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Military Life, The Fenian Raid Of 1870

( Originally Published 1924 )



WHILE at home for the Christmas holidays, I was induced in January, 1870, to join No. 4 Company, Queen's Own Rifles, as a private. I did it for a lark with others of my friends. I was under the legal age for enlistment, but so were the others. We foregathered in Bay Street, where we had much merriment and many "Tom and Jerrys," a sort of mild egg flip which was very popular in winter.

The drill shed was situated in Simcoe between Wellington and Front Streets, where the Canadian Pacific freight sheds now stand. It was a wooden building, the roof of which fell in one night under the pressure of the snow. I have rather a gruesome recollection of it because the bodies of the men who fell at the Ridgeway on June 2nd, 1866, and belonged to Toronto, were brought there awaiting public burial. The coffins were placed on a dais at one end of the building, and as it was very hot weather, the odor was overpowering. At the funeral the bodies were placed on a Grand Trunk lorry on which a superstructure had been built, so that Ensign McEachren's was at the top and the others, six in number, on the lower steps of the catafalque. The lorry was drawn by six horses heavily draped in black. I have never witnessed a scene of greater public excitement and anger than was exhibited during the passage of the procession through the streets. If the crowd could have gotten hold of a Fenian they would have torn him to pieces.

The following spring I entered the School of Military Instruction as a cadet, being admitted as a special case, I being under the required age, and passed out in June with a certificate qualifying me for a captain's commission.

The school was held in the old riding school behind what was then Dr. Thorburn's house at the corner of Wellington and York Streets. We drilled there in wet weather, but at other times in Clarence Square. Colonel Robert Denison was D.A.G. of the District and enlivened the proceedings with his witty and caustic remarks. Having lost an eye he was familiarly known as "one-eyed Bob" but was a favorite with us all. The sergeant-major was an old regular whose language was redolent of the barrack square of those days. The uniform we wore was a red serge jacket, a brown leather belt, blue trousers and a "mutton pie" cap with a porn-porn like a lady's powder puff on top. A more useless headgear was never invented, for it neither protected the head from rain, sun nor cold. While still in attendance at the Military School, I was appointed a temporary ensign and went to camp with the 10th Royals.

The Fenian scare was still on, hence the battalion was recruited up to 100 men per company. My captain was John Boxall, afterwards Lieutenant-Colonel commanding; the lieutenant, Frank Noverre.

Our arrangements for sleeping were most primitine and consisted simply of some straw laid on the ground. We had a batman, a stumpy little fellow with stiff black hair, who was supposed to keep our tent and equipment in order, likewise to shine our shoes, but I noticed that mine never shone. Having occasion to come back unexpectedly to the tent one morning, I found my fine fellow greasing his hair with the butt end of a candle and brushing it with my shoe brush!

The uniform of the rank and file of the time was quaint and comprised a red tunic reaching almost to the knees, a high collar and black leather stock, while the head was covered by a "mutton pie" hat, crowned by a huge porn-porn. In full dress a shako was worn. The equipment consisted of a whitened leather waist belt, a heavy cartridge box slung over the shoulder with a broad band, and a square knapsack.

The battalion was armed with Snider-Enfield single-shot, breach-loading rifles, which threw a conical bullet, weighing an ounce, and was sighted up to four hundred yards. A triangular bayonet completed the outfit.

The bandsmen wore white tunics with blue wings, trimmed with red braid.

We had a grand field-day at Niagara before the close of the camp. Fort George was garrisoned and was taken by assault. I was ordered to lead the color party, and carrying the Queen's color, I planted it proudly on one of the bastions.

The camp ended in a grand review, the salute being taken by the Minister of Militia, Sir George Etienne Cartier, the first holder of that office after Confederation. It was he whom Sir John A. Macdonald called his "French-Canadian twin brother," for Sir George had been largely instrumental in inducing the Province of Quebec to enter the Confederation.

