The life story
General John Charles O’Neill
By Tom Fox
Gablanach in ret an
--- 12th Century Irish scribe
There has been no definitive biography of John Charles O’Neill, though numerous newspaper and periodicals, especially in the mid-nineteenth century, portrayed the General’s career piecemeal. Several of these early articles were often written with direct assistance from O’Neill himself.
After the General’s death in 1878, scant further information appeared until the unveiling of his monument in Omaha in 1919, and then only from a published speech anointing the Monaghan born O’Neill. As time has gone on, O’Neill has passed into legend, much like the gunfighters of the old West, whose stories are filled with exaggeration and untruths, mixed with some true history.
Though the arrival of the Internet has allowed the story of John O’Neill to remain alive, inaccuracies and misinformation has often been repeated until they are now accepted as history. In 1937, Sister Mary M. Langan, wrote the first dissertation on O’Neill, and though leaning toward a very Catholic public relations view of the man, was helped by input from the O’Neill grandchildren, and gives some valuable information on his family, though far from complete.
Many articles have reported on specific aspects of his life, in particular his time with the Fenians from 1865 until 1868 (this is the best history of the General thus covered); others have focused on the Nebraska era of his life (1874-78); while some recent views have been put forth by Irish nationalists claiming O’Neill was one of the greatest Irish freedom fighters since the Famine.
There are descendants of O’Neill still in the United States, a small few in southern New Jersey and Staten Island, New York, and a large contingent in California, but none named O’Neill. I have ended the paper with the death of the General’s last progeny named O’Neill, especially in light of privacy for those involved.
This paper is an attempt to bring into focus a more balanced view of the life of John Charles O’Neill, particularly his early and later life. Much of his career has often been told haphazardly, so I hope this research helps us understand the person and the passion of a man often misunderstood.
1 -The Beginning
“He had his credit for it; not much money, for he was a bad man at business; not much worldly comfort, beyond the fragrance of poteen punch, or the beauty of rivers and mountains and green fields, or the love and contentment around his own hearth. But he had praise from great men who were many, and from some he had blame and bitter words.” --- 16th century Irish anonymous author
He was born in Ireland and died in Nebraska, but John Charles O’Neill was the most famous Irishman ever to call New Jersey ‘home.’ O’Neill was a celebrity, a pop star whose three careers are reason to be studied and honored, but whom today is largely forgotten, if not unknown.
Dying tragically young of a stroke at forty-four, O’Neill served heroically during the Civil War, rising from enlisted man to Captain; he commanded not one but three invasions into Canada for the cause of Irish freedom; and led a colonization of eastern seaboard Irish immigrants to Nebraska, where the town of O’Neill would be named in his honor.
John O’Neill possessed all the qualities of a modern star. Strong, darkly handsome and charming, he captivated people with a “rich sonorous voice.”1 This adopted son of New Jersey was compulsive and ambitious, yet inspired loyalty in thousands. One newspaper said O’Neill “was of calm temperament, but with a firm will, and when excited was stern.”2 As with many celebrities, however, he sometimes appeared arrogant, unbending, and even manipulative. At the end he let alcohol get in the way. But the O’Neill story is compelling, and like William Grace, another nineteenth century immigrant whose American success occurred after very improbable beginnings in rural Ireland, John O’Neill’s story is a novelist’s dream.
John, never ‘Jack,’ was born March 8, 1834 to a grieving widow in Drumgallon townland, near Clontibert in County Monaghan, and named after his dead father. Catherine (nee Macklin) O’Neill’s husband John had gone to assist some neighbors while cholera was once again rampant in Ulster, only to succumb himself just weeks before Catherine gave birth to her third child at age twenty-nine.3
There was no good time in Ireland to be a young widow with three children under the age of four, and Catherine soon moved four year old Bernard, two year old Mary, and baby John O’Neill to her parents, George and Mary Macklin. Catherine would lean on her family and remain near them the rest of her widowed life, both in Ireland and America.4
Though all of Ireland has been a birth haven of rebels for centuries, the East Monaghan and South Armagh area of young John’s early upbringing has long been linked with a raised level of virulent ancient hatreds, centuries old vendettas, and is even today often referred to as ‘bandit country.’ During the first decade of O’Neill’s life, the British military was called out to break popular local resistance and secret societies abounded on both Catholic and Protestant sides. Irish novelist Benedict Kiely said pre-famine Monaghan “was a land infested with disorder and injustice, a place where men were bitterly discontented, a land where slavery and oppression were real.”5
By 1840, when she was thirty-five, Catherine O’Neill and younger brother John Macklin left this exceedingly tense land and settled in Elizabeth, New Jersey. She and John opened a grocery business on Elizabeth Avenue, then and now the main street in New Jersey’s fourth largest city.6 Why they chose Elizabeth is not known, but in 1840 there were not many Irish wanted in the town, though the timing would prove right for the Monaghan immigrants. With the advent of the railroad plus the soon to be exodus of famine victims, thousands of Irish would settle in Elizabeth almost overnight, and the Macklin/O’Neill grocery would soon be a staple of the local community. Within just a few years, St. Mary’s, the first Catholic Church in the two hundred year old history of Elizabeth would be erected, and John Macklin would be a major benefactor. Indeed, both John and Catherine would never leave Elizabeth, and would be buried in the tiny St. Mary Cemetery on South Washington Avenue.7
No doubt Catherine missed her children immensely, and three years after leaving them with her parents, Bernard, now thirteen, and Mary, eleven, crossed the ocean and were reunited with their mother. Bernard was immediately put to work as a clerk with his uncle John and Mary and Catherine kept house above the store.8 Baby John, the future soldier, was left home in Drumgallon, and in an 1867 interview, said his grandparents, George and Mary Macklin, pleaded in letters to Catherine to let him stay in Ireland to ease their hearts as they grew old. Catherine conceded, and it would be five more years before John would see his brother, sister, and mother.9
One has to wonder at the price paid on the break-up of a family, and there is always a price. In effect, John O’Neill, who never knew a father, was also left motherless from age six to fourteen. Despite being educated locally and raised by loving grandparents, Monaghan was a tough locale in those formative years, and John was exposed to life in a closed and dark side of rural Ireland.
Despite this often repressive atmosphere, there is no doubt O’Neill was well schooled. Family tradition has always maintained that his Catholic and anti-English grandfather, George Macklin, refused to send him to the local school for fear of being raised an anglophile, and instead hired a tutor for the young lad.10 As a young man in America, O’Neill himself said, “When I was a young boy I attentively read the history of my native land and her public men. I wept over the speeches of her orators, and asked myself whom of the Irish patriots I would seek to emulate. I decided that eloquence would not do unless it be that which follows from the cannon’s mouth.”11 Even allowing for adult hyperbole, it is obvious grandfather Macklin did his job well, and when John finally settled in Elizabeth, he would never be comfortable at a grocery clerk’s settled and quiet life.
Ireland would get worse, not better, after Bernard and Mary left brother John home in Drumgallon. Hunger struck in 1845 when he was eleven. Perhaps Catherine, like most people, thought the one-year potato failure would be temporary. There had, after all, been countless one-year failures, but for the next four years, famine, typhus, fever, and emigration would reduce the Irish population from eight to five million. Monaghan had been the hardest hit of all Ulster counties, with 30% of the population gone by 1851. The disastrous effect on the minds of the Irish has been studied and debated for over a century, but never completely understood, but to a young boy without a father and missing a mother, it was simple – the English had to get out of Ireland. O’Neill would spend his entire life trying to make it happen.
The fate of the elderly George and Mary Macklin, like a million others, is unknown, but John O’Neill would arrive alone in the spring of 1848 at his new home in Elizabeth.12 He was fourteen, but with a mind already formulated to hate England. The dark haired, good-looking teenager’s arrival must have been a stark study in contrasts. Fluent in both Irish and English, the boy surely must have rejoiced in being reunited with his mother, brother, and sister. Additionally he now shared a home with his uncle, John Macklin, his wife Sarah, and two new young cousins, also named George and Mary Macklin.13 Comfort in a new home with a loving family and no fear of hunger was definitely a positive. But John had not seen his mother since he was six, and the grandparents who raised him were now gone overnight. That he might be independent and detached would be an understatement. His very popular brother Bernard was now eighteen, and had a five-year head start on American life, but he and his younger brother would eventually walk two very different paths.14
There is no record of the remnants of any other Macklin or O’Neill relatives elsewhere in the United States related to the Elizabeth family. No one appears in any baptism, census, marriage, burial or obituary records. In the mid to later 19th century, this was very unusual among Diaspora Irish families.15 Though one branch might live in New Jersey, cousins, siblings, and in-laws found each other, no matter where they settled. This lack of outreach makes one believe that this particular Macklin/O’Neill family group lived as they had in Monaghan, inclusively staying in Elizabeth for fifty years before branching out even a little, and then, only one strayed permanently more than twenty miles from the original home base of Elizabeth. The one glaring exception would be the last arrival, John Charles O’Neill.
Once settled in his American home, John went to the new Saint Mary School for one year before going to work at the family grocery. But while brother Bernard thrived at the business, John felt constrained. In 1852 after three years working with groceries in Elizabeth, John quit and went to work as a book salesman for a New York publisher, traveling throughout New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia.16 It was a sudden move, and against his mothers wishes, but it is hardly surprising given his background. John was only eighteen, but he had been alone and independent for more years than people wanted to recognize.
Three years of intermittent traveling and selling only increased O’Neill’s need to try new adventures. Ever the optimist, the ambitious twenty-one year old struck out on his own and opened a Catholic bookstore in, of all places, Richmond, Virginia. It would predictably fail within two years, the Catholic population of the area not enough to support the young bachelor. But it was in Richmond that O’Neill literally ran into his true calling, one he said he always wished for, but was rebuffed by his mother and relatives.17
The Irish-born bookseller joined the Emmet Monument Association, a semi-secret militia organization whose special purpose was to train young Irish and Irish-Americans to attack Britain and free Ireland.18 Found throughout all the larger cities in the country, the E.M.A. was an early progenitor of the Fenians, founded in the early 1850’s on the notion that England would soon be at war with Russia, thus opening the way for all Irish freedom fighters. It was the perfect outlet for the hazel-eyed O’Neill. For almost two years John trained with the E.M.A., but when an English war with Russia no longer seemed viable, and his bookstore now a failure, he headed north. With the prospect of returning to his family a failure, or thoughts of having to work with groceries, the budding soldier ran into U.S. Army recruiters in Baltimore. The army was actively searching for men to quash what would be called the Utah War against the Mormons, and the twenty-three year old O’Neill again made a sudden decision and signed on in May, 1857 with the U.S. Second Dragoons, G troop.19 He would not see his family for seven years, but that would be nothing new.
The U.S. army was very anxious to get its men out west and after a brief stop at the Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, Private John O’Neill was soon on his way to Utah under the command of future Confederate General Albert Sydney Johnston and his assistant, Robert E. Lee.20
But the Utah War proved a fiasco. It began and ended as a political battle between President James Buchanan and his desire to control the growing arrogance of the Mormons under Brigham Young. The boondoggle lasted from May 1857 until July 1858, and there was not a single armed fatality or one pitched battle. The Mormon’s chief success was burning three wagons loaded with 50,000 pounds of supplies, while the 2,500 U.S. soldiers showed their might simply with its presence. Overall discipline of the bored American troops was poor, and soon Mormon circulars were sent encouraging soldiers to desert, promising $50 cash and safe conduct to California.21
Whether O’Neill was angry at the non-action, or just simply impulsive, both attributes he would carry until his death, there is no doubt the Irishman from Jersey took the bait, as did 400 others, fully sixteen per cent of the force sent to Utah. Army pay records show O’Neill deserted at the very end of this sloppy affair on August 2, 1858, but desertion is desertion, and it would haunt O’Neill and some of his favorite biographers, who downplayed it or ignored it when O’Neill’s career became national news.22
Though O’Neill was reticent about his sojourn in California, he remained two full years in San Francisco, living on Front Street.23 Sometime in the course of this stay, the now twenty-five year old met a fifteen-year-old Australian orphan, Mary Ann Crow. Mary Ann, a footnote in most tellings of the O’Neill story, would be the biggest influence on his life, her love complete, and at the end, her heartbreak total.
Mary Ann was the Melbourne born daughter of Patrick and Bridget Crow, Irish immigrants to Australia. The Crows arrived in Port Phillip in 1841, but by 1848 Patrick had declared insolvency as a farmer in Campbelltown near Sydney, and decided to try his luck in California.24 Along with their only child, five-year-old Mary Ann, they left Melbourne for the gold rush on the William Watson, a 489-ton barque bound for San Francisco on June 25, 1849. Their ship was the first to leave Melbourne and carried 161 passengers, including eight children, 157 who survived after an 82 day voyage.25 Anticipation was high, and even the editor of the Melbourne Herald hoped that the ship “carried arms to ward off pirates on her return trip with gold.”26 But like so many others they found not gold but death, perhaps victims of cholera, which struck many traveling from Australia to California. Hundreds of Australian orphans were adopted by the Sisters of Charity and educated in their new orphanage, which opened in 1852. Trained by the sisters, Mary Ann at some point made the acquaintance of the handsome soldier and he was smitten.27 Over time, he explained his rather precarious situation and Mary Ann, despite her youth, helped convince the stubborn, headstrong, and independent deserter to rethink his behavior. O’Neill himself, almost two years into his ‘French leave,’ had a precipitous encounter in downtown San Francisco with an officer he recognized from Utah, who was either on leave or assignment. The Irishman identified himself, and began the process of a return to duty.28
It must have been a scene Shakespeare would envy. A teenaged Australian orphan, left abandoned for years, 8,000 miles from home, raised and educated by Irish nuns who often acted as matchmakers. This young woman cares for and advises a twenty-three year old Irish semi-orphan, 10,000 miles from home, wanted by his new nation as a deserter. Nonetheless, O’Neill must have agonized over the decision. After all, San Francisco was a great place to be in 1860, especially for a bright, ambitious Irishman. The past decades gold rush had brought thousands to California, and the California Irish were way ahead of their brethren on the east coast politically, culturally, and often, economically.29 While many Irish immigrants struggled in poverty in the east, San Francisco was emerging from a building boom, and would show steady growth during the two years John was a resident. Whether it was Mary Ann’s common sense, or the self-realization that he was a soldier at heart, O’Neill decided to rejoin the dragoons and face the music of a two year absence without leave.
While the majority of the U.S. Army Utah Expedition had returned east, the 1st Dragoons had continued west to Fort Crook in the foothills of northern California, directly west of Reno, Nevada. Fort Crook was two hundred miles north of San Francisco, and consisted of a few log buildings with no bunks for the men. The dragoons themselves numbered less than a hundred, and they were ostensibly there only to protect immigrants and settlers. In July of 1860, when O’Neill showed up and surrendered to a Captain Adams, it was as bleak and remote as any army post in the United States.30
Amazingly, O’Neill was restored to full duty without trial or penalty, though technically transferred from his original 2nd Dragoons to the 1st, and had simply to serve the balance of his enlistment.31 The few histories which mention this period of O’Neill’s career point out he was accepted back because of the impending Civil War, but in fact the 1st Dragoons at Fort Crook were desperate for manpower in a godforsaken outpost. O’Neill himself, after the Civil War, told friends it was the officer he met in San Francisco who smoothed the waters and influenced his restoration to duty. Indeed, the Civil War was not imminent in July 1860.32
A year later, when the war did break out in the east, the 1st Dragoons, with John O’Neill now a rising sergeant, were reassigned. In one of those serendipitous moments that change lives, half the troop was assigned permanently to the very professional San Francisco Presidio as peacekeepers, with the remainder sent back east to fight as cavalry in Virginia. Perhaps O’Neill was able to spend some short time with his now sixteen-year-old sweetheart, but he would soon arrive after a four month journey in Washington for the Civil War’s first large engagement, the Peninsula Campaign.33
John was now twenty-eight, and assigned to the Regular Cavalry Division, and placed in command of General George Stoneman’s bodyguard. He was involved in the initial vicious firefight in torrential rain at Williamsburg, Virginia, had a horse shot under him in the bloodbath at Gaines Mills, and was praised by General Stoneman as “a brave and worthy officer, in whose judgment I had the greatest confidence.” At the conclusion of the month long fight around Richmond, many of the now 1st Cavalry (replaced the word Dragoons) were temporarily broken up, and John, no doubt with Stoneman’s approval and help, was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant in December, 1862 and transferred to the 5th Indiana Cavalry based in Indianapolis. 34
The Peninsula Campaign was just the beginning of the O’Neill reputation in the war. During the next two years Lieutenant John O’Neill’s name became synonymous throughout the Kentucky theater for bravery, leadership, and loyalty. A soldier who served under him in 1863 said O’Neill had killed seven Confederates “with his own hands,” and was adored by his men, who would “follow him anywhere.”35
Following the Battle of Cumberland in December 1863, a field report stated, “Lieutenant John O’Neill, Company I, 5th Indiana Cavalry, my acting adjutant general, rendered great assistance in conducting the engagement. He was constantly under fire before being finally wounded and taken from the field.” As the year 1863 concluded, O’Neill’s body gave out from constant fighting. After two solid years of successfully taking the war to the rebel guerillas and regulars, he was sent to Rising Sun, Indiana to recuperate from dysentery, fever, and a “severe” undisclosed gunshot wound, suffered at Taswell, Tennessee.36
It was during this time in Rising Sun that O’Neill was recommended for promotion to major by both his commanders, General Henry Judah and Brigadier General Sam Sturges. Judah’s letter even stated, “I deem Lieutenant John O’Neill, of the 5th Indiana Cavalry, one of the most gallant and efficient officers it has been my duty to command. His daring and services have been conspicuous, and I trust he may receive what he so ably merits – a speedy promotion.”37 A rare young officer; adored by the men under his command, and honored by his superiors; it seemed the Monaghan man had truly found his calling.
During those months of recuperation, this impressive fighting officer found time to send correspondence to his now twenty-year-old girlfriend Mary Ann Crow, who was working for the past three years as a domestic in two wealthy San Francisco mansions.38 John was also in touch with his family in New Jersey, whom he had not seen in over eight years. Mary Ann had obviously missed O’Neill, and made the long and arduous journey east, traveling with a family headed to New York. She helped nurse her beloved soldier boy to health, and as John O’Neill’s twenty-ninth birthday approached, the ex AWOL cavalryman, who in three years had risen from private to corporal, to sergeant and sergeant-major before becoming an outstanding lieutenant, and soon to be major, must have felt all those lessons and dreams of Irish warriors he learned as a boy were about to come true.
