Maine’s Part in the Fenian War of 1866

Civil War history is all the rage this year as we celebrate the sesquicentennial of that great conflict. It’s funny how we call it the Civil War, when in fact it was anything but a civil war. In reality, it is more properly called the War for Southern Independence, or secession. We seem to forget as we gloss over history and change the story to fit our agenda that the southern states decided to secede from the union and form their own nation for many of the same reasons that we declared independence from England and formed the United States. We became a nation of rebels, just as the southerners became rebels upon the firing of Fort Sumter in April of 1861.

However, I digress. One of the outcomes of the War Between the States was the lingering ill feelings between England and the United States over the English support of the Confederacy, albeit unofficial from the Crown’s public stand. There were many factions in this nation that would have enjoyed a new war between England and the US, and one of these groups was an Irish and Irish-American society called the Fenian Brotherhood, hailing mostly from New York. They had already attempted to invade British America on several occasions, and in this following article, we read how they used the State of Maine as a staging point for a failed attempt to maybe rile the two nations into warfare against each other one more time. It comes from The Canadian magazine, written by J. Vroom.

THE FENIANS ON THE ST. CROIX

It is now more than thirty years since the Fenian’s added their borrowed name to the story of the river St. Croix; yet the older men among the dwellers on the New Brunswick shore, looking back over that time, must find it hard to realize that their memory covers the longest period of unbroken peace in the history of the province.

Four times since its Loyalist founders settled on its rocky coast have the people of New Brunswick been aroused by threats of armed invasion.

In the war of 1793, French privateers, or lawless New Englanders sailing under French letters of marque, appeared in the Bay of Fundy. Men and money were quickly raised to defend the seaport towns; and one vessel, La Solide, was captured by New Brunswick militiamen and carried into St. Andrews as a prize. Again, in the war of 1812, the bay was infested by New England privateers; and the people stood ready to defend their homes, until the British occupation of Eastport deprived the enemy of a port of refuge, and the boundary line, for the time being, was carried west to the Penobscot. Once more, in 1837, the Aroostook war brought a call to arms; and once more it found a ready response, as volunteers from New Brunswick and Nova Scotia hurried forward to repel invasion. And when, in 1866, the rumors of Fenian activity in the United States proved to have some foundation in fact, the people of New Brunswick answered to the call, and their province was the first to meet the threatened danger.

In the autumn of 1865, the movements of the Fenian’s in New York first aroused suspicions that they were planning a raid on some part of British America. Early in December of that year, Sir Arthur Hamilton-Gordon, at that time Lieutenant-Governor of New Brunswick, visited the border towns to urge upon the inhabitants the wisdom of taking some precautions.

The question of the Confederation of the provinces of British North America was then before the people. Many were disposed to laugh at the “Fenian scare,” as it was called; believing it to be a political move, planned and subsidized by the promoters of the Quebec Scheme for the purpose of influencing the electorate. Many who were willing to believe that the Fenian leaders would really attempt an invasion of British territory were still unwilling to see in the common danger an argument for union, and felt sure that Upper Canada was the province most exposed to their attack. So it happened that when the spring of 1866 brought the report of a Fenian plan of campaign to include the occupation of St. Andrews or Campobello, looking to the conquest of New Brunswick as a convenient base of operations against England, there was very much incredulity mingled with surprise and alarm.

The military authorities, however, had not been idle. Volunteers were already enrolled in all the border parishes; and the news from New York, Buffalo, and other centres of Fenian activity was awaited with eager interest.

The sudden appearance at Eastport of B. Doran Killian, with a few followers, at last convinced the people of the need of action. This was on the 6th of April, 1866. Four days later, another detachment of Fenians arrived by the steamer from Portland; and H.M.S. Pylades, from Halifax, anchored at Welshpool, Campobello, on the opposite side of the narrow strait which here forms the international boundary line. Business was immediately suspended at St. Andrews, where two companies of volunteers were on duty under Col. Anderson; and the volunteers at St. Stephen, St. George and Woodstock were called out for active service. The Fenian scare was now found to be a serious matter.

The Pylades was followed by the Rosario, which anchored off St. Andrews, nearly opposite the Maine town of Robbinston.

Fenians continued to arrive from the westward, and were quartered at hotels and private houses in Eastport, Lubec, Robbinston and Calais, or encamped in small parties along- the Maine side of St. Croix. They were a rough-looking lot of men, but quiet and well disciplined; and as they seemed to have no commissariat, but depended upon the ordinary local sources of supply, it may be safely estimated that their number did not exceed 500 in all.

