The Fenian Invasion Of New Brunswick

The Fenians

      When Joe Bothwick died in Calais about 20 years ago, he had spent nearly all of his adult life as a resident of this city. However, Joe was born and grew up in St. Stephen where his family had lived for several generations. On the wall of Joe’s den hung a muzzle-loading musket. The musket is not valuable nor is it a fine finely crafted weapon which might elicit raves from the appraisers on the Antiques Road Show. However, it does, as we say, have a history. It belonged to Joe’s great-great grandfather, John Waller, and he acquired it in 1866 for self-defense, not against predators but to repel the invasion of New Brunswick by a band of Irish revolutionaries known as the Fenians. Given the long history of cordial border relations in the St. Croix Valley we were surprised to learn that the Fenians were actively supported by some locals and tacitly encouraged by even more. In the fall of 1865, there was great deal of tension between the border communities. The tension had its origins in the Civil War when England and her colonies supported the Confederacy and this played into the hands of the Fenians.

      The Fenians had long been attempting to throw the British out of Ireland, and their progeny, the IRA, continued the crusade to drive the British out of Northern Ireland until very recently. The Brits however drove most of the Fenian leadership into exile and many of these radicals sought refuge in the United States. In October of 1865, soon after the end of the Civil War, the Fenians held a convention in Philadelphia to decide how and where to carry the battle to their enemy, the British. The convention voted to authorize Fenian Major General “Fighting Tom” Sweeney to develop a plan to invade Canada and establish an independent Irish Republic in exile. While in hindsight the plan seems quixotic, at the time it was not totally unrealistic. To begin with, British North America was lightly defended and the United States government was still unhappy with British support for the South during the Civil War. Relations between the countries were tense and the Fenians felt they could count on the U.S. government to turn a blind eye to their activities. The most important factor favoring the Fenians was the pool of potential recruits for the invasion. The Northern Army during the Civil War had been, to a large extent, composed of Irishmen. Thirty-five to 40 percent of all Northern forces were from Irish families who had emigrated to the States during the potato famine. These well-trained and experienced combat troops had been decommissioned and there is nothing more dangerous than an ex-soldier with time on his hands. Fighting Tom, himself a civil war veteran, claimed to have a large force of veterans and other Irish revolutionaries ready for the invasion.

     The invasion plan called for several coordinated attacks primarily along the New York and Ohio borders. It is doubtful an invasion of New Brunswick was even discussed at the Philadelphia convention. However, the convention did take action which ultimately resulted in the plan to attack New Brunswick. The longtime leader of the U.S. Fenians, John O’Mahony, seen at left as a Colonel in the NY 69th Regiment during the Civil War, was deposed as leader and replaced by William Roberts. O’Mahony was extremely bitter and decided to show his mettle as leader by seizing control of a piece of British territory with his own followers before Fighting Tom could mobilize his forces for the invasion approved at Philadelphia. For reasons known only to O’Mahony he chose as his target the island of Campobello.

      If the Fenians had a fault other than hatching farfetched and unrealistic schemes, it was security. The organization had been heavily penetrated by British agents and its every move was known in advance by the British. In addition, Fenian meetings were apparently open to the press. Detailed articles appeared in the New York papers explaining the invasion plans with precise order of battle information. Increasingly the press was reporting Fenian designs on New Brunswick. It is not surprising therefore that the folks in St. Stephen and St. Andrews were becoming apprehensive. In early December the inhabitants asked the Lieutenant Governor of the Province to attend a meeting in St. Stephen to discuss what action needed to be taken to meet the Fenian threat. The meeting was reported in The St. Croix Courier of December 9, 1865. The discussion primarily involved whether it would be necessary to call out the militia.  As the threat was still general in nature some objected to the expense of such an action but in the end, it was:

      Resolved: That in view of the statement made by his excellency the Lieutenant Governor to the effect that there is some reason to apprehend a predatory raid upon the frontier during the winter should no precaution be taken to guard against such contingency, the able-bodied young men of St. Stephen be invited to enroll themselves as a force for the protection of law and order should they be threatened.