He held a reception for the officers that evening, when l had the opportunity of seeing this distinguished man at close quarters. He was rather below the medium height, strongly built, of dark complexion, black eyes and wore his grey hair in a pompadour standing straight up like the hairs of a brush and cut quite short.

The strength of the camp was 6,200.

As the second Fenian Raid on Canada is almost lost in oblivion a brief account of it may be of historical interest.

On April 6th, 1870, the British Minister at Washington notified the newly-formed Government of the Confederation of Canada that he had been warned of an impending Fenian Raid. Many militia units of the Province of Quebec were ordered to hold themselves in readiness for active service, and a few days later No. 1 Troop, Montreal Cavalry; the 50th Huntingdon Borderers; the 60th, 52nd and 21st Battalions were ordered to move to the Vermont and New York frontier. The Montreal Garrison Artillery and the Field Battery were ordered out.*

General Lindsay, G.O.C., called out 1,000 Militia in the counties of Chateauguay and Missisquoi and 4,000 more were ordered to assemble at their local headquarters. The Militia was also called out on the Detroit River and on the Niagara front, and on April 12th the Grand Trunk Brigade, the Mount Royal Rifles, the Victoria Rifles and the Chasseurs of Montreal were called to the colors. On the 14th the 60th Rifles (Regulars) and H Battery, Royal Artillery, were ordered to the front. In the meantime the London Field Battery was sent to the Detroit River and a detachment of artillerymen were ordered to go on board the gunboat Rescue at Napanee, while the gunboat Prince Alfred was sent to the Detroit River. In the meantime a Fenian Congress was being held in New York under the very noses of the authorities. The meeting was led by "General" O'Neil and Messrs. Cosgrove and Savage, where the question of the invasion of Canada was openly discussed, but with regard to which there were differences of opinion among the members of the organization.

Affairs quieted down to such an extent that the Canadian Government ordered most of the troops to return to their homes and disband. Ht was, however, the lull before the storm. On May 24th President Grant issued a proclamation forbidding unlawful assemblies, the carrying of arms, and invoked the Neutrality Act, but the very next day the Fenians crossed the frontier.

Captain John A. Macdonald says in his book: "About 11 o'clock on May 25th General O'Neil mounted his horse and rode down from Franklin to the Fenian camp. When the troops were formed up, he addressed them as follows: 'Soldiers! This is the advanced guard of the Irish-American army for the liberation of Ireland from the yoke of the oppressor. For your own country you enter that of the enemy. The eyes of your countrymen are on you. Forward. March.' At the word of command the column moved off promptly, General O'Neil and General Donnelly at the head and the green flag of Ireland flapping in the wind. They had only a short distance to go before they reached the boundary line. Some eight rods north of the line on the Canadian side, is a gully through which runs a small brook known locally as 'Chickabiddy Creek' over which the road is bridged, and beyond which are the rocky heights of Eccles' Hill, where a small Canadian force was entrenched among the rocks and trees awaiting the approach of the invaders. Immediately after crossing the boundary, the Burlington, Vermont, company of Fenians, under the command of Captain Cronan, (lashed down the hill to form a skirmish line across the brook. Just as they did so the Canadians opened fire. At the first volley Private John Rowe was killed and Lieut. John Hallinan received a flesh wound in the arm. The company wavered, and, receiving no support, fell back to the shelter of the Richards house and outbuildings. The next company joined Captain Cronan in the rear of the house and commenced firing. Soon afterwards Private James Keenan ventured out too far and received a ball in the leg. This hot reception and the sharp fire of the Canadians caused a stampede, and General O'Neil endeavored to rally his troops by the following address:

"'Men of Ireland. I am ashamed of you. You have acted disgracefully, but you will have another chance of showing whether you are cravens or not. Comrades, we must not, we dare not, go back now, with the stains of cowardice upon us. Comrades, I will lead you again, and if you will not follow me, I will go on with my officers and die in your front! I leave you now to the command of General Boyle O'Reilly.'