The officers, Gen. Killian, Major Sinnott, Capt. Gaynor, and others, paraded their titles and proclaimed their plans and motives, announcing to the world that they had come to prevent the British Government from dragooning the colonists into Confederation; but they were evidently disappointed at the lack of sympathy and support from the people on both sides of the line.

Strengthened by Killian’s reference to the matter of Confederation at a public meeting in Calais, there was still a lingering doubt with some as to whether the threatened invasion was more than a sham; when, one night in April, a party of armed men, supposed to be Fenians, made a descent upon Indian Island, a little island in Passamaquoddy Bay, lying nearly opposite Eastport.

Campobello and St. Andrews were protected by the warships; volunteers were on guard at Deer Island, and at every important point along the shores of the river and bay; but Indian Island was unguarded.

About two o’clock on Sunday morning, the 15th of April, a few men stepped ashore from a boat, went to the house of the collector of customs, demanded and received the custom-house flag, and rowed away with it. It was a bloodless foray, ridiculously trifling in itself; but it was the cause of intense excitement in the neighboring towns. Capt. Hood, of the Pylades, reported to headquarters at St. Andrews. At St. Stephen the volunteers were at church on Sunday morning, when a dispatch reached the commanding officer and was read aloud. The Fenian’s had landed on Indian Island, and carried off the British flag. The effect was magic. The men were no longer playing soldier. As they returned to barracks, others gathered at street corners, eager to be enrolled; and before an hour had passed there were all the volunteers required to form another company if needed.

More ships were sent from Halifax, including the flagship Duncan, which brought Admiral Sir James Hope and Major-General Sir Hastings Doyle, with 570 men of the 17th Foot, a company of Royal Engineers, and a battery of artillery. A Fredericton volunteer company, called the Victoria Rifles, was also sent to the front, and Governor Gordon followed them by special train to St. Andrews.

But Indian Island was still unguarded; and, a week after the affair of the flag, the bonded warehouse and three storehouses were burned by incendiaries. Then earthworks were thrown up by men detailed from the Rosario: and the Niger, the Pylades, the Fawn, and the Cordelia in turn furnished a guard until the arrival from St. Andrews of twenty men of the Gordon Rifles, under Ensign Chandler. These St. Andrews men, by the way, carried off the honours of the campaign for the only real encounter with the enemy; as, a few nights later, their sentries fired upon and drove off two boats from Eastport that were trying to effect a landing.

Gen. Meade now arrived with a force of United States regulars, making his headquarters at Eastport and stationing a guard at Calais. The Fenian’s at Eastport had been waiting all this time for arms and ammunition that had been shipped from Portland by sailing vessels, because the passenger steamers had refused to bring them; but when at last the guns arrived, they were promptly seized by the United States authorities. Killian, boldly demanding to have the guns restored, was threatened with arrest; and so, deprived of his arms, and disappointed in the attitude of the Provincialist’s, and in his hope of easily involving the United States in a war with Great Britain, he found himself obliged to give up his scheme of invasion. Finally, he sent his followers back to Portland.

In May three companies of the 17th were sent to St. Stephen, to prevent a possible raid from Calais. Their services were not needed, as the last Fenian’s had left Calais before their arrival. Gen. Meade and his men, a few days later, were ordered to the Niagara frontier, where the Fenians were gathering in force; and the British troops and vessels along the border were gradually withdrawn. The 17th and the artillery were relieved by St. John volunteers of the 66th, and returned to

Halifax by the troop ship Simoon; the St. John men were in turn relieved by two companies of the 15th Regiment; and by the middle of June they also were recalled and the local volunteers disbanded.

The presence of the Fenians on the St. Croix was a matter of much more consequence than was apparent at the time. It drew the people of New Brunswick closer to the mother country, and to their fellow-subjects in the upper provinces; it elicited a display of loyalty worthy of the descendants of United Empire Loyalists; and it undoubtedly influenced the pending election. The election went strongly in favour of Confederation. Killian’s ambitious and absurd attempt to wreck the British Empire, so far as it had any permanent effect, only tended to strengthen that Empire at its weakest point, by its bearing upon the political movements of the day which led up to the formation of the Dominion of Canada.

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Categories: articles, Education, events, history, Maine, Maine oddities, New Brunswick, stories, Uncategorized, weird Maine news | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Maine’s Part in the Fenian War of 1866

  1. J Krone

    My Relative received a medal from the country of England for fighting on Campobello Island in the Fenian war.

  2. Pingback: Eastport Maine The Rendevous point of Fenians in the US - Rockwell Antiques Dallas

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