Irish Revolutionaries in America

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


ALL may deplore, but none can wonder, that under circumstances such as those, a considerable section of the Irish people should have lent a ready ear to the "politics of despair."

"In vain the hero's heart had bled,
The Sage's voice had warned in vain."

In the face of all the lessons of history they would conspire anew, and dream once more of grappling England on the battlefield!

They were in the mood to hearken to any proposal, no matter how wild; to dare any risk, no matter how great; to follow any man, no matter whom he might be, promising to lead them to vengeance. Such a proposal presented itself in the shape of a conspiracy, an oath-bound secret society, designated the "Fenian Brotherhood," which made its appearance about this time. The project was strenuously reprehended by every one of the "Forty-eight" leaders with scarcely an exception, and by the Catholic clergy universally; in other words, by every patriotic influence in Ireland not reft of reason by despair. The first leaders of the conspiracy were not men well recommended to Irish confidence, and in the venomous manner in which they assailed all who endeavored to dissuade the people from their plot, they showed that they had not only copied the forms but imbibed the spirit of the continental secret societies. But the maddened people were ready to. follow and worship any leader whose project gave a voice to the terrible passions surging in their breasts. They were ready to believe in him in the face of all warning, and at his bidding to distrust and denounce friends and guides whom, ordinarily, they would have followed to the death.

In simple truth the fatuous conduct of England had so prepared the soil and sown the seed, that the conspirator had but to step in and reap the crop. In 1843, she had answered to the people that their case would not be listened to. To the peaceful and amicable desire of Ireland to reason the questions at issue, England answered in the well-remembered words of the Times: "Repeal must not be argued with." "If the Union were gall it must be maintained." In other words, England, unable to rely on the weight of any other argument, flung the sword into the scale, and cried out: "Vae Victis!"

In the same year she showed the Irish people that loyalty to the throne, respect for the laws, and reliance exclusively on moral force, did not avail to save them from violence. When O'Connell was dragged to jail as a "conspirator"—a man notoriously the most loyal, peaceable, and law-respecting in the land—the people unhappily seemed to conclude that they might as well be real conspirators for any distinction England would draw between Irishmen pleading the just cause of their country.

But there was yet a further reach of infatuation, and apparently England was resolved to leave no incitement unused in driving the Irish upon the policy of violence—of hate and hostility implacable.

At the very time that the agents of the secret -society were preaching to the Irish people the doctrines of revolution, the English press resounded with like teachings. The sovereign and her ministers proclaimed them; Parliament re-echoed them; England with unanimous voice shouted them aloud. The right, nay, the duty of a people considering themselves, or fancying themselves, oppressed, to conspire against their rulers—even native and legitimate rulers—was day by day thundered forth by the English journals. Yet more than this. The most blistering taunts were flung against peoples who, fancying themselves oppressed, hoped to be righted by any means save by conspiracy, revolt, war, bloodshed, eternal resistance and hostility. "Let all such peoples know," wrote the Times, "that liberty is a thing to be fought out with knives and swords and hatchets."

To be sure these general propositions were formulated for the express use of the Italians at the time. So utterly had England's anxiety to overthrow the papacy blinded her that she never once recollected that those incitements were being hearkened to by a hot-blooded and passionate people like the Irish. At the worst, however, she judged the Irish to be too completely cowed to dream of applying them to their own case. At the very moment when William Smith O'Brien was freely sacrificing or periling his popularity in the endeavor to keep his countrymen from the revolutionary secret society, the Times—blind, stone-blind, to the state of the facts, blinded by intense national prejudice—assailed him truculently, as an antiquated traitor who could not get one man—not even one man—in all Ireland to share his "crazy dream" of national autonomy.

Alas! So much for England's ability to understand the Irish people! So much for her ignorance of a country which she insists on ruling!

