Tag Archives: Fenians

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

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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,