Tag Archives: Fenian Brotherhood

A Fenian Overcoat for 10 Cents

Fenian Overcoats for 10 cents, that’s a bargain not many could pass up.

Surplus Army Overcoats Sold at Discount

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:

Fenian Overcoat for Ten Cents
Reagan’s marketing strategy help pull patron’s into his establishment.

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 Fenian Coat
In 1867, the Fenian Brotherhood set forth uniform regulations, which called for using surplus Army Federal overcoats since they were so plentiful.

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.

Reagan's Saloon Newspaper Ad
This ad ran weekly for several months at a time in New York City newspapers on and off from 1867-1870.

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.

A Fenian Overcoat
Raise your glass to the Fenians with a Fenian Overcoat
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 I.R.A. Belt Buckle

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

Buckle 2

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.

Irish Plate

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

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

How Fenian Regiments Were Numbered

There has been a mystery about how the Fenian Brotherhood came up with their numbering for their military regiments and it’s overall organization. We know about the 7th Regiment, Irish Republican Army out of Buffalo NY, who gained their fame during the June 1866 Battle of Ridgeway. But what happened to Regiments 1 through 6? Where were these other Fenian Regiments located?

On Jan 21, 1867, President Roberts gave a special order which designated regiments into regions/states within the United States, which would encompass the sequential numbering of military regiments The Irish Republican Army. The number of regiments would go up to 21 and there were separate companies within each regiment.

While many of the lower numbered regiments did actually exist and can be found in newspaper articles drilling or mentioned on parade, the higher numbers, many out West, most likely never existed and was more wishful thinking by the Fenian command and on paper only.

The Fenian regiments did have number designations at Fenian Raid at the Battle of Ridgeway in June 1866. These unit designations were loosely based on regions. The 7th Buffalo, aka 7th I.R.A. Regiment, continued to retain their number, however by early 1867, the other Veteran I.R.A. regiments which saw action in Canada were redesignated:

The 13th Tennessee, originally commanded by General John O’Neill, was renumber to the 18th Tennessee after these orders.

The 17th Kentucky, the Louisville Company which had blue army jackets and green facing on the cuffs were lead by Colonel George Owen Starr, became the 13th Kentucky.

The 18th Ohio, led by Lt Col John Grace and known as the Fenian “Cleveland Rangers” which doned green caps and green overshirts at Ridgeway, was changed to the 12th Ohio based on the location of their region.

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“Important Orders” of President Roberts and General Spear on the Organization of the Irish American Army – The Evening Telegraph (Philadelphia, PA) Feb 12, 1867

Map2
 

This map shows the Fenian Brotherhood Regiments organized throughout the United States.

Frontier in Flames – The Canadian children’s version of the Fenian Invasion of the Niagara Peninsula

The 1866 Fenian Raids are not as well known in the United States, despite having occurred by Irish American Civil War veterans on the US Border. It has been forgotten on our history books while our neighbors to the north, it is much better known for these Raids helped shape the Canadian Confederation in 1867 and changed the course of history as Great Britain gave up their stake to British North America.

11A children’s book: Frontier in Flames: The Fenian Invasion of Niagara Peninsula by James M Basset and illustrations by Les Callan, written in 1965 and published in Toronto. It centers around a Canadian boy befriending a young Fenian invader with the storyline set around the Raids. There are some interesting drawings, considering there is a lot of artist license to the facts, like the uniforms of the Fenians, but overall an entertaining book for children with some historic perspective.

While the Fenian Raids are overlooked in the United States, they continue to be a part of Canada’s rich history. Here are a few pages from the book.

A Look Back In 1897 of the Fenian Raids With Photos Of The Battlefield

1The “Canadian Magazine and Massey’s Magazine Combined” for November 1897, featured articles about the “Makers of the Dominion of Canada”. Several were about the Fenian Raids of June 1866, one written by John A. Cooper, the magazine editor, which focused on Ontario, Upper Canada, Campaign.

