Fenian Raids!

An article in the National Post today revisits a somewhat-forgotten chapter in Canadian history: the Fenian raids of the 1860s and 70s. These were conducted by the Fenian Brotherhood, a group of American-based Irish republicans who attacked Canada (at the time either a British colony or a dominion of the British empire) in the hopes that they could exchange it for Irish independence. (The title, as many commenters point out, is silly. Just because Osama bin Laden was a Saudi citizen does not mean that Saudi Arabia attacked the United States on 9/11.)

Ireland likes to brag that they’ve never invaded anyone. Too bad they invaded Canada

In 2015, Ireland’s justice minister Frances Fitzgerald attended a Dublin citizenship ceremony and proudly told 73 people that they were now citizens of a country that didn’t invade things.

“Ireland has never invaded any other land, never sought to enslave or occupy,” she told the crowd of newly-minted Irish.

It’s a uniquely Irish boast. On a continent jam-packed with invaders, the Emerald Isle is known to count itself as one of the few that has resisted the urge to charge onto foreign soil and plant a flag or two.

Too bad it’s not true.

Go back 150 years to the frontiers of Canada, and you’ll find no shortage of armed, rowdy, top-hatted militants who would beg to differ that they weren’t an invading army of Irishmen.

“Canada … would serve as an excellent base of operations against the enemy; and its acquisition did not seem too great an undertaking,” wrote Irish nationalist John O’Neill, an architect of what are now known as the Fenian Raids.

The plan was simple: Take a bunch of Irish veterans of the American Civil War, take over Canada and then tell Queen Victoria she could have it back in exchange for an independent Ireland.

That, or the whole thing would just be a good chance to shoot up some relatively undefended British land.

The wildly optimistic planners of the scheme figured they would only need about two weeks to take over Kingston, Toronto and the other major centers of what is now Southern Ontario.

From there, they would commandeer some ships, slap together a navy, sail up the St. Lawrence and demand the surrender of Quebec. Then, once the Atlantic Coast was swarming with Irish privateers, the English would have to deal.

The invasion’s organizers, the Fenian Brotherhood, even began funding the effort by selling bonds that would be promptly repaid by a future Irish Republic.

But like most rebellions throughout Irish history, the “invade Canada” scheme was big on romance but very deficient in strategic planning.

Although the Fenian Brotherhood had envisioned vast columns of battle-hardened Irish-Americans streaming into Canada, their peak showing was only about 1000. Of those, many forgot to bring guns, and many more deserted as soon as they hit Canadian soil.

All told, Fenian conquests added up little more than brief occupations of a customs house, some hills, a few villages and Fort Erie.

More at the link, and at Wikipedia.


Crusade historian Christopher Tyerman once wrote that:

The Templars occupy a prominent place in the pantheon of Alternative History of the ‘what they have tried to conceal from us’ genre, championed by obsessive, swivel-eyed anoraks and conspiracy theorists allied to cool money sharks bent on the commercial exploitation of public credulity.

Now I wouldn’t put it quite that way, but it’s true: like the Bermuda Triangle, the lost continent of Atlantis, and the Nazca Lines, the Templars do tend to attract a good deal of Speculation. The Templars, or more formally “The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon,” were founded as a religious order in 1119 in the Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem. Like the crusading movement itself, they represented “a fusion of Christian and military practice” – that is, the members took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, but instead of praying eight times a day and copying out manuscripts like monks, they practiced horsemanship, guarded pilgrims to the Holy Land, and fought Muslims as they needed to, like knights. (This is definitely a novelty – prior to the late eleventh century the Church did not like knighthood much, but after numerous unsuccessful attempts at regulating it, the Church threw in the towel, and gave it their blessing – but only if the knights exercised their craft far from Europe, and against non-Christians. Thus were they allowed to organize themselves into religious orders.) What attracts everyone’s attention is the Templars’ sordid end: in 1312, King Philip IV of France accused them of heresy, tortured confessions out of the leadership, and prevailed on Pope Clement V to dissolve the order, after which many of them were burned at the stake. But some of the Templars, it is alleged, escaped and “went underground,” later to emerge as the Freemasons. Some of them even sailed to the New World before Columbus, which is why the fifteenth-century Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland, built by supposed crypto-Templar William Sinclair, features carvings of new world corn. One author claims they buried treasure in the Oak Island Money Pit off Nova Scotia. A student of mine once lent me a book suggesting that the Shroud of Turin actually depicts an image, not of Jesus, but of the martyred Templar Grand Master Jacques de Molay. A character in Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code asserts that the Templars, while in the Holy Land, had uncovered evidence that the Papacy was a con job, and that the leadership of the true Church belonged to the descendants of Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene – which is why the Pope was so keen to eradicate them.