He and Mary Ann traveled to Elizabeth, New Jersey where the Aussie orphan and the lad from Drumgallon met the entire O’Neill and Macklin families and set a wedding date for November.
Shock would be an understatement when O’Neill found on his return to duty in Indiana in May that he had been bypassed for promotion in favor of several political appointees, men who had barely spent time in uniform. Even Mary Ann, who more than likely had stayed in Elizabeth with the O’Neill family, couldn’t stop John from acting predictably. He resigned immediately. General Sturges could not reason with him, though he sent a memo to headquarters, which said in part, “This is an excellent officer – too valuable to be lost to the service . . . he is one of the best officers in my command.” But the New Jersey Irishman would not be placated, typical of both his past and future behavior.39
With a wedding in the fall, and no job, O’Neill was finally convinced to rejoin the army, but under circumstances that allowed him to maintain his dignity. Several friends, including future President Andrew Johnson, were instrumental in forming a number of “Colored” units in the west and O’Neill was appointed in June of 1864 as Captain of the 17th Colored Infantry with his headquarters in Nashville, Tennessee.40 O’Neill had his promotion, but the war was coming to a close, and the organization of these troops was dispensed. Upset once more, the thin-skinned O’Neill tendered his resignation in November from his home in Nashville with five months of hard fighting still ahead. He headed home to Elizabeth and there his beloved Aussie and the hard-headed Irishman were married on November 27, 1864 by the Reverend Isaac Howell at St. Mary’s Church, the church his mother and Uncle John Macklin had been helpful in establishing.41
The witnesses were unusual for an Irish wedding. John’s only sister Mary, now thirty-two, was Mary Ann’s maid of honor, the young bride having no remaining family. John’s best man was his first cousin, George Macklin, now twenty, and not his only brother, Bernard, thirty-four. John and George had only seen each other once in eight years since George was twelve, and though there is no record of discord between the two Drumgallon brothers, hints like the one above will grow in future years. It certainly would not be the first time two Irish brothers would lead different lives, and the career paths between the grocer and the soldier would widen more with age.42
The newlyweds did not, however, settle in Elizabeth, or even New Jersey. John and Mary Ann arrived in Nashville after Christmas, just weeks after the December battle in that Tennessee town that would end the war in the west. With the Confederate threat eliminated, and peace on the horizon, John O’Neill opened a real estate and claims agency, O’Neill and Mitchell, at 35 Cedar Street in May 1865.43
Throughout the land, thousands of survivors began the process of repairing, reinventing, or beginning new lives, and John O’Neill had a head start on most. With a sterling reputation, honored and respected as a veteran who had done much fighting, O’Neill’s future appeared bright, and his business, according to his later testimony, was very successful that first year. But the one disconnect in John O’Neill was his fervent hatred of England and his desire for Ireland to be free of its yoke. No business, family, or friendship could overcome his desire for Irish freedom. It would make him at one point one of the most celebrated men in the United States, a ‘General,’ and friend of a president. It would also make him bitter enemies and cause a chasm within his own family.
“O’Neill’s history incontrovertibly illustrates as noble, determined and daring a character as ever led a brave but enslaved people to victory.” --- Irish-American, 1868
On an early Nashville summer day in 1865, businessman John O’Neill took the Fenian oath, joining as many as 120,000 other Irish in the United States, Canada, and Ireland.
“I, John O’Neill, solemnly pledge my sacred word of honor, as a truthful and honest man, that I will labor with my earnest zeal for the liberation of Ireland from the yoke of England, and for the establishment of a free and independent government on the Irish soil; that I will implicitly obey the commands of my superior officers in the Fenian Brotherhood, that I will faithfully discharge the duties of my membership as laid down in the constitution and by-laws thereof; that I will do my utmost to promote feelings of love, harmony, and kindly forbearance among all Irishmen; and that I will foster, defend, and propagate the afore-said Fenian Brotherhood to the utmost of my power.”1
Each member paid one-dollar initiation fee and weekly dues of ten cents. The Brotherhood, as it was commonly known, had been recruiting members secretly since 1858, “but paid recruiting members easily moved through both Union and Confederate armies” during wartime, often with official permission and escorts. The Fenian Brotherhood could be found everywhere, with one report stating there were more than 500 ‘Circles’ across the country and another 80 in Canada. It was an ambitious organization with hard-cash support. Money was never a problem in these early days, and there were times when $15,000 a day rolled into its coffers.2
O’Neill did not join the Brotherhood until after the war, but he was well aware of its aims and ambitions, and within months he was one of the leaders of the Nashville ‘Circle.’ The F.B. eventually became “The only organization in United States history which armed and drilled publicly, and invaded Canada for the simple purpose of using seized land as a stepping-stone for the invasion and liberation of Ireland.”3
The Nashville circle was one of the most dynamic in the country, contrary to some modern perceptions that everything Irish happened in the northeast cities. There was throughout the North America almost 600 circles, each with a minimum of sixty members, but could number in the hundreds. The Nashville circle of which O’Neill became an organizer was a large and active one from 1862 or earlier. Some of the most committed Fenians in the country were to be found within its borders when John and Mary Ann settled in as newlyweds, living in the fashionable Edgefield area on Russell Street.
The Nashville Fenians had already by 1863 built a Catholic orphanage and supported a large Saint Patrick’s Day celebration. James Stephens, a founding member of the F.B. had visited the southern city, and General Tom Sweeny, the future commander of the initial Fenian Army in America, was stationed in Nashville directly after the Civil War. The Nashville Circle would eventually number over 300 recruits, none more vocal than the legendary Thomas J. Kelly. The Galway born Kelly, who had been raising Irish consciousness since he moved to the Tennessee town in 1857, would eventually become an international Irish rebel, working for Irish freedom until he died in 1908, aged 75. In the years following the Civil War, Nashville was a beacon in the nation with an all-star cast of fighting Irish, and John O’Neill was one of the leading players.4
By late 1865 this large body of strident Irishmen had become politicized but divided, no surprise to any Irish organization past or present. The Fenian Brotherhood leadership was divided into two distinct camps; one wanted a forced uprising in Ireland, but “at a later date.” The other, mostly American, angled for a quicker fight, and desirous of attacking Canada, forcing the British to defend the northern Dominion of their empire, thus freeing Ireland from a larger British defensive force. This split within the Brotherhood forced a third national Fenian Convention held at Philadelphia in October 1865, with more than six hundred delegates present.5
The convention resulted in what would be shocking results today but which were accepted almost without complaint in the post-Civil War era. A ‘capital’ in a New York mansion that flew a Fenian Brotherhood flag; an officially raised army within American borders; negotiation with the United States Government; and an organization that basically acted as a sovereign nation were all approved and allowed without legal objection by the United States.6
There is no record if the newly appointed ‘Colonel’ John O’Neill was present, or in Nashville drilling his equally new 13th Tennessee Fenian Regiment, but by December 1865, Fenian President William Roberts ‘Wing’ took control of the Brotherhood and the plan to invade Canada went forward with alacrity.7
As bizarre as this sounds today, it was more than reasonable in 1866. The Fenians were serious business, though many English historians have tried to write them out of the history books. In addition to the thousands of Fenian Irish ready to fight, it also made sense to the leader of the land, President Andrew Johnson, and many other politicians. For starters, the Canadian provinces were vulnerable. Some among the F.B. said if Texas could have been ‘annexed’ from Mexico in 1836 in similar fashion, surely a stronger Irish organization could capture Canada.
In addition, the North still seethed over British support of the Confederacy, and some, especially Johnson, demanded reparations. Nobody had forgotten that Britain had helped arm the South and even sold them warships. Other non-Irish Americans believed that America should include all of North America, a north-south version of Manifest Destiny. Finally, there were many angry over Canada permitting Confederate spy rings to operate openly in the Civil War, thus partially blaming Canada for the very recent assassination of Abraham Lincoln.8
Fenian President Roberts, a wealthy Brooklyn businessman, placed the highly respected Civil War General Tom Sweeny in charge of the new army, and the invasion was planned for the spring, 1866. Roberts had even met with President Johnson regarding the attack, and Johnson reportedly agreed, “To recognize the accomplished facts”9 and acknowledge an Irish Republic in exile if the Fenians established a foothold in the North Country. General Sweeny believed his forces could easily measure in excess of 20,000 men at various attack points across the 4,000-mile border, and even purchased three warships from the U.S. Navy. The leading Canadian Fenian, Toronto’s Mike Murphy, convinced Roberts that after defeating the initial Canadian (British) defenders, thousands of disaffected Canadians, one third of whom were of Irish descent, would rise with his troops.10
Tom Sweeny was a wonderful choice to lead the military wing after the best man for the job, General Phil Sheridan, decided to stay in the shadows in these early days. Sweeny was one of many Irish soldiers whose exploits have been overshadowed by their service in the Western Theatre, and not in the more publicized East during the war. In fact, Tom Sweeny and John O’Neill were more alike than perhaps they ever realized, and both have been relegated in history unfairly in a fragmentary fashion. Sweeny was fifteen years older than O’Neill, but like the younger Monaghan man, had wished for nothing else than a military life. Both were 5’9” and had black hair and dark eyes, and neither was quiet when their ire was raised after a drink. Sweeny, a stalwart in the Civil War, had earlier fought bravely in Mexico and against the Indians; rising through the ranks after enlistment much like O’Neill would do a decade later.11
Neither man knew their fathers, who died in Ireland, and both arrived as the youngest children in their respective families. They both joined the army for an active, not philosophical life, seeking adventure away from the quiet home life their mothers had fashioned for them in the East. A description of Sweeny could easily pass for O’Neill. “Sweeny was brave, often to the point of rashness, efficient, resourceful, self-confident, careful of the safety and comfort of his men, and capable of enduring the most trying hardships. He was quick to damn incompetence, and quicker still to resent any slight, real or imaginary.”12 Ironically both men joined the Nashville Fenian Circle, though there is no concrete evidence their paths crossed until Ridgeway.
There would be no doubt, of course, where the expansive and hard-drinking John O’Neill stood on the invasion issue, but a question of priorities now crept into the lives of Mary Ann and John O’Neill. On March 2, 1866, John Hugh O’Neill was born in Nashville and baptized on March 14 at the Catholic Cathedral. His godfather was the same George J. Macklin of Elizabeth, New Jersey, who had been the best man at the Colonel’s wedding.13 George was now 21, and had moved to Nashville working as a clerk, but really there to fight with his uncle John.14 There is no record if another Macklin or O’Neill was present at the baptism, but it would have been almost impossible. It must have been a glorious day for Mary Ann, the beginning of her life as a mother after arriving in America as a young child, only to see her parents die in California and be raised an orphan. She was educated by the Sisters of Charity in San Francisco, and worked as so many thousands of Irish immigrant girls did as domestics in the homes of wealthy American families, only to fall in love with a handsome fellow Irish man with a sense of morality, courage and conviction. Her much honored and beloved husband surely could feel similar but distant thoughts. A son born, whose middle name was in honor to the greatest Irish revolutionary leader of all time, Hugh O’Neill of Tyrone, The O’Neill. Most importantly, Colonel John O’Neill of the Fenian Brotherhood must have felt some pangs of emotion knowing he was present and alive at the birth of his own son, with the memory of his own birth and upbringing forever etched upon his mind.
Nonetheless, the Fenian invasion plan, which Colonel John O’Neill had so fervently prayed, one that was considered an “audacious plan”15 by more than one historian, moved forward. If John O’Neill felt any second thoughts about leaving his newborn son, the record is silent. Along with his adjutants, Captains Lawrence Shields and Rudolphus Fitzpatrick and the men of the 13th Tennessee, O’Neill was ready to leave home, hearth, and even new-born, if Irish freedom was to be achieved.
On May 27, 1866, O’Neill left his wife and two month old son and with the 150 men of the 13th Tennessee boarded a train headed north, picked up the 17th IRA regiment under Colonel George Owen Starr at Louisville, then another regiment in Ohio before rolling into the Cleveland train depot. Wearing working clothes as a disguise, but fooling absolutely nobody, the Fenians, whose plans were always public secrets, discovered no boats, no superiors, and no orders. After waiting anxiously for twenty-four hours, a Sweeny cable told the four hundred to move to Buffalo. Upon arrival Fenian men of the Buffalo circle billeted them throughout the area.16
The historic plan was already becoming a fiasco. Roberts was lost in his role as president, proving John Devoy correct in his assessment of the Brooklyn merchant, whom he described as “successful, vain, and shallow but showy.”17 Newspapers throughout the country were reporting mass movements of men, many moving in different directions. Worse, leadership of the attack fell apart. General Sweeny was let down by a combination of poorly organized local circles and just plain bad luck. Brigadier William Lynch was too sick to appear and General Charles Tevis did nothing, and was later tried for cowardice. With his chain of command disintegrating, Sweeny ordered Lynch’s adjutant, Colonel Ed Sherwin, to take command, but he also failed to appear. Exasperated, Sweeny sent a telegram ordering the most senior officer in Buffalo to take charge as acting brigadier.
After five days on trains and in warehouses, John O’Neill was thrust into history by default, but as it turned out, he was a brilliant choice. O’Neill eagerly led the expedition across the Niagara River into Canada. The engaging, persuasive and impulsive O’Neill was a natural leader and a most loyal Fenian soldier looking for a long awaited fight. The Brotherhood oath was ingrained on his heart, especially the phrase, “I will labor with my earnest zeal for the liberation of Ireland from the yoke of England.”19 He was proud and honored to play a supporting role.
The tens of thousands expected at the various staging points failed to show with only the 800 soon to be led by the newly designated ‘General’ John O’Neill were able to cross over onto Canadian soil. Despite the disorganization, O’Neill and his men rose to the challenge. They were without maps or advance information about Canadian defenses. Their own attack would become more difficult; the Buffalo city authorities were attempting to stop Fenian movements; the Canadian forces were gearing up – slowly – to meet them; and worst of all, the U.S.S. Michigan, on orders from President Johnson, was patrolling the Buffalo harbor with a U.S. Marine guard to prevent their passage.20
O’Neill was thrust into this position and no one would have blamed him had he stood down – everybody else did. But his natural tendency to fight, his impulsive nature to make quick decisions, and the deep yearning for Irish freedom made his actions of the next forty-eight hours no surprise to anyone who knew the Monaghan born and raised John O’Neill.
At about midnight, this force now approaching about 600, made a dash for the Buffalo docks, boarded barges, and slipped past the Michigan. They landed on Canadian soil at 3:15 a.m., the only forces of the Brotherhood that could later walk proudly amongst their own fellow Fenians, and planted the Irish flag. For the next two days, June 2nd and 3rd, both invaders and defenders were unanimous that General John O’Neill and his men performed admirably. There was no looting, disorder, or uncontrolled mayhem, and O’Neill is even said to have threatened to bayonet one soldier who tried to steal a shawl from a tavern. More importantly, the warlike spirit had not died out on O’Neill. The Fenians won the only pitched battle, later called The Battle of Ridgeway, and behaved with honor on and off the field, fighting and marching forty miles on empty stomachs. Casualties were comparatively light but definitely in favor of the invaders, with twenty Canadian (British) killed, 74 wounded, and twenty-two captured. The O’Neill forces suffered only seven killed and seventeen wounded.21
Though the big picture was a disaster, the Fenian Brotherhood considered the small work done by O’Neill a “glorious” victory. John MacDonald, participant in Ridgeway and future Prime Minister, said of O’Neill at Ridgeway, “The skillful disposition he made of his forces were commensurate with the ability of a high-class tactician,” and added, “General O’Neill coolly awaited the arrival of the Canadian troops, who were advancing from Ridgeway totally ignorant to the fact that there was a lion in their path.”22 On June 4, British reinforcements sealed the Canadian border and American forces led by General Ulysses S. Grant controlled the U.S. side. O’Neill gallantly gave up the fight and returned to United States soil. He was soon paroled after being detained on the Michigan. Shocking Britain, Canada, and much of America, all returning Fenians were given free railroad passes back to their homes, including fifteen from the Nashville circle, by order of President Johnson himself.23
When O’Neill, Owen Starr and other leaders of the raid were brought before the magistrate of Erie County, local sympathizers furnished bail and they were discharged to great applause in the courtroom. One individual proposed three cheers for O’Neill, and he received a standing ovation. When followed to the Mansion House, the biggest hotel in town, he was greeted with clamorous applause and said to the crowd assembled, “Gentlemen! You may not be aware that I am not a speechmaker. The only kind of speeches I am accustomed to making are made from the cannon’s mouth. Situated as I am at the present, I can only advise you to retire to your homes, peacefully and in an orderly manner. Good-bye!”24 He left the city that night for Nashville.
Three facts emerged from this first invasion of Canada. One, the Fenian movement’s grand plans were reduced mightily, though the Irish vote in the United States was obviously too important to jail anyone just for invading another country. Second, Canada realized the true danger of attack by the Irish and strengthened its defense systems. Third, John O’Neill was recognized as a national star, the man who backed the British down, if only for a moment. Irishmen throughout the land sang the praises of O’Neill. Indeed, his quiet courage and courteous manner had earned and deserved it.
Praise for the Drumgallon man by way of New Jersey was not limited to just the Fenian Brotherhood. Canadian John MacDonald added “The irrepressible O’Neill treated the captured Canadians well, and complimented them on their bravery and courage.” Upon disembarking from the Michigan, in a move that would foreshadow O’Neill’s future intentions, the General shook hands with each of the twenty-two Canadian prisoners, said goodbye, and told them, “I’m coming back.”25
When the dust settled and the Fenians regrouped at their annual September convention in Cleveland, recriminations abounded, especially between Roberts and Sweeny, each of who blamed the other. Roberts was further damaged when his role regarding the captured Fenians came to light. When the men were condemned to be hanged, Roberts threatened to march upon Canada with 21,000-armed men, despite the obvious fact this non-soldier had orchestrated such a previous failure in June. When the British Home Office intervened and gently asked the sentences to be commuted rather than create Irish martyrs (a lesson they would forget fifty years later in 1916), Roberts was crushed. In a letter he wrote to prisoner Robert Lynch, the F.B. president said, “I regret to tell you that you are not going to be hanged.” The prisoner’s deaths, continued Roberts, “would make every Irishman in America a Fenian, and raise enough money to expel the British.”27 Both thoughts must have made Lynch much more comfortable about his situation.
