John O’Neill joined the Fenian Brotherhood organization towards the end of the American Civil War and led two successive, but not successful, Fenian invasions of Canada, in 1866 and 1870. The Fenian Brotherhood was an Irish nationalist organization that evolved in 1858 out of a society named the Emmet Monument Association. The Fenian Brotherhood grew under the leadership of John O’Mahony from 1858 until reached its zenith in 1865.
The Fenian Brotherhood’s objective was to aid nationalists in Ireland to overthrow British rule by means of an uprising of the peasantry. O’Mahony contacted James Stephens, another veteran of the 1848 rebellion, and asked him to form a sister organization in Ireland called the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood or IRB. The Fenians trained soldiers in the United States for the anticipated rebellion by forming Irish regiments in several different state militias, all the while collecting arms to supply the IRB in Ireland. After a slow start the Fenians were propelled to the front pages of newspapers in the United States after the start of the American Civil War. Many all-Irish state militias converted into Union regiments to combat the rebellion. There were also a small number of all-Irish state militias in the South that joined the Confederacy. The large numbers of young Irish-born soldiers entering the military formed a pool from which Fenian leaders, many of whom were themselves officers in the Civil War armies, were able to recruit new members for the Brotherhood. Recruiting was also enhanced in the North by the belief that, because of Britain’s support of the Confederacy, a war would break out between the United States and England when the American Civil War ended. The Fenians found they could affect Anglo-American relations by threatening American politicians that the so-called “Irish vote” would go in a block to the party supporting their goal of an independent Ireland.
John O’Neill was born in Drumgallon, Contibret, County Monaghan, March 8, 1834. He came to America in 1848 to join his mother who had emigrated in 1840. In 1857 he was recruited by the 2nd US Cavalry for an expedition into the west and, later, during the Civil War he would serve as a lieutenant in the 5th Indiana Cavalry where he earned a reputation as a natural leader while pursuing the John Hunt Morgan’s Confederate Cavalry. Retuning after an illness towards the end of the war he enlisted in the 17th Infantry, US Colored Troops as a Captain. After the war was over, O’Neal mustered out in Nashville, Tennessee. While in Nashville, O’Neill joined the Fenian Brotherhood. When the split occurred in the Fenian Brotherhood in 1865 between the Senate Wing that proposed an attack on Canada and the O’Mahony Wing that clung to the original objective of providing support to a rising in Ireland, O’Neill opted for the “action men” of the Senate Wing. Although the Senate’s proposed invasion of Canada forced O’Mahony into a feeble and fruitless attempt to capture the British Canadian island of Campobello off the coast of Eastport, Maine in April of 1866, it was O’Neill and the Senate that launched a real invasion of Canada. As a Fenian Colonel, John O’Neill commanded the Fenian Senate Wing’s assault on Fort Erie and the small town of Ridgeway nearby on June 1, 1866. O’Neill’s troops succeeded in defeating several Canadian units, including the Queen’s Own regiment, at the battle of Ridgeway. However, the United States government took action and immediately began rounding up the Fenian troops that were to be O’Neill’s reinforcements. Without support, O’Neill’s Fenian “army” was forced to return across the border. The Fenian soldiers who had been captured were later released and had their tickets home paid for by the United States government. O’Neill, after his momentary success in Canada, rose to the presidency of the Senate Wing. But all was not rosy as an internal feud had developed between those who wanted to make another attack on Canada and those who opposed such precipitous action.
As President of the Senate Wing, O’Neill called for a Senate Convention in Chicago to debate the issue; but, upon perceiving that he did not have enough support to carry his plan through, O’Neill refused to attend the convention and invited his adherents to come to his own hastily-called convention in New York City, where support for another Canadian invasion was stronger. At this sparsely attemded convention O’Neill formed a third Fenian Brotherhood faction. Although he had lost the right of the presidency of the Senate Wing by his actions, he was still the elected leader of the Fenian Military Council and as such was able to call the Fenian “army” to arms and launch another raid into Canada on May 25, 1870.
This 1870 invasion was an ill- planned and badly executed affair and, as such, had no chance of success other than create problems for the Canadian government that was forced to call up the military in order to repulse the raid. O’Neill was captured on the first day and put in jail in Vermont leaving his soldiers demoralized on the field. Once again the United States stepped in and rounded up the Fenian soldiers. This time Tammany Hall, seeing an opportunity for political capital, was gracious enough to provide the soldiers with railroad tickets home.
O’Neill’s rump party, after rejecting an attempt at reconciliation by the Senate Wing, formed a pact with the old O’Mahony Wing, now under its new president, John Savage. Part of the agreement was that O’Neill would be given a seat on the council under Savage. The old Senate wing then called for a convention for September of 1870 in Cincinnati, where they converted themselves into a ‘new’ organization calling itself the “United Irishmen.” Without O’Neill and unable to come to an agreement with Savage, the United Irishmen, after a two years of frustration, turned over their organization and funds to John Devoy, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa and the IRB prisoners, recently released from British prisons into American exile. The exiles arrived in New York in 1871 and once again brought hope of reunification of the Irish nationalism. Unfortunately the exiles fared no better in their attempt to reunite the feuding nationalists. Irish-American nationalism would have to wait for the rise of a new organization, called the Clan-na-Gael, to finally gave a unified voice to Irish nationalism in 1876. The Clan na Gael rose to prominence chiefly as a result of their successful rescue of six Fenian prisoners from a British jail in Australia.
