On This Day

battle of ridgeway, fenian raid
Library and Archives Canada
“The Battle of Ridgeway,” a historically inaccurate
1869 illustration

On This Day: Fenians Launch Raid Into Canada

June 01, 2011 06:00 AM
by Denis Cummings
On June 1, 1866, members of the Irish nationalist Fenian Brotherhood crossed into British Canada, where they would defeat Canadian troops in a small battle before being arrested by American forces.

Fenians Cross Into Canada to Launch Raid

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The Fenian Brotherhood was a clandestine U.S.-based Irish nationalist organization, a sister organization of the Irish Republican Brotherhood in Ireland. The Fenian leadership planned to capture land in Canada to use in negotiations with the British for Irish independence. There was also hope that the raid could provoke a war between the United States and Canada, drawing British forces to North America.

The Fenian Brotherhood had become a large, powerful organization in the period after Civil War, but there were rifts among its leaders, writes P.G. Smith in Military History magazine. Founding member John O’Mahony broke with Fenian leadership and attempted a raid on Campobello Island in April 1866 that failed. A second raid was planned by O’Mahoney’s rival William Roberts for May 1866, under the command of former Union officers John O’Neill and Thomas Sweeny.

The Fenian force, primarily Irish immigrants and experienced Civil War soldiers, assembled in Buffalo. In the early morning hours of June 1, they crossed the Niagara River into Fort Erie, Ontario, where they unsuccessfully tried to recruit local Canadians.

The following day, O’Neill led a march of about 500 Fenians to nearby Ridgeway, where they encountered Canadian troops. After an hour of fighting, the Canadian troops, mistakenly believing that the Fenians were mounting a cavalry charge, formed a square and became sitting ducks for the Fenians, according to Smith.

Fenian fire weakened the Canadians, who retreated when O’Neill ordered a bayonet charge. Ten Canadians died and 37 were wounded by the Fenians, who had nine dead and 16 wounded.

Having won the Battle of Ridgeway, O’Neill decided to return to the United States. The Fenians defeated a second Canadian militia in a short but bloody skirmish on their way back to Fort Erie. They attempted to cross the Niagara River back to the U.S., but they were intercepted by an American gunboat and arrested.

The Fenian excitement here is rapidly subsiding, the so-called invasion having proved so ridiculous a failure,” wrote The New York Times, which labeled the raid the “Fenian Folly.”

The American government was sympathetic to the Fenians, and they were given short prison sentences or released. They would launch several other raids over the following four years, but all would be put down easily.

Background: The Fenian Brotherhood

The Fenian Brotherhood grew out of the Young Ireland movement, a nationalist group that split from Daniel O’Connell’s peaceful Repeal Association. Led by members of The Nation newspaper, it launched a doomed uprising in 1848 in the village of Ballingarry.

Afterward, many of its leaders escaped or were exiled to Europe and America, including John O’Mahony, who escaped to New York and founded the Fenian Brotherhood. He was soon joined in New York by Young Irelander Michael Donehy, while James Stephens founded a sister organization in Ireland called the Irish Republican Brotherhood. The Fenians created a series of cells, called Circles, and held large national conventions.

Many of the Fenians fought in the American Civil War, where they gained valuable military experience. Thomas Francis Meagher, who was not a Fenian but maintained close ties to its leaders, organized the 69th New York Infantry—the Irish Brigade—and Irish-born Gen. Thomas Sweeny recruited soldiers for the Fenian movement.

After the war, many Irish veterans had “nothing else to do” but fight for Irish independence, writes Michael Ruddy in the Civil War Times. Membership in the Fenians swelled and plans for armed conflicts were made.

The Raids and Canadian Independence

Though the Fenians were unsuccessful in advancing the Irish independence movement, the raids did help to unite Canada. The threat of foreign attacks spurred a nationalistic spirit in Canada just a year before it would be granted dominion status.

In 1910, Capt. John Alexander MacDonald wrote “Troublous Times In Canada, History of the Fenian Raids of 1866 and 1870,” a book documenting the Fenian raids in Canada.

He wrote, “The necessity of united action in defence, and co-operation in other matters for the benefit of the whole, was heartily admitted, and forthwith the Provinces joined hands and hearts in bringing about its early consummation. The full meaning of the motto, ‘United we Stand—Divided we Fall,’ was realized by the majority, and the necessary legislation … resulted in the birth of the Dominion of Canada on July 1st, 1867.”

Reference: Battle Re-enactment

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