Only O’Neill, the unsuspecting hero, emerged with his reputation not only intact, but also increased. He was unanimously thanked in a proclamation that read, “General John O’Neill and the officers and men of his command gallantly upheld the honor of our flag and vindicated the traditional heroism of our race.”28
The fatherless boy from Drumgallon who didn’t want to sell groceries but was raised to fight the English, had partially fulfilled his grandfather’s dream, but he would not rest on his new laurels. After all, he was now ‘General John O’Neill,’ a term he would acknowledge and even insist on, as he returned to Nashville, where a loyal and patient Mary Ann waited with their three-month-old son.
As the thirty two year old son of the widow Catherine O’Neill held his baby in his arms, some Americans, maybe friends like President Andrew Johnson, perhaps even family in Elizabeth, New Jersey, may have wondered if this sudden fame would change the measure of the man they loved. The British government didn’t give a damn about John O’Neill’s celebrity – they wondered only if he would ever unmask their secret Fenian spy, John O’Neill’s most loyal friend and chief aide, Henri Le Caron.
“I knew O’Neill, and his fine regiment in the Civil War. He was a perfect specimen of the dashing, daredevil Irish soldier, and his men adored him.” --- J.F. Dunn
When John O’Neill took the long weary train ride back from Buffalo to Nashville in early June 1866, he was no doubt depressed at the overall result of the invasion he had invested so much time, energy, and money over the past year, little could he have guessed the next four years of his life “General O’Neill” would be embraced by the Irish in America as a hero, the herald of Fenian republicanism, and indeed by some as the most recognizable symbol of Irishness in the United States.1
The latter half of 1866 saw the story of John O’Neill, hero of Ridgeway, spread across the nation like wildfire. He was covered by newspapers nationwide, in demand as a speaker in small towns as well as big cities across the country. Though O’Neill admitted to not being “a speech-maker” after Ridgeway, he would become very proficient, and soon able to bring thousands to their feet with ease.2
At the annual Fenian Convention in Cleveland in 1866, O’Neill was not only praised but also appointed Inspector-General of the Brotherhood. This would be just the beginning of the rise of the public ‘General’ John O’Neill, a role he soon embraced. But with the praise came the criticism, and nobody was a bigger enemy of the Irish than the New York Times. A June 2, 1866 article called the Ridgeway victory “just a deserted dunghill,” and added, “The Irish were not heroes, unless they were heroes of the same stamp who bravely led the retreat at Bull Run, and who helped make up the great army of bounty jumpers. These people are the curse of the American society.”3
But as O’Neill was the darling of the invasion, the racist paper especially singled him out, with falsehoods beyond the pale. “Not only was he a Confederate but a Confederate friend of the infamous Wirtz of Andersonville,”4 comparing the former heroic Union officer from Indiana with the only man ever executed for war crimes in the Civil War.
Within a year, the Fenians had enough of William Roberts and the one-armed General Tom Sweeny. In a classic case of American ‘what have you done for me lately?’ they overwhelmingly elected General John C. O’Neill the President of the Fenian Brotherhood at the convention of 1867.5 Sweeny, never a politician, in particular was upset, and issued a report for the failures of the invasion and then walked away from the Fenian movement “discouraged and disheartened.”6 Nashville was soon replaced by Washington D.C. as the new O’Neill home, a place John could more easily run the Fenian organization, as well as improve his business skills, the real estate agency having failed, due in no small measure to O’Neill’s neglect, first as a Fenian soldier, later as a Fenian politician. During the next four years the O’Neill’s would live off the Fenian Brotherhood, sometimes perhaps, better than they should.7
It was a heady time for the O’Neills and Macklins back home in New Jersey. Catherine O’Neill, 60, who never remarried, and her spinster daughter Mary, 35, were the matriarchs of two growing Irish-American families, both of whom would become intertwined with that of their most famous kin, the Fenian celebrity.
John Macklin was now forty-three and his family was well established in the Elizabeth community, now overwhelmingly Irish. John and wife Jane had twelve children, ten of whom survived to know their famous uncle John. The Macklin/O’Neill grocery business had thrived, and Bernard opened his own store in 1855, and stayed downtown in Elizabeth, while Uncle John moved to a store uptown. In 1868 both men were the largest benefactors in a St. Mary’s Church renovation.8
Bernard and Sarah O’Neill would eventually have eight children, and two, John and Tom, the oldest, would follow their famous uncle across the country in years to come. Bernard O’Neill’s fifth child, also named Bernard, was born one day after Ridgeway. In all, there would be a total of twenty O’Neill and Macklin first generation Irish-American children all born in Elizabeth, eighteen born between 1849 and 1872, when John C. O’Neill was in the United States. In spite of this large number, the well mannered, charming national hero, the only nephew to John Macklin and the only brother of Bernard O’Neill, would be the godfather of none, physical distance and war being two possible detriments.9
From 1867 until late summer 1868, O’Neill was at the zenith of his popularity; meeting with his old friend President Andrew Johnson; commuting between the powerful in Washington and the rich at F.B. headquarters in Manhattan; and planning a second invasion, still and always the most important agenda in O’Neill’s life.10
In Buffalo in the summer of 1868, the site just two years previous of the Fenians contradictory victory and ignominious defeat, the F.B. convention, led by the General, unanimously passed resolutions “to place an army in the field and for the immediate commencement of the fight for the liberation of Ireland.”11 One month later, in August, Mary Ella O’Neill, John and Mary Ann’s second child, was born in Washington. Her godfather was P.J. Meehan, the owner-editor of the Irish American newspaper in New York City, the most powerful voice in Irish America. Margaret Lackey, wife of the prominent Virginian James Lackey, was Mary Ella’s godmother. Meehan, like all of O’Neill’s family, was also from New Jersey, making his home in Jersey City. Once again, John O’Neill bypassed his brother Bernard and other relatives from Elizabeth, fueling speculation that either the relationship between the now famous General O’Neill and his family was strained or celebrity status had changed the Fenian Brotherhood’s chief.12
Unknown to all, Mary Ella’s birth would signal the zenith of the O’Neill success. Though John was still in control of the F.B., politics had inevitably become a major factor in his life, much like it had Roberts, O’Mahony, Meehan, Stephens and dozens of others. Though now a proficient speaker, O’Neill was never cut out to be a politician, his rashness and fighting style not suited to the backroom wheeling and dealing of 19th century Irish-American politics. In order to secure the 1868 presidency, the soldier from Monaghan formed an alliance with Philadelphia businessman James Gibbons, the ‘Old Man’ of the Brotherhood and well respected by all sides of Fenians. Gibbons, was selected as second in command, and he successfully finessed O’Neill into having Gibbon’s own Philadelphia soldier hero named Secretary of War, and thus eliminating an O’Neill lightweight crony. General Michael Kerwin was, like O’Neill, a bona fide fighting professional, with a serious Civil War resume who had commanded a brigade of cavalry in the late war under Sheridan. This selection by Gibbons of Kerwin became the fulcrum in a split between O’Neill and his vice-president, never to be repaired. Meehan would compound O’Neill’s inability to govern by siding with the Gibbons wing, godfather or not.13
O’Neill was said to have been jealous of Kerwin, a mirror image of O’Neill as a soldier, with an even greater pedigree, and it has been suggested O’Neill saw in Kerwin a threat to his own eventual leadership, an unfounded concern. Some in the F.B., despite O’Neill’s apparent popularity, were beginning to question his compulsive confidence and his single-minded wish to fight, and saw instead his behavior as arrogant and manipulative.14
Cracks were also evident in the organizations financial statements. At one point in 1868 O’Neill asked for a $1 donation across the country among Fenian friends, members, and sympathizers. Always the optimist, he thought the appeal would add a million or more to the F.B. coffers, but he was shocked when only $8,000 was raised, hardly enough to invade a village, much less Canada. In October of 1868, the Fenian reserves were at about $20,000, but by the following April, 1869, there was only $3,800.15
There is little doubt that over the past two years O’Neill’s ego had grown, and he expected unquestioning loyalty from all Fenian camps. Within a short year, this flaw in O’Neill’s leadership had become a chasm, and Gibbons called a meeting in New York in February 1870 to cut off what many believed was O’Neill’s precipitous charge toward a second invasion.
What had begun as a political spate now turned ugly, as O’Neill’s attempted appointment of James Keenan as Secretary of Affairs was rejected, led by the voice of Meehan, O’Neill’s former great friend and godfather to his daughter a year prior. When Keenan heard Meehan call him simply a crony of O’Neill in Fenian Headquarters, Keenan followed the editor to the street and shot him in the back of the head. Amazingly, Meehan survived and carried the bullet in his head until he died in 1906 at 74, still a prominent and respected journalist and Irish rebel. Keenan was sentenced to ten years at Sing-Sing, and though the Limerick born Meehan helped secure him a pardon after five years, Keenan went insane and died soon after his release.16
The incident clearly hurt O’Neill’s standing among the Brotherhood, and soon many, urged to or not by Gibbons and Meehan, began questioning other aspects of his leadership, in particular his financial expenditures. John was not the businessman his brother Bernard was, had failed in at least two ventures, and had been living solely on the Fenian dole for several years. Despite being paid an outrageous $2,000 annual salary as president, O’Neill would not be the first politician to live perhaps a bit over his head, but guilty or not, the General was backed into a corner. O’Neill was also damaged by his love of a drop, and several leading Brotherhood figures were shocked at an April, 1870 strategy meeting at which O’Neill “appeared awfully drunk.”17
If he battled his Fenian foes, he surely would come out a loser to the savvy Gibbons wing, thus destroying his reputation – or worse. O’Neill realized he was at his best as a soldier, and his only chance was to invade, fight, and win. After all, the small attack at Ridgeway had brought him national acclaim for four years. Victory was the great equalizer, and should he be successful in Canada, his place in history would be secure.
But the Fenian Senate rejected the General when he called for an attack, and feeling desperate, O’Neill called his Fenian Military Officers Committee together in Troy, New York and simply told them he was authorizing an invasion. Whatever chance at keeping the F.B. together exploded, and the Senate expelled O’Neill as their president. General John O’Neill, realizing all his options but one had evaporated, held his own small convention and compulsively formed another branch of the Fenian Brotherhood.18 Under this banner, he launched the second invasion, frantic but always confidant. It would be an almost impossible task, but if John O’Neill had any chance of fulfilling old dreams and new hopes, he would be doomed by the most damning figure in Irish history – an informer.
Carrying the unlikely moniker of Henri Le Caron, the Englishman Thomas Bellis Beach had worked his way to America, fought in the Civil War, changed his name, and married a Catholic girl of Irish descent in Nashville, where he befriended the Monaghan soldier John O’Neill in 1865. Through an unusual series of letters home to his father in England, Le Caron became a paid informer against the Fenian Brotherhood for the British Home Office in 1867, shortly after Ridgeway, and for the rest of his life General John O’Neill’s every move would be known in both London and Canada. O’Neill was thus, at the apogee of his celebrity, unknowingly being squeezed both by his Fenian opponents and the spy he considered his most loyal adjutant.19 One O’Neill biographer would claim that “O’Neill quarreled with his advisers, and as a consequence, attempted a raid on May 25, 1870, and only a handful of Fenians joined him.”20 This was a charitable view to O’Neill’s problems, the truth being that all the F.B., but in particular, John O’Neill, accepted Le Caron, despite his distinct British accent that led some Chicago Fenians to suspect his pedigree as early as 1867.21
The Canadians, who paid him, were distrustful of Le Caron. John MacDonald, as Prime Minister, called him “nothing but a little draper,”22 a rather accurate description. Everybody thought him ‘odd’ but he was a good spy, and from 1867 until well after O’Neill’s death and into the 1890’s, he fooled everybody, much to the chagrin of Irish republicanism in Ireland and the United States. After the publication of his memoirs when he was ‘outed’ in 1890, several Fenian historians have correctly pointed out the obvious exaggerations, distortions, and lies detailed in Le Caron’s memoirs, but there can be no doubt he damaged the organization, and was responsible in large measure for the sudden fall of John O’Neill.23
Disastrously for O’Neill he allowed Le Caron access to all Fenian correspondence, and as early as June 1868 when O’Neill met with his old friend from Tennessee, President Andrew Johnson, he brought Le Caron along and introduced him as ‘Major’ Le Caron. For years afterward, the Fenian Brotherhood, the British Home Office, and the Canadian government paid the ugly, odd spy. Ironically, a week after meeting with President Johnson, O’Neill sent a missive to each of the 524 American Fenian Circles, with a warning “to look out for spies.” Many Fenians were paranoid about the issue of infiltration, but none ever took a serious look at Le Caron.24
In May 1869, Major Le Caron was appointed Inspector-General of the Fenians; the same post two years earlier that had spring boarded John O’Neill to stardom. This enabled the Englishman to supervise the acquisition of all weapons and drops, and from this date forward the Canadian government knew where every single rifle, handgun, and bullet was stored. By the spring of 1870, however, it didn’t matter, as O’Neill, backed into a corner, raised a few hundred loyal men and attempted a raid from Eccles Hill, Vermont, just over the border from Frelighsburg, Quebec. If the first invasion of 1866 was audacious, this second one was hopeless, if not ridiculous. The Canadians, of course, were waiting in ambush, thanks to Le Caron. As the first vanguard of O’Neill’s new Fenian group advanced toward the bridge at the border, the Canucks opened fire and a rout ensued. It was over so suddenly U.S. marshals calmly arrested John O’Neill, who never shied away from leading the action, before he could even take the field.25
The General still had influential friends, including Reverend James Quigley, famous pastor and author, as well as James Lackey of Washington, whose wife Margaret was O’Neill’s daughters godmother. But as these and half a dozen other wealthy celebrities were all from out of state, bail was delayed and consequently O’Neill stayed in jail with seven other prisoners until the trial started.26
John O’Neill pleaded guilty to the Breach of Neutrality Act, but gave a spirited speech asking for leniency based on his past record as a soldier in the service of the United States. Excerpts reveal his deep-set and most sincere feelings, learned long ago not in defense of America, but growing up in County Monaghan. After opening with his Civil War record, O’Neill got to the crux of his soul.
“As one of a persecuted race – as one who had suffered at the hands of tyranny and oppression in my native land, I came to America like thousands of my countrymen because I had been oppressed. But while I have felt the duties of an American citizen, and while I felt that I was duty bound to respect the laws of the land of my adoption, I could not, I cannot, and I never shall forget the land of my birth. I could not, while fighting in the armies of the United States, forget that I was born in another land – a land oppressed and tyrannized over. I cannot forget it; I shall never forget it. No matter what my fate here – I am still an Irishman, and while I have tried to be a faithful citizen of America, I am still an Irishman, with all the instincts of an Irishman.”27
The third part of his defense was his blaming of the Fenian Brotherhood hierarchy who did not support him. “I was not the originator of the scheme of freeing Ireland by an invasion of Canada, though I have been one of its warmest supporters, and have advocated it from almost every platform from Maine to Minnesota. I am sorry to have to confess that the men who originated it, and who urged myself and others to take part in the endeavor, basely and deliberately deserted us at the critical moment, and left us to our fate.”28
He continued, “Here I wish to be distinctly understood, that my love for Ireland remains the same, and my hatred of that flag which to the Irish people is the symbol of tyranny and oppression, can never be changed. That flag I desire to tear down. It is the English government that we hate – it is the English government that we desire to fight.” In the middle of his explanation, O’Neill gets to the heart of the matter. “As the matter now stands, the invasion appears to have been a ridiculous farce. Had the attempt succeeded, it would have been otherwise.”29
General John O’Neill, the Drumgallon boy raised to fight, continued “I did believe that a successful attempt could have been made, and I have believed it for years, and for years have labored to bring it about – but I am now satisfied, however, that any further attempt would be highly criminal, because there is not the slightest chance to be succeed. As far as my influence will go, I will use it to convince the Irish people in America that any further attempt would be futile.”30
In conclusion, O’Neill apologized for speaking for an hour, and added, “Perhaps the only legacy that I shall leave my children, the fact that their father fought and bled for this free land, which has offered a home and an asylum to so many thousands of the homeless and persecuted of Europe. It will always be my pride and pleasure that as long as life remains, that I have fought and bled for this land of my adoption.”31 These were not hollow words to O’Neill. MacDonald, his Canadian enemy, admiringly said, “His hatred of British institutions appears to have been so deep-seated he was willing to sacrifice not only his own liberty, but life itself.”32
Judge Woodruff disagreed, seeing correctly, that this was the second time the Fenians had violated American law, and just because they got away with it the first time, didn’t mean they could use the same defense. He argued that the only regret shown by O’Neill was the fact that it didn’t work, not because they were sorry. Woodruff stated, “The Court has listened to the history of your services in behalf of our own country, and the maintenance of its laws. But any real or supposed wrong of your country and countrymen furnishes no vindication, though it may in a sort explain the insane folly and wickedness of making that occasion of suffering and wrong to a people who are innocent, and it is idle to say that not indenting wrong to them you simply sought an injury to the government to which they owed allegiance.”33
Woodruff finished by simply saying, “Especially since we are dealing with a repetition of this offence, I am constrained to make an example, and the sentence of the Court is that you be imprisoned for the term of two years.”33
The leadership of the Fenian Brotherhood quietly let O’Neill suffer the pangs of defeat, arrest, and humiliation, but there were still many rank and file Irish-Americans who saw General John O’Neill as a quixotic Irish romantic, fighting their own fight, and who deserved a better fate. Donors from as far away as Wyoming raised money so that Mary Ann and the two children could move to Vermont and be near the incarcerated General. Pressure was imposed as well on President Grant from the Irish politicians and newspapermen like Horace Greely, who saw a good story in the O’Neill saga. Grant acquiesced and pardoned O’Neill and the other seven prisoners who altogether had served six months in jail.
Back in New Jersey, the state’s oldest newspaper, the Elizabeth Daily Journal, saw Eccles Hill much as did Judge Woodruff, and the hometown paper’s treatment of John O’Neill must have made the Macklin’s and O’Neill’s of that city cringe.