At the time of the article, in 1897, photos were taken of the battlefield and other points of interest. While the photograph quality in a magazine print is not the clearest, it gives some idea of what the area may have looked like to both sides, untouched with other parts now gone, 31 years after the Battle of Ridgeway and Fort Erie.

Some shots include the interior of Fort Erie, Dr Kempson’s House, camp sites of the Fenians and the site of General O’Neill’s Headquarters at Limeridge. The article also contained a few portraits and maps, which I only included for points of reference.

You can read the article here on Google Books.

https://books.google.com/books?id=mdLPtC3TZxAC&lpg=RA1-PR1&ots=Y45uvBwIjV&dq=%22Canadian%20Magazine%20and%20Massey’s%20Magazine%20Combined%22%20for%20November%201897&pg=PA41&output=embed

Wanted: “Those who can play the fife and beat the drum”

Kentucky’s Fenian Brotherhood Recruiting Through Newspaper Advertisements

Before the June 1866 Fenian Raid into Canada West, the 17th Regiment, Irish Republican Army from Louisville Kentucky, was actively recruiting former veterans into their ranks for the upcoming struggle for Irish independence. Advertisements posted in the local Louisville newspapers, The Courier-Journal and the Daily Courier, from February 1866 right up to early June 1866 gives good insight into the activities of the “First Kentucky Fenian Volunteers” as they openly prepared for their strike into British North America.

1Lectures by the Senate faction Fenian leaders, Colonel William R. Roberts, Brotherhood President and General Thomas W. Sweeny, Fenian Secretary of War, started the Kentucky recruiting drive on February 2, 1866 at Wood’s Theater in Louisville. The lecture ad implored the readers with the enthusiastic come on: “Let every lover of Liberty attend.”

During this lecture, it was also announced Major William Mangan, formerly of the 5th, 11th and later the 12th Kentucky Infantry, had been appointed as the Assistant Inspector General of the Fenian Brotherhood for the State of Kentucky, tasked with organizing troops as well as setting up an armory to be designated for the “reception of muskets, rifles and pistols.”

In a short time, Major Mangan discovered publishing advertisements in the local newspaper Wanted Ad section was a convenient recruiting tool. He specifically was in search of “Gentlemen who have seen active service and can recruit a company” and to notify him by letter immediately for instructions. As seen later, it didn’t matter to the Irish Republic which side these gentlemen fought previously, the Fenians wanted trained veterans Blue AND Grey.

Another March 8th Wanted Ad from Mangan called “Attention, Fenian Soldiers” drilling was to commence every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday evenings at Beck’s Hall.3

By March 12th, two full companies of one hundred men each were mustered in, answering the call for the “Irish Army of Liberation.” These companies drilled inside Beck’s Hall. When the command to “charge bayonets” was given, the New Albany Daily Commercial of Indiana described it as sounding much like the “Confederate yell”. After the drill, Mangan enlisted these men into service explaining they had no fixed or determined period for their term but they were to serve until the “Saxon is expelled and Ireland is free.” There was immense applause, and the men tossed their “caps and hats” in the air as the “general determination was to go in for the British Lion”. Afterwards, companies paraded on the street and made a “decidedly military appearance.” No description was given as to if these men were wearing uniforms however.

Mangan was not simply satisfied with just battle ready men at arms, he posted another wanted ad looking for a regimental music, a “Martial Corps – Those who can play fife and beat the drum to join the Fenian companies now forming in the city”

The New Albany Daily Commercial noted this advertisement remarking: “Major Mangan seems bent on war, for he advertises for fifers and drummers, these especial concomitants of a battle-field in your eye!”

5

By March 19th, Fenians were drilling regularly in preparation of their June invasion of Canada.

starrOwen Starr, the newly commissioned Colonel of Kentucky’s Fenian 17th Regiment, Army of the Irish Republic, even took out his own Fenian notices for three days, and he saw brisk recruiting, quickly swelling his ranks.

