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The Fenian Invasion
An excerpt from Against the Grain, pp. 60-65
by Timothy Bohen
Reprinted with permission.
One of the most interesting intersections between the First Ward and international affairs occurred in the year following the end of the Civil War; an event which is better known in Ireland and Canada than in Buffalo, where it started.
Throughout the Civil War, many men in the 155th and 164th regiments from Buffalo, as well as most Irish regiments in the Union Army, were also secretly involved in an Irish independence movement called the Fenians or the Irish Republican Brotherhood.
In general, loyalty to the cause of Ireland’s freedom was almost an obsession for both first- and second-generation Irish Americans, and those from the First Ward were no exception.
The Fenian movement, based both in the United States and Ireland, was officially created on St. Patrick’s Day in 1858 in Dublin; its secretive mission was to secure Ireland’s independence by the use of military force. Michael Corcoran, the leader of the 69th Irish Regiment, was one of the founders of the Fenians in the United States. Before the start of the Civil War he, like other Irish leaders, created “Phoenix Brigades” which were composed of Irish militia members with secret plans to organize an attack on England. At the start of the war, Corcoran didn’t want the men in these Irish militia to waste themselves in a fight with Confederates and thought that there were plenty of other Irishmen who would be interested in that fight. Corcoran’s views changed and as we know he did sign up to fight the Southerners, but he never forgot the real enemy: the British.
The Fenians' initial plan was to raise funds and recruit men willing to return from America to Ireland to fight the British and secure Ireland’s independence; there were tens of thousands of Irish Americans who willingly joined the group and money and men flowed freely back to Ireland. In fact, by 1865 there were 300,000 members of the Fenians in 30 states and about 25,000 of these were willing to fight in the Irish Republican Army.
By the early 1860s, the U.S. leadership of the Fenians felt the timing for a military conflict to free Ireland was imminent, and the invaluable training their members were gaining in the American Civil War encouraged them. While some Fenian leaders still dreamed of sending these battle hardened veterans back to Ireland to fight the British, others thought of a different idea: plans were drawn up to capture British North America—now Canada—and hold it ransom for the freedom of Ireland. While this idea seems preposterous from a modern sensibility, Canada did not have a standing army or even a strong central government to defend itself, so if the plan was executed properly it had a chance of success. Furthermore, the Irish leaders were counting on the tacit support of the U.S. government because of unresolved issues surrounding England’s support of the Confederacy during the Civil War. While many men from the First Ward in 1866 would have been anxious to partake in such a plan, none had any idea that Buffalo would be the central launching spot for the greatest Fenian battle on either side of the Atlantic.
The multi-pronged attack was to take place around several towns along the Canadian-U.S. border; Buffalo was just one component of a much larger plan. Interest in the Fenians was so strong in Western New York that they had their own regiment in the Irish Republican Army, the 7th Regiment. In contrast, other regiments of the I.R.A. needed men from several states to staff a single regiment like the 18th, which was formed from soldiers in Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama. Interestingly, a year after the Civil War, Irish veterans from the North and South who bloodily fought against each other just one year prior were now united to fight in a cause they deemed worthier: freedom for their native Ireland.
While the leadership of the Buffalo Irish brigades in the Civil War was composed primarily of wealthier Irish from the West Side of Buffalo and the downtown district, the leadership of the Buffalo 7th regiment of the Fenian Army, or Irish Republican Army, was composed primarily of men from the First Ward. The 7th regiment was led by Colonel John Hoy, from Ohio and Illinois Streets in the Ward; Captain James McConvey from one block north of the Ward; Captain Hugh Mooney from Elk Street in the Ward; Captain Michael Lynch from Abbott and Elk; Lieutenant Edward Lonergan, a ship carpenter from the Ward; and Assistant Lieutenant Matthew O’Gorman from Elk and Chicago Streets. The rank and file of the 7th Regiment drew heavily from the Ward as well. Men like Patrick Donohue, who had fought in the 155th, secretly joined the Fenians during the war. After Donohue returned to Buffalo, he participated in the Fenian invasion into Canada.
Fenian soldiers, disguised as railroad laborers, began to steadily stream into Buffalo during the last few days of May 1866, arriving in earnest on May 30th from as far away as Kentucky, Tennessee, Indiana and Ohio. In order to avoid the authorities that were waiting for them at the Exchange Street rail station, the enthusiastic soldiers jumped off trains a mile earlier near the Union Ironworks in the Ward. Several accounts say they were welcomed throughout the First Ward and other parts of South Buffalo where they were housed in warehouses, halls, and the homes of sympathetic Irish residents. In one Ward manuscript, the author claims there “wasn’t a family in the Ward that didn’t house and feed ‘the boys.' " There is even evidence that the grandfather of General William Donovan, who lived at Fulton and Chicago Streets at the time, housed the Fenians during their movements between Canada and the United States.