The Fenian Farce
The Fenian movement upon Canada has been the topic of conversation during the week. Small bodies of men have gathered on our northern frontier, and five hundred under command of General O’Neill, while advancing from Franklin, Vt., were fired upon by some Canadian militia. The fire was returned, and two Fenians were shot. After the skirmish, U.S. Marshall Foster, arrested the Fenian commander, O’Neill on the spot, and thrusting him into a carriage, drove him off to Burlington, a prisoner, leaving – as the telegrams say, his little army so demoralized that many of them eagerly turned their faces towards home and were franked home subsequently.
In England, the Fenian raid is generally commented on by the press. The promptitude of President Grant, in issuing the proclamation elicits praise, but the London Times eagerly calls on the Canadians to raise the Union Jack flag, and spare none of the marauders. In government circles in Washington the whole affair is looked upon as a device by the Fenian leaders to tickle more money of the rank and file of the Irish laboring population of the country, and we are inclined to look upon it in that light.35
Even while in prison, O’Neill recognized the need to get his side of the story to the Irish-American public, and he resorted to what he did best – go on the offensive. Helped by the New York publisher John J. Foster, O’Neill published a lengthy 62-page defense tract outlining all of his actions from Ridgeway to his release from jail. He attacked the entire Gibbons wing of the Fenian Brotherhood and was vehemently bitter towards P.J. Meehan. O’Neill described the editor as “The evil genius who went to work in his own particular style to foil my efforts by seeking to destroy my influence with the Brotherhood and ruin my character.”36
O’Neill also deflected any issue of monetary malfeasance, which had been whispered about but never proved, by saying “It is a well known fact that since 1868, the greater portion of the funds of the Fenian Brotherhood had passed through the hands of Mr. Meehan, as he had entire control of the payments made for arms.”37 But whispers are dangerous, and many believed O’Neill guilty - of something. Meehan was never investigated.
In the course of his detailed pamphlet, John O’Neill mentioned every person and organization who had pledged or given money for bail or family sustenance even if they had contributed as little as five dollars. There was no mention however, of anyone from Elizabeth, New Jersey named Macklin or O’Neill. Either O’Neill was one of the most private men in the world when it came to family, or something was clearly amiss. Only a year before the raid in Vermont, Uncle John Macklin had been the largest single contributor to a fundraiser at Saint Mary’s Church, donating $255, a spirited amount that would easily pay for a home in 1870. There was also no mention ever in O’Neill’s correspondence of his brother Bernard, who had contributed $150 dollars to the same Saint Mary fundraiser. In the entire city of Elizabeth, the donations of John and Bernard were in the top five givers.38 Not a dime, apparently, went to John O’Neill, unless given very privately. Meanwhile Thomas Beach, alias Henri Le Caron, quickly and quietly absented himself from Vermont and returned to his family in Illinois, nobody the wiser. Just as quickly, John O’Neill left Vermont with Mary Ann and the two children. He had promised Judge Woodruff and all of Irish-America he would desist from any future thoughts of military action against Canada, “As any further attempt would be criminal.”39 John O’Neill seemed finished with the Fenian movement; he was neither the first nor the last, but the question Mary Ann must have asked herself was “What will we do now?” John O’Neill was only thirty-five years old, had been in the spotlight for almost a decade – and liked it.
4 - MANITOBA
“The Irish have memories, imagination, a passionate involvement in history, traditions of rebellion, of sympathy for desperate causes, of a human, illogical respect for martyrdom.” --- Thomas Flanagan
General John O’Neill passed the early months of 1871 licking his wounds with his wife Mary Ann and their two children, John Hugh, four, and Mary Ella, two. Embarrassed, his leadership of the Fenian Brotherhood stripped, his income gone, many observers may have expected the proud and egotistical O’Neill to crawl into an historical hole, never to be seen or heard again. In fact, he did not even leave the Brotherhood.
Spurred on by the winter publication of his four-year account of his Fenian history, written in a Vermont jail, the general clung to his Fenian membership by his fingernails. Joined by his most loyal followers, O’Neill confidently switched allegiances, and retained a place in the minority Savage ‘wing’ of the Brotherhood. The Fenian leadership, despite their wish to isolate and marginalize the hero of Ridgeway, simply could not ignore O’Neill’s continued appeal throughout Irish America, where he remained extremely popular.1
How John supported his family, and what plans he had for the future are unknown, but after departing from Vermont there is some evidence the O’Neill’s relocated temporarily to New York. Now 36 years old, a career change was in order for the twice defeated but still widely admired ‘General.’ When William Roberts left the Fenians, he retired to Long Island and lived comfortably off his contacts and business. Former General Tom Sweeny resigned from the Fenians to keep his benefits and pension, and also enjoyed a post Brotherhood life. John O’Mahony, the oldest Fenian, returned to New York and lived a quiet life until he died at age 61 in 1877. Even Henri Le Caron could be found living a family life of sorts in the Chicago suburbs, no doubt thinking his harried four-year spying career was over.2
It should have been an easy transition for the devout Catholic O’Neill. He was still young, had a growing family as well as a successful and large extended family only fifteen miles away in Elizabeth, New Jersey that was not dependent upon him. Despite the misguided defeat at Eccles Hill, John O’Neill was still revered by the general Irish population, and numerous well-connected patrons throughout the country were in position to ease him through his early middle age. One thing was certain – the John O’Neill military career was over. Though like many ex-soldiers, O’Neill could and would carry his rank until death, both this country and Ireland would not need his military services. The United States would be at peace for more than thirty years, still reeling from the bloody Civil War; the 1867 miniature uprising in Ireland ended any future thought of armed rebellion until 1916; and most importantly, O’Neill himself had told Judge Woodruff in Vermont, “Any further (military) attempt would be criminal, and as far as my influence goes, I will use it to convince the Irish people in America that any further attempt would be futile.”3 Finally, the General told his own Fenian Brotherhood upon his return from prison he would have nothing to do with any Canadian invasion attempts when he published the above quote in his manifesto.
But out of the far West came a lone shadowy rider with similar exaggerated dreams of Irish freedom. Though rejected by every sensible government and Fenian official in Washington and New York, the Sligo born William Bernard O’Donoghue would capture the soul of John Charles O’Neill. As a result all promises to Judge Woodruff, the F.B., and Mary Ann and the children were turned to dust. Any hope Catherine O’Neill may have had for her youngest child, the one she so mistakenly had left in Ireland the longest, that he would return to a life of normalcy, disappeared when John and W.B. O’Donoghue shared their first drink.
The story of this third ’Fenian’ invasion of Canada is the one least covered by historians, but it may reveal the most about John O’Neill. First, it was not, unlike 1866 or 1870, a Fenian directed fight, though it has often been depicted as such.
W.B. O’Donoghue burst unto the North American scene as a 25 year old in the Red River area of present day Manitoba, where he had been studying for the priesthood. In 1868, as John O’Neill was preparing for a second term as Fenian Brotherhood president, O’Donoghue became entranced by Louis Riel’s ‘Red River Independence Movement’, and soon became a member of his cabinet. The Metis, a mixed race of European and Native American people, were seeking independence from the majority English speaking Dominion, and Riel, who was also part Irish, was their unquestioned leader.4
Historian Roy Johnson portrayed O’Donoghue in terms that could have made him O’Neill’s twin. “O’Donoghue,” said Johnson, “was an eloquent speaker (French and English) and an able organizer. O’Donoghue was fiery-tempered, proud, and egotistical.” Though not a Fenian himself, he was attracted to its principles. Like O’Neill, the good-looking O’Donoghue easily won loyal followers among the people of the west. The most troubling attribute the two men shared, however, was a “characteristic propensity” for impulsive action.5
In September 1870, at the direction of Metis leader Riel, O’Donoghue was dispatched to Washington with one assignment. He was to ask President Grant if he would appeal to the Queen to intercede in the dispute between the Canadian government and the Metis. O’Donoghue may have done so, but he also added a plea of his own for United States annexation of the western Canadian province. Grant, and every other Washington politician the irrepressible O’Donoghue reached, rejected both ideas without discussion.6
Undeterred, O’Donoghue travelled north to New York City and pitched his idea of annexation to the Fenian Senate, asking for arms, men, and military assistance, in effect, an army. With the memory of Eccles Hill only months old, the Irishman from the northwest was turned down flat, the Fenians finished forever with invasion plans in North America. He returned to Riel and the Red River with nothing, but doggedly returned to New York in the spring of 1871, and again his appeals were rejected – with one exception. John O’Neill, only four months removed from a Vermont prison, was entranced by O’Donoghue’s eloquence, persistence, and promises of glory.7
Once the entire Fenian organization realized that O’Neill was in the O’Donoghue camp, the General resigned completely from the Brotherhood he had sworn allegiance to six years before in Nashville. A deal was struck absolving the F.B. from any blame forthcoming between the two simpatico dreamers.8 One historian says John O’Neill apparently saw this as a final opportunity to “strike a blow against Great Britain.”9 But this is simplistic, and O’Neill did not behave like a sound military commander when he also boasted he could conduct the entire campaign alone. In truth, General John O’Neill had finally done to himself what the leadership of the Fenian Brotherhood could never do – rid themselves of the man who was once their brightest star.
The two Irishmen headed west, with much to accomplish for their planned attack against Manitoba, just south of the Red River. Presumably O’Neill began this trip alone, as Mary Ann and the children went to Elizabeth and moved in with John’s mother Catherine and sister Mary.10
The prospects for success were slim. O’Neill had no backing from the Fenians and O’Donoghue had now split with Riel, who also thought this invasion concept was beyond the pale. Instead, Riel turned and notified his English speaking Canadian enemies, and said he would remain loyal to the government, which he did, at least temporarily. 11Despite the odds, both men were convinced they would be successful, “like dogs barking at the moon.”12
O’Neill had never been to the high plains of the northwest, and O’Donoghue had no experience as a soldier.13 Compounding the situation, O’Neill stopped in Lockport, Illinois and visited his “most loyal and supportive” friend, Henri Le Caron. Even the heinous British spy was incredulous after O’Neill arrived and explained his mission. O’Neill asked for Le Caron’s help in acquiring arms. The odd little man, always on the lookout for cash, agreed to give O’Neill 400 modern breechloaders plus ammunition the former Inspector General had stashed away in a Fenian secret cache. The spy then wrote immediately to the Canadians, expecting, and receiving, a check for the information provided. This new escapade of O’Neill’s was so bizarre even Le Caron turned down an invitation to participate, so O’Neill and O’Donoghue continued northwest.14
Unaware the Canadians were now alerted, O’Neill and O’Donoghue headed for Saint Paul, Minnesota to raise money and men. For several months they gave impassioned speeches, passed around the collection plate, and used the prestige of O’Neill’s name to attract recruits. In what should have been an eye-opening omen, General John O’Neill left Minnesota and headed for Canada at the end of September with 35 men. By October 4, this force of untrained men, mostly the unemployed from St. Paul, was just south of the border near Pembina, North Dakota.15
Before deciding to invade Canada for the third time in five years with less than a stellar and committed laughingstock of an army, did O’Neill realize that American law enforcement and Canadian troops were prepared for them, and worse, that both the United States and Canada had agreed to let American soldiers seize any troublemakers? If so, it did not stop the man once called “a military genius”16 and a star of Irish pride in America.
The result of the raid was sadly predictable and ludicrous, though it would eventually enable the Canadians to make Manitoba a province sooner rather than later. O’Neill’s men captured a Hudson Bay Trading Post plus two deserted log buildings, only to discover much later they were still in the United States, and not in Canada. The approaching U.S. army under Captain Wheaton promptly dispersed the ‘invaders’ from Fort Pembina. Wheaton arrested a dozen men plus O’Neill, while another two dozen freedom fighters scattered hither and yon, leaving 300 stands of arms and 7,000 rounds of ammunition.17
The Metis that O’Donoghue expected to rise up by the hundreds never materialized, but four did grab the ex-seminarian and turn him over to the Canadian authorities, where he was promptly jailed. When the ‘battle’ was over, there had been no shots fired by the O’Neill forces, no fatalities, and no injuries except the military reputation of General John O’Neill.18
In what turned out to be typical frontier justice, the men arrested with O’Neill were soon simply released as “simple dupes”19 of the two Irish dreamers. After the initial embarrassment of surrendering his magnificent sword when arrested, and despite all that had led him to this lonely place, John O’Neill remained unchanged. In an interview he granted the day after his arrest, O’Neill’s confidence, arrogance, and denial was still quite apparent.
“The General looks to be in splendid condition physically, and so far as recent events are concerned, they do not seem to wear very greatly upon his elastic and hopeful mind,” wrote the reporter.
“I desire to state that if I had not been interfered with by the United States authorities, I would have had fully one thousand men with me,” said O’Neill. They would have been subject to my command for whatever I chose to do. I had enough men to resist Colonel Wheaton had I desired to fight United States soldiers. I had fought too long under the Stars and Stripes to want to fight United States troops, whether they had crossed the line legally or illegally.” O’Neill was then unaware he had never crossed over into Canadian territory, and he then attacked Wheaton, who had done his job simply and effectively.
“Instead of wearing the United States uniform, Wheaton would act with more propriety if he should wear the British uniform. As a prosecuting attorney, though, he made a perfect ass of himself, and showed a complete ignorance of the law. I believe the action of Colonel (Captain) Wheaton to be entirely unauthorized, in crossing into British territory and arresting anyone. Nor do I believe his conduct will be sanctioned either by the department commander, or at Washington.”
“Wheaton went into British territory and ordered his men to fire, and they did fire several volleys. It is surprising no one was killed. It was no fault of his that there was no one killed. Had there been any killed, I have no doubt he would have been guilty of murder.” One might wonder exactly what O’Neill expected with 35 armed men (or the expected thousand) when he attacked? He concluded the interview with the following. “I do not fear any arrest. I have fought and bled for the United States government. I am not aware that I have violated any law of the United States.”20
The disaster was complete when O’Neill, who totally believed he was in Canada at the time of the raid, was released after his lawyers explained he could not be convicted of attacking Canada when, in truth, he never got there. Months later, the prosecuting attorney agreed, and for the final time, Canada was saved from the Irish and General John O’Neill. But the soldier from Monaghan was lucky he did not get to Canada. W.B. O’Donoghue was quickly convicted by the Canadian court and sent to prison, where he stayed for six years before being pardoned in 1877 and evicted from the country. He moved to Saint Paul and taught school for one year before dying of tuberculosis on March 26, 1878, aged 35, two months after John O’Neill.21
O’Neill headed home to New Jersey, but stopped briefly to pay a visit to Le Caron, never imagining that twenty years later his loyal friend would pen a best selling memoir of his years as a spy. In it Le Caron called General John O’Neill “the most egotistical soul I ever met in my life. In his (O’Neill’s) belief the Irish cause lived, breathed, moved and had it’s being in John O’Neill.”22
After the stop in Illinois the General went to Elizabeth, where Mary Ann and the children awaited, along with all the Monaghan Macklin’s and O’Neill’s. As usual, he would not stay long.
“He could not walk the easy way to his destiny.”
---The Great Hunger Patrick Kavanagh,Monaghan Poet
In late November 1871 John O’Neill returned after the Dakota fiasco to Mary Ann and the children. In a scene he had visited before, the General had no job and no home, but found himself still the darling of a large percentage of the American Irish community. Many Irish-Americans read the press stories on the botched invasions, not with regret or apology, but as attacks motivated as prejudice against their Irish race. In this contrary way, O’Neill was thus further exalted, especially by the poor and downtrodden. Several press accounts of the Dakota raid praised O’Neill’s bearing, personality, and his unrelenting nationalist persuasion.1 After he was released from arrest with all charges forgotten, many were even convinced of the General’s public invincibility. John O’Neill, a fine soldier, had by now become a brilliant self-promoter.
Most reports on O’Neill’s life have him abandoning his military persona and starting a new life as a colonizer of the downtrodden eastern Irish for the beauty of the West, in particular, Nebraska. One 1919 commentator said “O’Neill turned his attention to the material welfare of his race, guiding them from the squalor of the mining zones of Scranton and Calumet to the broad fertile prairies of Nebraska.”2 Another added, “O’Neill shifted his attention to the founding of Irish colonies in the American Midwest.”3 Even a third has claimed the General “conceived the idea of establishing the Irish resettlement while a prisoner in Vermont.”4
In truth, John O’Neill never changed at all. Within months O’Neill left his family again, presumably with his mother in Elizabeth. Buoyed by his still popular standing, the General decided to earn his living on the lecture circuit. He would not be unique, as many G.A.R ex-officers did the same. Fellow New Jerseyan and ex-cavalry officer Judson Kilpatrick, a friend of O’Neill’s, made a very fine living traveling the country in 1871 and 1872 with a speech titled ‘Sherman’s March to the Sea’ (in which he had played only a minor role) and then later another lecture series on ‘Incidents and Battle Scenes of the Rebellion.’ The success of the lecherous, ugly little Kilpatrick, who was earning thousands for just a few talks, may have inspired the more appealing O’Neill, who had been a polished speaker for years.5
John O’Neill traveled all over the Midwest with appearances beginning as early as April 1872, and employed his nephew, John Joseph O’Neill of Elizabeth, as his agent.6 John J., just nineteen, was Bernard O’Neill’s oldest son, and the General would employ him in various capacities for the next six years. During the next year and a half, from April 1872 until November 1873, General John O’Neill lectured extensively, but never a mention of colonization in Nebraska or anywhere else. If nothing else, he was consistent. The lecture title, which was usually advertised for a week prior to appearance, would read:
Ireland –Past and Present
With An Account of the
Attempted Invasion of Canada
In 1866 and 1870
And the Causes of the Failure, also
The Object of Going to Manatoba, British
North America in 1871
Upon the Above
Be Delivered by
Gentleman and Lady 50c
Kilpatrick was paid $3,000 dollars to make twelve appearances in California during the same time period that John O’Neill spoke more than thirty times.8 O’Neill, unquestionably urged on by sincere Irish nationalism, had found a way to feed his family while still maintaining a high public profile.
It is possible, though highly unlikely, that Mary Ann and the two children traveled with the General. More probably, their mother, Aunt Mary, and grandmother Catherine raised the children of General John C. O’Neill at 16 Price Street in Elizabeth, jus blocks from the railroad station, and Uncle John Macklin’s store.