Starr served as colonel of the 2nd Kentucky Cavalry (US), a veteran unit which served the entire war and in the later part served under Sherman in his March to the Sea campaign. The Louisville Daily Courier (Mar 19, 1866) noted Starr as being “well-known as a brave and gallant officer” with a new appointment commanding the 17th Infantry, Army of the Irish Republic, while directing their readers to Starr’s advertisement in that day’s edition.

Starr would be credited as the first Fenian to plant the green flag of Ireland on the Canadian shore as well as raise that flag above Fort Erie during the Fenian Raid into Canada on June 1, 1866. He was later promoted by the Fenian Brotherhood to Irish Republican General and served with General O’Neill during the disastrous 1870 Battle of Eccles Hill Fenian Raid, where Canadian newspapers chided him as running away while gloating on this Fenian debacle. Obviously this was pay back for Starr’s earlier notoriety at Fort Erie in 1866.4

Louisville’s four Fenian Brotherhood Circles (Emmet, Fitzgerald, Sarsfield and Wolfe-Tone) did their parts as well to support their Fenian military by posting meeting notices and advertisements for dances and receptions in the local newspapers which helped promote recruiting and raised monies for the Fenian Army. All these efforts continued to directly support Kentucky’s 17th Regiment, Irish Republican Army.

The Emmet and Fitzgerald Circles’ Grand Ball ads specifically mentioned that the monies collected were to “defray the expenses of equipping a company now organizing in our midst for the Fenian Army” and to “Benefit the [Fenian] Military.”

6By May 25th, the Louisville Daily Courier reported the Fenians of the city were “up and doing” and members were to meet that afternoon to fully understand the undertaking. By the 29th of May, “the Fenians of Kentucky were on the move” with “five hundred arriving in Indianapolis.” The Lexington Observer and Reporter soon followed up by mentioning “Twenty five Fenians left the city on the cars for Louisville, yesterday afternoon (May 29), we understand more will leave for the same place today. In Louisville, they will join a brigade which has been formed there. Beyond this we are not informed as to their movements.” Kentucky’s part in The Fenian Invasion of Canada was in motion.

There were other news reports that more Fenians were arriving in Buffalo from the West with 1,000 already in the city. When asked, the Fenians all were told to say they were laborers bound for California. Most bore no arms or looked to be in military dress, yet oddly, they were traveling east for a destination which was west.

These public advertisements provide great insights into the early development of Kentucky’s Fenian Regiment as well as documents these Fenians who were actively seeking musicians to supplement their ranks, supporting another earlier account published of an Irish Army Veteran who recalls hearing the tunes of Garry Owen and Wearing of the Green being played during the Battle of Ridgeway on that summer day on June 2, 1866.

# # #

A Fenian Veteran of 1866 tells his story of the Raid into Canada

In June of 1889, Timothy O’Leary was headed from Philadelphia to Montana where a reporter grabbed him to convey his story about his participation in the Fenian Raid and the Battle of Ridgeway in June 1-2, 1866.

Colonel Timothy O'Leary
Fenian Veteran Col Timothy O’Leary later in his life.

O’Leary had served in the American Civil War, coming from his hometown in Queenstown, Co Cork, Ireland in 1862 to fight with the 69th New York, having read the newspaper accounts of this famed Irish Irish Brigade under General T.F. Meagher. Unfortunately, the brigade was not accepting enlistments, undeterred he joined Co E, 15th U.S. Regulars as a private. He participated at the Battles of Stone River, Chickamauga, where he received a gunshot wound to the breast, Missionary Ridge and Kennesaw Mountain, where he was shot through the foot. He later attainted the rank of lieutenant.

O’Leary was active with the Fenian Brotherhood, Roberts/Sweeney Wing and on June 1-2, 1866, O’Leary served as a major with the Fenian Brotherhood, Irish Republican Army, acting as John O’Neill’s adjutant, participating in the actions at Fort Erie and Ridgeway

He continued to be a military organizer for the Fenian Brotherhood, holding the position of Adjutant General with headquarters in New York and later was a colonel under O’Neill in the failed 1870 Fenian Raid into Frelighsburg, QC, Canada.