And so on.

I tell my students that history is interesting enough without concocting such theories. The real history of the Templars touches on several late-medieval themes – among them the rising power of the king of France (at the expense of the papacy), and the desire to find a scapegoat for the loss of the Holy Land (Acre, the last Christian stronghold there, had fallen in 1291). But what it touches on the most is the money one could make as a result of the medieval commercial revolution – and the envy this provoked in others. The Templars were not just active in the Holy Land – they had chapters throughout Western Christendom (their churches were usually round, and you can visit one in London). Templars got into long-distance banking – and made a fortune, so much so that their formal title of “Poor Knights,” and their seal showing two knights riding a single horse, became ironic.



A BBC article, which my friend Chris Berard points me to, explores this history in greater detail. Author Tim Harford claims that they “invented modern banking.”

The Templars dedicated themselves to the defence of Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem. The city had been captured by the first crusade in 1099 and pilgrims began to stream in, travelling thousands of miles across Europe.

Those pilgrims needed to somehow fund months of food and transport and accommodation, yet avoid carrying huge sums of cash around, because that would have made them a target for robbers.

Fortunately, the Templars had that covered. A pilgrim could leave his cash at Temple Church in London, and withdraw it in Jerusalem. Instead of carrying money, he would carry a letter of credit. The Knights Templar were the Western Union of the crusades.

We don’t actually know how the Templars made this system work and protected themselves against fraud. Was there a secret code verifying the document and the traveller’s identity?

They did more than this, however:

Templars were much closer to a private bank – albeit one owned by the Pope, allied to kings and princes across Europe, and run by a partnership of monks sworn to poverty.

The Knights Templar did much more than transferring money across long distances.

As William Goetzmann describes in his book Money Changes Everything, they provided a range of recognisably modern financial services.

If you wanted to buy a nice island off the west coast of France – as King Henry III of England did in the 1200s with the island of Oleron, north-west of Bordeaux – the Templars could broker the deal.

Henry III paid £200 a year for five years to the Temple in London, then when his men took possession of the island, the Templars made sure that the seller got paid.

And in the 1200s, the Crown Jewels were kept at the Temple as security on a loan, the Templars operating as a very high-end pawn broker.

Harford goes on to say that Philip IV owed money to the Templars, and didn’t like how they operated beyond his control, and so contrived to dissolve them. But I can’t help but think there was even more at stake here. Lester Little’s Religious Poverty and the Profit Economy in Medieval Europe (1983) talks about how money made people very anxious in the Middle Ages, especially the “money from nothing” that one could get from currency exchange, lending at interest, or taking advantage of scarcity to sell at a premium. Charging more money than the “just price” for something was uncharitable and un-Christian, and if you made any extra-normal profits at all the only way to expiate your sin would be to give it all to the Church. (This helps to explain all those elaborate late medieval “wool churches” in East Anglia, and it also helps to explain the increased anti-Semitism of the High Middle Ages – Jews were increasingly shut out of various professions, leaving them in the role of the hated money lender.) It’s true that the Templars were themselves a church organization, but I suspect that just made it worse.

As unfair as their end was, however, it happened. “Templar” groups today are somewhat disreputable – at least, they have no institutional continuity with their medieval namesake. If you’re interested in joining a crusading order, try the Hospitallers, the Templars’ main rivals in the Middle Ages, who do enjoy continuity and who are thus much classier.