O’Neill spoke in more than eight states throughout the Midwest, avoiding for the most part the Northeast, where his greatest critics, The New York Times and the Irish-American, were found. A year and a half into his career as a professional speaker on Irish history, the country became mired in a serious economic depression, and O’Neill realized his lectures would not be sufficient to support his lifestyle. Indeed, there are signs that O’Neill was struggling. In a positive newspaper article from The Muscantine, Iowa, Evening Press of June 25, 1872 commented, “When he embraced Fenianism, General O’Neill was possessed of a fine competency, which he spent in the cause, and now, though broken in health and property, he still is sanguine of better days for Ireland and Irishmen.”9
While on tour in November 1873, he met with Mayo born Patrick Fahy, a land speculator interested in a town site in Holt County, Nebraska. Until this meeting, there is no public record that shows General John O’Neill had any interest in Irish resettlement, only in Irish freedom fighting. In fact, it was known in Nebraska that the General had no income and needed money, and he eagerly agreed to work as a land agent for Fahy for a salary of $600 on condition he would work on migration to Holt County among the Irish.10
After coming to terms with Fahy, O’Neill immediately visited the northern Nebraska location and the site met with his approval, whereupon he set off for the East to fulfill his contract. O’Neill, the eternal optimist, may have thought this would be a temporary and quick job, but he would work at it for six years with his accustomed zeal, and it would eventually kill him.
O’Neill set up a company he called ‘O’Neill’s Irish American Colonies,’ and he continued his speaking tours predominately in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois, but turned down no invitation anywhere. The indefatigable forty year old was still and always, an Irish nationalist first, and everything else, second. From December 1874 until his stroke three years later, O’Neill is said to have spoken to a hundred audiences, from New Jersey to Michigan.11 His new lectures, however, were exactly like the old ones, with one small addendum. O’Neill would open with a history of his time with the Fenians, discuss each ‘invasion’ of Canada, defend his strategies and honesty, castigate his “cowardly” enemies, and vowed to continue the fight to free Ireland. The last ten minutes of an hour talk O’Neill would argue for migration “from the overcrowded cities and states of the east to settle upon the cheap and free lands of the west.”12
General O’Neill added to his stump speech that once the Irish have moved west, “their improved circumstances can assist the cause of Irish liberty.” O’Neill continued, “I can safely promise some of the young men to assist me on the battlefield while the older ones are raising corn, flour, and potatoes to sustain them.” Ominously, the single-minded General added one of his correspondents “has enough men already to inaugurate the movement whenever ordered to do so.”13
Toward the lectures end, John O’Neill left no one in the audience unsure of his dual intentions. “I shall continue to furnish information on the subject of immigration and organize colonies. I shall travel throughout the country, and attend meetings and deliver lectures on Irish immigration and Irish Revolution, for I propose to have both these noble objects go hand in hand.”14
In conclusion, O’Neill’s lectures on migration took a back seat to the one true passion of his life. “I beg you fellow countrymen, to lend me your assistance. Give me one chance untrammeled, and you never regret it. The governing passion of my life, apart from my duty to my God, is to be at the head of an Irish army battling against England for Ireland’s rights; for this I live and for this, if necessary, I am willing to die.”15
O’Neill worked his colonization plans foremost in the Pennsylvania mining districts of Scranton and Pottstown, Pa. and the copper fields of Hancock and Red Jacket, Michigan, where economic depression, combined with awful working conditions, saw hunger and poverty reach astounding levels.16 One report showed fully one third of Pennsylvania workers “idle” and O’Neill’s pitch surely made sense to many. The General offered settlers wonderful terms of free title of “eighty acres within twenty miles of a railroad, or one hundred sixty acres if outside for only $18,” provided it be settled for five years. He asked in one questionnaire published in various newspapers, “Why are you content to work on the public projects and at coal mining when you might in a few years own farms of your own and become wealthy and influential people?” But despite the promise of a better life with almost no down payment, relocation cost money. O’Neill admitted that a family should not go west without $500 in capital, single men less, a considerable if not impossible task in the midst of a national depression.17
The man who invaded Canada was never a good businessman, and O’Neill was constantly looking for more money. This time Patrick Ford, the influential owner and editor of the Irish World stepped in to help, and bailed him out. The Galway born Ford kept O’Neill afloat, and six months after taking on the project, General John O’Neill ushered in his first colony, all Irish, on May 12, 1874. Thirteen men, two women, and three children arrived in the middle of a vast prairie – and nothing else. No trees, no railroad, no structures, just miles and miles of tall grass. By October, only five men were left, though they were buoyed by the arrival in November of three more Pennsylvania miners.18
It was hard not to be discouraged. None were farmers by trade, food had to be hunted or transported from the nearest railroad a hundred miles away, Indians were always feared, and grasshoppers plagued the entire area. As Gregory Passewitz pointed out in O’Neill, Nebraska, The First Quarter Century, “The town of O’Neill had no special drawing card to lure settlers. There were no valuable mineral deposits, the land was hard to farm and suffered from soil erosion and drought, and access to the region was by ox-drawn wagons. In short, there was no easy road to success except the lure of cheap land and the idea of a new fresh start in life.”19
The eight survived the first year, living in a 36 x 18 foot common sod house, until O’Neill’s second colony arrived in May 1875. This second group of about two dozen men, women, and children met eight very unhappy people, all of who blamed John O’Neill for their misfortunes. O’Neill was accused of deceit. He had, after all, promised the settlers they would be able to harvest 250-300 bushels per acre. Though those words were O’Neill’s, it was Patrick Fahy who had duped the General himself. Fahy had not fulfilled any of his promised assistance, and O’Neill had been absent all year recruiting in the East.20 After the General showed the previous correspondence with Fahy, which promised buildings and improvements, none of which the Omaha speculator provided, many, though not all, of the settlers regained trust in O’Neill.
O’Neill’s efforts were hindered by his own financial dealings with his boss. Fahy’s agreement was for O’Neill to bring in twenty-five families, and he was only able to get half, so Fahy withheld some of O’Neill’s agreed upon fee. O’Neill often had to cajole Fahy for his salary, and in one letter from the East he stated, “you treated me shamefully and would not even answer my letters or telegrams, but simply trifled with me.”21In the end, however, the Mayo man paid O’Neill all $600 with a $100 bonus. But if O’Neill’s long-term goal was to raise midwestern soldiers that would fight England, he was nonetheless committed to the Nebraska project, and O’Neill’s word was usually his bond.22
With arrival of his second colony, O’Neill seems to have had an epiphany of sorts, perhaps because his own wife, children, and nephews were now settled in O’Neill, and colonization became for the first time the most dominant theme in his life. He finally understood, in the words of singer Christy Moore, “some high ground is not worth taking, and some connections are not worth making.”23 Mary Ann had arrived in the spring of 1874 with the original colonists, but was pregnant and stayed in Omaha, 180 miles away. After Katherine (Kate) O’Neill was born on July 31, the General proved his own commitment to the Nebraska plan by arriving with his wife, John Hugh, 8, Mary Ella, 6, and the baby, Kate, nine months. In addition, he had convinced his brother Bernard’s two oldest sons to make the leap of faith and move from Elizabeth. John J. O’Neill, now 21, and Tom O’Neill, 18, were the General’s two oldest nephews. John J would play an important role, surveying and platting each colonists claim, the beginning of a fine career as an engineer, mostly in New Jersey.24 Indeed, the General seemed to finally understand his old military mission was over. “I have tried to do the best I could to give the Irish people their freedom at home, and for the time being at least, I have failed. I have now engaged in doing what I believe to be the next best thing.”25
Five months after arriving, these second colonists were living in sod or log houses, the nearest timber cut eighteen miles away, then hauled back to the new colony, now called O’Neill. The first frame building was erected in October 1875, and it became a store run by Patrick Hagerty. It would not be until the third colonists arrived in 1876 with the General from Chicago that much progress besides survival could be noticed. With the nation’s economy improving, O’Neill found one hundred and two more citizens to add to the population, and soon there would be a post office and a primitive school. In 1877 a fourth and final group of just under a hundred arrived with the General.26
With his characteristic confidence and zeal, O’Neill took “great pride in the results of his exertions, and well he may, for he has succeeded in establishing his colony with a very fine and intelligent people.”27 Some of the settlers were still not content, and complained that the overzealous General had betrayed them, and accused O’Neill of gross opportunism. They had a point. In a pamphlet O’Neill had published promoting the Holt County scheme, O’Neill stated, “If a man comes west in the spring he builds himself a small house of sods or cottonwood timber. He then plows a few acres, plants corn or potatoes in the sod. His cow is staked in a rich bottom, his patch of green vegetables grows in the front of his door, and four months after he arrived at his new home he is home indeed.”28 Out of necessity the settlers looked at the short term, survival, while O’Neill, to be gracious, had long-term vision in mind.
Nonetheless, O’Neill attached himself to the concept of the Irish in Nebraska with the same unbridled energy he had bestowed upon Fenianism. Chauncey Wiltse, a government surveyor, was unusually impressed. “General O’Neill is a stranger to me, I had met him but once previously to his present visit to Omaha, at O’Neill City. I found him at work making himself thoroughly acquainted with that entire section of the country. He has traveled over it in person, slept on the ground with no cover but for the wagon box, eating such food as campers-out are compelled to eat, often going hungry, enduring anything, no matter how great the hardship, so that he might become perfectly familiar with the country, and able to represent it from personal observation. I admire his course, and approve his undertaking. My sympathies and hopes are strongly in favor of General O’Neill.”29
O’Neill though, was not often in Nebraska, spending all winter months speaking, and cajoling influential groups to back his play out west. The General established an office and part time residence in a row house in Philadelphia, the official headquarters of O’Neill’s ‘Irish American Colonies,’ and traveled ceaselessly. While Mary Ann and the young O’Neill’s were barely surviving in a sod house on the prairie, Catherine O’Neill, 75, died on Price Street, “after a lingering illness,”30 in Elizabeth the day after Christmas, 1876. John may have been with her, as he had been speaking in eastern Pennsylvania for several weeks, but the local newspaper obituary mentioned only Bernard as a surviving son. Catherine was surrounded by the rest of the Macklin and O’Neill families, and buried at the small Saint Mary Cemetery.31 She had raised a famous son, a loving daughter Mary, and Bernard, a popular and successful merchant. The news did not reach Catherine’s daughter in law, or the five grandchildren in the town named after her youngest son, for weeks, and there would be no mass celebrated in Nebraska, as the first church in O’Neill would not be built for two more years.
By 1877, the colony of O’Neill was growing into a town, and Irish settlers sent by the General were populating new sites at Atkinson, Spalding, and Greeley, eventually cementing John Charles O’Neill’s future reputation in Nebraska history. O’Neill received a fine accolade from the Irish Catholic Benevolent Union Journal. “When others talked of the good to be done by colonization, General O’Neill selected a portion of Nebraska for the settlement of such as were willing to follow him. To be sure, he has been maligned and his efforts condemned, but no man, lay or ecclesiastic, can engage in this work without being censured. General O’Neill has stood the assaults on his motives, character and efforts as unflinchingly as he has bourne still more dangerous, though with more deadly attacks on his person.”32
But O’Neill’s efforts were taking a heavy toll both economically and emotionally. Despite assistance from Colonel John Atkinson of Detroit and John Kelly of Washington, John was heavily in debt again, and still drinking heavily.32 He appealed to the Catholic Church for compensation, reminding them of his colonization accomplishments, but was denied, and the Nebraska legislature followed suit. The third appeal, to the Irish Catholic Immigration Bureau, awarded O’Neill $1,000 for his efforts, enough for himself and Mary Ann to survive though just temporarily.33 But as the colony of O’Neill grew and prospered in 1878, that of its founder degenerated.
As the General struggled physically, he was struck a singularly bad blow with the 1877 publication of John Rutherford’s The Fenian Conspiracy. The book was well sourced but a totally bogus British account of the Fenian Brotherhood that could almost pass for fiction. Rutherford further damaged O’Neill’s standing in the Irish-American community nationwide, charging that the 1868 assassination of Thomas D’Arcy McGee in Montreal was ordered and orchestrated by O’Neill, then president of the Fenian Brotherhood. The accusation was a complete lie, but it stung O’Neill, whose battle beliefs decried murder. O’Neill had forever rejected assassination as an Irish weapon, insisting on “fair and honorable fight forever.”34 Even the loser Le Caron defended O’Neill on this issue, but it was too late, and the lie cut the sensitive O’Neill to the bone, and gave his enemies more reason to castigate him.35
By mid 1877, the General’s health deteriorated rapidly, in part due to severe asthma he had long suffered; the pace he kept; and unfortunately, the alcohol he abused for years. After a lecture in Little Rock, Arkansas in early November 1877, he caught a cold and returned to Mary Ann in O’Neill, now more secure in a newly framed house. On November 20, he suffered a stroke and was taken to Omaha.36
Mary Ann had loved the dashing soldier boy since she was fifteen, but she had to leave him at St. Joseph Hospital and return to her children in O’Neill. John O’Neill had placed Irish freedom and personal goals ahead of his own family, and now they were forced to protect themselves in the locale he had insisted they inhabit. For almost two months O’Neill lay in the hospital, when just after Christmas, he was discovered on the cold stone floor next to his bed, and developed pneumonia. Given the last rites, he died in his sleep at eleven p.m. on Monday, January 8, 1878. The hero of Ridgeway, his wife and family 180 miles away, was forty-four years old.38
The report announcing O’Neill’s death created headlines in the Irish-American, a paper that for years was less than friendly to the General. Though editorially in opposition to the old Fenian, the paper recognized the vast appeal O’Neill still possessed in the Irish-American community.
“A telegraphic dispatch from Omaha announces that General John O’Neill, while well known, both here and across the Atlantic, in connection with the Fenian movement against English domination in Ireland, died from the effects of a stroke. His career, though brief, was eventful. His figure will be a conspicuous one in the history of the times in which he lived; and it is only fitting that the truth regarding the part he played in the events by which he was surrounded should be put on the record.”
The reporter, no doubt editor P.J. Meehan himself, an old friend but older enemy, then faithfully recorded O’Neill’s early life, before mentioning the split prior to the second invasion at Eccles Hill. “He began to show restiveness and impatience with the prudent and cautious policy which the Fenian Senate, warned by the experience of former failure, had adopted. O’Neill fell into the error of Stephens, and set a date beyond which he would wait no longer, and the expedition resulted even more disastrously than he had been warned it would.”
The front-page article, with a huge drawing of the General’s profile, continued with some thoughts on his passing. “It was a sad end to what might, under proper guidance, have been a glorious career; but it was a conclusion of which he had been forewarned, but disregarded the warning. The effects of this second raid upon the Fenian organization in America was ruinous, but upon O’Neill himself the result told the most heavily – his prestige and following (in the F.B.) were gone, and he sunk out of sight.”
After mentioning O’Neill’s foray into colonization, the paper ended with kinder words. “In that service so different from that which the ardent soldier had hoped for – he died. In our short sighted human judgment we cannot help wishing rather that before errors of head, not of heart, diverted him from the path of true patriotism, General O’Neill had fallen in the flush of victory at Ridgeway, like so many of his race, with the old flag overhead, and the cry of ‘Ireland’ ringing in his ear. But He who orders all things ordained a different ending; and while we bow with submission to the ruling of an all wise Providence, we close the charitable portals of the grave over the failings of the dead and remembering only the good fight he fought in the cause of the Old Land, pray that Heaven in its mercy may receive the soul of the brave soldier John O’Neill.”
“We understand that General O’Neill is left with a widow and three orphan children. May God in his mercy pity and protect them in their sad bereavement.”39
There were conflicting reports about the General after his death, which would be perfectly consistent with his style of living. James MacDonald, O’Neill’s contemporary and one time enemy in 1866 and later the first Prime Minister of Canada, was an O’Neill admirer, yet he wrote in 1910, “Becoming disheartened and discouraged by his failures, he began drinking heavily, and soon became a wreck, subsequently dying alone and miserable as the result of his excesses, unwept, unhonoured, and unsung.”40 In the 1882 History of Holt County, William Cutler said, “He was buried, highly honored and sincerely mourned. It is not possible in a few words to give a just estimate of his character. His self-sacrificing spirit, his boundless generosity and his untiring zeal worked wonders.”41
Henri Le Caron always looked out for himself first, but few knew O’Neill better. In 1892 he said, “He took to drink and went entirely to the dogs, bringing to the verge of starvation an affectionate but broken-hearted wife. Drifting slowly downward through disgrace and drink, O’Neill, the once brilliant if egotistical Irishman, met a lone and miserable death.”42 In her 1936 study of O’Neill, Sister Mary Martin Langan said, “His death was much regretted by the general public, irrespective of nationality or religious sect.”43
The Chicago Irish Tribune reported the most complete report of the death of O’Neill. “General John O’Neill died at St. Joseph Hospital after nearly three months illness. About ten weeks ago, while at his home in O’Neill City, he suffered an attack of paralysis and came to Omaha for treatment. Under the direction of the most skilled physicians of Omaha he received Turkish baths for six weeks, his wife being in constant attendance. About a month ago he was removed to the Sisters Hospital where under the kind and attentive care of the good sisters, he improved gradually. Business requiring the attention of Mrs. O’Neill at her home she left him about a month before he died, feeling confident of his speedy recovery. Last Friday night he suffered a second attack, his right side, tongue, and the muscles of his throat being paralyzed. He lingered until eleven o’clock when he peacefully passed away. During his sickness he was continually visited by the Irishmen of Omaha, and particularly by his nephew John J. O’Neill, who has lately moved to Omaha.”
“The Emmett Monument Association of Omaha immediately took charge of the remains, and had them promptly attended to and removed to St. Philomena’s Church, where they lay in state until after High Mass Wednesday morning.”
“Rev. Father O’Brien delivered the funeral oration in a masterly and soul stirring manner. After giving a description of General O’Neill’s former life and service to the country in the U.S. Army, where he won laurels for himself, Father O’Brien remarked that he well remembered the morning he saw General O’Neill in 1866 in Buffalo, with his green tunic on, a brave, dashing, bold officer, as he came fresh from the field of battle, where he had risked his life for his adopted country.”
