American Fenianism was in many ways different from its Irish counterpart. It was neither secret nor oath bound. American Fenians merely took a pledge and accounts of their meetings, speeches and resolutions were widely published in American newspapers sympathetic to Fenianism. This in fact was the British Government's first source of information on the movement and it appears that they were not aware of the existence of Fenianism in Ireland at the time of the Chicago Convention in November 1863. 1
The dissensions which ruined the American movement were due in part to the extensive powers held initially by John O'Mahony. Many of the principal figures in the movement felt however that better organisation was required as Fenianism spread across America to the Irish communities in Chicago, Cincinnati, Ohio, etc. In 1865 at the Philadelphia Convention the direction of the movement was placed in the hands of a Senate to whom the President (Head Centre) would be answerable. O'Mahony refused to accept this decision and a split resulted. 2 The Senate wing under W. Roberts favoured striking at Britain through Canada while the O'Mahony wing remained more committed to a Rising in Ireland.
The American Civil War ended in April 1865 and soon American officers began to arrive in Ireland. This naturally aroused the Government's suspicions and the ports of Cobh and Dublin were closely watched. At this time American public opinion was very anti—British because of Britain's support for the South during the War. Britain had built ships for the Confederates, had continued to trade with them and the "London Times" had been pro—Confederate in outlook. 3 The Chief Secretary at the time, Wodehouse, regarded Fenianism as a very serious threat because of its American connections. 4
The U.S. President, Andrew Johnson, and the Secretary of State, William H. Seward, relied upon the support of the Irish voters - which explained their attitudes to Fenianism. Both were quite willing to tolerate the involvement of high-ranking army and Civil Service personnel in the movement, the buying of arms by Fenians etc. This changed somewhat after the raids on Canada in l866,When they realised that the activities of the Fenians could seriously embarrass the U.S. internationally. They then took a much firmer stand against. the movement. The Foreign Office in London was kept informed of the state of affairs in the U.S. by Bruce, the British Ambassador in Washington. Then in September 1865 the authorities here decided to act. The "Irish People" (newspaper) was suppressed and the leaders were arrested. As more evidence reached the Government of Fenian activities, the Habeas Corpus Act was suspended in February 1866 and all through that year hundreds of rank and file members were arrested. Many of the leaders, however, escaped to England and there began to plan the Rising. In America also planning began. A meeting of former Union officers was held on February 18th 1867 under James Kelly, a Lieutenant Colonel of the 69th, New York. John Warren was elected Secretary. 5 This Committee seems to have been the source which directed the expedition that eventually left for Ireland.
Author: Sylvester Murray