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«Combat, Memory and Remembrance in Confederation Era Canada: The Hidden History of the Battle of Ridgeway, June 2, 1866 Peter Wronski (Peter Vronsky) ...»

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Sweeny acquired detailed intelligence on the defence of the Welland Canal from Fenians serving on the crew of the U.S. Navy‘s gunboat on Lake Erie the U.S.S. Michigan.49 Fenians in Montreal transmitted Sweeny warnings about a Canadian spy on the way to visit the Fenians in New York. 50 A Fenian organizer in Quebec City sent information of troop deployments there.51 Some Fenian circles in Montreal once aware of the split between the two factions in the U.S.

over the invasion of Canada, came over to Roberts Wing ―ready to go in‖ if there is an invasion.52 Among the information Sweeny studied included the annually published AdjutantGeneral reports on the state of the militia submitted to parliament and a copy of the 1862 Defences of Canada report on the vulnerability of Canada—most of the recommendations of which had not been implemented. In a 14-page memorandum to Roberts on the eve of the invasion, Sweeny made line by line comparisons between the vulnerability as described in Defences of Canada in 1862, its recommendations and what had been actually implemented;

very little, he concluded. Sweeny pointed out that until March-April 1866 not a single Canadian militia unit ―had ever been assembled as a Battalion, or drilled otherwise than by detachments.‖53 In January 1866, the split between the O‘Mahony and Roberts Wings became irreconcilable and the two factions went their separate ways splitting the Fenian movement into two. At the end of February Sweeny presented his strategy for the invasion of Canada to a William Leonard to Sweeny, April 4, 1866, Sweeny Papers.

Mansfield to Christian, April 9, 1866, Sweeny Papers.

Richard Slattery to Sweeny, 9 May 1866, Sweeny Papers F.B. McNamee to Christian, March 26, 1866, Sweeny Papers; for more on Montreal Fenians, see: David Wilson, ―The Fenians in Montreal, 1862-68: invasion, intrigue, and assassination‖, Eire-Ireland: a Journal of Irish Studies, Fall-Winter 2003 v38 i3-4 p109(26) Sweeny to Roberts, [circa November 1865], Sweeny Papers.

Fourth National Fenian Congress in Pittsburgh now dominated by the Roberts Senate Wing.

Two Frontier secret service operatives infiltrated the meeting and reported that the Fenians on February 25th approved Sweeny‘s plan to invade Canada. The agents mistakenly believed the invasion was scheduled for March 17th—St. Patrick‘s Day.54 These reports triggered a call-out of Canada‘s militia in March but nothing came of it.

Sweeny‘s plan actually projected an invasion for early next winter while border waterways were frozen to facilitate crossing and to ensure reinforcements from Britain and Halifax could not arrive easily. The plan called for a three-prong attack from Illinois in the west to Vermont in the east with 25,000 Fenian insurgents including five cavalry regiments and three artillery batteries. The operation was budgeted at $450,000. 55 The Fenians had even successfully tested a submarine at the depth of 17 feet in New York‘s East River. The submarine survived a test detonation of a 25-pound powder depth-charge 15 feet away from it.56 (Later Fenian submarine development remains a subject of naval lore to this day.)57 Sweeny‘s plan was not a far-fetched, comic opera, farcical, pathetic or a burlesque proposal, as many characterize it. As Kerby Miller notes, at the end of the Civil War, ―Fenianism had about 50,000 actual members, many of them trained soldiers, and hundreds of thousands ardent sympathizers; in just seven years, and despite clerical condemnation, Fenianism had become the most popular and powerful ethnic organization in Irish-American history.‖58 McMicken to Macdonald, March 5, 1866, MG26A, Volume 237, [Reel C1663], p. 103296-103299 Sweeny, Official Report, September 1866, in Denieffe, p. 255; Sweeny to Roberts, [circa November 1865] and Tevis to Sweeny, March 6, 1866, Sweeny Papers; Morgan pp. 122-123; Owen, p. 61; Neidhardt, Fenianism in North America, pp. 33-34; Senior, Last Invasion of Canada, p. 64 Sweeny to Halsted, April 18, 1866, Sweeny Papers

Richard Compton-Hall, The Submarine Pioneers: the Beginnings of Underwater Warfare, Penzance, Cornwall :

Periscope Pub., 2003.

Kerby Miller, Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America, New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. p. 336 Concerned about the momentum the rival Roberts Wing was gathering with its invasion plans of Canada, O‘Mahony attempted on March 19 his own invasion of New Brunswick from Maine at some remote islands near Campobello.59 The British and American navies quickly dispersed the feeble attempt.60 The Campobello raid, as much as it was a failure and an embarrassment to the O‘Mahony wing, spurred the Roberts faction to act sooner than they had originally planned. While the invasion preparations were far from complete, Sweeny was now ordered to proceed with an invasion he believed he had until next winter to fully prepare.

Intelligence Failure or New Defence Strategy?

In May Sweeny began issuing hasty marching orders for the Fenian invaders. Despite numerous intelligence and press reports throughout the month of large Fenian movements on trains northwards towards the border, worn down by the on-and-off security alerts, Canadian authorities did not act on the intelligence. They had spent too much money and too much of the volunteers‘ good will over the last few months on false alerts—they had ‗cried wolf‘ once too often. Macdonald had called out the militia for frontier duty twice—in November 1865 and March 1866. These alerts were expensive and caused enormous disruptions in Canada in the labour supply, commerce and business and in the personal lives and careers of the young volunteers and their officers.61 Had the Fenians come, these disruptions would have been forgiven, but the invasion never materialized; for now it remained nothing but Fenian talk and bluster.





