Saturday, August 16, 2008

Witnesses to an Invasion

Fenians
J.J. Hill came north by stagecoach…While at the border [by Pembina and St. Vincent]:

…another dramatic episode of Canadian-American history was about to unfold before his eyes. In the late 1860s the idea of annexing western Canada had thrilled such earnest men as James W. Taylor, pioneer publicist of the upper Midwest; Oscar Malmros, American consul at Fort Garry; and even Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts – as well as Midwestern demagogues like Alexander Ramsey and Ignatius Donnelly. By 1871 such sentiment had all but died out, and only the Irish-American Fenians, who were more interested in twisting the British lion’s tail than securing the blessings of United States citizenship or Manitoban, still sought to stir up trouble. Hill wrote about the unedifying events which he saw unfold at Pembina, on the international boundary, beginning on October 5:

This A.M. at 7 o’clock a band of thirty Fenians under Gen’ls Jas. O’Neill, Curly Donnelly & O’Donahue composed of about twenty of the hardest looking roughs and ten Pembina loafers made an attack on the H[udson’s] B[ay] Post at Pembina which was occupied by one of the H.G. Co. officers and his clerk and captured it without resistance being offered. They at once set about clothing their half naked squad of roughs and loading up a wagon with provisions. Either the plunder had too much attraction for them or they thought they could rest on their freshly gained laurels for they remained in the Post until 11 o’clock A.m. when they were surprised by Col. Wheaton with 23 men from Fort Pembina coming down the road in an army ambulance and a few Mule Wagons…In about twenty minutes he [Wheaton] returned with Gen’ls O’Neill, Donnelly and Curley in the ambulance and about ten men on foot…O’Donahue made good his escape…

I was a close eye witness of the whole affair and I never saw a more ridiculous scattering or silly farce. It certainly looked as if the leaders would have been very much disappointed if they had not been kindly taken charge of by the U.S. Troops and in that way kept out of harms way…O’Donahue got hungry or dry and went into a half-breed’s house and was then taken prisoner by the breeds, but not until he had made them pledge that they would not deliver him to any but the United States authorities [would he lay down his pistol].

Fenian trial continued all day [Oct. 10] and was a contemptible farce and a burlesque as…Stutsman & Potter [defense counsel] simply bullied both the court and Col. Wheaton. Prisoners were acquitted on ground of want of jurisdiction by court as the arrests were made on what has theretofore been known as British soil…
Another eyewitness to this event...
The best account of what happened was given by courier George W. Webster, who was carrying dispatches to St. Paul for Archibald. On the eve of the raid he stopped at Pembina and called on Captain Wheaton, the American officer in command of the frontier fort at Pembina. Wheaton had no information on Fenian activities. Webster then spent the night at the residence of A.B. Douglas, the Canadian customs officer. At seven the next morning O’Neill seized the Customs House. Douglas, Webster and the clerk were arrested and marched to the Fenian command post about half a mile over the U.S. frontier. Webster wrote that there was a…

Fenian force of about thirty men with General O’Neill and Colonel Curley and Donnelly and O’Donoghue – they were armed with Springfield rifles converted to breech loaders (George Allin/Allen), none of them wore uniforms. About nine o’clock the Fenians had at least twenty prisoners as they stopped all those who were not connected with them. One of the prisoners was an American citizen and as he demanded his liberation on that ground O’Donoghue was afraid to detain him… Mr. Douglas and I had previously instructed him what to do, and as soon as he got out of rifle shot of the Fenians he ran all the way to the U.S. military post and informed Captain Wheaton of the circumstances.

Wheaton was determined to put an end to the mischief before it got out of hand. He put thirty men in two wagons and came down at the gallop. Just short of the Customs House he halted the wagons and his men moved in, in skirmishing order. Douglas and Webster were rescued and were able to watch the end of the operation through a telescope from the upper windows of the Customs House…

…The release of the Fenians by American authorities was a cause of some anxiety. In his address of 13 October Archibald thought it useful to remark, “The raid for the moment is over. If renewed it will not be renewed immediately. If the Fenians were man activated by ordinary reason, it would never be renewed. But they are not.”

Archibald did not understand that all the Fenians were interested in was taking home some fragments of glory, to add to Irish folklore. The declared aims of the raids were a pretext for battle. After Pembina it was clear that no “fragments” were to be had, and there were no more raids.