Up to 1864 the Fenian enterprise—the absurd idea of challenging England (or rather accepting her challenge) to a war-duel—strenuously resisted by the Catholic clergy and other patriotic influences, made comparatively little headway in Ireland. In America, almost from the outset it secured large support. For England had filled the Western Continent with an Irish population burning for vengeance upon the power that had hunted them from their own land. On the termination of the great Civil War of 1861-1864, a vast army of Irish soldiers, trained, disciplined, and experienced—of valor proven on many a well-fought field, and each man willing to cross the globe a hundred times for "a blow at England"—were disengaged from service.

Suddenly the Irish revolutionary enterprise assumed in America a magnitude that startled and overwhelmed its originators. It was no longer the desperate following of an autocratic chief-conspirator, blindly bowing to his nod. It grew into the dimensions of a great national confederation with an army and a treasury at its disposal. The expansion in America was not without a corresponding effect in Ireland; but it was after all nothing proportionate. There was up to the last a fatuous amount of misunderstanding maintained by the "Head Center" on this side of the Atlantic, James Stephens, a man of marvelous subtlety and wondrous plausibility; crafty, cunning, and not always overscrupulous as to the employment of means to an end. However, the army ready to hand in America, if not utilized at once, would soon be melted away and gone, like the snows of past winters. So in the middle of 1865 it was resolved to take the field in the approaching autumn.

It is hard to contemplate this decision or declaration without deeming it either insincere or wicked on the part of the leader or leaders, who at the moment knew the real condition of affairs in Ireland. That the enroled members, howsoever few, would respond when called upon, was certain at any time; for the Irish are not cowards; the men who joined this desperate enterprise were sure to prove themselves courageous, if not either prudent or wise. But the pretence of the revolutionary chief—that there was a force able to afford the merest chance of success—was too utterly false not to be plainly criminal.

Toward the close of 1865 came almost contemporaneously the government swoop on the Irish revolutionary executive, and the deposition—after solemn judicial trial, as prescribed by the laws of the society—of O'Mahony, the American "Head Center," for crimes and offenses alleged to be worse than mere imbecilty, and the election in his stead of Col. William R. Roberts, an Irish-American merchant of high standing and honorable character, whose fortune had always generously aided Irish patriotic, charitable, or religious purposes. The deposed official, however, did not submit to the application of the society rules. He set up a rival association, a course in which he was supported by the Irish Head Center; and a painful scene of factious and acrimonious contention between the two parties thus antagonized caused the English government to hope—nay, for a moment, fully to believe—that the disappearance of both must soon follow.

This hope quickly vanished when, on reliable intelligence, it was announced that the Irish-Americans, under the Roberts presidency, were substituting for the unreal or insincere project of an expedition to Ireland, as the first move, the plainly practicable scheme of an invasion of British North America in the first instance. The Times at once declared that now indeed England had need to buckle on her armor, for that the adoption of this new project showed the men in America to be in earnest, and to have sound military judgment in their councils. An invasion of Ireland by the Irish in the United States all might laugh at, but an invasion of Canada from the same quarter was quite another matter; the southern frontier of British North America being one impossible to defend in its entirety, unless by an army of one hundred thousand men. Clearly a vulnerable point of the British empire had been discovered.

This was a grievous hardship on the people of Canada. They had done no wrong to Ireland or to the Irish people. In Canada Irishmen had found friendly asylum, liberty, and protection. It seemed, therefore, a cruel resolve to visit on Canada the terrible penalty of war for the offenses of the parent country. To this the reply from the confederate Irish in the States was, that they would wage no war on the Canadian people; that it was only against British power their hostility would be exercised; and that Canada had no right to expect enjoyment of all the advantages without experiencing, on: the other hand, the disadvantages of British connection.

It seemed very clear that England stood a. serious chance of losing her North American dependencies. One hope alone remained. If the American government would but defend the frontier on its own side, and cut the invading parties from their base of supplies, the enterprise must naturally and inevitably fail. It, seemed impossible, however, that the American government could be prevailed upon thus to become a British preventive police. During the civil war the Washington executive, and, indeed, the universal sentiment and action of the American people, had plainly and expressly encouraged the Fenian organization; and even so recently as the spring of 1866, the American government had sold to the agents of Colonel Roberts thousands of pounds' worth of arms and munitions of war, with the clear, though unofficial, knowledge that they were intended for the projected Canadian enterprise. Nevertheless, as we shall see, the American executive had no qualms about adopting the outrageously inconsistent course.