“Now giving up home and fortune for the country that gave him birth, and crossing the foaming Niagara, he met the army of a tyrant government, and before the sun set on Canadian soil, the proud Union Jack was dipped in the mud, and the Emerald Green rose once more. He tried it again at Eccles Hill, but if he failed, blame him not; he did his best. In after years he turned his attention to removing his countrymen from the slums and the alleys, and rum-holes of the crowded cities, to the fertile prairies of Nebraska, and making them independent farmers; but now he has died by the borders of the Missouri River, a penniless man.”
“The Reverend father stated that the E.M.A. met his hearty approval, and deserved the thanks of all Irishmen. The congregation was moved to tears during the discourse.”44
John Charles O’Neill, of Drumgallon townland, County Monaghan, was then buried at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Omaha. There has never been any report that stated if Mary Ann and the children were able to get to Omaha for the funeral, though it is hard to believe they did, Mary Ann was pregnant, and another 180 mile journey back to Omaha with or without three small children in the midst of a Nebraska winter might well have been impossible. All the pallbearers were Irishmen from Omaha, and none of the citizens of O’Neill were mentioned. Most telling, Bernard O’Neill made no effort to bring his brother’s body home to rest in New Jersey in the family plot at Saint Mary’s, a silent and harsh statement on family relations. No obituary appeared in the Elizabeth Daily Journal, where the O’Neill’s and Macklin’s had flourished for forty years.
Thirteen years later, feelings still ran strong in O’Neill about the death and burial of the General. When it was proposed to re-bury the founder and raise a monument in his honor, a spokesman stepped up for the majority in the town and said, “Leave him in Omaha. He led the Irish astray, and was the cause of their suffering tragic hardships.” These early citizens, who arrived with and because of John O’Neill, were determined that the General would not be honored within its borders. 45
Nonetheless, the final act in the life and death of General John O’Neill would take place forty-one years after his death in October 1919 when O’Neill would receive his monument. Again a group of Irish-Americans from the Omaha area, inspired by the fight for Irish Independence after 1916, raised the funds for a magnificent fifteen-foot structure dedicated to the memory of John Charles O’Neill of Drumgallon. With timing that would have made O’Neill proud, 150 Omaha Irish witnessed the monument unveiled by none other than Eamon de Valera, who was on a fundraising trek across the United States. The monument reads:
Hero of Ridgeway
Born in Ireland March 9, 1834
Died at Omaha, January 8, 1878
nature a brave man, by principle a soldier of liberty.
He fought with distinction for his adopted country
and was ever ready to draw his sword for his native land.
to perpetuate his memory this monument was erected
by the Irish nationalists. God save Ireland.45
After the General’s burial the widow Mary Ann was left alone in O’Neill with an unborn baby and three young children, eerily similar to Catherine O’Neill forty-four years before in Ireland. Alone and living in the midst of settlers who either loved or “were vehement in their dislike” of her late husband. 47Mary Ann, whose personal life began in tragedy, had followed her lover back and forth across the United States, and her only remaining relatives, the Macklin’s and O’Neill’s, were now 1400 miles away in Elizabeth. She and the children would never see them again. Within a year after his uncle’s death, John J. O’Neill left Omaha and returned to a private practice as an engineer in New Jersey, never to return to Nebraska.
6 - EPILOGUE
“Our Irish blunders are never blunders of the heart.”
--- Maria Edgeworth
The story of any immigrant running from famine, genocide, or war can never be told alone. There were no singular life stories emanating from Armenia in 1915; there are no isolated memories from Kosovo; and certainly no individual histories evolving from the Great Hunger in Ireland. Layers upon layers infect us all, and so the story of John Charles O’Neill cannot end with his life and death alone. No one person owns history, and thus any discussion of John O’Neill must involve that of the Aussie Mary Ann Crow, and the extended Macklin and O’Neill families from the recesses of Clontibert, County Monaghan.
John O’Neill’s death began a marked demise in the fortunes of both families, coincidence or not. One year after the General’s death in 1878, John Macklin, the patriarch, died in Elizabeth at age 57. Macklin had been the male leader of the family since 1840 when he and his sister Catherine O’Neill had immigrated to New Jersey. For almost forty years John Macklin had been a successful businessman and father, and his funeral was attended by every major figure in Elizabeth. John and his wife Jane (Murphy) had twelve children, ten of whom reached adulthood. Only the youngest, Charles, had sons, as six of the other ten remained unmarried or had no children. The Macklin name died out in America by 1950.1
George J. Macklin, the eldest son, was the only Macklin cousin close to John O’Neill. George was the best man at O’Neill’s wedding in 1864; the godfather of his only son in 1866; and fought with him at Ridgeway. But George left Nashville and soldier life after the Canadian affair and returned to Elizabeth, where he worked with his father as a clerk in the uptown grocery business until 1876. At age 32 he left New Jersey again, but this time for good. In 1900 the 56 year old George was still single and living alone in the Bowery in Manhattan, not a good place.2 After 1885 all surviving Macklin’s were found in different boroughs of New York City, their record of sixty years as a leading family in Elizabeth a thoroughly forgotten memory. The earlier Macklin’s are buried in the family plot at St. Mary’s Cemetery, while the others after 1900 are scattered throughout New York. Except for George, none of the large Macklin family followed the General into war or colonization.
John’s brother Bernard, as noted, remained his entire life in Elizabeth after arriving in 1843 at age thirteen. He and his wife Ann (Gafney) raised a family of eight, six boys, each of whom survived childhood.3 There is ample circumstantial evidence that Bernard and his famous younger brother were not particularly close, but that did not extend to all Bernard’s children.
The two oldest, John J. and Tom, worked with and followed their uncle John to Nebraska. John J. returned to New Jersey after the General’s death, and led a very successful life as an engineer throughout the East. He was the closest of all the O’Neill’s to the General, and as an older man gave further evidence of the split between brothers John and Bernard, with John J. seemingly siding with the General.
When John J. died on St Patrick’s Day in 1914 at his home in Jersey City at 61, he was a well-known civil engineer and architect. His obituary stated that he was “one of the founders of O’Neill City, the county seat of Holt County, Nebraska.”4 John J. had spent much of his adult life as the city engineer of East Orange, New Jersey, an affluent suburb ten miles north of Elizabeth. In late 1892, still a young man, he purchased a family plot at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in East Orange, where his wife Imogene and only son William would one day be buried. But John’s first act after the purchase was to remove his grandmother Catherine O’Neill, his aunt Mary O’Neill, and John’s sister Mary from the O’Neill family plot at St. Mary’s and have them interred in East Orange. He left his mother and father Bernard at Saint Mary’s, a silent but defining act.5
Tom O’Neill went with his older brother to Nebraska in 1874 as a seventeen year old colonist, and there is no way to know if Bernard and Ann approved, but Tom, like so many of the early settlers, left quickly, though he did not go home to New Jersey. This was not uncommon with early settlers, as James Cutler wrote in The History of Holt County, in 1882. “Most men prefer to endure the privations of a new country than subject themselves to the ridicule of their acquaintances, which would have been lavished upon them, upon a return to the conveniences, comforts, and delights of home.”6 Tom bounced around the Midwest for seven years, but on January 9, 1881, just three weeks after his 25th birthday, he was killed in an accident while working as a laborer at the Bass Foundry and Machine Works in Fort Wayne, Indiana.7
Bernard brought his young son’s body home immediately and he was buried in the O’Neill family plot at St. Mary’s. Three years previously, Bernard’s famous brother, General John O’Neill, had died alone, but Bernard and John Macklin, both of whom could afford it, left the General in Omaha.8
Bernard must have been crushed by Tom’s death, and it may be no accident that he died of a heart attack three months later at 51. The death of the popular downtown grocer was reported in the Elizabeth Daily Journal, and it is just as revealing for whom it does not mention.
“Mr. Bernard O’Neill died last night at his residence, 805 Elizabeth Avenue, in the 52 year of his age. He was moderately well yesterday afternoon, was about his store, and seemed to be suffering only from a little cold. He ate his supper and afterwards went upstairs. He was taken sick and though physicians were summoned, he died at 11 p.m.
Mr. O’Neill was born in County Monaghan, Ireland, in 1830 and came to this country in 1843. He has lived in this city, a respected citizen, for thirty-eight years, for twenty-six years of which time he has been engaged in business for himself. He has been honored in being elected year after year as assessor in the Third Ward in which he lived, and he filled the office acceptably and well for many years. He leaves a wife and six children. About three months ago he lost a son, who died very suddenly out West.”9
Of the eight O’Neill children, only one son, Bernard Jr., would raise another generation of Irish-Americans in Elizabeth. Bernard Jr. married local girl Sarah Murphy and raised eight more O’Neill’s. Another John O’Neill would eventually move to Danbury, Connecticut with his only daughter; another Tom O’Neill died even younger than his namesake; and Bernard III and George O’Neill, who both carried into the 1970’s names of long ago Macklin’s and O’Neill’s, stayed unmarried, living together at Lowden Avenue in Elizabeth with their spinster sister Irene.
Bernard was the first to go, dying at 78, the last perhaps to carry on the fighting O’Neill spirit. Bernard was for many years well known as a bantamweight and featherweight professional boxer, whose reputation spread throughout the East.10
George and Irene died in 1982, the last of the very popular and respected O’Neill’s in New Jersey, a hundred and forty two years after arriving to begin a new life from County Monaghan.11 But the Macklin and O’Neill’s in Elizabeth unfortunately cannot be mourned. The small St. Mary Cemetery, where most of the two families are buried, was closed soon after John Macklin’s son William was buried at age 30 after dying in New York in 1891. All headstones were knocked down in the 1950’s, and have now sunk into the earth, leaving the grounds looking like a fenced in suburban lawn of inner city Elizabeth. Though still well kept, the gates are locked and no visitors allowed, and no locations known in the two acre setting, leaving to mourn collectively the two thousand or so Irish buried there who came to Elizabeth for a new life.12
The histories of the General’s own family is one of survival, loss, and eventual peace and prosperity far away from Nebraska. Mary Ann was left in O’Neill. After giving birth to a baby girl she named Genevieve, she survived for two years on the prairie before marrying Irishman James Coughlin in O’Neill. The 38-year-old Coughlin had also been a Civil War veteran before finding his way to Nebraska from New York. Genevieve O’Neill did not survive, and would eventually be buried in Omaha with the General. Mary Ann and James would raise two daughters of their own, another Genevieve, and Grace, at their homestead at Spalding, in Greely County, sixty miles south of O’Neill.13 In 1891 Mary Ann filed a petition with the U.S. Pension Bureau, as the widow of John C. O’Neill of the 5th Indiana Cavalry.
In 1890 the Dependent Pension Amendment was passed, allowing any veteran of the war or their widows who had served honorably to qualify for a pension if at some time he had been disabled from manual labor, even if it was not war related. Mary Ann filed for a monthly lifetime check, saying that John O’Neill had contracted asthma as a result of his years with the cavalry.
Filing a first petition more than twenty-five years after the war ended created a massive federal bureaucracy, as each case had to prove injuries, illnesses, and family histories, and it obviously was more difficult for a widow to gather and prove records over a quarter century time period.
Mary Ann began the process as Mary Ann Coughlin, and had to show proof of her first marriage. She sent to St. Mary’s Church for records, and also asked young John J. O’Neill, then living in East Orange, and Mary O’Neill in Elizabeth, the General’s sister, for letters as witnesses to the 1864 marriage, evidence that the O’Neill’s of Nebraska and Elizabeth had stayed in written contact after the General’s death.14
In this first petition, Mary Ann listed her daughter as ‘Kate’ instead of Katherine, and Mary instead of Mary Ella. This caused confusion to pencil pushers in Washington and she was forced to explain these discrepancies by obtaining the children’s birth records in Omaha, Nashville, and Washington, all of which went back years and took much time to procure. Mary Ann even tracked down the physician who had attended the General when he died in Omaha, as well as two former friends from the war.15
By 1894, James Coughlin had died and Mary Ann, now the mother of five, had remarried again, this time to Henry Hads, a former Pennsylvania lieutenant in the Civil War. This third marriage caused more confusion, and Mary Ann’s claim was never approved, after almost a decade of letters, appeals, and pleading with the Pension Bureau.16
The Australian orphan died as Mary Ann Hads on February 6, 1902 in Elgin, Nebraska, fifty miles southeast of O’Neill, the state she had made home for 24 years. She was fifty-eight years old, and every bit as heroic – if not more - as her late husband. She is today remembered as the first buried Catholic in the new St. Boniface Cemetery in Elgin. In truth, she is living proof of the enigmatic and emblematic Irish Diaspora, whose unfortunate story is today often unknown, forgotten even among her own remaining family, even her obituary in Elgin lost to time.17 The Irish-Americans today stand upon her shoulders every bit as much as they do her more famous and mercurial youthful husband, John Charles O’Neill.
Mary Ann’s children, raised by their stepfather James Coughlin, fared better, a brutal fact of most immigrants. John Hugh O’Neill, the only son of General John O’Neill, married Margaret Donoghue in 1895 and raised three children in Spalding, before moving after Mary Ann’s death to San Diego, California.18 John Hugh and Margaret also had just one son, John Francis O’Neill, and three daughters, Helen, Grace, and Martha Ruth, known as Ruth. John Hugh became a successful pharmacist in San Diego, and like the O’Neill’s of Elizabeth, would never leave. Ruth, the only O’Neill not born in Nebraska, never married, but even marriage for Helen and Grace would not move them from their family, and all were parishioners of Our Lady of Angels in downtown San Diego. In truth, these O’Neill’s helped establish this Catholic Church in San Diego, much as John ‘s mother and uncle had done in Elizabeth, New Jersey.19
Early death, however, could never fully escape the O’Neill’s, especially the General’s three grandsons. In 1900 Mary Ella had become the widow Mary Steele, and was living with her brother John’s family in Spalding, along with her two sons, Donald, 4, and the wonderfully named Sam O’Neill Steele, 2.20 When John moved his family to San Diego in 1905, Donald Steele went with them, but disappears from record after 1910.21 After Mary Ella O’Neill Steele’s death of peritonitis in 1907 at age 36, a local Spalding family named Naughton adopted young Sam at age 10, but he didn’t stay long.22 In 1917, this grandson of General O’Neill roamed the Midwest like his grandfather, working railroad construction in St. Paul, Minnesota; in 1920, still single and working in Memphis; and in 1930, Sam was constructing railroad ties in Colbert County, Alabama.23
John Francis O’Neill, the third and last O’Neill west of New Jersey, inherited his grandfather’s nomadic genes like his cousin Sam Steele, and by the age of nineteen was in Arizona working as a miner in 1917. He even looked like the General, tall and slender, with dark black hair and brown hazel eyes.24 In 1918, John joined the U.S. Army, married, and settled in Texas. His grandfather would no doubt have mixed feelings, loving the young man’s desire to fight for his country, while more than a little upset that he would be fighting to protect England. If the young O’Neill were truly like his grandfather, he wouldn’t have paid the General any mind. Lieutenant John Francis O’Neill, a pilot, died at 33 in Texas in January 1929, and was appropriately buried in Omaha with his grandfather in 1939.25 John Hugh, the General’s only son, born in Washington D.C. just months before Ridgeway, died in San Diego at 73 in 1939, having established his own O’Neill legacy in Southern California.26
What then, do we remember of John C. O’Neill, the little boy left in Drumgallon without a father in 1834? Certainly his irrepressible fighting spirit in the Civil War, and his courageous and extreme willingness to fight for the freedom of his native land. Though critics defame his last two attempted invasions, there is no doubt among historians that had it not been for the O’Neill inspired attempts, the British North American provinces might never have become a Dominion. Certainly the events of June 1866 gave rise to a new phenomenon – Canadian nationalism. It may not have been O’Neill’s goals, but it counts. For sure, later historical eyes have treated the Fenians fitfully, but they altered the course of history in more than one country.
Though major attempts by British historians for over one hundred years have tried to diminish the Fenian movement – with some success - there can be little doubt the F.B. was a strong and viable force in the mid-nineteenth century. “The Fenians had over 50,000 actual members, many of them trained, and hundreds of thousands of ardent supporters; in just seven years, and despite clerical condemnation, Fenianism had become the most popular and powerful ethnic organization in Irish-American history.”27 In those seven corascatingly brilliant years, John O’Neill was the most visible, admired, and popular man to appear, whose life mirrored the rise and fall of the very organization he once led. Was he rash, stubborn, a poor businessman, and prone to a drink? So was General U.S. Grant.
The O’Neill’s and Macklin’s, who began their long journey as Americans in New Jersey in 1840, have given us much, especially a man with an indomitable spirit whose life force has been felt across the North American continent. John O’Neill was a paradox, it is true. He invaded Canada, only to be a major reason it became a free land. He preached Nebraska colonization, but spent little time there, and came close to, at times, abandonment of his wife and children. He drank too much, but preached temperance to the colonizers. All agreed the General was ego driven, but none doubted his sincerity. He was a devout Catholic, though the Church condemned the organization he led. O’Neill loved his family, but was at odds with his only brother and uncle.
The O’Neill legacy is of course the town he founded, now known as ‘The Irish Capital’ of Nebraska. Much is still made locally of General John O’Neill, with some past and current citizens referring to him in almost worshipful tones. But twice there have been efforts made in O’Neill to rebury the General and create a monument in his honor. Proposals both in 1887 and again in 1924 (as part of the town’s Semi-Centennial) were met with “bitter opposition,” and he stays in Omaha. 28
He was in short, enigmatic to the core, but he was never mediocre. One historian may have best summed up the inscrutable Irishman. “O’Neill’s mistakes were big ones; his accomplishments not less. The man O’Neill also grew, and much of what he was and became should not only be admired, but also imitated. The rest should be forgiven.”
With that all said, the greatest legacy of the fighting Fenian might be beyond his insistence on Irish freedom and his colonization program. Though John Hugh’s only son died young, his three daughters, the granddaughters of the General, have created a marvelous Irish-American birthright of their own. The oldest, Helen, married Nicholas Martin in San Diego, had five extremely successful children, including a lawyer, a nun, a teacher, and two respected businessmen. Both Helen and her husband Nicholas were recipients of papal awards in 1943. Though Helen would die at 94 in 1991, her spirit, humanitarianism and faith live on through her large extended family. 28
Helen’s sister Grace was no less a success, and definitely possessed some of the General’s nomadic genes. In 1925 Grace married Hans Nansen in Oslo, Norway, whom she met in California when he was visiting relatives. During WW II Mr. Nansen became a spokesman for the International Red Cross but when the Germans invaded Norway Grace and Hans became fugitives, before finally escaping to San Diego.