According to another memoir, the Fenians stored their guns in the basement of St. Bridget’s Church in the First Ward as well as in taverns and saloons. Another memoir claimed, “wagonloads of arms and ammunition were assembled in the First Ward.” In fact Buffalo was one of the seven cities designated by the Fenians as an arms depot for their military campaign. While the primary headquarters for the Fenians in Buffalo was on lower Pearl Street at Patrick O’Day’s Auction House, the backup headquarters was in the Ward at Hugh Mooney’s saloon on Ohio Street.
On the night of May 31st, the Fenians, who were now dressed in military uniforms, marched to Black Rock, near Pratt Rolling Mill at Ferry Street, and in the dark of night at 3:15 a.m. on June 1st, the first wave of soldiers was ferried across the Niagara River to Canada on canal boats pulled by tugs. The Fenians were described as young men ranging in age from twenty to twenty-seven years old; many wore green jackets and most had black hats—with a few even sporting the stovepipe style. It is claimed that some wore “I.R.A.” pins on their jackets and this may have been one of the first uses of the acronym. Some were veterans of the Union forces and others had fought for the Confederacy, but all were united in their effort to free Ireland.
Their mission was to take Fort Erie and then take control of the Welland Canal to disrupt British troop movements between Eastern and Western Canada. As word spread about the attack, citizens of Buffalo rushed to the banks of the river to see this once in a lifetime military mobilization. As the highest-ranking commander on the battlefield, Colonel John O’Neill, thirty-five years old, with a medium build, a sturdy physique, and battle-hardened from the Civil War, led the campaign. By 4:00 a.m., the Irish flag was proudly planted on Canadian soil—an event that apparently led to loud cheers from the men, which could be heard across the Niagara River in Buffalo. Orders were given to cut telegraph lines, destroy a railroad bridge, and take the Old Fort Erie ruins. The situation looked fairly promising for the I.R.A., but British and Canadian volunteers were streaming in from Toronto and Hamilton, and it was becoming clear that a major battle was imminent.
By some accounts, O’Neill had as few as 500 active men, as he lost some to desertion. With the combined British and Canadian troops the Irish commander was outnumbered almost ten to one. Therefore, he realized he must strike the smaller Canadian force led by Lieutenant Colonel Booker, who commanded the Queen’s Own, the 13th Battalion of Hamilton Volunteers, and the York and Caledonia Rifles before they could unite with the larger force under Colonel Peacocke in St. Catharines.
On June 2, 1866, O’Neill’s men engaged Booker’s men at a place west of Fort Erie called Ridgeway or Lime Ridge. Despite difficult terrain, and fewer soldiers, the Fenians had the advantage because they were battle-hardened and more experienced than their enemy. When gaps in the British and Canadian forces lines opened up, the Fenians pounced with a charge and drove their opponents back. The Canadian defenders suffered as many as twelve dead and two times as many injured as a result of the Fenian assault; the Fenians had won the battle, but events that were out of O’Neill’s control were about to change the course of their campaign.
O’Neill ordered his men to retreat to Old Fort Erie while he waited for reinforcements and supplies. The passionate commander exclaimed that he was willing to make the old fort a slaughter pen because he was not going to surrender. However, Fenian reinforcements from Buffalo were not imminent, and in fact they were never going to arrive. The USS Michigan gunboat was now patrolling the Niagara River and Buffalo Harbor with a mission to prevent Fenian reinforcements and supplies from crossing the river.
In fact, the USS Michigan wasn’t even supposed to be in Buffalo at the time of the invasion, but luckily for the Canadians it was being repaired and overhauled on the dry docks in the First Ward since earlier that spring. Due to rumors of a possible summer invasion of Canada, the U.S. military commanders in Washington, D.C. had decided to keep it in Buffalo even after the repairs were finished. On the night of May 31st, U.S. District Attorney Dart alerted the commander of the USS Michigan, Commander Andrew Bryson, that a Fenian launch on the Niagara River was imminent, so Bryson readied the vessel with steam and loaded his guns. However, much to the commander’s consternation, the pilot of the vessel, Patrick Murphy, was missing as well as James P. Kelley, the ship’s second assistant engineer. It has been theorized that James Kelley was either a Fenian or a Fenian sympathizer, and it turns out he played an integral role in the invasion.
Kelley’s secret mission was to put the Michigan out of action and he realized that without pilot Patrick Murphy the vessel would be stranded. Using age-old methods, Kelley delayed the usually prompt Murphy by enticing him with alcohol, cigars, and a certain “lady friend.” Both Murphy and Kelley arrived at the boat around 5:00 a.m., which was several hours too late to stop O’Neill and his men. Commander Bryson had them both arrested, but he was still forced to use Murphy to pilot the vessel up to Black Rock.