     The men were ordered to report to Lieutenant Colonel Inches, Major McAdam, Captain Hutton or Captain Smith. The Lieutenant Governor was also informed that there were only 100 guns in St. Stephen and Milltown, and more would be needed.  It is likely John Waller answered the call to join the militia and was given the musket pictured above although he may well have bought it from J.G. Beckett of Calais for $5.00; but more on this later.

     At this time the only active Fenian in Calais was a Dennis Doyle, a Calais Civil War vet, sexton in the Catholic Church, and a bit of a rabble-rouser in the Irish cause but the cause was not without sympathizers. The mayor of St. Stephen thought it wise to get assurances from his counterpart in Calais that the Fenians would not have a free hand in attacking the provincials. The Calais mayor assured him every assistance would be afforded by authorities of Calais to render any such predatory attempt impossible. However, such was not the sentiment of many of the local citizens, at least not in the beginning.

     After all, hadn’t the Canadians, only 18 months earlier, allowed a band of Confederates led by a Capt. William Collins of the 15th Mississippi Regiment, to plot the robbery of the Calais bank and the burning of the city? Collins and his associates were caught in the act, Collins with the rebel flag pictured above in his pocket; but this event and many others during the course of the Civil War had rent deep divisions between the border communities. As a result, many in Calais and Eastport saw the Fenians as an instrument of just retribution. The Eastport Sentinel of 12/13/1865 reported the visit mentioned above of the Lieutenant Governor to St. Stephen and the preparations being made by the Fenians to attack the province.

The editor went on to say:

      Our Provincial neighbors can form a slight conception of the very pleasant state of the public mind on this side of the border during the late war, when the British provinces were the headquarters of pirates and robbers who there plotted robbery, murder and piracy, and there found not only sympathy and encouragement, but individuals—British subjects—to join them in their villainies. And when men were proved guilty of murder on the high seas, and of robbery and murder on land, Provincial Justices were in every instance to be found who under judicial interpretations of their laws allowed the robbers and murderers to escape.

Photo caption: NOV. 11, 1865 – There appears to be great activity amongst the Fenians, and the newspapers team [sic] with rumors and conjectures regarding their intended invasion of Canada. We are not amongst those who believe that they would succeed in their object were they to invade the Provinces; still, a great deal of bloodshed and misery might be produced before they were finally repressed. That they are organizing and arming there can be no doubt, and it behoves [sic] the Provincial Governments—our own amongst the number—to be on the alert for any contingency that might arise. We think it quite possible that a demonstration of some kind may be attempted in the hope of involving Great Britain and the United States in a war, and we regret to see the tone of encouragement which a portion of the American Press exhibits toward their mad designs.  

      For the next couple of months rumors swirled, the militia in St. Stephen drilled, and the Fenians prepared. By March 15th of 1866 the Machias Valley News Observer was gleefully reporting that the Canadians were completely and thoroughly frightened. “We are glad of this and shall as thoroughly enjoy their fright as anyone can.” On March 21, 1866, The Eastport Sentinel reported the Fenians were massing at Portland to attack the capitals of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia and on April 2nd The St. Croix Courier reported 5-600 Fenians were assembling in Machias for an assault on Campobello. Relations on the border were becoming very tense. On April 4th, The Eastport Sentinel complained that Provincials’ fears were leading them to ridiculous overreaction. The Sentinel reported on the case of David Barry, a native of Eastport who, while dining with friends in St. Andrews, had opined that 60,000 Fenians could take Canada. Barry was immediately arrested, charged with treason and was compelled to pass the night in a filthy dungeon. He was not allowed in the Debtor’s apartment of the jail but was driven into the cell reserved for murderers. Barry’s release the next day did nothing to assuage the outrage of the Sentinel which demanded the State Department take action to see such egregious conduct was properly punished. In a less-than-veiled threat the Sentinel concluded imprisoning without cause is a game that two sides can play.

