O’NEILL, JOHN, Fenian leader; b. 8 March 1834 at Drumgallon, County Monaghan, Ireland; d. 7 Jan. 1878 at Omaha, Nebraska, U.S.A.
John O’Neill went to New Jersey in 1848, and after a year of schooling additional to what he had received in Ireland worked at a variety of employments until 1857, when he enlisted in the 2nd United States Dragoons for the “Mormon War.” He seems to have deserted and gone to California, where he joined the 1st Cavalry and became a sergeant. He served with this regiment in the Civil War until commissioned in the 5th Indiana Cavalry in December 1862. He showed himself a daring fighting officer, but considered that he did not receive the promotion he merited, transferred to the 17th United States Colored Infantry in the rank of captain, and left the service before the war ended. His marriage to Mary Crow, by whom he had several children, took place about this time.
While working in Tennessee he joined the Fenian Brotherhood, adhering to the party led by William Randall Roberts*, which favoured attacking Canada. In 1866 as a Fenian colonel he led a group from Nashville to take part in the proposed invasion. The person intended to command the operation on the Niagara frontier did not appear and O’Neill took his place. Early on 1 June he led a force, which according to his own account numbered 600 men, across the Niagara River and occupied the village of Fort Erie. The next day he encountered north of Ridgeway a detached column of Canadian volunteers commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Alfred Booker consisting mainly of the Queen’s Own Rifles, of Toronto, and the 13th Battalion, of Hamilton. In a sharp little fight the Fenians (many of them, like O’Neill, certainly Civil War veterans) routed the inexperienced Canadians, who retreated on Port Colborne. O’Neill withdrew his own force to Fort Erie, where there was a sanguinary skirmish with a Canadian detachment, under John Stoughton Dennis*, which had been landed from a tug. That night, with superior British forces closing in, O’Neill successfully evacuated his men from Canada. Although arrested by an American gunboat which was patrolling the Niagara River, they were shortly released. O’Neill was charged with breaking the U.S. neutrality laws but the charge was dropped.
Ridgeway made O’Neill a Fenian hero. He had won the only success the Fenians ever achieved in their numerous enterprises against Canada. He had handled his force well, and it should be added that he had kept his men under strict control and that there was little looting or disorder. The episode shortly led to the Roberts party of the Fenian Brotherhood appointing him “inspector general of the Irish Republican Army.” He took Roberts’ place as president at the end of 1867. Negotiations for reunion of his branch of the brotherhood with that formerly headed by John O’Mahony and now led by John Savage failed, and O’Neill proceeded to collect funds and acquire and distribute arms for another Canadian adventure. These activities caused considerable alarm and much defensive preparation in Canada during 1868 and 1869. However, O’Neill’s organization had been penetrated by Canadian agents, and in particular one of his staff, Henri Le Caron (Thomas Beach*), was in the employ of Gilbert McMicken*, chief of the Canadian detective police. Early in 1870 O’Neill quarrelled with his “Senate,” losing much support. On 25 May, with those portions of the brotherhood still prepared to follow him, he attempted a raid at Eccles Hill on the border near Frelighsburg, Quebec. Ample warning had enabled the Canadian authorities to take precautions. The Fenian vanguard was fired on as soon as it crossed the border, and fled. O’Neill himself was arrested by a United States marshal. At the end of July he was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment, but with other Fenian prisoners was pardoned by President Ulysses S. Grant in October.
O’Neill renounced the idea of further movements against Canada, but was sought out by William Bernard O’Donoghue, a former member of the provisional government headed by Louis Riel* at Red River, and accepted his proposal for an attack on Manitoba. The official Fenian organization rejected the plan; nevertheless on 5 Oct. 1871 O’Neill, with a small number of supporters, seized the Hudson’s Bay Company post at Pembina, on ground then considered to be in dispute between Canada and the United States. He was at once arrested by U.S. troops, but was discharged by an American court on the ground that his offence had been committed in Canada. This was his last raid. Seven years later he died of a paralytic stroke while working for a firm of land speculators in Holt County, Nebraska.
It is hard to believe that O’Neill was a man of much intelligence, for the idea of righting Irish wrongs by attacking Canada, of which he was the most active exponent, was essentially stupid. He was egotistical and credulous. He seems however to have been a brave soldier and a sincere Irish patriot. Unlike many Fenian leaders, he was ready to risk life and liberty for the cause he believed in.
John O’Neill was the author of Address of Gen. John O’Neill . . . to the officers and members of the Fenian brotherhood, on the state of the organization, and its attempted disruption (New York, 1868); Message of Gen’l John O’Neill, president, F B., to the seventh national congress (Philadelphia, 1868); Official report of Gen. John O’Neill, president of the Fenian brotherhood; on the attempt to invade Canada, May 25th, 1870; the preparations therefor, and the cause of its failure, with a sketch of his connection with the organization, and the motives which led him to join it: also a report of the battle of Ridgeway, Canada West, fought June 2d, 1866 . . . (New York, 1870); and a letter in Irish American (New York), 28 Sept. 1867.
PAC, MG 26, A (Macdonald papers), 234–46. G. T. Denison III, History of the Fenian raid on Fort Erie; with an account of the battle of Ridgeway (Toronto, 1866). Irish American (New York), 19 Jan., 2 Feb. 1878. Henri Le Caron [T. M. Beach], Twenty-five years in the secret service (London, 1892). Gilbert McMicken, “The abortive Fenian raid on Manitoba,” HSSM Papers, no.32 (1887–88), 1–11. John Savage, Fenian heroes and martyrs (Boston, 1868). DAB.