5 Undersung Moments in History You Probably Didn’t Learn About in Class
Christopher Klein on the Irish Invasion of Canada, the Plot to Steal Lincoln's Corpse, and More
A little over a year after the end of the Civil War, a private army of Irish-Americans marched into battle to undertake one of the most fantastical missions in military history—to kidnap Canada and ransom it for Ireland’s independence. It may sound like a bunch of blarney, but it’s a true story. In fact, the self-proclaimed Irish Republican Army attacked Canada from the United States not just once, but five times between 1866 and 1871 in what are collectively known as the Fenian Raids.
If you have never heard of the Fenian Raids before, you’re hardly alone. In fact, you could fill a library with books that tell amazing stories from the past that you never learned in your history classes. Here are five such little-known moments in history that are the subjects of riveting reads.
The Great Peshtigo Fire
On October 8, 1871, a fire ignited near Patrick and Catherine O’Leary’s barn on the southwest side of Chicago. Before it was extinguished, the blaze killed an estimated 300 people and destroyed thousands of buildings, not to mention the reputation of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow. Although the Great Chicago Fire passed into American history books as the country’s most famous conflagration, a far deadlier inferno struck 250 miles to the north on the same exact day. As Denise Gess and William Lutz chronicle in Firestorm at Peshtigo: A Town, Its People, and the Deadliest Fire in American History, it took a little more than an hour for a five-mile-wide wall of flames to reduce the rural logging town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin, to ashes. Whipped by tornado-force winds, the wildfire consumed the tinderbox of a village, along with a vast swath of drought-stricken wilderness. Although it killed over 2,000 people, including half the population of Peshtigo, the deadliest blaze in American history remains overshadowed by the Great Chicago Fire.
Paul Revere’s Court-Martial
Four years after Paul Revere’s midnight ride, the famous patriot found himself disgraced and under house arrest for his role in one of the worst naval disasters in American history. Denied a Continental Army commission in 1776, Revere had become a lieutenant colonel in the Massachusetts militia in command of the state’s artillery regiment. Dispatched to Maine’s Penobscot Bay in July 1779, Revere participated in the amphibious assault on British coastal positions that turned into one of the biggest fiascoes of the American Revolution, after patriot land and naval forces inexplicably stopped their attack and spent two weeks squabbling about how to proceed.
In the interim, British reinforcements arrived and destroyed the American fleet, in addition to killing hundreds of militiamen. Amid the chaos, Revere escaped into the Maine wilderness, wandered back to Boston, and faced charges of insubordination and cowardice. In The Court-Martial of Paul Revere: A Son of Liberty and America’s Forgotten Military Disaster, Michael M. Greenburg details how Revere went about regaining his reputation, while painting a far more complex portrait of the midnight rider—hardly beloved by his military subordinates—than we learned in our history books. Insisting on a court-martial to clear his name, Revere was acquitted by a military court in 1782.
The Sinking of “America’s Titanic”
Just over two weeks after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House, hundreds upon hundreds of Union Army veterans boarded the steamboat Sultana in Vicksburg, Mississippi, to voyage northward to home. These boys in blue had survived the Civil War’s ferocious battles and notorious prisoner-of-war camps, like Andersonville. Yet most of them would not survive the trip up the Mississippi River.
Straining under the weight of 2,400 passengers—six times the Sultana’s legal capacity—three of the paddle wheeler’s four coal-fired boilers exploded in the early morning hours of April 27, 1865. The blasts killed hundreds instantly. Those unable to swim—which were most of the passengers—were forced to make split-second decisions between burning or drowning. For days afterward, rescuers plucked bodies from trees near the blast zone and fished them from the Mississippi River as far as 200 miles downstream.
Although referred to as “America’s Titanic,” the Sultana disaster was even deadlier, claiming 300 more lives than the famed 1912 shipwreck. In Sultana: Surviving the Civil War, Prison, and the Worst Maritime Disaster in American History, Alan Huffman explains how greed and corruption contributed to the deaths of upwards of 1,800 people in the deadliest maritime disaster in American history.
Boston’s Great Molasses Flood
It may sound whimsical on the surface, but the tidal wave of molasses that swept through the North End neighborhood of Boston on January 15, 1919, was no laughing matter. In one of history’s strangest disasters, a 50-foot-tall molasses-holding tank exploded, propelling a 15-foot-high wall of the sugary-sweet substance through the streets at 35 miles per hour, smashing houses, elevated rail tracks, and firehouses in its path. The molasses cut a half-mile trail of destruction through the immigrant neighborhood.
Drawing on court documents, Stephen Puleo vividly describes the disaster while treating the 21 victims with the utmost dignity in his book, Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919. As Puleo recounts, the tank’s owner blamed Italian anarchists for bombing the massive vat, but it was corporate malfeasance that allowed structural defects in the steel tank to persist—until it finally burst in the wake of unseasonably warm temperatures. Dark Tide ties into broader themes of a tumultuous time in American history at the intersection of war, Prohibition, immigration, big business, and the anarchist movement.
The Plot to Kidnap Lincoln’s Body
Although the U.S. Secret Service wasn’t officially tasked with protecting the lives of presidents until 1901, it did come to the aid of a dead Commander-in-Chief years earlier. In one of the most bizarre plots in American history, a gang of Chicago counterfeiters in 1876 attempted to snatch the embalmed body of President Abraham Lincoln, who had ironically authorized the creation of the Secret Service just hours before his assassination.
In his book Stealing Lincoln’s Body, Thomas J. Craughwell details the gang’s outrageous scheme to kidnap the sixteenth president’s corpse for a ransom of $200,000 and the release of their best counterfeiter from prison. Secret Service agents, who at the time were responsible for catching counterfeiters, had infiltrated the gang and were waiting inside Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, Illinois, to thwart the grave-robbing operation. Craughwell also chronicles the extraordinary measures that would be taken in the aftermath of the caper to protect the presidential corpse, which was quickly moved to an unmarked grave and, eventually, encased in a steel cage and entombed under 10 feet of concrete.
Christopher Klein’s When the Irish Invaded Canada is out now from Doubleday.