Here is the account of Fenian Veteran, Colonel Timothy O’Leary’ in his own words about the action of the Fenians at Fort Erie and Ridgeway:

The Battle of Ridgeway – How Canada would have been Captured if the Men had been there – The Fenian Invasion of ‘66

A full account of the battle of Ridgeway has never been published. Fragmentary newspaper accounts of the first step in the Fenian invasion of Canada have appeared from time to time, but no connected story of how the Queen’s Own were beaten by Col O’Neill’s intrepid 500 had yet been put in type.

One of the more prominent actors in that raid in 1866 is Colonel Timothy O’Leary, who until recently was Post Office Inspector in Philadelphia. Colonel O’Leary a few days ago, just before his departure for Montana, where he will hereafter make his home, gave a reporter of the press a detailed account of that famous event.

Before giving Colonel O’Leary’s recital, a brief explanation of the objects of the Fenian uprising should be given for the benefit of the younger generation. The main purpose of the movement was to take possession of Canada and use it as the base of operations against England, and create a government there that would issue letters of marque and send out privateers to sweep the English commerce off the seas. The natural result would have been to annex Canada to the United States. The time for such movement was most propitious.

The Civil War had just closed, and the soldiers who had fought on either side in the rebellion by thousands, were eager to enter on such a movement. Not only soldiers, but hundreds of officers were waiting for the striking of the first blow to enroll themselves under the green banner of Erin and capture Canada.

The Dominion of the provinces had not formed then, and the French and Irish living north of the lakes were on the point of revolt and were largely depended on in the scheme. General Sweeney, of New York, was Commander in chief. During the spring of 1866, the greatest activity was displayed in the Irish American circles all over the country. There were military organizations in every State and Territory of the Union, and it was believed that on a few days notice an army of 150,000 men could be mustered at any given point.

Let Colonel O’Leary here begin his story. “the orders, said the Colonel, “were sent out for us to move about the middle of May 1866. We were to meet at Buffalo, and from that point our division was to invade Canada. Other divisions were to cross from the United States further to the East and cut off any military forces that might be sent up the St Lawrence to attack us.

The bulk of our party came from the central portions of the Union. There were companies from Chattanooga, Nashville, and Memphis, Tenn, from Louisville, Ky, from Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Cleveland. The Tennessee men were mobilized at Louisville and proceeded from there to St Louis and on to Cleveland. At Cleveland, we picked up the Cincinnati company, and then in special trains hurried on to Buffalo.

There was no secrecy about the movement. Everybody knew the mission we were on, and we received a continuous ovation. We carried the Irish flag and the Fenian cause was cheered again and again. Our men were fully armed with muskets that had for the most part been purchased from the United States Government, and they were well drilled, hardy fellows. Nearly all of them had seen between two and three years of service.

Fenian Irish army of Liberation 1866 CoMH
Fenians Irish Army of Liberation, 1866 as they appeared at Ridgeway. From Company of Military Historians 2016, Artist Christoph Mueller.

At Buffalo, we met the company that had been raised there. We expected more men at Buffalo, because we had understood that companies were coming from all parts of the Union, but when we drew up in line we found that we barely had 500 men. Yet every man was a soldier and not one knew what fame was. Some of the men dressed entirely in green, some of them wore Federal overcoats, and some of them Confederate uniforms. Some of these uniforms had been faced with green, and altogether the effect was odd and striking.

There was surprise when at Buffalo we found but 500 men, but there was no consternation. We felt sure that re-enforcements would steadily follow us. Our orders were to invade Canada on June 1, as we did it. We crossed the Niagara River at Black Rock in the morning and took possession of Fort Erie. We also captured several trains of cars. We camped about three miles from the fort, and waited all that day for reinforcements. Our orders were to move that night to the Welland Canal, about fifteen or twenty miles distant, I think, and destroy the locks so as to prevent the English gunboats from coming up the St Lawrence.

