, Nov 29, 1866, Cleveland Leader, Jan 7, 1867, Irish American Weekly, Dec 19, 1868, Irish American Weekly, Nov 07, 1868, Buffalo Commercial, Dec 27, 1869, Daily Graphic, April 27, 1873, New York Herald, Dec 19, 1876, Jersey City Evening Journal, March 4, 1882, Jersey City Evening Journal, Nov 24, 1879, Warner, Chris, American Civil War: Union Infantry (Uniforms and Equipment) Almark Publishing Co, London, 1977, Todd, Frederick P. : American Military Equipage, 1851-1872, Vol 1, Company of Military Historians, Providence, 1974
The Fenian Brotherhood military of 1866-1870 consisted of U.S. Army Civil War surplus with many companies formed into a militia type system either attached to local Fenian Circles, as their military wing or in a few cases part of the National Guard as a separate company in some states. They were commanded by former officers who served in the Civil War.
When Fenian President William B Robert’s Irish Republican Army troops invaded Canada in early June 1866, the soldiers wore a wide assortment of uniforms and civilian clothing. Most of these men were veterans of the American Civil War, who donned parts of their old uniforms, including US and Confederate CSA belt plates. Some Fort Erie witnesses testified in Canadian court rooms, they thought the United States had invaded Canada by the appearance of these soldiers and their uniforms.
There were only two companies of Fenians who wore something which resembled a military uniform, The Cleveland Rangers wearing green blouses and caps and the Louisville men who wore blue jackets with green facings. 1.
After the Fenian Raids, the Brotherhood needed an identity for their military and established new uniforms and new military regulations, dividing the States into military districts. The Fenian Brotherhood began to brand their military of this Irish National Organization – the “Irish Republican Army”.
The uniform developed were based on the US Federal military style with the Fenians choosing to include on their brass buttons and belt plates “I.R.A.”.
The I.R.A. buttons have become well know and seen as collector’s items. However, the I.R.A. belt buckle is not seen as frequent, and to some thought not to have existed.
Irish Republican Army buckle was part of the Fenian uniform adopted in their November 1866 military regulations. The Robert’s wing wore these belts along with their green or blue uniforms (shell jackets, green with yellow trim for cavalry and blue shell jackets with light blue trim (sometimes yellow) for infantry) with brass I.R.A. buttons in parades and drills. All uniforms, including rank and insignia, were to be purchased from Fenian Headquarters in New York for the cost of $12. 2.
The timing of these military regulations were intentional. The Fenian Raids of June 1866 into Canada, brought in a renewed hope to the movement as well as plenty of cash from eager supporters. The Fenians were intent to show they were still very much active and would continue to press on with another Canadian Invasion.
In December 1866, newspaper accounts reported President Robert’s preparing for a second run at Canada. Roberts met with an agent of the New Jersey Central Railroad Company to negotiate terms for ” all Fenians goods, arms, munitions of war and all Fenian troops”, to be carried for free of expense on their railroad. At the same time, Robert’s purchased 30,000 waist belt buckles of the old Virginia Militia. The buckles had on the front the words “Sic Semper Tyrannis” and “Virginia”. The “Virginia” was to be removed and the word “Ireland” substituted. 3.
No buckles as described ever appeared and it is more likely the brass, being bought cheaply after the war, was melted down
to became the I.R.A. buckle that was shortly seen afterwards. The Brotherhood had also contracted for distinctive military uniforms as well as to button manufacturers, thus producing the I.R.A. buttons, in several styles at the time as well. The Fenian Brotherhood wanted to brand their military as the “Irish Republican Army”, establishing their Republic government as well as their military within the United States.
Newspaper reports verify the existence of the I.R.A. belt plate, clearly describing it. These buckles were also worn into action as part of the new uniforms. Fenian General John O’Neill, now president of the Roberts wing, against the consent of the Fenian Senate, decided to pull his fully uniformed Fenians together for another run into Canada in May 1870, and this time to the same battleground as the 1866 Eastern Fenian Raid.
The results were disastrous. It was poorly executed as plans were infiltrated by a British spy, who also happened to be the Chief of Fenian Ordinanc and went about sabotaging the entire operation. The trusted spy revealed the details to the Canadians Authorities who were waiting for the Irish Republican Army. O’Neill was arrested for violating the American Neutrality agreement by a US Marshal before the battle even began. The Fenian Raid fell apart even before it started.
The New York Herald reported from Cook’s Corner, St Armand, Canada East on May 25, 1870. “The Fenian demonstration has ended at last and the country on both sides of the line can feel free from all danger of an immediate invasion of the invading aspirants for an Irish Republic… The officers all wore swords, and concealed their uniforms with overcoats. The privates were attired in short blue and green jackets, trimmed with orange braid, and wore army pantaloons. The belts bore the insignia I.R.A. In point of equipment the men are sadly wanting. Very few canteens or haversacks were visible, and their cartridge boxes showed evidence of much use. They were armed with the new patent Meade breech-loading rifle.” 4.