After the war Grace O’Neill Nansen built the most extensive library based on the life and accomplishments of her husband’s uncle, noted polar explorer Freidjet Nansen, who received the Nobel Peace prize in 1922 for his work in repatriating World War I prisoners of war and for a relief program for Russians. The foundation named for him, the Nansen International Office of Refugees, received the Nobel Peace Prize as well in 1938. Like Helen, Grace’s courage and civic responsibility is still seen in the San Diego area, long after her death in San Diego in 1988, age 89.29
Ironically, the memory of the Clontibert born John O’Neill, freedom fighter, was kept alive best by the only O’Neill born in California, where John and the Aussie orphan Mary Ann first met. Martha Ruth, always known as Ruth, collected, preserved, and spread the story of the General her whole unmarried life. She traveled over several decades to O’Neill, Nebraska, and was even found in Monaghan, Ireland, at the head of a parade honoring her grandfather late in her life. Ruth was the last O’Neill, dying in 1993, age 90, the keeper of the flame of John Charles O’Neill.30
1 – The Beginning
1 Henri Le Caron, Twenty-Five Years in the Secret Service: The Recollections of a Spy (London: William Heineman, 1892), p.40.
2 Irish-American, February 15, 1868.
3 Irish-American, Feb. 15, 1868; John Savage, Fenian Heroes and Martyrs (New York, Patrick Donahue Publishers, 1868), 383; Dictionary of American Biography (New York: Charles Scribners, 1962), Volume 7, 44-45; Irish-American, January 19, 1878.
Most biographies have O’Neill’s birth date correct, but recent attempts have apparently copied the birth date shown on his mausoleum (March 9), which was erected in 1919 in Omaha, but this date is incorrect.
4 John Savage, Fenian Heroes, 383-4.
Strangely, O’Neill’s mother’s name was never mentioned in any of the many articles or biographical material until 2000, when a supposed Irish relative came to O’Neill, Nebraska as the Grand Marshall of the local Saint Patrick Day Parade. Gerard O’Neill, an Irish politician, wrote that O’Neill’s mother was Elizabeth, and “her name is still remembered as in Beth’s Lane, just below where the O’Neill home was.” This is simply fiction. There is no proof as well that John O’Neill stayed with his paternal relatives at all. Rather, all signs point to Catherine and her children living with the Macklin’s, George and Mary. No O’Neill relative has unfortunately ever been identified, either in Ireland or America, either by the General in his many interviews, or other Macklin or O’Neill relatives. In the 1911 Ireland census, there were still three male Macklin’s in Clontibert Parish (Edward, George and Henry). There were no O’Neill’s left in the parish, though that of course does not preclude O’Neill’s nearby.
5 O’Grady, Brendan. Exiles and Islanders: The Irish Settlers of Prince Edward Island. Montreal: McGill University Press, 2004, 132-133.
6 Irish-American, Feb. 15, 1868; DAB, 44; John Savage, Fenian Heroes, 384.
Indeed, this is the single mention in all of the O’Neill material that ever referred to Catherine’s brother John Macklin, though he is not not named.
7 Elizabeth, New Jersey city directories, 1850-1880; 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880 Federal census, Elizabeth, NJ; Saint Mary R.C. Church records, Elizabeth, NJ; New Jersey State Archives, December 1876; Elizabeth Daily Journal, December 1876 and December 1879.
8 1850 Federal Census, Elizabeth, NJ; John Savage, Fenian Heroes, 383-4.
Several sources have Catherine arriving with Bernard and Mary (Langan in particular), but Savage is correct.
9 John Savage, Fenian Heroes, 383-4
10 Gerard O’Neill, Saint Patrick Day Speech, O’Neill, Nebraska, 2000; John Savage, Fenian Heroes, 383-4. Though Gerry O’Neill’s genealogy of O’Neill in Ireland is very suspect, he was helped by some of the General’s family, particularly Ruth O’Neill; so much of his American research can be helpful. Mr. O’Neill is a Sinn Fein politician.
11 Derek Warfield, “Fearghal O’Hanlon Memorial Lecture, An Phoblach, Sinn Fein Weekly, January 27, 2000.
12 Irish-American, Feb. 15, 1868; Gerry O’Neill, 2000; DAB, 44.
13 Federal census, Elizabeth NJ 1850; Elizabeth directories.
There were constant references, from friend and foe alike, as to the fine physical appearance of O’Neill. He spoke and wrote in Irish both in speeches and letter, no surprise to a boy raised in isolated Monaghan prior to the Famine. The O’Neill’s and Macklin’s lived under the same roof until at least 1854.
14 St. Mary marriage and baptismal records, 1846-1880.
Before he was married at 22, Bernard O’Neill was the best man at five weddings at St. Mary’s, and the godfather of two children, certainly not the record of a loner, introvert, or unpopular young man.
15 Author search of Federal census records, Elizabeth directories and church records. As well, there is nothing in the prolonged pension records of Mary Ann Coughlin, which included burial records, of any O’Neill’s in the United States. There is also no further record of any other related Macklin’s, except the ones found in Elizabeth, NJ.
16 Irish-American, Feb. 15, 1868; John Savage, Fenian Heroes, 384; Gerry O’Neill, 2000, DAB, 44.
17 Irish-American, Feb. 15, 1868; John Savage, Fenian Heroes, 384.
18 Irish-American, Feb. 15, 1868; Derek Warfield, 2000.
There is some debate about O’Neill’s involvement with the EMA. The I-A article said O’Neill belonged to the “Emmet Guards,” which may or may not have been associated with the national organization of the EMA. However, a leading Fenian expert, Michael Kane, says definitively that O’Neill was a private in the organization. As further proof, in 1878 the EMA took over the funeral and burial of the General (and the expenses), something they would likely not have done for a non-member.
19 Irish-American, Feb. 15, 1868; John Savage, Fenian Heroes, Gerry O’Neill, 2000; DAB, 44.
20 United States War Department- Adjutant General’s Office. John O’Neill records, December 23, 1893, George Ruggles, A.G.- Pension request 575.926.
There is no record if O’Neill accepted the Mormon offer or just left on his own. One biographer explained the O’Neill absence by saying he was fighting Indians, but that is inaccurate. The Irish-American of Feb.15, 1868, which included detailed descriptions of O’Neill’s life to that point, never mentioned the Mormon War or his desertion. Gerry O’Neill, 2000, excuses it as the army’s fault.
23 San Francisco City directories, 1858-60, SFPL.
24 www.records.nsw.gov.au. Pat and ‘Biddy’ Crow (maiden name Welsh) arrived on the Ship Enmore as assisted immigrants in October, 1841. Pat was 32 and Bridget 27. Reel 2144, page 92. By 1848 Pat declared insolvency, file number 05761. No doubt the Irish immigrants, now parents, were looking for their luck to change.
Marriage Certificate, Mary Ann O’Neill and James Coughlin, October 27, 1879, O’Neill, Nebraska; 1850 to 1900 Federal census records; Marriage record, St. Mary’s Church, 1864, Elizabeth, NJ; Nebraska Death Certificate, Mary Ellen Steele, May 1, 1907.
25 Jay Monaghan, Australians and the Gold Rush, 1849-54(Berkeley: U. of California Press), 47-48; Melbourne Argus, June 26, 1849.
26 Melbourne Herald, June, 1849; Monaghan, Australians and the Gold Rush, 47-48.
27 Sister Mary Ann Langan, General John O’Neill: Soldier, Fenian, and Leader of Irish Catholic Colonization in America. Dissertation at Notre Dame University, August, 1937; Le Caron, Twenty-Five Years, 99; Gerry O’Neill, 2000.
Langan, who had some family input, said she “was a student in a boarding school run by the Sisters of Charity,” a nice way perhaps of saying an orphanage. Le Caron said Mary Ann was in fact a nun, but this is incorrect. Sister Margaret Ann Gainey, archivist of the Sisters of Charity in California, told the author in an interview that at no time did a Mary Ann Crow profess any vows in the order, and believes Langan is correct. Indeed, Sister Margaret says it is very possible the order may have helped “match” the Australian orphan and O’Neill, the nuns making sure their orphan students ended up with a good prospective Catholic boy, which O’Neill surely was. Sister Margaret even went so far as to say the sisters even traveled east with the girls to their convent in Emmitsburg, Maryland to match them up.
28 Irish-American, Jan. 19, 1878.
29 Patrick Dowling, California, The Irish Dream, (San Francisco: Golden Gate Publishing, 1989), 21-49. Steve Weigand, The Sacramento Bee, January 18, 1998, ”The Gold Rush, An Era Remembered.”; Dr. Hugh Quigley, The Irish Race in California and on the Pacific Coast. San Francisco: A. Roman & Company, Publishers, 1878, 252-270.
31 Gerry O’Neill, 2000; United States Army records, A.G.’s Office, Geroge D. Ruggles, December 23, 1893. Pension request 575.926.
32 Irish-American, Jan. 19, 1878.
33 California State Military Museum; DAB, 44; Gerry O’Neill, 2000; John Savage, Fenian Heroes, 384-85
34 Irish-American, Feb. 15, 1868; John Savage, Fenian Heroes, 384-85; Gerry O’Neill, 2000; DAB, 44.
35 Irish-American, Feb. 15, 1868; John Savage, Fenian Heroes, 385
36 Irish-American, Feb. 15, 1868; John Savage, Fenian Heroes, 386.
Accounts vary as to the actual sites of O’Neill’s wound. The Battle of Cumberland, Nashville, Chattanooga and others, but O’Neill himself in a speech after the war says Taswell. The wound itself was never explained, though no one ever doubted its existence. Gerry O’Neill, in 2000 – with possible help from the family – says only “it was above the knee” which may explain why it was never mentioned.
37 Irish-American, Feb. 15, 1868; Gerry O’Neill, 2000.
38 San Francisco City directories, 1860-62, SFPL; 1860 Federal Census, San Francisco. In 1860 (and perhaps earlier), Mary Ann was working at the home of George Bissell, a very wealthy merchant. From 1861 to 1862 she was employed by the J.L. Watkins family as a nurse and domestic.
39 Irish-American, Feb. 15, 1868; Savage, Fenian Heroes, 384
40 Ibid, 384.
41 St. Mary Church records; Mary Ann Hads pension application, 1893, no. 575.926; John Savage, Fenian Heroes, 387-88; Gerry O’Neill, 2000.
42 St. Mary records, November 1864, Elizabeth, New Jersey.
43 DeeGee Lester, Tennessee’s Bold Fenian Men, Tennessee Historical Society, Winter, 1997, 267; Nashville City Directories, 1865; John Savage, Fenian Heroes, 388.
Chapter 2 - Ridgeway
1 Mabel Gregory Walker, The Fenian Movement. (Colorado Springs: Ralph Miles Publisher, 1969).
2 Benedict Maryniak, The Fenian Raid and the Battle of Ridgeway, June1-3, 155th New York Volunteer website. DeeGee Lester, Bold Fenian Men,
3 Benedict Mayniak, The Fenian Raid.
4 DeeGee Lester, Bold Fenian Men, 265-66.
5 Irish-American, Jan. 19, 1878; DeeGee Lester, Bold Fenian Men, 267; Derek Warfield, Feraghal O’Hanlon Lecture, 2000.
6 Benedict Maryniak, The Fenian Raid.
7 DeeGee Lester, Bold Fenian Men, 267; Walt Greisbach, The War that Never Happened,” Military History Online, June 6, 2007.
8 Michael Nolan, “John O’Neill, Fenian Invader of Canada and Founder of O’Neill, Nebraska.” Elkhorn Valley Newsletter, April 2002; Derek Warfield, 2000; O’Driscoll, Robert and Lorna Reynolds. The Untold Story: The Irish in Canada, (Toronto: Celtic Arts of Canada, 1988), Volume 1, 538-539.
9 DeeGee Lester, Bold Fenian Men, 267.
10 W.S. Neidhardt, Fenianism in North America, (Pennsylvania: Penn State University Press, 1975), 41-42.
11 Jack Morgan, Through American and Irish Wars – The Life and Times of General Thomas W. Sweeny, 1820-1892. (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2005), 1-13.
12 Jack Morgan, General Tom Sweeny, 3.
13 O’Neill family records, March 1866; Nashville Church records, March, 1866; U.S. Pension records, May 4, 1893.
14 Nashville City Directories, 1864-70, NPL.
15 John Taylor, Brotherhood Army Invades Canada in 1866,” Washington Times, February 24, 2001; Quebec Encyclopedia, Fenian Raids, 2005.
16 DeeGee Lester, Bold Fenian Men, 269-271; John Savage, Fenian Heroes, 388-91.
17Jack Morgan, General Tom Sweeny, 111.
18 Mabel Gregory Walker, The Fenian Movement.
19 John Taylor, Brotherhood Army.
20 William D’Arcy, The Fenian Movement in the United States, 1858-1886. (Washington: Catholic University press, 1947), 159-162; John Taylor, Brotherhood Army; DeeGee Lester, Bold Fenian Men, 271-2; John Savage, Fenian Heroes, 388-91; Irish-American, Feb. 15, 1868.
21 John A. MacDonald, Troublous Times In Canada, A History of the Fenian Raids of 1866 and 1870. Toronto, W. Johnston and Company, 1910, 32.
22 DeeGee Lester, Bold Fenian Men, 272-74; M.A. Langan, 20.
23 Welland County Historical Society, Volume II, Welland, Ontario, 1926. E.A. Cruikshank, The Fenian Raid of 1866, 46.
24 Welland County, Vol. II, Louis Blake Duff, Sam Johnston, Smuggler, Soldier, and Bearer of News, 86.
25I can’t find this.
26 W.S. Neidhardt, Fenianism in N.A., 89.
Chapter 3 – Eccles Hill
1 DeeGee Lester, Bold Fenian Men, 271-2; M.A Langan, 11; John Savage, Fenian Heroes, 392.
2 O’Neill was a major stump speaker not only at Fenian conventions, but in numerous Fenian outdoor “picnics” (fund raisers) – and in Chicago (on August 15, 1866 as one example) and New York spoke to great applause in front of more than a reported 100,000 people. Within one year of Ridgeway, John O’Neill would rely on his “cunning peasant” socialability for the rest of his life.
3 Brian Jenkins, Fenians and Anglo-American Relations During Reconstruction, 151.
4 Ibid, 151.
5 Jack Morgan, General Tom Sweeny, 148; John O’Neill, Official Report, 1870, 4. W.S. Neidhardt, Fenianism in N.A., 111.
6 Jack Morgan, General Tom Sweeny, 152.
7 William D’Arcy, The Fenian Movement, 166, 279, 303-4.
8 St. Mary Church records; New Jersey Archives; Elizabeth City directories; Elizabeth census records; O’Neill correspondence, 1890-1898.
9 St. Mary records; New Jersey State Archives.
10John O’Neill, Official Report of Gen. John O’Neill, president of the Fenian Brotherhood; on the attempt to invade Canada, May 25, 1870. New York, J.J. Foster, 12-14.
11William D’Arcy, The Fenian Movement, 354-56.
12 United States Pension Request 575.926; St. Patrick R.C. Church records, Washington, D.C. 1894.
13 Mike Ruddy, unpublished manuscript, John O’Neill’s Last Hurrah, Union City, Tennessee; James McCarroll, Battle of Ridgeway; Michael H. Kane, “Fenians@Rootswebcom,” December 22, 2005, Feb. 6, 2007.
14 Michael H. Kane, Feb. 6, 2007.
15 W.S. Neidhardt, Fenianism in N.A., 113, 116.
16 New York Gaelic-American, April 28, 1906. Obituary of P.J. Meehan.
17 D’Arcy McGee, The Fenian Movement, 354; Keneally, Thomas. The Great Shame, 500-1; Jack Morgan, General Tom Sweeny, 125.
18 John O’Neill, Official Report, 1870, 4-8.
19 Peter Edwards, Delusion, The True Story of Victorian Superspy Henri Le Caron. (Toronto:Key Porter Books, 2008); M.A. Langan, 20; Henri Le Caron, 76.
20 M.A. Langan, 20.
21 Mike Kane and author email correspondence.
22 Peter Edwards, Delusion, 73.
23 DAB, 44; DCB; Peter Edwards, Delusion, 47.
24 Jack Morgan, General Tom Sweeny, 125.
25, John O’Neill, Official Report, 1870, 22-23.
26, John O’Neill, Official Report 1870, 54.
27 Ibid, 58.
28 Ibid, 59.
29 Ibid, PAGE
30 Ibid, 59.
31 Ibid, 60.
32 John A. MacDonald, Troublous Times, 181-2.
33 John O’Neill, Official Report, 1870, 61.
34 John O’Neill, Official Report 1870, 61.
35 John O’Neill, Official Report 1870, 4.
36 John O’Neill, Official Report, 1870, 7.
37John O’Neill, Official Report 1870, 7.
38 Author search, St. Mary Rectory, Washington Avenue, Elizabeth, New Jersey.
39 John O’Neill, Official Report, 62.
Chapter 4 - Manitoba
1 Roy P. Johnson, The Fenian Invasion of 1871, Minnesota Historical Society, Series 3, 1950-1, 3.
2 Jack Morgan, General Tom Sweeny, 149-152; Henri Le Caron, Twenty-five Years, 101-103; Peter Edwards, Delusion.
3 John O’Neill, Official Report, 1870, 60.
4 DCB online, 2000; Roy P. Johnson, The Fenian Invasion, 32-33; M.A. Langan, 20.
5 Roy P. Johnson, The Fenian Invasion, 32.
6 Roy P. Johnson, The Fenian Invasion, 32-33; DCB online, 2000.
7 W.S. Neidhardt, Fenianism in North America. (University Park, Pa: University of Penn State Press, 1975), 126-127;Roy P. Johnson, The Fenian Invasion, 33.