We waited until nightfall, but the re-enforcements did not come. Then we took up our line of march to destroy the locks. We marched all night and on the morning of June 2, as we were moving toward the village of Ridgeway, our scouting party brought word to us that the Canadian troops had entered the town by trains the night before, and were preparing to receive us. We immediately sent out skirmishers, formed line of battle, and prepared to receive them.FL June 23, 1866

Three To One Against Us. The village of Ridgeway, as I remember it, was about two miles away from our position. It was a little town of some four or five hundred people. When we were informed of the presence of the Canadians, they had advanced beyond the town and had formed a line along the edge of some timber. We were in lower ground a few hundred yards in front of them, and to the right was a steep limestone ridge. In our rear was more high ground and timber. There were at least 1,700 Canadians to our 500 men. These consisted of the regiment known as the Queen’s Own of Toronto, commanded by Colonel Booker, the second Hamilton Regiment and two companies of the Sixteenth Regiment. The Canadian advanced rapidly down the hill on us, and we slowly retreated. They threw out a party of about 300 flankers to attack us on the left and this force us against the base of the limestone ridge that I have just spoken of. Colonel O’Neill, who was to command our men, and who had been a Tennessee cavalry officer on the Union side and assisted in the capture of Morgan, the raider, gave the word to slowly fall back. This we did, firing as we did so, with the Canadians pressing us closely until we reached the higher and timbered ground in our rear. Then our positions were reversed. The Canadians were in what was practically a valley and we were above them. Here we made our final stand, while I, with seventy men and twenty horsemen as a flanking party, fell off to the left and in the advance. We waited behind a Virginia rail Fenian in a low growth of timber to intercept the 300 Canadian flankers. When they were almost on us we tore over the fence and horse and foot fiercely attacked them. Our onslaught was so sudden and unexpected that the Canadians were taken by surprise. They fled as fast as they could and passed the word to the main body of troops.

Project19
Water color painted by Alexander Von Erichsen which appeared in First Hand Accounts of the 1866 Fenian Raid and Battle of Ridgeway, June Davis, Jude Scott, Fort Erie Museum Services. 2016.

Fenian Re-Enforcements Coming

Instantly the entire Canadian command fell back, the Queen’s Own retreating more rapidly than anyone else. Then we charged, firing as we ran, and in three minutes had them running for dear life up the road toward Ridgeway. I had the advantage with my seventy men of being far in the advance of our party, and my being far in advance of our party, and my seventy men kept 1,700 Canadians moving probably faster than they

captured flagSketch appeared in Harper’s Weekly June 23, 1866 edition

ey ever moved before. We could see the officers making occasional efforts to rally them, but they were without avail, because we loaded as we ran and kept up the galling fire. The Canadians threw away everything that could impede their flight – arms, clothing, colors and accoutrements. We took up the colors of the Queen’s Own lying dust trailed by the roadside.

This retreat and pursuit took place through a beautiful farming country, the valley being cut up into fields and dotted with farm houses. At one of the houses we came to found an old man and his wife and little girl. I was afraid they would be hit and sent them to the cellar. Then we charged around the house and captured quite a number of Canadian soldiers hiding there.

All this time there had been very lively musket firing, and at the railroad in the town of Ridgeway, a determined effort was made to rally the fugitives. But we chased them out of that, and as we reached a little eminence beyond the town we could see these fellows scattering for dear life for miles on every side. Just beyond Ridgeway we came to a farmhouse, but there was not a soul about. The table was spread for breakfast, the food was cooked and a tea kettle was singing on the stove. We ate that breakfast ourselves, and while we were doing so noticed that all the photographs about the house were those of colored people. It was evidently the house of colored refugees who had escaped from the South during or prior to the war and had found a haven beyond the Canadian border.

Victory in Retreat

We found two hotels in Ridgeway, where we captured a number of prisoners and destroyed all the liquor so our men could not get it. From some of the prisoners we learned that Colonel Lowrie, of the Forty seventh Regulars was coming up the river nearly 2,000 strong with two squadrons of cavalry and a battery of artillery. With less than 500 men – for a number of our boys had been killed – all of whom were tired out, we did not think it wise to meet such a force. So orders were given to fall back in Fort Erie, where we were sure we would find reinforcements. We didn’t find reinforcements at Fort Erie, but we found a big surprise. The fort was occupied by the Canadians. They had sent a tug around from Fort Colbourne with two companies of artillery acting as infantry. These soldiers had captured a number of our men whom we had left in charge and were ready to give us a warm reception. They gave us a warm reception, too. We found them entrenched in a number of houses, but we stormed them and finally captured every man except a few who escaped on the tug. We took our prisoners to the fort and kept them there, and all that night we lay expecting reinforcements.