D‘Arcy, pp. 138-139; Niedhardt, p. 47 For a recent account of the Campobello invasion, see: Robert L. Dallison, Turning Back the Fenians: New Brunswick‘s Last Colonial Campaign, Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane Editions-New Brunswick Military Heritage Project, 2006.

Beatty [ms], LAC,, p. 7 Did Gilbert McMicken and the Frontier Constabulary fail in assessing the urgency of the Fenians threat that May? The various histories of the Fenian raids are rife with quotes from this final month before the invasion of Canada from Macdonald, McMicken, McGee and other authorities, attesting to their belief in the empty threats and futility of the Fenian movement and predictions for its imminent demise.62 The phenomenon that the Canadians were experiencing is known in military deception as ‗conditioning‘—when after numerous feints by an enemy, deliberate or not, the defender no longer is able or willing to recognize a real attack when it comes.63 It should be noted, however, that Canada‘s Adjutant-General Colonel Patrick L.

MacDougall had been arguing since the alert in November 1865 for an economically rationalized defence policy that involved assembling the volunteers at strategic centers inside of Canada away from the frontier after a Fenian landing and then launching focused counter-attacks rather than rushing the militia blindly everywhere to the immense frontier at every rumour of a Fenian approach.64 McMicken strongly opposed this strategy, arguing that if the Fenians are allowed to penetrate into Canadian territory ―it would raise an excitement in the United States very difficult to control.‖65 MacDougall did not get his way during the second Fenian scare in March 1866 as volunteers were again called out and deployed to the frontier needlessly. But now, in the wake of this March false alarm and its renewed financial and political cost, it appears that MacDougall‘s point-of-view was going to prevail. No troops would be called out and deployed until the day the Fenians actually began moving onto Canada.

For example, see: Niedhardt, Fenianism in North America, p. 56-57; Senior, The Last Invasion of Canada, pp.

60-61; D‘Arcy, pp. 157-158 Joseph W. Caddell, ―Deception 101: Primer on Deception‖ Conference on Strategic Deception in Modern Democracies: Ethical, Legal, and Policy Challenges, U.S. Army War College, October 31, 2003, at the William C.

Friday Conference Centre, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

MacDougall to McMicken, October 30, 1865, MG26A, Volume 236 [Reel C1662], pp. 102928-102931, LAC McMicken to Macdonald, November 3, 1865, MG26A, Volume 236 [Reel C1662], pp. 102949-102951, LAC McMicken would later vehemently hold the military chain-of-command responsible for allowing the Fenians to penetrate Canadian territory, writing to Macdonald, ―Are you aware that I telegraphed Gen Napier on 30th May suggesting the propriety of sending a force to Port Colborne? Had he done this perhaps all would have been well, but I believe he was at some Lady fair‘s [sic] when he got my telegram and putting it in his pocket probably never saw it or even thought of it again.‖66 Fenian Mobilization on the Border In the last week of May, spies and newspapers were reporting the arrival of hundreds of Fenians at Buffalo by trains from Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana and even from as far as Louisiana.

The men arrived in regimental groups, in civilian clothing, unarmed, and joined with the Buffalo Fenians. Other Fenian units were slowly arriving in Malone and Ogdensburg, New York, at St.

Albans, Vermont, at Cape Vincent, Oswego, Rochester and other points along the Upper St.

Lawrence and Lake Ontario. But all were arriving in a sluggish trickle.67 At some critical invasion launching points, like Chicago and Detroit, there was hardly any Fenian mobilization at all. In the end when the time came to act, many of the Fenian volunteers that Sweeny was counting on completely failed to appear on time.

The Fenian failure to successfully invade Canada would have little to do with its planning or lack of intelligence. Rather it was the fault of a hasty and disorganized execution of a plan by a dysfunctional faction-torn Fenian movement that had over the years given so many futile calls for action, that when the genuine call came, many refused to believe it, ironically the same ‗cry wolf‘ that conditioned Canada‘s leaders to stand down the militia in this critical moment of the McMicken to Macdonald, July 11, 1866, MG26A Fenian Papers III, pp. 700-704, LAC, quoted in C.P. Stacey, ―The Fenian troubles and Canadian military Development‖, p. 28 in Report of the Annual Meeting of the Canadian Historical Association, 1935.

Captain Macdonald, p. 25 build-up. The Civil War had been over for fourteen months—many Fenian war veterans had settled down into new jobs and new lives. After so many false starts before, Fenian volunteers were not as ready to drop everything they were doing. There was also a distinct cavalier and undisciplined culture among American Fenians compared to the Irish revolutionaries back home.68 The Roberts Wing leadership was not made up of the same hardened radical generation of rebel exiles that O‘Mahony and Stephens represented. O‘Mahony would comment on his own American Fenians, ―I am sick of Yankee-doodle twaddle, Yankee-doodle selfishness and all Yankee doodledum! It is refreshing to turn to the stern front and untiring constancy of the continental apostles of liberty.‖69 When Fenian forces in Cleveland in the last week of May failed to secure the necessary ships to cross Lake Erie, Sweeny ordered those units to deploy to Buffalo instead.70 Claiming to be migrating railway workers, the Fenians, to avoid surveillance at the Buffalo central station, had their trains slow down on the outskirts and jumped off making the rest of their journey into the city on foot.71 At 11:55 P.M. on May 30, the General-in-Chief of the U.S. Army, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant warned Major General George G. Meade, commander of the Military Division of the Atlantic, that the Mayor of Buffalo had telegraphed that 600 Fenians were on the way from Cleveland to join those already assembling in Buffalo and that U.S. Secretary of State William Seward had intercepted orders for Fenians headed to St. Albans to prepare to move on Morgan, p. 124 Quoted in Robert Kee, The Bold Fenian Men, Vol 2, London: Penguin, 1972. p. 11 Courtney to Grace, May 23, 1866, Sweeny Papers.



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