Kennesaw Mountain


Some more local tourism: Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park, between Kennesaw and Marietta, north of Atlanta, which we visited yesterday. The park is almost 3000 acres in size and contains a very popular set of hiking trails. Its historic significance is that it was the site of a Civil War battle in June and July of 1864, part of the Atlanta Campaign, when Union troops under William T. Sherman fought against Confederate soldiers under Joseph E. Johnston along a broad front that included the twin peaks of Kennesaw Mountain (Big Kennesaw and Little Kennesaw, pictured), plus Pigeon Hill, Cheatham Hill, and Kolb’s Farm.


Kennesaw Mountain, scanned from a postcard purchased at the Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield gift shop.

Scan 1

From a postcard purchased at the gift shop: “Union troops attacked the entrenched Confederates on June 27, 1864. This painting by artist Thure de Thulstrup hangs in the park visitor center.”

The Battle of Rocky Face Ridge, south of Chattanooga, starting on May 7, 1864, marked the opening engagement of the Atlanta Campaign. A series of flanking maneuvers on the part of Sherman and Maj. General James McPherson compelled Johnston to retreat southwards numerous times. By late June, however, the Confederates were too well entrenched across too wide a front, necessitating a frontal assault by Sherman. On June 27, Sherman ordered his troops to attack the Confederate positions on Kennesaw Mountain; the Confederates responded fiercely, inflicting some 3000 casualties and successfully defending the mountain. Some of them were induced to retreat, however, which allowed Sherman to return to his successful earlier strategy of outflanking his opponent. So the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain represented a tactical victory for the CSA, but one that did not halt the Union’s advance on Atlanta (which fell on September 2, 1864), nor Sherman’s March to the Sea (November-December 1864).

Some photographs: on the way up Kennesaw Mountain, one sees the remains of trenches that the Confederates dug.


Atop the mountain, a replica cannon.


And in the gift shop, some Confederate memorabilia, including Polk’s flag, Hardee’s flag, the Bonnie Blue Flag, and the original Stars and Bars. No Battle Flags, though, of any type! (Both Lieutenant Generals Leonidas Polk and William Hardee were participants in the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain.)


By the way, the double-headed Kennesaw Mountain serves as the logo for Kennesaw State University, now the third largest in the state.


And as of May this year, the lighted Skip Spann Connector bridge over I-75 mimics the double mountain (although this is not the best photo of it):



Via the most recent Reinhardt Recap, notice of an article by Funk Heritage Center Director Joseph Kitchens, in SaportaReport:

“Remember Goliad:” Georgians in a desperate land
By Joseph H. Kitchens

We ascended the monument aboard an elevator that was still new when Franklin Roosevelt was elected president for the third time, in 1940. The door opened upon a panorama that included the battleship Texas, looking no bigger than a canoe from our vantage point 567 feet above it. During our descent, and much to Karen’s surprise, I suggested we visit Goliad, a small town more than 150 miles to the southwest in the flat prairies of the cattle kingdom along the lower San Antonio River. I explained to her that it was where the “Georgia Battalion” had fought in the Texas Revolution. I overcame her slight reluctance by promising a stopover on Galveston Island to feel the gulf breezes and walk in the surf.

Last summer, Jamil Zainaldin wrote a column, “Our shared story — are those things that make us New Englanders or southerners more connected than we may think?,” that triggered a “memory debate” between my wife, Karen, and me. It centered on the question of when our visit to the remote town of Goliad in south Texas occurred. It was 2012, we decided. Karen’s brother was ill, and we drove that interminable stretch of I-10 across the Louisiana bayous to Houston to see him in high summer. Towering over the busy port and its oil refineries is the San Jacinto Monument, a tribute to the revolutionaries who created the Republic of Texas in 1836 and to their enigmatic commander, Sam Houston. The Mexican army was defeated when Houston’s own raw and restless men acted without orders and attacked. Their cry was “Remember the Alamo; remember Goliad.”

We spent the next night in Victoria, a bustling little city with a shopping center and the usual fast food restaurants. We left for Goliad Sunday morning and found it a sleepy town of 2,000, looking unchanged for the past 75 years. Church parking lots were filled with cars, and businesses were closed for the Sabbath. Leaving Galveston behind the next morning, we were met by a wall of fierce heat and drought — the driest summer in anyone’s memory. The grazing was meager, and white-faced steers were being shipped out to market, far short of their usual weight. Newspaper reports told of horses and cattle being put down because feed and water were both expensive and scarce. We were in search of history in a desperate land.

