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November 1 1812: The "Fenians" of 1812


On November 1, 1812, a British major takes a survey  of  the prisoners of war held in the Montreal jail. These prisoners had been captured fighting on the American side. The British major finds that almost all of the prisoners are Irish. The historian Alan Taylor writes:
On November 1, 1812, at the Montreal jail, a British major compiled a list of thirty-nine suspects captured in the American service. Almost all (thirty-two of thirty-nine) confessed to be Irish or were “supposed to be Irish.” The seven exceptions came from England (three), Canada (two), Wales (one), and the Isle of Man (one). The Irish prominence was no surprise, given that most American immigrants came from Ireland. And, unlike the English and the Scots in America, the Irish were eager to fight for the republic and against the empire. In addition, their strong accents and distinctive manners rendered them marked men. Barclay noted, “It may occur that an American may be mistaken for an Englishman and vice versa; but Scotch and Irish features and dialect are too obvious ever to be mistaken".
Earlier, Taylor puts the prominence of Irish-Americans in the war in context writing:
Irish-Americans welcomed the war as a chance to smite the British. Recalling the United Irish martyrs of 1798, a New York immigrant exhorted, “Erin, avenge your murdered sons.” In mid-June 1812, on the eve of war, the Royal Navy seized and impressed thirty Irish immigrants from an American merchant ship, the Alexander. By taking them when within sight of their land of liberty, the navy reiterated the British position that the migrants remained the king’s subjects. New York City’s Irish-American newspaper, the Shamrock, erupted: “Merciful God! When will the thirst of Britain for slavery and blood be quenched, or is it insatiable? Shall a day of retribution ever arrive?” Thrilled by the declaration of war, Irish-Americans predicted that the liberation of Canada would send shock waves through the British empire, producing a republican revolution to liberate Ireland. The Shamrock insisted, “Ireland will be rescued from British bondage on the plains of CANADA.” On July 4, Irishmen in Philadelphia offered this toast: “May the Canadian Beaver, soon liberated by the warlike genius of the Republican Eagle, prove the precursor of freedom, to the chained wolf dog of Ireland.” Irish-American editors and politicians promoted enlistment in the American army, navy, and privateers. Ned Myers recalled serving with an Irish-born boatswain: “His religion was to hate an Englishman.” As in other American wars, the military relied heavily on immigrant recruits, which in 1812 meant the Irish. 
Notes

Alan Taylor in Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, & Indian Allies (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2010), pages 350, 356-357

The illustration above is of The Battle of Ridgeway fought near Fort Erie, across the Niagara River from Buffalo, New York, on June 2, 1866. The battle was between British and Irish-American irregular troops, known as the Fenians. The term Fenian was not in use in 1812 but was adopted later in the century. The continued attacks during the nineteenth century by Irish-Americans on the British colonies of North America were a major impetus behind  Canadian confederation in 1867. The title of this post and illustration is anachronistic which is a charge that applies to all history and which accounts for its value.

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