Fenian Brotherhood Rifle: A Tale of Two Rebellions

Among the firearms of the American Civil War on offer at Rock Island Auction Company, some have a story beyond being part of the fight for the soul of the nation.

As the Union prepared for war, the Ordnance Department realized it was under-equipped and started looking for production and products, both home and overseas. Springfield Armory made the Model 1861 rifle musket but not in enough quantity. Among the companies contracted to boost production was Alfred Jenks & Son, located near Philadelphia. The company’s guns would be produced under the Bridesburg Machine Works.

The company sputtered and struggled to start making the long gun, with some rejected by for government use. The company eventually manufactured 98,000 rifle muskets. After the Civil War, some of these guns found their way into the arsenal of another rebellion.

Two Bridesburg Model 1863 rifle muskets, a variant of the popular Model 1861, bearing the marks of the Fenian Brotherhood, are on offer in Rock Island Auction Company’s June 21-23 Sporting & Collector Auction. The Fenian Brotherhood, in the name of Irish independence, launched raids into Canada in the years following the Civil War.

Fenian-musket-rifle-Bridesburg-closeupThis Model 1863 rifle musket is marked “1864” and “Bridesburg” marked on it as well as stamped “IN” on the stock to mark its ownership by the Fenian Brotherhood.

The Great Hunger and Irish Immigration

In Ireland, potatoes were a way of life in the 19th century. Farming was difficult, but potatoes grew in the Irish soil, and half of the Irish population relied on the tuber for their diet. In 1845, half of the potato crop failed because of blight, and the following year the crop was completely lost. In 1847, a lack of seeds limited the amount of potatoes grown and weren’t enough to support the British colony, kicking off a massive immigration.

One million people died of starvation and other famine related diseases like typhus, and millions more fled to escape the famine. Between 1841 and 1850, half of all immigrants to the United States were Irish.

The ruling British government proved to be either incompetent or indifferent to the famine and was terrible with its response and relief to it. The export of Irish meat and grain to Britain during the famine, while receiving underwhelming amounts of assistance, fueled some Irish peoples’ bitterness toward the British as they sought a new life abroad.

Fenian Brotherhood and Model 1863

Hundreds of thousands of Irish immigrants made their way to the United States and remained proud of their heritage. Many wanted an Irish republic and the British out of Ireland so Irish nationalist groups popped up, including the Fenian Brotherhood, in 1858. The Fenians wanted an Irish democratic republic with universal male suffrage and complete separation of church and state. The group’s name came from the mythic Fianna Eireann, legendary warriors led by Finn McCumhail, a seer and poet with a magic thumb that gave him wisdom.

Thousands of Fenians served in the Union Army during the Civil War. These veterans provided an opportunity for revolution and rebellion.  They would lead an invasion into Canada in 1866 and a failed uprising in Ireland the following year.

Fenian Brotherhood and the Canada Invasion

In 1866, Fenian leaders believed that if they could create a militia to make raids into Canada it would force the British Army to send its troops that were otherwise keeping Ireland in line. The United States and Great Britain had been on tense terms during the Civil War. The British government proclaimed neutrality, but allowed their companies to build ships and provide weapons to the Confederacy. The Fenians hoped the U.S. government to look the other way at their raids as a way to “unofficially” answer the British actions yet also remain officially neutral.

On June 3, about 600 to 1,000 men depending on the source, mostly Civil War veterans, crossed the Niagara River into Canada. The invading militia found its way to Fort Erie, a fort that had been used in the War of 1812, and occupied it. The following day, the Fenians confronted inexperienced Canadian troops and routed them at the Battle of Ridgeway. The militia returned to Fort Erie but were concerned that more experienced troops were closing in. By June 3, with a large force of Canadian troops closing in, the Fenians retreated back across the U.S. border.

Fenian-rifle-musket-marking-highlightThe Fenian Brotherhood raids into Canada involved mostly Irish-Americans who were also Civil War veterans, mostly from the Union side. The letters “IN” marked on the stock of the Model 1863 musket rifle indicate it was owned by the Fenian Brotherhood. The marking is circled in this photo.

President Andrew Johnson issued an executive order enforcing the neutrality law that made attacking Canada illegal. Arrests were made and weapons were seized. Most of the charges for violating the neutrality law were later dropped. In 1867, the Fenian rebellion in Ireland failed.

