Today we’re going to add a new term to your broad vocabulary: Fenian. It’s a noun that describes a member of an Irish or Irish-American brotherhood dedicated to freeing Ireland from British dominion. The name was taken from the “Fianna,” a group of kings’ guards led by the legendary Irish leader of yore, Finn MacCool.
Bet you didn’t know that in 1866, large numbers of Irishmen (back in Ireland) and Irish-American men mustered out of service in the Civil War staged military-style actions in the name of their Fenianism, including a couple of attacks on Canada. (It was one of a handful of episodes in history of arms being taken up from within the U.S. against our northern neighbor – more on that shortly). The idea was to draw out the British military to focus on the Canadian trouble (Canada, at that time, being a British colony), making it easier for the Irish rebels to seize power back in Ireland and declare it a separate, self-governed nation.
In April, hordes of Fenians massed in northern Maine, with the intent of seizing Campobello Island, part of British Canada. Both English and U.S. warships were positioned in the waters off the coast to tamp down the Campo-bellicosities. The governor of Maine asked for permission to call out the National Guard of the era, to help keep the peace.
Later that year, in June, an estimated 1,000 Fenians made a move across the U.S. border north to the outskirts of the Canadian town of Ridgeway, Ontario, on the northern shore of Lake Erie. There, they skirmished with Canadian troops, killing outright nine Canadian riflemen, according to Battle of Ridgeway expert Peter Vronsky, with more than 20 other Canadian deaths from battle injuries later; the Fenians lost up to six of their number on the spot with several later casualties. The Canadians captured scores of Fenian combatants, and later tried many, according to David Bertuca. After another fight in the area the Fenians re-crossed into the U.S., where many Fenians were arrested. Then-President Andrew Johnson publicly declared that the U.S. had no hostile intentions toward the Canadians. One other Fenian raid attempt on Canada was made in 1870; it, too, was abortive.
These imbroglios were all over the newspapers, even then. Here is one of those newspapers from 1866 you can read on the Library of Congress/National Endowment for the Humanities site, “Chronicling America.” And here is another account of the Fenian attacks.
The Fenians had songs they sang to raise morale at their meetings and various other propaganda.
Lest their activities seem merely rowdy, keep in mind that this was only 20 years after the first starvation deaths occurred in the Great Irish Famine. That unspeakable human tragedy killed at least a million people and caused twice that number to flee Ireland; many went to the United States. British policies, many historians say, exacerbated the suffering of the starving Irish and contributed to the high mortality of the famine, which was triggered by a potato blight that wiped out the sustenance crop virtually overnight.
You’ll still hear songs about the Fenian men sung in Irish pubs from Dublin to Dingle and from New York to San Francisco.
What were the other U.S. sorties against the Canadians? Well, the U.S. did torch Toronto (then known as York) in the War of 1812, which some say spurred the Brits to get even by burning Washington (an event that led to a new-and-improved Library of Congress).
The other was a border dispute on San Juan Island, northwest of Seattle and south of Vancouver. Known as the “Pig and Potato War,” two nationals of the respective nations got into a tiff over a Canadian porker that ransacked a Yankee’s tuber patch. Nobody died, but the British and Americans built military camps on San Juan Island that you can still visit today.