Remembering General John O'Neill – Irish Revolutionaries
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Remembering General John O'Neill

Remembering General John O'Neill

John O'Neill was born in Drumgallon, Clontibrit County Monaghan on March 9th 1834.

In 1848 during the Great Hunger O’Neill immigrated to the United States at the age of 14 to join his mother and older siblings at their home in Elizabeth, N.J. He attended school for a year and then held a number of jobs.

In 1857 he enlisted in the 2nd United States Dragoons and served in the Utah War (May 1857 – July 1858), apparently deserting afterwards to California.

In California, he joined the 1st Cavalry and served as a sergeant in the American Civil War with this regiment until December 1862, at which time he was commissioned as an officer in the 5th Indiana Cavalry.

He was credited as being a daring fighting officer but believed he had not received the due promotion, which led to a transfer to the 17th United States Colored Infantry as captain. He left the Union Army prior to the end of the conflict, marrying Mary Crow, with whom he had several children.

They settled in Tennesse where he was working as a claims agent, while in Tennesse O'Neill joined the militant Irish-American movement, the Fenian Brotherhood, which eschewed politics in favour of militant action to expel the British presence in Ireland. He attached himself to the group led by William Randall Roberts, who wished to attack Canada.

O'Neill, ranked as colonel, travelled to the Canada–US border with a group from Nashville to participate in the Fenian raids. The assigned commander of the expedition did not appear, so O'Neill took command. On 1 June 1866, he led a group of six hundred men across the Niagara River and occupied Fort Erie.

The following day, north of Ridgeway, Ontario, O'Neill's group encountered a detached column of Canadian volunteers, commanded by Lt-Col. Alfred Booker (mainly formed of the Queen's Own Rifles of Toronto and the 13th Battalion of Hamilton).

The inexperienced Canadians were routed by the Civil War veterans. O'Neill withdrew back to Fort Erie and fought a battle against a detachment led by John Stoughton Dennis. With overwhelming numbers of Canadian forces closing in, O'Neill oversaw a successful evacuation on the night of 2–3rd June back to United States territory. He was later charged with violating the neutrality laws of the USA, but it was dropped.

By 1867 O’Neill was one of the top Fenian leaders. For years he threatened to attack Canada once again, and he finally did so on May 25, 1870. But when the Canadians repulsed his raid along the Vermont border, O’Neill’s troops fled, and he was arrested by a U.S. marshall. Convicted and sentenced to two years in prison, O’Neill served only three months before being pardoned by President Ulysses S. Grant.

O’Neill promised that he would not again attack Canada, but then—without the support of the main Fenian organization—he launched a raid on Manitoba on October 5, 1871. After capturing a Hudson’s Bay post, he was taken into custody by U.S. troops. He won a quick release from the courts. Finished now with the Fenians, O’Neill took a job attracting Irish immigrants to settle a tract of land in Nebraska.

On January 7th 1878, when he died of a paralytic stroke; the county seat of Holt County, O'Neill, was named in his honour.


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