      By the second week of April 1866, both The Machias Republican and Eastport Sentinel were reporting the arrival of B. Doran Killian, a Fenian official sometimes referred to as General Killian, the chartering of vessels, purchasing of powder and the manufacture of cartridges. The Trescott town hall was rented for three days to host a Fenian convention of the many hard-looking strangers who had arrived in the area. All signs indicated a military strike against Campobello was imminent. The Sentinel gave its readers the following advice on April 11th: “We trust our citizens will observe a discreet and honorable neutrality” but also noted the urge to retaliate is very great. “Every true American is indignant when he remembers the infamous conduct of England and her colonies during the late war.” The Machias Republican reported on April 12 that quite a number of Fenians passed through this place on Wednesday last, en route to Eastport. They left reportedly to three cheers.

      By April 14th, The St. Croix Courier was reporting a large force moving eastward from Machias and more Fenians on the way from Bangor and Portland. It demanded that all border crossings be manned by troops and added the time for inaction was past. The whole frontier should be put on war footing “in fact it must be done, for our lives and liberties are at stake.” All business and offices in St. Andrews were closed to allow the citizens to prepare for the invasion.

     Whatever may have been the intent of the Fenians, actual cross-border incidents were more harassing than threatening. On April 23rd, two Fenians, John Greene and John McDermott, were turned back by St. Stephen sentries when they attempted to cross the bridge. Words were exchanged and one of the Fenians, on returning to the Calais side, allegedly discharged a pistol in the general direction of the sentries. They were arrested for drunkenness by the Calais authorities, fined and released. After an angry exchange of telegrams between Maine and New Brunswick authorities, the Governor of Maine demanded the Fenians be held for additional investigation and they were rearrested although there is no indication they were ever prosecuted. It was about this time that a group of local sympathizers, led by local Fenian Dennis Doyle, lit a number of bonfires along the river by Ferry Point in the middle of the night causing a general panic on the St. Stephen side. Believing the invasion had finally come the militia and the citizenry spent an uneasy night only discover at daylight they had been the victim of a prank by local agitators.


      The burning of warehouses and carrying off the flag at Indian Island off St. Andrews were blamed on Fenians, but most believed the crimes were committed by locals. Notwithstanding the lack of serious military action to date, everyone fully expected the Fenians to strike soon.

The house was built in about 1824. During the Fenian shenanigans in this border region immediately following the American Civil War, General Meade (commander of the Union Army at Gettysburg) came here to squelch their activities. He succeeded and he used the front rooms of this house as his quarters.

      There is no question that by the third week of April 1866 the situation had reached a critical stage. The Advertiser was reporting the City was awash with armed and hostile strangers. The Machias Republican reported 300 more Fenians had arrived in Machias by steamer. However, just as a serious military action appeared imminent, the U. S. government decided it was time to put an end to the Fenians’ aspirations. The U.S. gunship Desoto, flagship of the Eastern Squadron, was dispatched to the area along with General George Meade, former commander of Union forces in the Civil War. Meade headquartered in the Norwood Whelphey house, shown above, on Key Street in Eastport. Speaking in Calais, Meade said he intended to see the neutrality laws were observed.  He complimented the 6th Maine Regiment for their conduct during the war, mentioning particularly the battle at Rappahannock Station; and he met with British officers aboard his ship. Meade then proceeded to Eastport where he reaffirmed the government’s position that the Fenian arms, which the government had seized, would not be released.

     The Canadians were taking no chances. The HMS Duncan pictured above was dispatched to the St. Croix. It is likely this ship Richard Hayden of Robbinston described in his diary entry of April 21, 1866:

      “There is a 100 gun ship and a smaller one lying off the town to watch the Fenians, and still another ship about in the bay or river (all English). There are said to be about 45 Fenians now in town boarding at diff’ places.”

      On May 14, 1866 Hayden writes after noting his purchase of ½ pound of tea for 35 cents and a quart of vinegar for 9 cents at Vose’s Store that he went to the Brewer House where the entry continues:

      “Called at J. Brewer’s. A U.S. gunboat is up from Eastport to see about a shot that an English steamer fired on Friday last and struck near the Sewell House occupied by the Rev. Mr. Richardson. The shot was occasioned by a boat not heaving to for examination.”

