Cavan Callaghan, the hero of my recent release from Highland Press, Coming Home, is a veteran of the Irish Brigade who fought bravely at Antietam. I’ve always found the Irish Brigade fascinating because it was comprised of immigrants who fought for a country that offered them refuge from famine and tyranny. There’s too much history to put it all into one blog post, so I’ve pulled together some fun facts about the Irish Brigade.
Over 150,000 Irishmen fought in the American Civil War (1861-1865), accounting for one in sixteen of the combatants.
The famous phrase “War is Hell” is attributed to the Cavan-born American Civil War General Phil Sheridan.
One of the oddest military escapades in history took place in 1866 when Irish Fenians, veterans of the U.S. Civil War, invaded Canada with the intention of holding the entire country (all four million square miles of it) hostage to exchange for the freedom of Ireland.
The Irish Brigade never lost a flag in battle. One motto of the Brigade is “47 times to the line of battle and never a flag to lose”. Losing the unit flag was a major disgrace in that era
At Fredricksburg, the heroic charge of the Irish Brigade so impressed Confederate General George Pickett that he wrote home, “Why, my darling, we forgot they were fighting us, and cheer after cheer at their fearlessness went up all along our lines.”
The idea of an Irish Brigade was not a new one. Irish units fought under many foreign flags, including that of Spain and Mexico.
From Coming Home:
“Tell me about the battle.”
A cold shudder shot through him, and all of a sudden he was back on that battlefield, guns pounding, horses and men screaming, his friends and comrades falling all around him. But what had really terrified him was knowing that somewhere on that battlefield, his little brother was alone and unprotected…
…”The battle was total confusion.” He squeezed his eyes shut and concentrated on Ashleen’s nearness in an effort to tell the story without breaking down. “It was hot — so hot — and humid, though it was already September.” He paused, the poignant memory knifing through him. “At home, the leaves would have started to turn, and frost would have been dusting the fields.”
And the stench of death had been in the air. So different from the smells of crisp northern breezes and freshly baled hay he’d been used to.
“We came up to the top of the ridge. We were to pause at the crest of the hill and fire two volleys, then rush the Rebs with bayonets. They were waiting for us – troops from North Carolina. There was a huge sound, like a thunderclap. Gunfire. Lots of it.”
No, it’s not a belated St. Patrick’s Day parade, or even a ceilidh given by a local branch of the Irish Society. The Fenian invasion of Canada actually happened, and it was one factor that contributed to the Confederation of Canada in 1867.
The famine of the min-Nineteenth Century decimated the population of Ireland. Many fled to America, where anti-English sentiments (and Fenian beliefs) ran high. The Fenians believed that English might be turned away from Ireland if one of their colonies was threatened. So, in 1865, they threatened to invade Canada, then known as “British North America.” The threats were taken seriously on both sides of the border, where troops were massed and ready for action.
In April of 1866, a group of Fenians gathered at Campobello Island, New Brunswick, but withdrew in the face of the Canadian Militia, British warships, and American authorities. A month later, about 800 Fenians crossed the Niagara River into Canada, occupying Fort Erie and cutting telegraph lines. The Buffalo and Lake Huron railroads were also severed before the Fenians proceeded inland. Again, the Canadian Militia countered the attack.
In June, the Fenians drove the Canadians back at Ridgeway, Ontario, and suffered many casualties. At Fort Erie, they took on another Canadian Militia and forced them back. The main Canadian forces entered Fort Erie, but the Fenians had already escaped back across the border to the U.S., where they were given a hero’s welcome. Later that same month, about 1000 Fenians crossed the Canadian border and occupied Pigeon Hill in Missisquoi County, Quebec. They plundered St. Armand and Frelighsburg, but retreated to the U.S. when the American authorities seized their supplies at St. Alban’s.
Thus ended the Fenian invasion of Canada.
Although the raids failed to end British rule in North America or Ireland, they did have serious historical consequences. Canadian nationalism was promoted by the raids, and the fear of American invasion united Upper and Lower Canada in common defense. A few months later, the the provinces came together under the British North America Act of 1867 (also known as Canadian Confederation).
In my new Irish-set historical romance novel, Coming Home, the Fenian invasion plays a minor part in my hero, Cavan Callaghan’s effort to convince his friend that another Irish war with the British will not succeed. It’s a minor plot point, but I think it makes the story that much more relevant.
Of course Cavan had heard of the Fenians, a loosely organized group of Irishmen dedicated to freeing Ireland from British rule.There’d been plenty of Irishmen in New York who’d spouted such ideas. They’d even attempted to invade Canada, planning to hold the country in ransom for Ireland’s freedom, but had been thwarted by the union of Upper and Lower Canada just this year.
Was Brian McDevitt a Fenian?
The union of Upper and Lower Canada may have destroyed that country’s usefulness as “ransom,” but the cause of Irish freedom lived on.
Buy Coming Home at Amazon
Buy Coming Home at Barnes & Noble