(“Then Again” is Mark Bushnell’s column about Vermont history.)
[S]omething was afoot in St. Albans. When the 5:40 a.m. train screeched to a halt at the depot, it disgorged 300 men. Their luggage consisted of eight wooden boxes, the St. Albans Messenger reported, “hardly suggestive of wearing apparel.”
Their business was supposed to be secret, but everyone could guess what they were up to. All that winter and spring of 1866, newspapers had reported rumors of a planned attack on British-held Canada by Irish-American radicals. The Fenians, as they called themselves, envisioned seizing Canada and using it as a base to attack British forces in Ireland and set the island free.
For several days, strangers had streamed into town. By the morning of June 1, the streets of St. Albans were full of men bearing Irish names. The new arrivals reminded some residents of a much smaller group of strangers who had drifted into town two years earlier. Those men had turned out to be Confederates, who in the waning months of the Civil War had robbed local banks and killed a man before fleeing over the Canadian border from which they had come.
Now marauders were attacking in the other direction, and some Vermonters were enjoying the payback. “It does certainly come hard to have one’s ox gored,” the Vermont Journal had written in March 1866. “So long as it is a neighbor’s, it does not seem so bad.” The Windsor newspaper reminded readers that in the aftermath of the Civil War raid, the Canadian government had let the Confederate attackers “go unwhipt of justice.”
The Fenians, named after an ancient Irish militia, relied on some Vermonters for support. Peter Ward, superintendent of St. Albans’ gas works, had been busily stowing weapons. The Fenians had bought surplus Army swords and rifles from the government and shipped them to Ward packed in crates marked “glass” and “gas fixtures.” More arms caches were hidden in nearby towns in the barns of supportive farmers.
As suddenly as those 300 Fenians had arrived in St. Albans, they melted away. They were seen marching off in groups in every direction. But the next morning’s train brought another crush of men from Boston and points south. In all, more than 1,000 men assembled in Franklin County during late May and early June 1866 for an attack north.
They saw themselves as the advance guard of a giant movement. The Fenian Brotherhood claimed a quarter-million adherents, and it solicited donations from the country’s 1.6 million Irish-Americans. In Vermont alone, about 1,000 men belonged to chapters in Burlington, Rutland, West Rutland, Bennington, Brattleboro, Windsor, Montpelier, Wells River, St. Johnsbury, Moretown, Waterbury, Northfield and St. Albans. Six of those communities also boasted Fenian Sisterhoods.
Attacking Canada might seem quixotic at best. But the Fenians had reasons to dream. They hoped to raise an army of thousands and quickly overwhelm the lightly guarded provinces of Canada. And many Fenians were battle-hardened by their service in the Civil War. They planned to attack at key spots along a 1,000-mile front that extended as far west as Wisconsin. The troops in Vermont formed the right wing, under the direction of Gen. Samuel Spear.
Not according to plan
But when Spear had slipped into St. Albans that spring, he found that plans had gone awry. Volunteers were arriving without firearms, and many of the guns already smuggled in had no ammunition that fit them.
On June 4, when Fenian Secretary of War Thomas Sweeny, a one-armed Civil War hero, arrived to survey the situation, he learned that U.S. government agents were intercepting firearms headed to the border. He was enraged. The government officials who had sold the Fenians the surplus weapons must have known what they’d be used for, he said: So why was the government confiscating them?
On June 6, President Andrew Johnson got involved in the issue when he warned Americans not to attack British possessions. He had been spurred by Canadian outrage over an unsuccessful raid launched by Fenians into Ontario five days earlier. On the night of June 6, U.S. Gen. George Meade, who was in St. Albans to prevent just this sort of assault, seized Fenian leaders.
Meade, leader of the Union victory at Gettysburg three years earlier, had Sweeny arrested at midnight in his hotel. Spear, who allegedly hid in his bathroom, escaped and fled to Franklin, where his men were camped.
Spear must have known his attack was now the worst kept secret in the north country. Fenian leaders had expected to mass 8,000 men at the Vermont border, but only about 1,000 had arrived so far. Still, the next morning, Spear decided to invade.