      British regulars were dispatched to St. Stephen amid great fanfare and celebration. They were quartered at the Agricultural Grounds and were the guests at receptions and dinners hosted by the locals. The Courier reported a night of good cheer with many toasts to the Queen and President of the United States. The toast to the President was, it was reported, both sincere and heartfelt. Any possibility of even a limited invasion of New Brunswick had been thwarted by the U.S. military authority’s seizure of the Fenian arms which had arrived at Eastport from Portland. Further, by the end of April, local support for the Fenians had largely evaporated, not for moral or political reasons, but because it had become apparent to the locals that something more fundamental was at stake—the economy. Several months of tension on the border had resulted in a near collapse in trade, and local pocketbooks were beginning to suffer. By the end of April, the folks in Calais were fed up, their new attitude toward the Fenians summarized in a Calais Advertiser editorial:

      There is a law on our Statute Books, against carrying concealed arms, and a pretty severe penalty attached to a violation of it, yet, here are a parcel of men, who don’t belong here, parading our streets at all hours of the day, with revolvers, swords and Bowie knives on their persons, without let or hindrance, drunk or sober.   

      If they are allowed to remain on the line much longer in the hostile attitude they now present, they will reduce both places to a level with Ireland in point of poverty and distress. There is nothing doing, and nothing will be done while they remain here.

      The Eastport Sentinel of 5/2/66 reported the Fenians had at last given up their quest and the majority had set sail, ironically, on the steamship New Brunswick for Boston. They were an angry and disheartened group and caused much trouble in both Boston and New York before finally dispersing. The Sentinel opined their departure was for the best, and even the Machias Republican said the border of Maine was no place for an Irish uprising. By July the British troops had decamped from the Agricultural Grounds and the St. Croix Valley had returned to normal.

      On May 10, 1866, Killian published a postmortem of the Eastport Expedition in New York. It was reprinted in its entirety by the Courier on 5/19/66 and is largely an apologia for the failure of invasion laying blame on nearly everyone except, of course, himself and his associates. He argued that had his troops and arms arrived early in April, when promised, he could have easily taken some of his objectives. This is probably true as the British regulars did not arrive until early May and General Meade did not appear on the scene until the end of April. However, any success would have been very limited and temporary, just as it was in June 1866 when the Fenians invaded Ontario. The Fenian raid was not quickly forgotten on the border. As late as September 1900 a ceremony was held at St. Stephen for veterans of the Fenian raid. Medals were awarded to the surviving veterans. An interesting account of those anxious months was presented by James Vroom of St. Stephen during the ceremony which is recounted in the Calais Advertiser of 9/12/1900. Perhaps Joe Bothwick’s great-grandfather was alive and the recipient of an award at the ceremony.                               

     The Fenian raid had historical significance for a reason other than the invasion itself. Killian, the Fenian leader, asked to speak at St. Croix Hall in Calais. The photo above was taken after reconstruction of the hall which was destroyed in the fire of 1870. It is known locally today as the J.D. Thomas building. The local authorities, aware of the sensibilities of our neighbors, refused him permission. However, the authorities from St. Stephen intervened on Killian’s behalf and asked that he be allowed to speak. The speech was attended by a large audience from both sides of the border and all agreed Killian was a dynamic, commanding orator. He said little about his military designs but instead used the podium to excoriate the British and suggest that New Brunswick would be very wise to vote against Confederation. At the time many in New Brunswick, perhaps a majority, were opposed to Confederation. The speech, while brilliant in its oratory, was too extreme for the New Brunswickers and many believe Killian’s speech and the invasion threat itself were the deciding factors in New Brunswick’s historic vote for Confederation.


The remaining “Fenian” rifles of JG Beckett were, according to Philip Beckett destroyed in this fire 1937

     We mentioned the possibility John Waller’s musket was purchased for $5.00 from J.G Beckett of Calais. J.G. was never a man to miss the main chance. He was well aware the folks across the border were both frightened and unarmed. He managed to purchase several hundred excess, obsolete and often defective Civil War muskets from the U. S. Government and these he sold to the New Brunswickers for $5.00 each. It has even been said that the bonfires set by Dennis Doyle to put the wind up across the line were a scheme by J.G. to promote sales. In fact, he was unable to sell all the muskets and those unsold remained in crates for many years on the third floor of the Beckett building on Main Street. They were destroyed in the fire of 1937, pictured above.

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