At the Fenian Brotherhood’s 1868 convention, the call for more raids was raised, so raids resumed in 1870. In May, the Fenians were roundly defeated at the Battle of Trout River, about 20 miles north of the Quebec/New York border. Upon their return to the U.S., Fenian leaders were imprisoned only to be pardoned by President Ulysses S. Grant a few months later.  Raids into Manitoba and Dakota Territory during 1871 drew fewer men and the raids faded away. Hopes that Irish-Canadians would be drawn into the fight or that the United States would be drawn to the Fenians’ cause never materialized. In 1880, the Fenian Brotherhood voted to disband.

It is believed that the Fenian Brotherhood’s general belief in armed insurrection inspired the Irish War of Independence that lasted from 1916 to 1921 when the Irish-Anglo Treaty was signed, giving the Irish independence.

Fenian Brotherhood and Bridesburg Model 1863

The Model 1861 would serve as the standard rifle musket for the Union Army in the Civil War. The muzzle-loading .58 caliber percussion long gun was manufactured at Massachusett’s Springfield Armory as well as by 20 companies contracted to make the gun. While muzzleloaders could be fired two or three times a minute, breechloaders like the Spencer carbine were coming into vogue and could fire about 10 times per minute.

Fenian-rifle-musket-lot-2309The Model 1861 rifle musket was the most widely used long gun by the Union Army in the Civil War. There are 14 lots available in RIAC’s June 21-23 Sporting & Collector Auction that contain the Model 1861.

In November 1862, a corporal in the 52nd Massachusetts Volunteers wrote:

“Our guns were issued to us the other day, beautiful pieces; of the most improved pattern—the Springfield rifled musket….Mine is behind me now, dark black—walnut stock, well oiled, so that the beauty of the wood is brought out, hollowed at the base, and smoothly fitted with steel, to correspond exactly to the curve of the shoulder, against which I shall have to press it many and many a time. The spring of the lock, just stiff and just limber enough; the eagle and stamp of the Government pressed into the steel [lock] plate; barrel, long and glistening—bound into its bed by gleaming rings—long and straight and so bright that when I present arms, and bring it before my face, I can see the nose and spectacles and the heavy beard on lip and chin, which already the camp is beginning to develop. Then the bayonet, straight and tapering, dazzling under a sunray, grooved delicately—as if it were meant to illustrate problems in conic sections—smooth to the finger as a surface of glass, and coming to a point sharp as a needle.”

It was the Model 1861’s bright and shiny finish that gave away troop positions to the Confederates, documented at the battles of Fredericksburg, Second Bull Run, and Petersburg.

The Model 1863 was essentially the Model 1861 with some modifications. The Type One had an improved hammer and muzzle retaining bands, while the Type Two offered a revised rear sight and spring retainers for the muzzle bands.

Fenian-musket-rifle-Bridesburg-markingThe Fenian Brotherhood made raids into Canada hoping to engage the British Army and draw them from Irish occupation in hopes of achieving Irish independence. They possessed Model 1863 musket rifles that were surplus from the Civil War, like this Bridesburg model.

Fenian Brotherhood Musket Rifle

The Fenian Brotherhood’s pride of place and desire for an Ireland free of British colonization could be seen as admirable despite the misguided attempts to provoke the British through their Canadian raids. As immigrants poured into the United States in the 19th century to make it a true melting pot of cultures and influences, a Fenian Brotherhood marked musket rifle is a symbol of Irish pride.

Two Fenian Brotherhood-marked Model 1863 rifle-muskets as well as examples of the Model 1861, carbines from Sharps, Spencer, Burnside, and even the Henry rifle that were all part of the war to keep a fractured nation together have examples available in the June 21-23 Sporting & Collector Auction.

Henry-rifleThe New Haven Arms Henry Rifle was ahead of its time as a repeating lever action. Many of the Henry rifles were purchased by or for Union troops later in the Civil War, including for use by the 3rd Veteran Volunteers. The serial number of this rifle from 1864 is within the range of others used by the 3rd Regiment U.S. Veteran Volunteers (7000-9000). It falls between rifles 7261 and 7266 listed in the serial number list of 3rd U.S.V.V. rifles on page 75 of “The Historic Henry Rifle” by Wiley Sword.


Celebrating Irish Americans: The Fenian Brotherhood, National Archives

What Happened to the Fenians after 1866, teachinghistory.org

The ’61 Springfield Rifle Musket, historynet.com

Great Famine, Britannica.com

Civil War Guns, by William B. Edwards

Rock Island Auction Company

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