At the end of the Fenian conflict, Commander Bryson admitted that Kelley’s tactics in delaying the Michigan were ingenious. The efforts of this naval ship in preventing Fenian reinforcements and men singlehandedly ended the Fenian Raid into Canada.
By June 3rd, despite a victory at the Battle of Ridgeway, the Fenians, with no new reinforcements, were forced to retreat to Fort Erie and then across to Buffalo; the war was lost less than 72 hours after it began.
Many leaders in the U.S. Federal government, including several Congressmen, were sympathetic to the Fenians and desirous of the Irish vote, so they delayed any intervention into the Fenian activities in Canada. In fact, even the sitting President Andrew Johnson, a reported Fenian sympathizer, waited several days before acting in an effort to allow the Fenians enough time to accomplish their task. However, with pressure from the British diplomats Johnson was forced to act or else risk the possibility of a war with Great Britain. The President ordered General Ulysses Grant to halt the movement of Fenians and their weapons across the border into Canada.
On June 3rd, Grant sent the Irish Catholic General George G. Meade, who led the Army of the Potomac at the Battle of Gettysburg, to Buffalo to take control of the situation before it escalated even further. Meade immediately banned Fenian meetings and stationed troops along the shore; by June 15 he had successfully dispersed the Fenian threat.
Despite the cessation of military activities in Canada, more Fenians continued to stream into Buffalo and by June 5th there were reportedly another 2,000 waiting for orders. It is claimed that by June 15th there were 5,166 Fenians paroled in Buffalo. A few memoirs claim that a large number of these Fenians—rather than return to their place of origin at the end of the conflict—decided to settle in Buffalo because of the ample opportunities to work on the waterfront; verifying this claim has been nearly impossible, but it is probable that some did settle in Buffalo.
When the sound of gunfire ceased at the Battle of Ridgeway and when the other skirmishes near Fort Erie fizzled out, the British and Canadian forces suffered a total of 16 dead and 74 wounded while the Fenians had five dead and 17 wounded.
One of the Fenian dead was a First Ward ship carpenter, Edward K. Lonergan. Lonergan, born on June 2nd 1845, was typical of the Buffalo Fenians in that he was a single laborer under the age of thirty. Not much is known about the personal life of Lonergan, but we know he worked as a carpenter at the Jones Ship Yard and lived at Ohio and Chicago Streets in the First Ward. Lonergan’s sacrifice was not forgotten and the Fenian leadership erected a large monument for him in Holy Cross Cemetery in 1867. One hundred and thirty years later, in 1997, the Police Emerald Society and the Ancient Order of Hibernians refurbished his monument in Holy Cross Cemetery in Lackawanna, New York. The inscription on his monument declares, “Edward Lonergan: Who fell gallantly fighting Ireland’s enemies on the Famous Field of Ridgeway on June 2, 1866.”
The attempt of the Fenians to control Canada ultimately failed. At the time, many newspaper reports of the invasion mocked the invasion as inconceivable, ill planned, and outrageous, but this was partially inaccurate; even today there is a perception among some that this was just a group of drunk, feisty Irishmen dreaming of nonsense. The Fenians, however, were well organized, well funded and had strong leaders. The organization had an executive mansion in New York City, a chief executive, an elected Senate, and a lower assembly of representatives, as well as the ability to raise funds by issuing bonds; they also received significant assistance from officers in the U.S. Army such as Brigadier General Thomas Sweeney.
During the Ridgeway Raid, the Canadians took several Fenians prisoner, and in October 1866 a few were even sentenced to death. One of those taken prisoner was Buffalonian William Duggan, who was forced to spend eight months in a Toronto prison. The Fenians in Buffalo readied a brigade to try to rescue the prisoners, but members of President Andrew Johnson’s administration were able to work out a compromise with the Canadians for the prisoners’ release.
In 1867, Buffalo had the largest Fenian arms depot in the country with 4,000 Springfield rifles and 500,000 cartridges on hand. The Fenians were quiet in the Buffalo area until they staged a mass rally on January 22, 1868 in Buffalo; in fact, there was more talk of attacking Canada again—which actually happened in 1870 when they launched an attack from Vermont with results equally disastrous as 1866. Around this same time, the Fenians withered away and less militaristic movements like the Land League and the Irish National League replaced the violent aims of the Fenians.
The Fenian invasion of 1866 is well known today in Ireland, but remains a chapter of local history largely unknown to many Buffalonians. Fortunately, thanks to efforts by New York State Senator Timothy M. Kennedy and others a permanent memorial to commemorate this audacious invasion of Canada was finally dedicated on March 16, 2012. A prominent commemoration ceremony or reenactment would certainly be in order in 2016 to mark the 150th anniversary of the invasion.