Alvah Richard couldn’t believe that fanatical Irish-American army was back. For the second time in four years, the self-proclaimed Irish Republican Army had come tramping through his Franklin, Vt., dairy farm.
They were intent on undertaking one of the most fantastical missions in military history—to hold Canada hostage and ransom it for Ireland’s independence.
On a May morning in 1870, Richard watched as Gen. John O’Neill rode at the head of the army. It marched with disciplined precision in columns of four past his two-story brick farmhouse just south of the international border with Canada.
The Irish-born O’Neill had spent his childhood at his grandfather’s knee listening to the tales of heroic ancestors who stood up and fought the English colonizers who had occupied Ireland since the 1100s. The young boy learned that the English had tried for 700 years to extinguish Ireland’s religion, culture and language. And when one million people died after the potato crop failed in the 1840s, some Irish believed the English were trying to exterminate them altogether.
O’Neill fled to the United States during the Great Hunger. He then joined approximately 200,000 Irish natives who fought on both sides of the Civil War.
Many Irish-Americans saw their military service as training for the real war they wanted to wage. They aimed to liberate their homeland from the British Empire’s shackles.
The Fenian Brotherhood Returns to Vermont
Radicalized by his boyhood experiences, O’Neill joined an Irish-American revolutionary organization known as the Fenian Brotherhood. It advocated striking the British Empire at its closest point—Canada. In 1866, O’Neill led an 800-man Irish-American army across the Niagara River. At the Battle of Ridgeway they scored the first Irish army victory over British Empire forces since 1745.
Before his forced retreat to the United States, O’Neill lined up his Canadian prisoners and shook their hands one by one. He promised that he would return to Canada once again.
If nothing else, O’Neill was a man of his word. Having assumed the presidency of the Fenian Brotherhood, he procured weapons and supplies. He then secretly stashed them in the countryside surrounding Richard’s farm. From there the Fenians had launched an attack on Quebec in the days following O’Neill’s triumph at Ridgeway. That incursion, however, fizzled. The Fenians returned to American soil with nothing more than a British flag swiped from a Canadian custom house.
He could have selected any route along the 4,000-mile border. But O’Neill chose the very same road through Richard’s farm to mount his latest attack on Canada on May 25, 1870. When the Fenian general asked the Vermont farmer if he could survey the battlefield from his north-facing bedroom, Richard refused. He didn’t want “them ruffians up in the best chamber puttin’ their dirty boots on Grandma’s handmade quilts,” he said.
Outside Richard’s farmhouse, O’Neill ordered his Irish-American army to attack. “For your own country you now enter that of the enemy,” he shouted. “The eyes of your countrymen are upon you. Forward, MARCH!”
The Irish-American Army Crosses the Canadian Border
O’Neill’s force, which included many men from the mill cities of New England, cheered as it charged past the iron post marking the border. A green silk battle flag waved in the breeze as 25-year-old Private John Rowe, sparked by adrenaline and Irish pride, sprinted to the front of the pack. As he approached the short wooden bridge spanning Chickabiddy Creek, a sharp crack reverberated around the dale. The soldier collapsed to his knees, his hands still clutching his rifle. The gunshot pierced an artery on the Fenian’s left arm and tore through his lungs, leaving him to suffocate in his own blood on the bridge.
Hiding behind bushes and in rifle pits concealed by time-scarred boulders atop Eccles Hill—which rose steeply on the west side of the road between Franklin and Frelighsburg, Quebec—approximately 50 Canadian militiamen and farmers rained down bullets upon the invaders.
The panicked Fenians scrambled for cover behind stone walls, outhouses and chicken coops. William O’Brien was shot dead. Others fell wounded while seeking shelter.
Richard grew furious as dozens of Fenians sought protection inside his farmhouse and stomped through his kitchen in their muddy boots. Unbeknownst to the house’s owner, O’Neill dashed up the stairs to survey the battlefield from an attic window.
The Richard farmhouse found itself pockmarked with bullets as Canadians took aim at O’Neill’s perch. When Richard heard a noise in his attic, the indignant farmer stormed up his stairs and forcibly evicted the Fenian general.
The frustrated O’Neill gathered those troops within shouting distance in a protected area behind Richard’s house and castigated his men in green for their timidity.
“Men of Ireland, I am ashamed of you! You have acted disgracefully today; but you will have another chance of showing whether you are cravens or not. Comrades, we must not, we dare not go back with the stain of cowardice on us. Comrades, I will lead you again, and if you will not follow me, I will go with my officers and die in your front!”
John O’Neill’s Ignominious Ending
O’Neill would never get the chance to sacrifice himself for Ireland, however. Moments later a U.S. marshal suddenly appeared at his side. The marshal declared that he was under arrest by order of President Ulysses S. Grant. Thrown into the backseat of a waiting carriage, O’Neill was whisked away from the battlefield. The marshal kept his hand close to O’Neill’s mouth to prevent any shouts for assistance, but the cocked Colt revolver pressed against the general’s temple proved the more effective silencer.
Although outnumbered nearly six to one, the Canadians atop Eccles Hill had the advantage of a nearly impregnable position. Thousands of years earlier, the retreating glaciers had sculpted the perfect fortress. “Behind which twenty men could have defied a thousand,” one newspaperman reported.
Given the arrest of their commander and the increasing desertion of soldiers, Fenian officers were left with no choice. They had to abandon their attack and hold their position until they could escape under the cover of darkness.
Once the Canadians began a counterattack, however, the demoralized Fenians fled into the woods back to their camp. In their haste to escape, they tossed their ammunition pouches and knapsacks to the side of the road in order to lighten their loads. One soldier whipped off his green jacket and turned it inside out because he felt betrayed by the Fenian leaders.
‘I Ran Away’
“It’s all up; and damn the men that got us up here,” the retreating soldier told a Burlington Free Press reporter.
“I come from Massachusetts. They told us it’d be a glorious business, and a good job, and all that; and then got us into Canada and sent us down there to be shot at for two hours,” he said. “I’ve got enough of this Fenian business; and I’m going home.”
This latest in the series of Fenian Raids ended with two Irish-Americans dead and nine injured. For their part, the Canadians suffered not a single casualty. After the Irish-American army departed the battleground, curiosity seekers harvested Richard’s farm for souvenirs such as bayonets, swords, powder horns, belts, water bottles and coat jacket buttons emblazoned with the initials “I.R.A.” Newspapers now joked it stood for “I Ran Away.”
O’Neill, meanwhile, stewed in a jail cell in Burlington, Vt. “I never was in a battle before that I was so utterly ashamed of,” he confided to a Rutland Herald reporter. Anyone who thought that the utter humiliation of the Battle of Eccles Hill would dissuade O’Neill from ever attempting to attack Canada again, however, would eventually be proven wrong.
About the author: Christopher Klein is the author of When the Irish Invaded Canada: The Incredible True Story of the Civil War Veterans Who Fought for Ireland’s Freedom. The book about the Irish-American army was published by Doubleday in March 2019 and can be found here. Christopher’s upcoming speaking dates around New England can be found here.
Images: Battle of Ridgeway By The Sage, Sons & Co. Lithographer – Library and Archives Canada, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=68164955. This story was updated in 2021.