Signs directed us out to Presidio La Bahia, a fort built by the Spanish in the 18th century, a lonely sentinel guarding the Spanish frontier from the Rio Grande to the Mississippi. Here, volunteers, including about 30 Georgians, gathered under the command of Georgian James Walker Fannin Jr., a West Point dropout turned slave trader (and the namesake of Fannin County). Hopelessly posted to stop an enormous Mexican army, they waited on reinforcements from the Alamo that never came. When the Alamo fell, General Sam Houston ordered Fannin to move his forces north to Victoria.

A few escaped to tell the story,  but more than 200 men were killed. A great cry of angry revulsion swept across the plains and bayous back to the United States and beyond. Santa Anna’s reputation as a pompous, petty tyrant was transformed into that of a cruel monster, and support for Texas and its revolutionaries swelled. Independence was won when Santa Anna was defeated and captured at San Jacinto. Fannin hesitated for days, then began a withdrawal across open ground toward Coleto Creek and its covering trees. His little army was overtaken by an overwhelming Mexican army, and after a brief but determined resistance, Fannin surrendered. The able and wounded were taken back to the Presidio La Bahia under promise of fair treatment, expecting to be paroled at New Orleans. Instead, they were marched out the next morning and shot by General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna’s troops. Fannin was accorded an officer’s death, shot as he was seated in a chair in the courtyard.

We ended our visit to Goliad and La Bahia by walking the steps up to the great monument erected near the site of Fannin’s defeat at Coleto Creek. It bears the names of those who died nearby. Far away from the famous Alamo, the much less visited La Bahia stands, restored by a generous benefactor. It includes the beautiful original Spanish chapel where Fannin’s men spent their last night in this world. It is still used by the local Catholic congregation. In a great show of pride, Texans celebrated their centennial in 1936, erecting monuments and markers and organizing reenactments. Georgia had given weapons to the “cause of ’36” and never sought repayment, the story goes. The Texas governor offered to ask the Texas legislature to appropriate money for that purpose, but was told instead to honor the dead, including the Georgia volunteers. A monument was erected at Goliad bearing the names of the Georgians and their fellow volunteers.

Fort Gaines, Alabama

One more set of summer-trip postcards, from Fort Gaines, Dauphin Island, Alabama. As it says on the sign, Fort Gaines was established during the presidency of James Monroe to guard the entrance to Mobile Bay. (Two miles across the bay, at the tip of Mobile Point, lies Fort Morgan, which was built in the 1830s. We did not get to visit that fort, however.)


Fort Gaines was taken over by the Confederacy, and regained by the United States after the Battle of Mobile Bay in August 1864. This is the engagement when Admiral Farragut gave his famous order: “Damn the torpedoes – full speed ahead!” (or words to that effect – contemporary sources differ on the phrasing). This was a risky but ultimately effective tactic of running the Confederate minefield and then sinking the Confederate ships in Mobile Bay. Forts Morgan and Gaines surrendered to the US shortly thereafter. The anchor from the USS Hartford, Farragut’s ship, is on display in the courtyard of Fort Gaines.


The fort was modified in 1898 as a result of the Spanish-American war, and decommissioned in 1926, at which time it was sold to the City of Mobile. During World War II it housed a unit of the Alabama National Guard. At some point the fort was deeded to the Dauphin Island Park and Beach Board, which act as its current caretakers. It is not currently in the best of repair but we kind of liked that – it was fun to explore all its nooks and crannies. Every time a hurricane comes through it gets damaged a little more, and erosion from seawater is eating away at its foundations. Apparently it’s on a list of endangered historic places so you should see it while you can, or give money to save it before it’s too late.

gaines2You can go on an interesting self-guided walking tour and see the cannons, magazine, fort museum, kitchen, twelve-seater latrine, barracks and, best of all, the working blacksmith forge and blacksmith Ralph Oalmann who explains his craft as he exercises it.