Also reported in stories and articles recounting the battle in 1872: “The company of the 69th Regiment, which had been acting as a support to the skirmishers, was now brought into line at the double, and throwing close and rapid volleys into the breastwork, pushed quickly into and through the hop fields, then over the open space beyond until the flanked defense was gained. Behind it the ground was covered with debris of the fleeing force. Swords, scabbards, breech-loading rifles, leather cartridge pouches, gray canvas knapsacks, pieces of pork, unscabbarded bayonets, waist-belts engraved with I.R.A.”Irish Republican Army;” everything in fact, except the soldiers themselves.” 5.
Later, this style buckle shows up in London at Ludgate Hill Station in 1884, during the O’Donavan Rossa Fenian Dynamite Campaign. An undetonated bomb with shrapnel containing this same IRA belt buckle. Fenian O’Donavan Rossa had set up a Dynamite School in America, and it is likely one of the Fenian Veterans had this American IRA buckle laying around from his service years before and included into the explosive for a more deadly purpose. The belt pate, with other metal shrapnel had been on display at the Metropolitan Police Black Museum in London.
1. Cleveland Daily Leader, June 4, 1866. New York News, June 7, 1866
2. The World, NY Nov 13,1866
3. London Evening Standard – Dec 28, 1866
4. New York Herald, May 26, 1870 & Belfast Morning News – Jun 10, 1870
5. Stamford Mercury, June 28, 1872 also St James’s Magazine, Volume 30 – P317 W Kent 187
The size of the Fenian Brotherhood within the Union Army during the Civil War is often overlooked. Membership was growing fast by mid 1863 on the successes of recruiting and fellow Fenian Union Officers leading the efforts. It became a vehicle for Irish men serving in the Union to not only join the Brotherhood to show their love and hope for the future of their beloved homeland, by bringing in monthly dues collected in the field at Circle meeting for that future, but also to donate to the cause of Ireland’s freedom along with their dues. Their military training and skills while fighting for the Union, in all branches of the military, would be an asset to Ireland when the Civil War was over as the Fenians viewed themselves a better match against any British military force.
Many know of some US Irish officers who held rank in the Fenian Irish Republican Army and participated in the raids of 1866 into British North America, but little has been written about of the Raid into Canada East, the invasion toward Montreal. That invasion was the real objective for the Robert’s Wing of the Fenian Brotherhood.
Much of the attention on the Fenians during this period focuses on the Raid from Buffalo into Ontario, Canada West. This Fenian invasion force was meant to be a diversionary tactic so Canadian troops would scramble to that area from all over the region, clearing an easier path for the Fenians in the East from Malone NY and St Alban’s into Canada East, which was set for a few days later.
Unplanned by the Fenians was US intervention, lack of enthusiasm from the local Canadians to join their efforts, and what became termed a “fizzle”, made the Fenian leaders understand the Raids were over even before the Canada East Raid began. But some Fenians in the East, despite hearing what happened outside Buffalo, continued to press on.
One overlooked Fenian Officer who went to Canada East, and distinguished himself during the Civil War was Captain Alexander C. Eason, of Newark, NJ. He was born 1833 in Ireland, to William and Jane Eason and immigrated to the USA as a youth. He married Anne Adams in Charlestown, MA in 1855.
By the time of the civil war, the Easons had two children, William H (b. 1854) and Emma (b. 1856) and had moved from Massachusetts to Newark, NJ. Alexander had established himself by 1860 as a local constable then later a grocer and a tavern owner by 1863.
In 1863, New Jersey was looking to put more regiments in the field and offered unique uniforms to entice veterans and raw recruits alike to instill a esprit de corps. The 33rd New Jersey Volunteer Infantry was recruited in September 1863 and were issued a modified Zouave uniform. The 35th New Jersey was also issued the same uniform but soon changed to the regulation Union blues, since supplying these unique uniforms were a challenge as they wore out quickly in the field and were difficult to replace. The 33rd New Jersey continued to wear these zouave uniforms until they were mustered out of service in 1865. Both units fought in the Western Theater under Sherman and participated in the March to the Sea.
Alexander joined the 33rd New Jersey Infantry (Mindle’s Zouaves) in Newark and commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant in Company F. He was promoted to 1st Lt of Co B and by September 1864 he was later promoted to captain of this company.
Eason joined the Fenian Brotherhood at the end of the Civil War, and became an active Fenian leader in Newark, eventually leading a squad of Newark men from his former command of the 33rd New Jersey to Malone NY to join the Fenian Raid (Canada East) in June 1866, to capture British North America for Ireland. All Fenian military regiments from the East Coast, including New Jersey, were sent to Canada West, while Western Fenian companies were sent to Buffalo, NY.
Eason was arrested by US authorities after the raid at the border, with other Fenian officers, as he was part of the Fenian command. The United States military grabbed all involved for violating the neutrality agreement with Britain and briefly jailed these veteran officers, who had not yet escaped.
