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.
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 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. Newark Fenians heading home from the Canadian Front. Newark Daily Advertiser – June 14, 1866.
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.
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,
Colonel James Quirk was instrumental within the Fenian Brotherhood in Chicago. He was the Lt. Col of the 23rd Illinois Infantry.
Born in Castlegregory, County Kerry, Ireland on April 27, 1832, he came to America as a boy with his family.
Before the Civil War, James Quirk was a a clerk in the old Court House and by 1854, he joined the State militia, in a company known as the Shields Guards, belonging to the Sixtieth Regiment, Illinois National Guard, in which five of his brothers also served.
When the Civil War broke out he was commissioned Lt Colonel of the 23rd Illinois where he participated in the Siege of Lexington, Missouri. The regiment was captured and paroled, and sent to Benton Barracks, Missouri, to await exchange. Owing to the supersedure of General Fremont by General Halleck, the regiment was mustered out of the service by order of the latter. This provoked the leading officers of the regiment, and Colonel Mulligan, Major Moore and Lieutenant-Colonel Quirk visited General McClellan and President Lincoln at Washington, and secured the countermanding of General Halleck’s order.
The regiment went East in June, 1862, and joined the Eighth Army Corps in Virginia. Colonel Quirk remained with his regiment, participating in its active service, until September 28, 1864, when he resigned and returned to Chicago. He had been in command of the regiment nearly three years, as his superior, Colonel Mulligan, was most of the time in charge of a brigade or division.
After the war, Quirk became the colonel of the 2nd Illinois National Guard infantry, a position he help right up until his death. Quirk also held many prominent civil positions in Chicago. He entered the Custom House service as inspector, and was connected with the United States Custom House of Chicago about twenty years. For some time he was in the auditor’s department, later in the clearance department, and organized the weighing department, of which he was chief. Later, he was gas inspector.
Commissioned a colonel in the Robert’s Wing of the Fenian Brotherhood’s Irish Republican Army, he oversaw the Fenian troops passing through Chicago on their way to the Canadian Frontier to participate in the June 1866 Fenian Raid from Buffalo, NY. He was to led a contingent of Irish Veteran solders from Chicago, however because of funding, (money set aside for his own troops was now being spent unexpectedly on feeding and caring of those Fenians arriving from other parts of the county) as well as lack of proper orders, he didn’t arrive in time, as the expedition had started and failed before his departure. He continued to be a member of the Fenian Brotherhood leading their Chicago Fenian Regiment as well as continued his involvement in the Illinois National Guard up until his death in Chicago on December 13, 1898. He was buried with full military honors at Calvary Cemetery, Evanston, Illinois.
During the Civil War, the 23rd Illinois was called the “First Irish” and the “Irish Brigade of the West”. The regiment carried a green flag with a harp in the middle and many of their men belonged to the Fenian Brotherhood.
Their Colonel, James Mulligan, supported the Fenian Brotherhood, donating generously to the Fenian Irish Fair held in Chicago in early 1864, but openly claimed he was not a Fenian, for religious reasons since the Catholic Church at the time condemned the Fenians Brotherhood. Mulligan was wounded at the Battle of Kernstown, VA, July 23rd 1864 and died three days later. He was brevetted Brigadier general posthumously from the date of his wounding for gallant and meritorious service at the Battle of Winchester Va.
Harper’s Weekly poked a bit of fun at the news of the Fenian Invasion and the Canadian panic that it created. Weeks of rumors and reports of Fenian preparation were printed in many newspapers, yet nothing had come of it but there were many false alarms and talk of a Fenian Raid happening on St Patrick’s Day 1866. The editors didn’t believe the Fenians were capable of pulling off a military operation and it was bluster which was scaring their neighbors to the north.
These many false rumors called out the Canadian militia and placed at the ready for several weeks being deployed to the borders and cities during that period.
In the Harper’s Weekly March 31, 1866 edition, the top sketch is of an ice bridge over Niagara and the artists identifies the individuals on the ice as Sweeny’s Skirmishers, but really duck hunters, mocking the scare. The bottom sketch is of the town of Hamilton, CW preparing for a Fenian Raid.
It was common for illustrated newspapers to take more than a week or two to write the story, draw up the sketch, process it then print the currently news, so these stories are about mid March 1866.
This sketch shows the humor the Editors took with the great Fenian excitement by showing duck hunters on the ice over the Niagara and calling them Fenian Tom Sweeny’s skirmishers. The artist, T.B. Davis, would later be credited for other Fenian prints which were seen in Harper’s Weekly later in the year.
This sketch also appeared in the same edition and is based on a photograph by R. Milne of Hamilton, Canada West, British North America of James Street in Hamilton and the Canadian militia out on public display drilling with the crowds of citizen watching on. Note all the Union Jack flags flying proudly from many of the buildings.
To finish off the ridicule, the back page of that week’s edition had a cartoon parody of Irish Fenians Generals, overly ornamented, sitting in the parlor of a Fenian Bond Subscriber discussing in Irish dialect their Fenian Strategy. The Fenian Bonds had raised a considerable amount for the Brotherhood, with both wings issuing their own, but also raised a lot of questions as to where the money was really being spent on. Here the point was how the Fenians were side stepping their real objective for any action and getting subscribers to buy their bonds.
Harper’s Weekly April 7th 1866 edition helped keep the Fenian Invasions rumors stirring. To put the upcoming June 1866 Fenian raids into perspective, most newspapers carried stories about the preparations being made on both sides, and it helped sell newspapers. Most of the rumors were unfounded however.
Harper’s Weekly front page shows Dublin’s Richmond Bridewell prison where Head Centre James Stephens escaped, making their readers fully aware he was out and perhaps plotting for an attack. Below that is a sketch of Fenian prisoners being escorted into prison in Cork, Ireland, demonstrating to the readers the Fenian Threat was real as well as the British were making arrests.
“The Canadian Volunteers resting after their drill” illustration in this edition shows also Canada’s high alert during the St Patrick’s week, with expectation of a Fenian attack. British North America was spending thousands a dollars a day to keep their militia in the field because if these Fenian threats and it was draining their treasury. .
Of note is the chap on the bottom left with whiskers, monocle and derby. He’s reading the week’s previous week’s Harper’s Weekly which introduced readers to the leaders of both Fenian factions, shows Ireland’s oppression under the British, the Irish immigration as well as the Fenian’s service in the American Civil War. The following photo is the previous week’s sketch the chap is holding. Even the Canadian Volunteers are reading the newspapers from New York keeping informed of the latest Fenian developments.
From Harper’s Weekly March 31st, 1866 edition, see in the hands of the April 7th Canadian Volunteer. This illustration shows the two Fenian Faction leaders, the Irish oppression and coming to America to serve in the Civil War. This is the same edition of the newspaper seen in the hands of one of the Canadian Volunteers. in the April 7, 1866 sketch.
Harper’s Weekly April 7th 1866 article which goes to the the Canadian Volunteer sketch in that week’s edition.