Like the iron maiden, the flail is an invention of a later time, or so says the Public Medievalist:

The Curious Case of the Weapon that Didn’t Exist

Just about everybody interested in the Middle Ages, who has played Dungeons and Dragons, or read historical and fantasy novels knows what a military flail is. It’s one of these:

A military flail is a medieval weapon consisting of a short handle attached to a chain, at the end of which is a metal ball. This is not to be confused with a two-handed variant, often also called a flail, which derives from the threshing implement of the same name. Varieties of the one-handed version have multiple chains or spiked heads. They have appeared in a range of medieval movies and books, and they are held in the collections of museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Only problem is: they never existed.

Despite the weapon’s popularity in pop cultural depictions of the Middle Ages, the flail was almost certainly an invention of the imaginations of later people.

More at the link, including commentary from Kelly DeVries.

Caroline Affair

Reading Robert Bothwell’s Your Country, My Country, I was interested to learn about the Republic of Canada and the SS Caroline, historical details that had previously escaped me. In 1837, Upper Canada (that is, present-day Ontario) was rocked by a rebellion, led by William Lyon Mackenzie and directed against the so-called Family Compact that ran the place. Upper Canada had been set up in conservative reaction to the United States, and so had an established church and a government that was not actually responsible to its people. One did not need to be American to object to this situation, thus Mackenzie’s rebellion; it was unsuccessful, but an inquiry by Lord Durham recommended certain changes to the political situation to forestall future incidents, among them the union of Upper and Lower Canada into a single entity.

(When I first learned about this in grade eight, at my public junior high school, it was pretty clear that Mackenzie was supposed to be the good guy. What a surprise the next year when, playing sports for my private high school against Upper Canada College, I discovered a monument to its cadet corps, which had valiantly helped to defeat the rebels in the Battle of Montgomery’s Tavern. This was one of the many signs that I was now living in a different world.)

Mackenzie, defeated in Toronto, retreated with his men to Navy Island in the Niagara River where they proclaimed an independent “Republic of Canada” and where they were supplied from the American side by sympathizers who sent money, food, and arms to them on the steamboat Caroline. On December 29, 1837, however, Col. Allan MacNab (who was later the premier of the united province of Canada) led a party of militia across the international boundary, seized the Caroline, chased off its crew, set it on fire, and sent it over Niagara Falls! From Wikipedia, here is a depiction of the event by George Tattersall:


This was an international incident. President Martin Van Buren protested strongly to London, and in retaliation the next year a group captured and burned the British steamer Sir Robert Peel while in U.S. waters. But the Caroline incident has had a lasting influence: it has been invoked many times since in the justification of “anticipatory self-defense” a.k.a. the preemptive strike, like the one that the United States launched against Iraq in 2003.

The Lessons of History

One of the popular justifications for studying history is that it helps us to “avoid the mistakes of the past.” By graduate school, however, people don’t tend to say this, on the principle that history “never really repeats itself.” Every time something happens, it happens once under a unique set of conditions, which will never again configure in exactly the same way. We cannot repeat historical events in a laboratory; as a student of mine once said, there is no control factor in history. This is especially true in military affairs: British generals were always famously “preparing for the last war.”

But surely we can learn something predictive from studying the past? I mean, it’s true, you can’t ultimately prove anything through inductive reasoning, which is what all historical inquiry is. “Just because the sun has come up every day for as long as you can remember, does not mean that it will come up tomorrow.” But it’s a pretty safe bet that it will – and that gravity, electro-magnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces will keep functioning in the same way at least for the next week.

But humans are a lot more fickle, yes? You’d think that treating people with respect would engender good will. Unfortunately, while some people respond well to being treated with respect, others interpret it as a sign of weakness and an invitation to try to take advantage – as Machiavelli knew only too well. How can you really predict how someone will react to your policies? What if this time it really is different? I think that if you’re in a position to apply any lessons of history, the best thing you can have are simply good instincts: you have to have a good idea about when to push people, and when to back off – and you’ll never get it right 100% of the time, or for 100% of the people.