After of he failed to achieve a triumph in 1870 Canadian raid, and freshly installed on the Savage Wing Fenian Council, General John O’Neill was looking for redemption. A colorful Irish intriguer among the rebellious French-Indian “Metis” of Manitoba, W. B. O’Donoghue entered onto the scene and endeavored to get the Savage Wing Council to approve an attack on Manitoba, Canada in order to capture British Fort Garry. O’Neill, seeing a new opportunity for military glory, sponsored this plan before the Council. According to O’Donoghue, the Metis were ready to rise up and join the Fenians. The Council, weary of O’Neill in particular and Canadian adventures in general, would have none of it. O’Neill was finally able to secure a commitment from the Council that they would not disclose the plan and would supply his men with arms. O’Neill then resigned from the Fenian Brotherhood and set out on his own and launched a new invasion into what he believed was Canada on October 5, 1871. A friend of O’Neill, the British spy Thomas Beach, alias Henri Le Caron, a member of the Fenian Military Council, gladly gave 400 stands of Fenian arms and ammunition to O’Neill and then dutifully informed the Canadian Dominion Police Commissioner, Gilbert McMicken, what was under way giving the Canadians time to get ready for O’Neill and his band of marauders.
This event, like most activities in which the Fenians were involved, exhibited a bit of the ludicrous. The first oddity we encounter is that O’Neill’s “invasion” apparently took place on United States’ soil. According to General Winfield Scott, it had been determined in 1870 by the United States Corps of Engineers that the international border was too far south and a new survey had been authorized resulting in a new border line two miles to the north of its original location and that placed a Hudson Bay Company Trading post and a Dominion Custom House into the Dakota Territory of the United States. O’Neill, unaware of this, enlisted a force of perhaps forty men and attacked and occupied the Hudson Bay Company outpost along with the, then deserted, Dominion Custom House. Both of these structures, originally in Canada, were now 1 mile inside United States Territory. U.S. Army Captain, Lloyd Wheaton, who was aware of the survey, was notified at his headquarters at nearby United States Fort Pembina, and responded immediately. All but 10 of O’Neill’s men escaped into the woods without pursuit. These ten men and three of the four leaders, O’Neill, John J. Donnelly and Thomas Curley, were surrounded and arrested. The other leader, W. B. O’Donoghue, was captured by the local “Metis” and turned over to Wheaton.
Unbeknownst to O’Neill and O’Donoghue at the very moment the raid was going on McMicken was enlisting the “Metis” leader, Louis Riel, to help repel the “Fenians.” The soldiers that were captured with O’Neill were simply released by US authorities who considered them dupes of their leaders. O’Neill and the three other arrested leaders were then brought before U. S. Commissioner Foster of the Dakota Territory who promptly released all of the men on technicalities. O’Neill’s plausible claim that they were not raiders but a colonization party, the fact that O’Neill did not resist Wheaton’s forces, and considerable annexationist sentiment in the Dakota Territory weighed heavily on Foster’s decision. The U. S. Attorney for the Dakota Territory, Warren Cowles, whose heart was not in trying the case, wrote Attorney General George Williams in Washington D.C., presenting a laundry list of jurisdictional pitfalls including the lack of sufficient jurymen among the “railroad men and adventurers” of a caliber that might bring a conviction that would justify the effort and expense of a trial.
Attorney General Williams then contacted Secretary of State Hamilton Fish for advice. Fish insisted that the men be tried for violation of United States’ neutrality laws. Based on Secretary Fish’s response Cowles was forced to act and Dakota Territory indictments were secured and warrants issued. O’Neill was re-arrested in St. Paul, Minnesota but, continuing this improbable process, the Minnesota attorney general released O’Neill on “lack of evidence” with the result that no trial was ever held.
The final act of this comedy of errors occurred when, shortly after O’Neill’s capture, Captain Wheaton informed his commander, General Philip Sheridan, that fifty British soldiers had rushed over the new border and now occupied the Hudson Bay post and the Dominion Custom House. General Sheridan resented the British Army’s response after the U.S. Army had stopped a “Fenian” Canadian invasion and he forwarded the Wheaton report to Secretary of War, William Belnap, who urged Hamilton Fish to demand the British withdraw from U. S. territory. “[Fish], however, refused to press the British for a withdrawal, claiming that it was well known that the boundary was unsettled and that it was extremely premature to call the occupation of the post ‘wilful trespass’.”
Thus came to an end General John O’Neill’s military career and the last Canadian adventure involving the Fenian Brotherhood. Although the Fenian Canadian adventures appear to be more reminiscent of a Keystone Cop comedy than a serious attempts to free Ireland, the failure of any of the raids to spark a war with Great Britain might have been due more to lack of execution than concept. The Fenian raids occurred at a time when many American newspapers trumpeted annexationist sentiment. At the same time the Federal Government, still irked by Britain’s blasé attitude toward Alabama Claims reparations, mulled over annexation of Canada as a possible outcome to British intransigence. The outcome might have been different if the United States had been faced with a successful Fenian raid and a large number of Irish-American colonists flooding into Manitoba, perhaps bolstered by a French “Metis” rebellion.
O’Neill spent the remainder of his days promoting Irish migration to Nebraska. One of the colonies he set up was in a place originally called Holt subsequently renamed O’Neill, Nebraska. General John O’Neill died on January 7, 1878 and is buried in Omaha.