By the month of May, 1866, Roberts had established a line of depots along the Canadian frontier, and in great part filled them with the arms and material of war sold to him by the Washington government. Toward the close of the month the various "circles" throughout the Union received the command to start their contingents for the frontier. Never, probably, in Irish history was a call to the field more enthusiastically obeyed. From every State in the Union there was a simultaneous movement northward of bodies of Irishmen; the most intense excitement pervading the Irish population from Maine to Texas. At this moment, however, the Washington government flung off the mask. A vehement and bitterly-worded proclamation called for the instantaneous abandonment of the Irish projects. A powerful military force was marched to the northern frontier; United States gunboats were posted on the lakes and on the St. Lawrence River; all the arms and war material of the Irish were sought out, seized, and confiscated, and all the arriving contingents, on mere suspicion of their destination, were arrested.

This course of proceeding fell like a thunderbolt on the Irish. It seemed impossible to credit its reality. Despite all those obstacles, however—a British army on one shore, an American army on the other, and hostile cruisers, British and American, guarding the waters between—one small battalion of the Irish under Colonel John O'Neill succeeded in crossing to the Canadian side on the night of the 31st of May, 1866. They landed on British ground close to Fort Erie, which place they at once occupied, hauling down the royal ensign of England, and hoisting over Fort Erie in its stead, amid a scene of boundless enthusiasm and joy, the Irish standard of green and gold.

The news that the Irish were across the St. Lawrence—that once more, for the first time for half a century, the green flag waved in the broad sunlight over the serried lines of men in arms for "the good old cause"—sent the Irish millions in the States into wild excitement. In twenty-four hours fifty thousand volunteers offered for service, ready to march at an hour's notice. But the Washington government stopped all action on the part of the Irish organization. Colonel Roberts, his military chief officer, and other officials were arrested, and it soon became plain the unexpected intervention of the American executive had utterly destroyed, for the time, the Canadian project, and saved to Great Britain her North American colonies.

Meanwhile O'Neill and his small force were in the enemy's country—in the midst of their foes. From all parts of Canada troops were hurried forward by rail to crush at once, by overwhelming force, the now isolated Irish battalion. On the morning of the 1st of June, 1866, Colonel Booker, at the head of the combined British force of regular infantry of the line and some volunteer regiments, marched against the invaders. At a place called Limestone Ridge, close by the village of Ridgeway, the advanced guard of the British found O'Neill drawn up in a position ready for battle. The action forthwith commenced. The Irish skirmishers appeared to fall back slowly before their assailants, a circumstance which caused the Canadian volunteer regiments to conclude hastily that the day was going very easily in their favor. Suddenly, however, the Irish skirmishers halted, and the British, to their dismay, found themselves face to face with the main force of the Irish, posted in a position which evidenced consummate ability on the part of O'Neill. Booker ordered an assault in full force on the Irish position, which was, however, disastrously repulsed. While the British commander was hesitating as to whether he should renew the battle, or await reinforcements reported to be coming up from Hamilton, his deliberations were cut short by a. shout from the Irish lines, and a cry of alarm from his own—the Irish were advancing to a charge. They came on with a wild rush and a. ringing cheer, bursting through the British ranks. There was a short but desperate struggle, when some one of the Canadian officers, observing an Irish aid-de-camp galloping through a wood close by, thought it was a body of Irish horse, and raised the cry of "Cavalry! cavalry!" Some of the regular regiments made a vain effort to form a square—a fatal blunder, there being no cavalry at hand; others, however, broke into confusion, and took to flight, the general, Booker, it is alleged, being the fleetest of the fugitives. The British rout soon became complete, the day was hopelessly lost, and the victorious Irish, with the captured British standards in their hands, stood on Ridgeway heights as proudly as their compeers at Fontenoy. "The field was fought and won."