This is all by means of bringing up one of the most allegedly important lessons of all: that of Munich. No, not the 1972 Olympics, but the 1938 Conference, by which British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and French Prime Minister Edouard Daladier conspired to shaft Edvard Beneš of Czechoslovakia by making him hand over the Sudetenland to Hitler’s Germany. The Sudentenland was ethnically German – but it was given to Czechoslovakia in 1919 on account of it being industrialized and mountainous, granting the new state an advantage in economics and defensible geography (similar ideas were used to justify the Polish corridor between Germany and East Prussia). These violations of the nationalist principle were only two of the many grievances Germany had against the Treaty of Versailles. Unfortunately, as it turned out, addressing these grievances was not all that Hitler had in mind: as he stated in Mein Kampf, he had a vision of a vast continental German empire, won through racial struggle against the inferior Slavs – a vision that he actually tried to implement. It turns out those Slavs weren’t nearly as inferior as Hitler believed, although it took tens of millions of deaths to prove the point.

So we all have fantasies about going back and stopping Hitler before he could do serious damage. If only we had stood up to him as he remilitarized the Rhineland. If only we had prevented the Anschluss with Austria. If only we hadn’t sold out Czechoslovakia. Hitler claimed that this was his last territorial demand – but six months later he occupied the rest of that unfortunate country (in violation of the nationalist principle) and six months after that he invaded Poland. Only then did France and England go to war – against a rearmed and motivated opponent. If only we had stood up to the bully earlier, however justified he claimed to be. If only….

So a very important lesson was learned from Munich: no more appeasement! If you don’t give them an inch, they’ll never be in a position later to take a mile. The choice is always framed as being between a war now, or a much worse war later. Poor Chamberlain – gone down in history as a dupe, his name a byword for “sucker.” It is good to remember, though, that in September of 1938 he was the man of the hour – he avoided a war, which no one wanted. You could even say that he bought Britain enough time to rearm itself, giving the country a better chance when war inevitably did come. But this argument is still not a common one, and a great many politicians since have staked their legacy on not repeating Chamberlain’s mistake.

It is precisely this impetus that got the United States involved in southeast Asia. President Kennedy in particular felt he had something to prove, since his father had been ambassador to the Court of St. James and a supporter of appeasement. So although it had no real legitimacy, we sent all sorts of aid to South Vietnam, trying to prop it up, lest the Communists take it… and thereafter Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and who knows what else.

Turns out we got a lot more than we bargained for too. We fielded a draft army, in a country halfway around the world utterly foreign in language and culture, with an inhospitable climate and an enemy that fought dirty, but that had the political capital of having kicked out the French, where we could not tell friend from foe and had no clear objective apart from propping up a corrupt, western-created state… is it any wonder that we lost, no matter how many resources we threw at it? “Could we have won in Viet Nam?” I asked a veteran once. “If we had backed the other side,” was his reply. Thus the other great Lesson of History: we must avoid the quagmire – the doubling-down on bad policy, the throwing of good money after bad, the failure to heed the injunction that “When you’re in a hole, stop digging!” I remember how people feared that the Kuwait conflict of 1991, and then the Kosovo conflict of 1999, would drag us down into a quagmire, “just like in Viet Nam.”

If you recall the run-up to Bush’s Iraq adventure some thirteen years ago now, you may remember the appearance of both of these tropes. “Have we learned nothing from history?” asked one side. “We have to stop Saddam before he goes any further!” “Have we learned nothing from history?” replied the other. “It will turn into a quagmire, like Viet Nam!”

Clearly both sides could not be right – although quagmire just may have been an appropriate metaphor at some points during the last thirteen years. But I guess that’s only because we deposed and killed Saddam, before he could do any more damage, leaving the quagmire the only fulfilled prediction? So maybe both sides were right after all – or maybe they were both wrong. Saddam was not Hitler – he had no visions of conquest, but just wanted to stay in power – but Iraq was not Viet Nam either – Islamism (whether Shiite or Sunni) is not Communism and does not have a worldwide sponsor as motivated as the USSR; Iran does not have an irredentist claim to Iraq, etc.

So as ever, we must be willing to take a step back and ask serious questions about historical comparisons. They’re not completely valueless, but important differences often exist between the two things you’re comparing and you’ve got to take those into account for any comparison to be meaningful.