8 Roy P. Johnson, The Fenian Invasion, 32.
9 Gerry O’Neill, 2000.
10 Fox family genealogy. The most ironical discovery of this research was finding Catherine O’Neill, and the O’Neill children, living right next door to Laurence and Catherine Fox, my great-great grandparents, on Price Street in Elizabeth. Proof of the General’s popularity is the very rare census notation next to Catherine O’Neill’s name, which is followed at the bottom of the page with “General O’Neill’s mother”.
Price Street, one block from the depot of the Central Railroad, is now a parking lot.
11 Ruth Swan, Unequal Justice – The Metis in O’Donoghue’s Raid of 1871,” Manitoba History, Number 39, Spring 2000; Robert O’Driscoll, The Untold Story, 393. Riel actually offered the Canadian government 250 Metis to fight O’Neill and O’Donoghue, but was distrusted, and the offer rejected.
12 Roy P. Johnson, The Fenian Invasion, 30.
13 O’Neill had been west but never north, while O’Donoghue, though a tough man, was never a trained soldier.
14 Henri Le Caron, Twenty-five Years, 98-99; Peter Edwards, Delusion, 104-106.
15 Roy P. Johnson, The Fenian Invasion, 34-37.
16 Derek Warfield, Memorial Lecture, 2000.
17 Roy P. Johnson, The Fenian Invasion, 35-37; Hereward Senior, The Last Invasion of Canada, 183-184.
18 Roy P. Johnson, The Fenian Invasion, 37.
19 Hereward Senior, The Last Invasion of Canada, 178-184.
20 St. Paul Pioneer, October 10, 1870.
21 Roy Johnson, The Fenian Invasion, 8; D.C.B. Online, William B. O’Donoghue.
22 Henri Le Caron, Twenty-five Years, 40.
Chapter 5 - Nebraska
1 Newark Evening News, November 10, 1871; St. Paul Pioneer, October 17, 1871; Roy P. Johnson, The Fenian Invasion.
2 E.H. Whalen, Omaha Speech, October 28, 1919, Holy Sepulchre Cemetery, Omaha, Nebraska.
3 Michael Nolan, John O’Neill, Fenian, 2002.
4 Gerry O’Neill, 2000; M.A. Langan, 23.
In an interview with the Omaha Herald in 1877, O’Neill was asked directly when he started colonizing, and he replied, “January, 1874.” This certainly shows the theory of O’Neill and his long range vision beginning in a Vermont jail to be wrong.
5 Samuel J. Martin, Kill-Cavalry, The Life of Union General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick, (New Jersey: Stackpole Press, 2000), 250-1.
6 U.S.Pension Request 575.926. 1893; Letter of John J. O’Neill to the Adjutant General.
7 Dubuque, Iowa, Times, May 28, 1872.
8 Samuel Martin, Kill-Cavalry, 251; M.A. Langan, 24; Gregory Passewitz, First Quarter Century, 8.
9 Muscantine, Iowa Evening Press, June 25, 1872.
10 M.A. Langan, 24; James Cutler, History of Holt County, (Chicago: Western Publishing Company, 1882), 4.
11 M.A. Langan, 19-24.
12 John O’Neill Address, December 8, 1876, 9. This became the stump speech for the following year.
13 O’Neill Address, 10.
14 O’Neill Address, 10.
15 O’Neill Address, 11.
16 Gregory Passewitz, First Quarter Century, 13.
17 Omaha Herald, April, 1877; M.A. Langan, 24-5; Gregory Passewitz, First Quarter Century, 17.
18 James Cutler, History of Holt County, PAGE; M.A. Langan, 24; Gregory Passewitz, First Quarter Century, 12. Passewitz, quoting Noonan, is the only other researcher to correctly point out O’Neill’s “conversion” to colonization came late in his life, not in Vermont or even after Manitoba.
19 Gregory Passewitz, “O’Neill, Nebraska, The First Quarter Century.”
20 M.A. Langan, 27-29; James Cutler, History of Holt County.
21 Gerald R. Noonan, A Characterization of General John O’Neill.
22 James Cutler, History of Holt County, 4; Holt County Independent, July 4, 1924.
23 Christy Moore, North and South of the River, 1995.
24 Birth records, St. Philomena Cathedral, Omaha, Nebraska, July 1874; Gregory Passewitz, The First Twenty-five Years, 25; Jersey Journal, March 18, 1914, obituary of John J. O’Neill.
25 Irish Catholic Benevolent Union Journal, 1877.
26 M.A. Langan, 30; James Cutler, History of Holt County, 2-3; Gregory Passewitz, The First Quarter Century, 17-22.
27 O’Neill Journal, July 3, 1924.
28 John O’Neill, Northern Nebraska as a Home for Immigrants, Sioux City, Iowa, 1875. Nebraska State Historical Society, March 2000.
29 O’Neill Journal, July 3, 1874.
30 Elizabeth Daily Journal, December 30, 1876; New Jersey State Archives, page 323, 1876-77 Death Certificates.
31 St. Mary Church records; Elizabeth Daily Journal, December 30, 1876.
32 Irish Catholic Benevolent Union Journal, Philadelphia, 1877.
33 Holt County Independent, July 4, 1924; The Irish Catholic Colonization Association of the United States, Champaign, Illionis: Twin City Publications, 1932; Nellie Snyder Yost, Before Today, The History of Holt County, Nebraska. O’Neill, Nebraska, Miles Publishing Company, 1976.
34 M.A. Langan, 24.
35 D.A.B., John O’Neill, Volume 7. Peter Edwards, Delusion, p. 63.
36 John Rutherford, The Secret History of the Fenian Conspiracy, (London, C. Kegan Pub. 1877) Volume 2, 307; Henri Le Caron,; Peter Edwards, Delusion.
37 James Cutler, History of Holt County; M.A. Langan, 38; Irish-American, Jan.19, 1878.
38 Irish-American, Jan.19, 1878; Pension request 575.926 physicians report; Omaha Herald Obituary, Jan. 9, 1878; M.A. Langan, 38.
39 Irish-American, Jan. 19, 1878.
40 John A. MacDonald, Troublous Times, 182.
41 James Cutler, History of Holt County, 6.
42 Henri Le Caron, Twenty-five Years, 99.
43 M.A. Langan, 39.
44 Chicago Irish-Tribune, January 10, 1878.
45 Gerald R. Noonan, “A Characterization of General John O’Neill in the Light of his Colonizing Effforts in the State of Nebraska, 1872-78.” A Master’s Dissertation, Minnesota, 1961.
46 Holy Sepulchre Cemetery, Omaha, Nebraska, October, 1919.
47. Gerald Noonan, A Characterization Of General John O’Neill,
Chapter 6 - Epilogue
1 New Jersey Archives, death certificate, John Macklin; Elizabeth Daily Journal, February 2, 1879; 1860, 1870, 1880, 1900 Federal census, New Jersey and New York.
2 St. Mary Church records, November 1864; Nashville Catholic Cathedral records, March 1866; Elizabeth city directories, 1868-90; Nashville directories, 1864-70, NPL; 1900 census, Manhattan, New York.
3 Federal census, 1860, 1870, 1880, Elizabeth, New Jersey; Elizabeth city directories, 1848-1900.
4 Jersey Journal, March 18, 1914; Holy Sepluchre Cemetery records, East Orange, New Jersey; New Jersey death certificate, #323, 1914. Ironically, John J. is buried in a cemetery with the same name (1400 miles apart) as his revered uncle, General John O’Neill.
5 Holy Sepulchre records, East Orange, NJ.
6 James Cutler, History of Holt County, 2.
7 Indiana death certificate, Fort Wayne, Indiana, Thomas O’Neill, January 9, 1881; St. Mary Cemetery records, January, 1881; Elizabeth Daily Journal, April 20, 1881; Allen County Public Library, Fort Wayne, Indiana records, 2009.
8 St. Mary Cemetery records, January, 1881; New Jersey State Archives, death certificate, Thomas O’Neill, January, 1881.
9 Elizabeth Daily Journal, April 20, 1881; New Jersey death certificate, Bernard O’Neill, April 19, 1881.
10 Elizabeth Daily Journal, December 29, 1975.
11 Elizabeth Daily Journal, October 25, 1982; December 5, 1982.
12 Author search; St. Mary Cemetery records, September, 2009.
13 Marriage certificate, October 27, 1879, Holt County, O’Neill, Nebraska, Reverend John Smith.
14 U.S.Pension request, 575.926, April 25, 1893, Mary Ann Coughlin, Fullerton, Nebraska.
15 An 1893 letter from James Scully of Vermont, a soldier who had served with O’Neill at Ridgeway; A 1894 letter from Dr. Victor Coffman, who had attended the death of General O’Neill in Omaha in 1878, both found in Coughlin pension request 575.926.
16 Pension request 575.926, Mary Ann Coughlin.
17 Saint Boniface R.C. Church records, February 1902. Sadly, the only newspaper which would have carried the obituary for Mary Ann, The Elgin Review, is missing one years microfilm – 1902.
18 1900 Federal census, Spalding, Nebraska; M.A. Langan, 2; Gerry O’Neill, 2000.
19 Our Lady of Angels R.C. baptism and marriage records, San Diego, California; Holy Cross Cemetery records, 4470 Hilltop Drive, San Diego, CA.
20 1900 Federal census, Spalding, Nebraska.
21 1910 Federal census, San Diego, CA. and Spalding, NE.
22 Nebraska death certificate, Mary E. Steele, April 22, 1907. Mary E., the O’Neill’s oldest daughter, is buried in the local Spalding, Nebraska Cemetery. None of the O’Neill’s was named after Patrick or Bridget Crow, Mary Ann’s parents.
23 St. Paul, Minnesota directories, 1917-18; WW 1 Draft registration, St. Paul, MN, 1917; 1920 Federal census, Memphis, Tennessee; 1930 Federal census, Colbert County, Alabama.
24 WW 1 draft registration, Arizona, John Francis O’Neill, 1917.
25 Telephone interview with John Martin, December 2009. Mr. Martin is the great grandson of General John O’Neill; Holy Sepulchre Cemetery records, Omaha, Nebraska.
26 San Diego Union Tribune, September 11, 1939.
27 Kerby A. Miller, Emigrants and Exiles – Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 336.
28 Gerald R. Noonan, A Characterization of General John O’Neill.
28 San Diego Union Tribune, September 11, 1991. Yes, both John Hugh and his sister both died on September 11, a day now remembered forever in America.
29 San Diego Union Tribune, April 10, 1988.
30 San Diego Union Tribune, December 3, 1998
Articles and Manuscripts
Cruikshank, E.A. “The Fenian Raid of 1866,” Welland County Historical Papers and Records. Ontario, Welland County Historical Society, 1926.
Dunn, J.F. “Recollections of the Battle of Ridgeway,” Welland County Historical Papers and Records. Ontario, Welland County Historical Society, 1926.
Hummel, Grace McCoy. “Personal Account of the Early Days of O’Neill, 1875-1876.” Nebraska State Historical Society.
Jackson, J.A., Gordon W. Leckie, and W.L. Morton, editors. “Paper Read Before the Historical and Scientific Society of Manitoba.” Winnipeg, 1952.
Johnson, Roy P. “The Fenian ‘Invasion’ of 1871.” Manitoba Historical Society, Series 3, 1950-51 Season.
Langan, Sister Mary Martin. “General John O’Neill, Soldier, Fenian, and Leader of Irish Catholic Colonization in America.” Master of Arts Thesis, Notre Dame University, Indiana, 1937.
Lester, DeeGee. “Tennessee’s Bold Fenian Men”. Tennessee Historical Quarterly, (Winter, 1997).
Maryniak, Benedict. “The Fenian Raid and Battle of Ridgeway, June 1-3, 1866. 155th NY Volunteer Website, Buffalo, New York
National Archives Records Administration, Washington, D.C. Civil War Pension Files and Regular Army Records. Mary Ann Coughlin, Pension request 575.926, 1893.
National Movement: Negotiations for Union of the Irish American Organizations. Transcribed from the Senate Wing newspaper, The Irish American, September 17, 1870.
Nolan, Michael. “John O’Neill: Fenian Invader of Canada and Founder of O’Neill, Nebraska.” Elkhorn Valley Museum Newsletter, March/April, 20002.
Noonan, Gerald R. “A Characterization of General John O’Neill in the Light of His Colonizing Efforts in the State of Nebraska, 1872-1878.” A Master of Arts Dissertation at St. Paul’s Seminary, Minnesota, 1961.
O’Neill, Gerard. “General John O’Neill.” Lecture given on Saint Patrick’s Day, O’Neill, Nebraska, 2000.
O’Neill, John. “Official Report of Gen. John O’Neill, president of the Fenian Brotherhood; on the attempt to invade Canada, May 25, 1870.” New York, J.J. Foster,1870.
O’Neill, John. Northern Nebraska As a Home for Immigrants, Sioux City, Iowa, 1875.
Passewitz, Gregory R. “O’Neill, Nebraska, The First Quarter Century.” A Master’s Thesis for the University of Nebraska at Omaha, August 1973.
Pritchett, John. “The So-Called Fenian Raid on Manitoba in 1871.” Canadian Historical Review, Vol. X, March, 1929.
Reavley, Albert. “Personal Experiences of the Fenian Raid.” Welland County Historical Society papers and Records. Ontario, Welland County Historical Society, 1926.
Ruddy, Michael. “O’Neill’s Last Hurrah.” Unpublished manuscript, Tennessee.
Shrek, M.G. “My Recollections of the Fenian Raid.” Welland County Historical Society Papers and Records. Ontario, Welland County Historical Society, 1926.
Sweeny, William M. The Fenian Invasion of Canada, 1866. New York, American Irish Historical Society, 1923.
Warfield, Derek. “John O’Neill and the Fenian Invasion of Canada.” Fearghal O’Hanlon Memorial Lecture, 2000. An Phoblacht, Sinn Fein Weekly.
Wells, George. “The Fenian Raid in Willoughby.” Welland County Historical Society Papers and Records. Ontario, Welland County Historical Society, 1926.
Whelan, E.H. “Dedication Speech of Monument at Gravesite of General John O’Neill,” Omaha, Nebraska, October 28, 1919.
The Irish Catholic Colonization Association of the United States. Champaign, Illionis: Twin City Publishers, 1932.
Yost, Nellie Snyder. Before Today, The History of Holt County, Nebraska. O’Neill, Nebraska, Miles Publishing Company, 1976.
Brown, Thomas N. Irish-American Nationalism, 1870-1890. Philadelphia, J.P. Lippincott, 1966.
Campbell, Malcolm. Ireland’s New Worlds- Immigrants, Politics, and Society in the United States and Australia. 1815-1922. Wisconsin, The University of Wisconsin Press, 2008.
Cutler, James. History of Holt County, Nebraska. Chicago: Western Historical Publishing Company, 1882.
D’Arcy, William. The Fenian Movement in the United States, 1858-1886. Washington, D.C., Catholic University Press, 1947.
Edwards, Peter. Delusion – The True Story of Victorian Superspy Henri LeCaron. Toronto: Key Porter Books, 2008.
Glazier, Michael. The Encyclopedia of the Irish in America. Indiana, Notre Dame University Press, 1999.
Hannigan, Dave. DeValera in America – The Rebel President and the Making of Irish Independence. New York, Palgrave. 2010.
Jenkins, Brian. Fenians and Anglo-American Relations During Reconstruction. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1969.
Keneally, Thomas. The Great Shame: and the Triumph of the Irish in the English Speaking World. New York: Doubleday, 1998.
Le Caron, Henri. Twenty-five Years in the Secret Service –The Recollections of a Spy. London: William Heineman, 1892.
MacDonald, John A. Troublous Times in Canada, A History of the Fenian Raids of 1866 and 1870. Toronto: W.S. Johnston and Company, 1910.
Metress, Seamus P. The Irish in Canada: An Introduction to the Literature. Toledo, Ohio: Great Lakes Irish Studies, No. 2, 1994.
Miller, Kirby A. Emigrants and Exiles – Ireland and the Exodus to North America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.
Monaghan, Jay. Australians and the Gold Rush – California and Down Under, 1849-1854. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966.
Morgan, Jack. Through American and Irish Wars – The Life and Times of General Thomas W. Sweeny, 1820-1892. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2005.
Neidhardt, W.S. Fenianism in North America. University Park: Penn State University Press, 1975.
O’Driscoll, Robert and Lorna Reynolds, The Untold Story, The Irish in Canada. 2 Volumes. Toronto: Celtic Arts of Canada, 1988.
O’Sullivan, Patrick, ed. The Irish in the New Communities. Volume 3. London: Leicester Press, 1997.
O’Grady, Brendan. Exiles and Islanders: The Irish Settlers of Prince Edward Island. Montreal: McGill University Press, 2004.
Quigley, Dr. Hugh. The Irish Race in California and on the Pacific Coast. San Francisco: A. Roman & Company, 1878.
Rutherford, John. The Secret History of the Fenian Conspiracy. London: C. Kegan, Paul & Company, 1877.
Savage, John. Fenian Heroes and Martyrs. New York: Patrick Donahoe, Publishers, 1892.
Senior, Hereward. The Last Invasion of Canada – The Fenian Raids, 1866-1870. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1991.
Slattery, T.P. They Got to Find Me Guilty Yet.” Toronto, Canada: Doubleday, 1972.
Davenport Daily Gazette
Dubuque (IA) Times
Elgin (NE) Review
Elizabeth (NJ) Daily Journal
Fort Wayne (IN) Democrat
Holt County (NE) Independent
Irish Catholic Benevolent Union Journal
Jersey City Jersey Journal
Lincoln (NE) Daily Leader
New York Times
New York Tribune
O’Neill (NE) Frontier
Oshkosh (WI) Daily Northwestern.
St. Paul (MN) Pioneer
St. Joseph (MO)Daily Gazette
Salt Lake Tribune
Waterloo (IA) Daily Chronicle
Ancestry.com. United States Federal Census records, 1840- 1930. www.ancestry.com.
California State Military Museum. www.militarymuseum.org/cpcrook.
Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online: www.biographi.ca.
Greater Omaha Genealogical Society, Omaha, Nebraska. www.gogsmembers.wordpress.com.
HistoryNet.com “Utah War” www.historynet.com
Military History Online. www.militaryhistoryonline.com
Victoria Public Library, Australia. www.records.nsws.gov.au.
155th New York Volunteers Web Site. www.acsu.buffalo.edu/-dbertuca/g/FenianRaid.