In the summer of 1866, more than a thousand ragged men who called themselves the Fenian Brotherhood arrived by train in St. Albans, Vt. They were mostly Irish-Americans and mostly Civil War veterans. They came to the northern Vermont town to invade Canada.
Between 1866 and 1870, the Fenian Brotherhood thought it was a good idea to attack Canadians to pressure the British government to withdraw from Ireland.
Many Americans held a longstanding antipathy toward the British, especially Irish-Americans. More than a million had immigrated to the United States during the potato famine of 1845-49, when the British government had let the Irish starve.
In 1844, President Martin Van Buren sent Gen. Winfield Scott to St. Albans, Vt., to talk to Town Meeting. The townspeople had flouted American neutrality laws by supporting opponents of the British government in Canada. The townspeople didn’t allow Scott to speak at the meeting.
The British didn’t help the cause of friendship with the United States by siding with the Confederacy during the Civil War.
The Fenian Brotherhood, founded in 1858, was a U.S. organization of Irish republicans, the sister organization to the Irish Republican Brotherhood in Ireland. It had a large pool of unemployed Civil War veterans from which to draw. Most had surplus weapons from the war. The Brotherhood claimed 200,000 supporters had taken the Fenian Oath.
Between 1866 and 1871, Fenians made sporadic attempts to invade Canada and pressure Britain to withdraw from Ireland.
The raids divided Catholic Irish-Canadians, though Protestant Irish supported the Canadian government.
Some of the raids bordered on farce. In the Dakota Territory, the Fenians captured a custom house and Hudson Bay post. Unfortunately for the republican cause, they were two miles inside the U.S. border.
The New England Raids
In April 1866, John O’Mahony led a Fenian war party of more than 700 men to Campobello Island on the border of Maine and New Brunswick. O’Mahony was a Gaelic scholar and founder of the Fenian Brotherhood. He believed that a raid on the disputed island of Campobello would draw the United States and Britain into war.
It didn’t go well.
Gunships from both Britain and the United States appeared and the Fenian dispersed. They had to beg their way home from the Campobello Fizzle.
Two months later, more than a thousand Fenians crossed into Canada over the Niagara River at Buffalo. Several hundred Fenians deserted overnight, but the 600-700 remaining men engaged the Canadian militia. The Canadians killed some and wounded some, then cut them off from their supplies and reinforcements. They retreated to Buffalo, where they were arrested.
Another simultaneous action was planned to the east – from St. Albans. About 1,200 Fenians arrived in St. Albans by train. They camped on the green or slept in barns; then they marched north to Franklin, Vt., though some of their guns had been seized and ammunition had not been delivered. The next day they invaded Canada, setting up camp about 400 yards north of the border. The hungry Fenians raided some stores for food, fired a few shots and took the flag from the British custom house.
After they ate their plunder they got discouraged and marched back. Gen. George Meade met them with U.S. troops at St. Albans and sent them home by train. The U.S. troops camped on the park green for two weeks. The people of St. Albans enjoyed a side benefit — the Third Artillery band’s daily concerts.
The U.S. government’s role in the raids is still debated. President Andrew Johnson was believed to secretly support the Fenians because the British had supported the Confederacy during the Civil War. But then the British government paid $15 million in reparations. Johnson agreed to support the neutrality laws.
A few months after the 1866 raids the Canadian provinces unified under the British North America Act of 1867.
This story updated in 2023.