The Rising of the Moon – A Novel of the Fenian Invasion of Canada
Peter Berresford Ellis
St. Martin's Press, 1987, 628 pp.
The Fenian plan was to capture Canada and trade it back to England in exchange for Irish independence. Today the story of the Fenian invasion of Canada is all but forgotten and is only mentioned occasionally in accounts of the dispute between the U.S. and British governments known as the "Alabama affair" and in accounts of Canada's rise to nationhood in 1867, two events whose outcomes were greatly influenced by the Fenian invasion.
The book is about Gavin and John-Joe Devlin, brothers who had come to America from Ireland with their parents as young children. Their father was a medical doctor who had built a successful and profitable medical practice in New York City. Gavin was an officer in the New York 69th – the Irish Brigade – which fought valiantly in the Civil War. John-Joe joined the army as a lieutenant just before the war ended. Gavin considered himself an American and saw his future here while his brother still considered himself Irish and had thrown himself into the Irish independence movement before joining the Army.
While Gavin seeks a normal life, events around him detour him into the fight for Irish independence before he finally meets the right woman and is able to achieve his dreams. John-Joe, the true believer, throws himself into the Irish independence movement but the reality of power politics and the love of a woman change the direction of his life and when he and Gavin find themselves reunited on the battlefield in Canada they find that the differences between them have vanished.
Following his discharge from the Union Army, Gavin prepares to join the law firm of his fiancee's father but runs into problems when he takes on the case of the widow of a former sergeant in the 69th who had lost his legs during the battle of Cold Harbor. The sergeant was run over and killed by a wagon being driven recklessly by an employee of New York's Senator Delancey. In taking on the rich and powerful Delancey and his son Brock, Gavin not only ends up losing his fiancee and the position with her father's firm, but is also forced to flee New York City.
While John-Joe goes off to join an unsuccessful uprising in Ireland, Gavin is slowly drawn into the Fenian movement and, with many other Irish American Civil War veterans, both Union and Confederate, joins the Fenian army. Many Irish fought in the Civil War on both sides and this gave the Fenians a large pool of experienced soldiers from which to recruit. The demobilization included material as well as men and the market was flooded with arms and ammunition that included artillery and naval gunboats as well as rifles. By the end of the Civil War the Irish were well established in the United States and many non-Irish Americans sympathized with the idea of Irish independence.
Readers of this book will see strong parallels between recent events such as the Iran Contra affair, the easy access to military weapons as a result of the end of the Cold War and the present War on Terror. In a plan similar to Iran Contra, the "Alabama Affair" was the result of the British government secretly reimbursing wealthy citizens for the expenses of building gunboats, the most famous of which was named the "Alabama", for the Confederate side during the U.S. Civil War. This allowed the British government to remain officially neutral while, at the same time, actively assisting the South in winning the war. Similarly, President Bush, in the present War on Terror, clearly recognizes that whatever the goals and motivations of the terrorists, they are merely pawns of foreign governments. Remove the support of their foreign sponsors and the power and threat of the terrorists all but evaporates. The U.S. knew that the British government had sided with the South and had provided the gunboats to the South but we were not prepared to go to war over this issue.
So, Presidents Lincoln and his successor Andrew Johnson encouraged the Fenians. In the book, as in history, leaders of the Fenian movement, both civilian and military, were prominent Irish Americans with strong political and military connections in Washington and these connections were used by both the Fenian leadership and the U.S. government to coordinate the Fenian activity. As with the British government and the gunboats, certain very sensitive matters were understood but not discussed, leaving President Johnson and the U.S. government with a "plausible deniability" defense. The British government knew what was going on, but like the U.S., did not consider it worth increasing its forces in Canada, let alone going to war with the U.S.
Unlike today's terrorists, who disguise themselves as civilians and specialize in murdering civilian men, women and children, the Fenians who invaded Canada in 1866 were a disciplined army with a flag and uniform that clearly told who the were. They treated civilians as non-combatants and confined their fighting to engagements with Canadian militia and British Army regulars on the field of battle. But they were not a sovereign state and were only successful while they had the support of their patron, the U.S. government.
However, the short range goal of President Johnson and the U.S. government and the long range goal of the Fenians were not the same. In the book, President Johnson meets with the British ambassador in the White House and cynically reminds the ambassador that the Fenians, like other American citizens, are free to own weapons and free to express their political views. But, at the same time, he orders the naval gunboat, the USS Michigan, to take up a position in the Niagara River by Buffalo and sends Lieutenant General U.S. Grant to Buffalo to monitor the situation for him.
Grant not only has Federal troops at his disposal in Buffalo but also the New York National Guard on standby. All is well as 5,000 Fenian troops, showing no hostilities to the U.S., board their barges and row to the Canadian side of the river as the sailors on the deck of the USS Michigan cheer them on. Following the initial Fenian victory against the poorly equipped Canadian militia, and realizing the time it will take for the British to send sufficient forces from England, the British ambassador returns to the White House and proposes a settlement for the Alabama Affair.
President Johnson accepts the British proposal and immediately telegraphs his military commanders to halt the Fenians. The Fenian forces in Detroit and Vermont are prevented from crossing into Canada as are reinforcements from Buffalo. The Fenian force already in Canada, which includes Gavin and John-Joe, now find themselves cut off. Their plans for linking up with the force coming from Detroit on the west while their comrades in Vermont join with Quebec separatists in a planned uprising which will block reinforcements from England is now forgotten.
Further, their link to Buffalo is now blocked preventing both reinforcements and and supplies from reaching them as well as cutting off their only avenue for retreat. Within hours of President Johnson and the British ambassador shaking hands on their deal, the Fenians in the vicinity of Fort Erie in Canada now find themselves reduced from a victorious army to an isolated band of foreign civilians surrounded on all sides. In Canada they are mere criminals who could be executed and, if they manage to escape to the U.S. they face arrest there as well (now that they were no longer needed by the U.S., they reverted back to the status of U.S. citizens committing an illegal act against a foreign state). Gavin, wounded and unconscious, is rescued and nursed back to health by a Canadian woman whom he met and fell in love with while on a pre-invasion espionage mission for the Fenians. Others are arrested and avoid execution or imprisonment because of pressure from Irish and Irish sympathizers in both the U.S. and Canada.
Readers will find this a great read. Like any good historical novel, the events and people are mostly true with the author creating a few fictional characters (Gavin, his brother, their family and girlfriends in this book) to give the facts the focus and theme needed to make it a good story.
This report prepared by Chuck Nugent