The United States never pursued strong actions against these Fenians and their brief detainment by the US was more welcomed than seeing British justice, as some of their Buffalo Fenian comrades were facing. When Eason returned home, he became a local Irish hero, hailed in the Newark newspapers and recognized at parades and local functions as he continued his Irish Nationalistic spirit serving as a delegate from NJ at several Fenian (Robert’s Wing) Conventions. He also continued to be active in Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) veteran affairs.
The Eason’s moved to Albany, then Gloversville. NY and finally settled in Vallejo, CA.
Alexander died by a self inflected gunshot wound to the head while temporarily insane. on March 15, 1900 and is buried at Saint Vincent’s Cemetery, Vallejo, Solano County California.
Major Denis J Downing, an Irish Patriot, had been imprisoned in December 1858 because of his connection with the Phoenix Society or Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood in Ireland. He was released and went to New York, where he became an original member of the Phoenix Zouaves of New York before the Civil War. Denis along with his brothers, were active members of the Fenian Brotherhood in New York and were cousins to Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa.
Denis enlisted in New York City as Sergeant Major on June 22/1861 in the 42nd New York Infantry (Tammany Regiment) along with his brother, Captain P.J. Downing (#49566187).
Downing resigned on 9/17/1861 to join the 97th NY, Co B as a 2nd Lieutenant and subsequently promoted to Captain Co H. He was captured at the second battle of Bull Run, where, while trying to rally a broken Union column was captured and taken prisoner to Richmond. He was exchanged in December 1862 and returned to his regiment.
During the first day at the Battle of Gettysburg, Downing was severely wounded and his left leg was amputated. His brother wrote to Fenian Center John O’Mahony about the condition of his brother as well as the losses to the the Fenian Brotherhood after the battle.
You can read more about that letter and the Fenian casualties at Gettysburg here in Damian Shiels’ fantastic and well documented blog on the Irish Americans in the American Civil War:
Denis was discharged for promotion on 2/1/1864 in the 128th Co, Veteran Reserve Corp (Invalid Corp), 2nd Battalion, then through consolidation transferred into the 36th Co, Veterans Reserve Corp, where he continued ti command a battalion of six companies.
Downing was married to Frances Teresa O’Sullivan on 2/9/1864 at the Church of the Nativity in New York City with his brother P.J. as his best man. The couple had two children Mortimer and Ellen.
Downing was mustered out of volunteer service on 10/16/1866, where he joined the regular army, 44th United States Infantry, in the War Department in Washington D.C., serving as a secretary. He finally resigned Dec 15, 1870 because of failing health, having contracted tuberculosis and returned home to Ireland hoping to get better.
Denis Downing died shortly after arriving back to his home and was buried in the Old Chapel Yard graveyard in Skibbereen. (Special thanks to William Casey of Aughadown, Co Cork, Ireland for identifying the burial site.)
Of eyewitness accounts of the 1866 Fenian Invasion into Canada and Battle of Ridgeway, there are a series of watercolors painted by Alexander von Erichsen, a little known painter and allegedly a Civil War artist.
He followed the Fenians from Buffalo to Canada and provided documentary eyewitness accounts of the events from the planning stages of the Invasion to trials of the Fenian prisoners months later in through his watercolor sketches.
The vast number of plates done by this artist is truly incredible, there are over twenty three known, which document the Battle of Ridgeway, before and after. Never had there been such documentation on one battle even by pictorial newspaper artists during the Civil War. Most of these have appeared in various books about the Fenian Raids. Several of these painting are owned by the Fort Erie Historical Museum (Mr & Mrs C Jewell Collection) and some are on display there as well.
For research purposes, one can get a good idea of what von Erichsen witnessed through his watercolors. The first thing that stands out is there are a lot of frock coats, some blue, most likely Federal uniforms, some gray (maybe green in the B&W) but certainly a lot of civilian wear, including hats worn by the Fenians. The artist shows a lot of light colored frock coats, with lapels and civilian hats as well, which documents not a lot of uniforms, only bits and pieces of them, were worn by the Irishmen.
Von Ericksen depicts the battle from both the Fenian side as well as the Canadian side as an eyewitness. It’s unclear if the artist was able to travel between the lines and to date I have not found any research which states an artist accompanied the Fenians or was seen during the Raid. Some accounts call the artist a Fenian sympathizer but viewing all these paintings, one does have to wonder how the artist moved freely between both forces, unless the artist depicted some of the scenes from his own imagination or other first hand accounts.
Tracking down and identifying this artist has also been problematic.
Civilians are mentioned during the raid, some who joined in on the Raid or mistaken for Fenians then detained, so the ability to move between the lines would be highly unlikely and if so, a person would have needed a military pass especially by the British after the action took place.
Here are some of the paintings.
Two books which highlight the Alexander von Erichsen watercolors of the Battle of Ridgeway are: First Hand Accounts of the Fenian Raid and Battle of Ridgeway, by Jane Davies and Jude Scott and The Year of The Fenian by David Owen, which is also a self guided tour of the landscape of the Fenian Invasion of the Niagara Peninsula in 1866, both are sold through the Fort Erie Historical Museum in Fort Erie, Ontario, Canada,