Major Denis Downing, Fenian Hero wounded at Gettysburg

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. downing 3

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.

 

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Denis on crutches after losing his foot at Gettysburg

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:  

http://irishamericancivilwar.com/2012/07/16/fenian-casualties-at-gettysburg/

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.)

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Denis Downing, wearing his officer’s Veteran Reserve Corp frock coat with his wife Frances Teresa (O’Sullivan) Downing as they appeared in Washington DC. Teresa became a clerk in the War Department also after the War.  
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Watercolors of the Battle of Ridgeway

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,

Col James Quirk (1832-1898) of the 23rd Illinois Infantry – First Irish.

Colonel James Quirk was instrumental within the Fenian Brotherhood in Chicago. He was the Lt. Col of the 23rd Illinois Infantry.

Quirk
Colonel James Quirk as he appeared in the uniform of the 2nd Illinois National Guard and wearing his GAR, Grand Army of the Republic Veterans Medal, after the Civil War. 

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.

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The officers of the 23rd Illinois Infantry. Mulligan is center front, with Quirk in the back just off Mulligan’s right shoulder. 

Harper’s Weekly pokes fun at the Fenian Excitement

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.

Sweeny's Skirmishers
Harper’s Weekly March 31, 1866 pokes fun at the nervous Canadians by showing a frozen over Niagara with duck hunters calling them Sweeny’s Skirmishers.

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.

Fenian Excitement In Hamilton Canada West
Harper’s Weekly March 31, 1866

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.

Fenian Strategy Cartoon
Harper’s Weekly Back Page – March 31, 1866

Canadian Militia Prepare for the Fenians

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 April 7th 1866
Harper’s Weekly April 7th 1866, The Canadian Volunteers after drill relaxing. See the fellow in the bottom left corner reading Harper’s Weekly from the week before.

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.

Harper's Week;y April 7, 1866

“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.

O’Mahony’s April 1866 Fenian Raid

O’Mahony’s Fenians Strike First and How The Newspapers Reported it.

On April 17th, 1866, The O’Mahony Faction Fenian Raid occurred near Campobello Island, New Brunswick, British North America. A small force of Fenians landed on Indian Island near Maine, with the intent of invading the nearby island of Campobello. Their original plans were always to invade Ireland by force, however they wanted to quickly strike, take credit for the first blow at Britain beating the Roberts Wing into Canada and steal headlines.

There were no reported casualties and little was accomplished other than the Fenian sneaking onto the deserted island, seizing a British Customs House flag without resistance, which hung from a flag pole then returning under cover of darkness back to the US shores to claim a victory.

A few sketches of this Campobello Raid were covered by the Illustrated London New – May 5, 1866, Frank Leslie’s – April 28, 1866 and Harper’s Weekly – May 5th, 1866.

Other than several scenic views, not much is going on within the sketches, which just demonstrates the lack of action or real eyewitness accounts of what was later termed a Fenian Fiasco. However, Frank Leslie beat their rival Illustrated newspaper, Harper’s Week by a full week reporting on the Fenian Raid by a full week which was a very big deal within the newspaper business. It is more than likely Frank Leslie sent a newspaper artist up there to report back but all he could find were ships on the water so in order to beat their NY Newspaper rival to the punch he sketch that and sent it to be printed. Despite being across the Atlantic Ocean, even the Illustrated London News published their sketch of a similar scene with little Fenian action for their readers on the same day Harper’s Weekly got their sketch published.

Harper’s Weekly misses the mark on O’Mahony’s Fenian Eastport Raid in April 1866, scooped by their competitor

Feeding their newspapers readers desire to read more about the Fenians and their actions along the border, Harper’s Weekly was caught off guard by O’Mahony’s Eastport Raid near Campobello Island on April 17, 1866. No reporters were sent to cover it, the distance was remote and the newspaper grew tired of too many false reports of a Fenian attack into Canada for months. However, Frank Leslie scooped their NY Illustrated newspaper rival and reported on the this Fenian Raid first.

O’Mahony’s Eastport Raid was a surprise to most as the Fenian Brotherhood broke into two factions partly on where they were going to attack, Canada or Ireland. Robert’s Wing called themselves the “Men of Action” as they wanted to attack Canada and were ready to go, while O’Mahony wanted to stick to the plan and send men to Ireland and have Civil War officer train the Irish for an uprising in Ireland.  O’Mahony’s ill fated raid was to grab newspaper headlines from their Fenian rivals, be the first Fenian group on British soil and hoped to draw the U.S. into a long awaited conflict over this dispute area.

It took Harper’s Weekly more than two weeks after this Raid to wet their own readers appetite about Fenian news, and there wasn’t much more than a short biography on James Stephens and a drawing of the area where the Fenian action took place.  Frank Leslie’s Illustrated newspaper had previously publish a short article about the action. It is likely Harper’s Weekly editors were struggling to come up with some news on the Fenians for their readers that following week, so these two sketches were used to satisfy that weekly edition.

James Stephens, Head Centre of the Fenian Brotherhood was featured in Harper’s Weekly May 5th, 1866 edition. The sketch and accompanying story gave a brief bio on the Fenian Leader. In the same edition, a very non descript sketch of a pastoral scene on St John River showing the area where O’Mahony’s Campobello Raid occurred or later termed The Fenian Fiasco.

In a short couple of weeks the Robert’s Wing of the Fenian Brotherhood would launch their own raids into Canada in June of 1866 and the newspapers, especially the illustrated ones, made sure they were sending reporters and artists to the Canadian front to report back to anxious readers at home on the Fenian Raids to sell newspapers.