Colonel Lowry, Montreal, QC, 1862

Colonel Thomas Lowry, of Her Majesty’s 47th Regiment QC, 1862 as he appeared as a Lt Col.

Where can the rest of the boys be? Was a question that was asked a thousand times that night. We knew that Colonel Lowrie was only a few miles away, and we expected warm work in the morning. I went down along the river to see if there were any boats in which we could get away, but only found some small boats. In order to hold the men I cut the boats adrift so that we would all stand together should the worst come to the worst. But while I was down along the river I heard a voice calling out on the water. It was as dark as pitch, but I knew that voice. It belonged to Colonel Hines, on General Sweeney’s staff – now Ex-Congressman Hines of Chicago. He had been sent over to Buffalo to see us. I called to him and he came ashore. I explained to him the situation and asked him where the expected reinforcements were. He said they had not reached Buffalo yet. We both agreed that the best thing to do was to get the invading army out of Canada as quick as possible.

He hurried across the river to Buffalo, and between 1 and 2 o’clock on the morning of June 3 came back with a tug and a scow. We marched out of Fort Erie, having released our prisoners, and the men got on the scow. While Colonel O’Neill and myself got on the tug. We took with us the battle-flags, guns and other relics of the fight that we had captured.Canadian Magazine Ridgeway photos Nov 1897_Page_6

Just as we were nearing the United States shore a tug ran up to us and fired a shot across our bows. We paid no attention to that, but she fired another shot and demanded our surrender to the United States. Then she ran in between us and the shore and we had to give in. She proved to be the tender of the United States man-of-war Michigan. Colonel O’Neill and myself were taken on board the Michigan and the scow was taken alongside

June 23 1866 Harpers Weekly
Fenians arrested while recrossing into the US by the USS Michigan and onboard a scow. – Frank Leslie, June 23, 1866

and made fast with a hawser. There we lay in the river until daylight and the first thing we saw at peep of day was Colonel Lowrie and his regulars marching into Fort Erie. After a while Colonel Lowrie came over to the Michigan in a tug and demanded our surrender to England. This of course, was refused, but all the arms, colors and other relics we had captured were returned. We lay on the river two days, then were taken to Buffalo, where we were taken to jail. We had to give our word to General Barry that we would not attempt to escape, and Colonel O’Neill and myself were in the presence of an immense crowd to the jail, escorted by three companies of United States Artillery. All the soldiers sympathized with us. At least half a dozen said to us, ‘If you want to get away there will be no trouble about that, just go!’ At the jail we were visited by ex-president Grover Cleveland, who was our counsel. The charge against us was violating the neutrality laws, but the charge was only made against O’Neill and myself. The other men were allowed to go.

oneill
Colonel John O’Neill, was given overall command of the Canada West Wing Raid at the last moment when another General failed to appear so he was elevated to General of the Fenian Army. and took overall command. O’Neill would later go on to become President of the Fenian Brotherhood and lead several other unsuccessful raids into Canada. Note the Fenian Sunburst Shoulder Boards representing his rank of General.

We only spent one night in the jail, but that was a jolly night. Scores of the best people of

Buffalo came to see us, and we held quite a reception in the corridor. Our meals were sent in from the Taft House, and many cases of wine were sent to us. A rule was made that everybody had to sing a song, tell a story, or be locked up. No one was locked up, and we certainly made a night of it. Next day we gave $20,000 nail to appear for trial at Canandaigua.  When the case was called it was nolle prosequied by order of the President, and that was the end of it. – The Inter Ocean (Chicago) June 23, 1889.

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