"After this brave utterance General O'Neil retired to an attic window in the Richards house, from which point he intended to observe the fortunes of the day. But the Canadian riflemen having discovered his presence there directed their fire upon him, and Mr. Richards ordered him to leave his residence, which was getting seriously damaged by bullets. Just as he went out of the house, General Foster, United States Marshall, stepped up and arrested him for breach of the Neutrality Act. At first the Fenian General was very wrathy, and threatened to use force if he was not released, but on General Foster placing a revolver at his head and intimating that he would shoot if he did not submit, O'Neil's courage quailed, and he surrendered. He was shoved into a covered carriage and driven off to St. Alban's, Vt., under the guard of two men, very much dejected."

More Fenians continued to arrive at St. Albans, but they had lost their leader and efforts were made to have General John Boyle O'Reilly take command, but he could not be prevailed upon to take the risk. The golden opportunity had passed, for strong bodies of Canadians had arrived on the frontier and the United States troops appeared in their rear. "Being thus caught between two fires they thought discretion the better part of valor and fled in dismay. Thus the Grand Army of the Irish Republic melted into disorganized mobs. "

It remains to be stated that Eccles' Hill was garrisoned by thirty-five armed farmers who had formed themselves into a home guard, and two officers and thirty-six men under the command of Lt.-Col. Brown Chamberlain of the 60th Missisquoi Battalion. They had been well placed by Colonel Chamberlain behind rocks and fences on the Ili11. When the Fenians came on they were received by a brisk fire, under which they quickly retreated, so that the Grand Army of the Irish Republic was defeated and put to flight by two officers and seventy-one men. After the fiasco in the Eastern townships there has been no armed invasion of our country.

Simultaneous with O'Neil's raid on May 25th an invasion took place on the Huntingdon border, when a strong force of Fenians under Generals Starr and Cleason advanced about a mile into the Province of Quebec, on the line of the Trout River. They constructed rifle pits and entrenchments on May 26th and 27th and occupied a strong position resting on the river on one side and a dense wood on the other, while the centre was protected by an abatis of hop poles.

The Canadian force chosen to operate against them was composed of 69th Regiment, the 50th Battalion (Huntingdon Borderers) and the Montreal Garrison Artillery, the whole being under the command of Colonel Bagot.

"The Borderers formed the Canadian advance guard and as soon as they approached within 300 yards of the Fenian position, were deployed in skirmishing order. The centre support was composed of one company of the 69th, the remainder of the regiment being held in reserve in quarter column. The skirmish line advanced with great steadiness against the enemy in the entrenchments. The Fenians fired three volleys as they advanced, the fire being promptly returned by our men as they gallantly moved forward. When the Canadians came within 100 yards of the entrenchments the Fenians fell back, firing as they retreated, and ran for some buildings. Colonel Bagot then ordered Captain Mansfield's company to fix bayonets and charge, which was done in grand style amid loud cheering, and resulted in the complete rout of the Fenians. Captain Hall's Battery of the Montreal Garrison Artillery cleared the wood in a very thorough manner and soon the whole Fenian army were in a helter-skelter race out of Canada and back to the American territory. They were so swift in their retreat that only one man was captured, but three were killed and several wounded during the fight. No losses occurred among the Canadians."

The troops in Toronto were not called to the colors, but a guard, of which 1 was one, was placed on the Armouries and Magazine. The Niagara frontier was patrolled, but no enemy made his appearance, notwithstanding the large gathering of Fenians in Buffalo. Their experience in 1866 had not been such as to encourage another adventure in this region; moreover, they were greatly depressed at the failure of the expedition against the Province of Quebec.

"General" O'Neil was brought to trial in the United States Courts and was sentenced to six months' imprisonment. But the spirit of the filibuster was strong in him and on his release he organized another expedition to assist Louis Rid in Manitoba. He and his command were arrested immediately after crossing the boundary at Pembina. He was again tried, but got off on a technicality. Ile took to drink and became a wreck, dying alone, neglected by his former comrades, and despised by the public.

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