The Fenians met little opposition at first, only a small group of Canadian militia members, who wisely withdrew. (The only person the militia killed was an unfortunate Canadian woman whom they had mistaken for a Fenian.) Soon the Irishmen had marched six miles into Canada, seizing the villages of Stanbridge, St. Armand and Frelighsburg. To mark their advance, they planted a green flag on a hilltop.
Spear expected reinforcements and arms to flow north. None came.
But something was moving south: A contingent of British Army regulars, including cavalry and artillery, joined by Canadian volunteers, swept down on the Fenians. One British cavalry soldier remembered watching as an artillery unit unlimbered its guns and prepared to fire. The Fenians were watching, too. “(T)he sight,” the soldier recalled, “added a poignancy to the yearning for home which was at that moment afflicting the Fenian breast.”
A cavalry captain mercifully ordered his men to use only the flat sides of their swords, so the horsemen swatted at the fleeing Fenians, who got off only an occasional wild shot.
“In this running fight, we soon reached the boundary line,” the British soldier said. “There a company of United States regulars was stationed, and as fast as a Fenian tumbled over the line he was seized and disarmed.” Meade’s men marched the Fenians to St. Albans, where over the following days they were put on trains headed south.
By June 16, the last Fenian was gone. St. Albans residents remembered those days as ones of great excitement, and good music. Members of the Army band, having run out of Fenians to transport, played a series of concerts on the town green.
But the Fenians weren’t through. It wasn’t the plan that was bad, their leaders decided, it was the execution. Four years later, they were back.
This time the right wing was entrusted to John O’Neill, a young and dashing Civil War veteran. O’Neill was the closest thing the Fenians could claim to a military hero. He had led the invasion of Ontario in 1866, which included three skirmishes with Canadian militia but had lasted barely 36 hours.
O’Neill hoped to rely on numbers to succeed where Spear had failed. The New York Times reported that 30,000 Irishmen were missing from that city and believed headed over the Canadian border. In reality, O’Neill hoped to mount a force of 4,000.
But Fenian recruitment efforts failed again. As he crossed the Canadian border from Franklin on May 25, 1870, O’Neill counted 172 men under his command. He had moved after receiving word from his top aide, Gen. Henri LeCaron, that 500 more men and an artillery gun were headed north quickly from St. Albans.
As O’Neill invaded, LeCaron was actually busy delaying the troops’ arrival and losing a vital part to the gun. In reality, LeCaron was not a Frenchman who hated all things British, as he had claimed. He was actually an Englishman, born Thomas Miller Beach, and a Canadian spy.
Immediately upon crossing the border, O’Neill and his men were ambushed by 30 local farmers and 73 members of the Canadian militia. Pvt. John Rowe, of the Burlington Circle of Fenians, was killed in the first volley. A second Fenian was also killed, and many of the rest fled to safety behind a farmhouse just over the Vermont line. For about an hour, the two sides exchanged shots across the border.
O’Neill, renowned for his temper, stomped off in search of the reinforcements LeCaron had promised. He soon found a cluster of Vermonters standing around an injured Fenian. A man stepped from the crowd and pressed a revolver to O’Neill’s head.
“I arrest you in the name of the government of the United States!” said George Foster, U.S. marshal for Vermont, who had been sent to keep order. Foster hustled O’Neill into a waiting carriage and raced toward St. Albans.
They soon encountered LeCaron slowly leading the missing 500 north. Dumbfounded, the men watched their chief commander, O’Neill, being spirited away.
“I could easily have given the order to shoot the horses,” LeCaron wrote years later in his memoirs, savoring his treachery. The Fenians, having suffered two dead, nine injured, and a serious blow to their confidence, soon gave up the fight and fled south.
O’Neill was convicted in federal court of violating U.S. neutrality laws, sentenced to two years in prison and fined $10. But he wouldn’t serve long. That October, President Ulysses Grant showed that the Irish in America were indeed powerful — but with the ballot, not the bullet.
Hoping to curry favor among Irish-American voters in the next month’s election, Grant pardoned the Fenian leaders.