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Fenian Raids: Invasions of British-ruled Canada

Originally published by Military History magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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In the first light of June 2, 1866, Colonel John O'Neill of the Fenian Brotherhood deployed his troops along Lime Ridge just outside Ridgeway, Ontario. The former Union cavalry officer must have wondered if the 500 Irish-American volunteers under his command would stand and fight when opposed by a Canadian militia brigade. He had chosen the battleground to his advantage and was well-aware that the approaching Canadian force was composed of poorly equipped, amateur soldiers. But at this point, all the young commander could do was wait.

O'Neill's force was one brigade of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), a secret revolutionary group founded in Dublin on March 17, 1858, by James Stephens. John O'Mahony headed the IRB's American wing, popularly known as the Fenian Brotherhood, which was composed of immigrants and Irish Americans whose ultimate goal was to free Ireland from British rule. While the IRB's original ambitions were limited to Ireland itself, a militant Fenian faction, led by William Roberts, advocated extending the war of liberation to British North America, an idea that gained popularity after the IRB leadership in Ireland was infiltrated and most of its leadership, including Stephens, was captured in September 1865.

The task of implementing Roberts' grand scheme was delegated to Brig. Gen. Thomas Sweeny, a veteran of the Mexican War (in which he had lost his right arm) and the Civil War, who had been appointed as the Fenians' secretary of war. A five-pronged attack would strike north across the border from Chicago, Ill.; Milwaukee, Wis.; Buffalo, N.Y.; Vermont and along the Saint Lawrence River. The objective was to hold Canada hostage by seizing major cities and transportation centers. If the Fenians were successful, they would enter negotiations with the British empire to exchange Canada for Ireland's independence.

More realistic members of the Fenian Brotherhood understood the far-fetched nature of the plan. They focused instead on the more likely possibility that the attack could precipitate war between the United States and Great Britain, or at least cause enough of a disturbance to force the British empire to reinforce Canada with large numbers of Regular troops. Either of those circumstances would create a favorable climate for an armed uprising in Ireland itself.

By April 1866, thousands of volunteers, many of whom were Civil War veterans, had been organized into secret Fenian regiments. Former Union and Confederate soldiers, united in a common Irish cause, drilled and imparted their experience to new recruits. The Fenian hierarchy had established a centralized command structure and a clandestine system of logistics, which was financed by donations from Irish-American communities. They had weapons, ammunition and manpower. It was time to strike.

The journey toward Ridgeway began on May 22, when O'Neill received orders to mobilize the men of his 13th Tennessee Fenian Regiment and move to Cleveland, Ohio, by train. At Louisville, Ky., he was joined by Colonel Owen Starr and the 17th Kentucky Fenian Regiment. Word reached them in Cleveland that the attack across the Great Lakes had been aborted, effectively pruning one prong from the original offensive plan. The two regiments, with a combined strength of 342, were ordered to proceed to Buffalo.

When O'Neill's and Starr's Fenian regiments arrived in Buffalo on May 29, they were quickly broken up into small groups and taken into the homes of members of the local Irish-American community. The Tennessee and Kentucky troops, combined with the 18th Ohio Fenian Regiment and the 7th New York Fenian Regiment, swelled the ranks of the Irish-American force in Buffalo to more than 1,000.

'Fighting Tom' Sweeny met with senior Fenian leaders to finalize the plan of attack and designate a chain of command, since the appointed commander had failed to arrive. In the end, 32-year-old Colonel John O'Neill was placed in overall command of the force.

Just after midnight on June 1, Colonel Starr and a small advance party slipped across the Niagara River and quietly secured the tiny village of Bertie Township, Ontario. O'Neill followed in the early morning hours, with four canal boats and two tugboats carrying his army of 800 eager volunteers.

The price of the Fenians' complex mobilization efforts was a deplorable lack of operations security. War plans were well-known and freely discussed in Irish-American communities, and British informers easily infiltrated the Fenian ranks. Correspondence from the British Embassy in Washington notified authorities in Canada of virtually every Fenian move.

As early as March 1866, 10,000 Canadian militia volunteers had been stationed at the border in anticipation of an assault on St. Patrick's Day. Many of those militia units, however, were armed with outdated, poorly maintained weapons and lacked basic field equipment. There was also a serious shortage of trained leadership, since there were no qualifications for militia officers other than social status. Field Marshal Garnet Wolseley, who served in Canada for nine years, assessed the country's military preparedness at that time: 'The Canadians are a splendid race of men and they make first rate soldiers; but officers accustomed to command, or who were even instructed in the art of commanding were then few.' Nevertheless, the Canadians took up their positions at the border and waited.

In April, O'Mahony, hoping to reassert his slipping leadership, assembled his own force of several hundred Fenians at Eastport, Maine, with the intention of capturing nearby Campobello Island (later to become the summer residence of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt). British military authorities dispatched a gunboat to the island and deployed a regiment of Regulars. The Fenians soon lost heart and began to drift back to their homes. The die-hards of the group were finally dispersed by a delegation of U.S. Army officers, led by Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade. After that incident, the Fenian threat must have seemed considerably less formidable on the northern side of the border, but with O'Mahony discredited, Roberts was in fact left in a better position to organize the radical Fenians. Most Canadian militia units were withdrawn from their positions and demobilized. The border lay almost unguarded. In spite of the excellent intelligence supplied by the British Embassy, the Canadians were quite unprepared for what occurred next.

There was no sign of opposition as Colonel O'Neill formed up his small army on the morning of June 1, 1866. His objective was to seize the Welland Canal, which would paralyze shipping between Lakes Erie and Ontario. At 9 a.m., his troops marched off in two columns under their green banners–the main element would establish camp near Fort Erie while a smaller element, under O'Neill's direct command, captured the nearby rail yard.

The Fenians selected the farm of Thomas Newbiggin for their campsite. Apparently they treated Newbiggin and the other local residents with consideration, but fences, ripe crops and chickens did not fare so well. Newbiggin later described the Fenian army: 'There was no uniform dress, and except for some United States Army uniforms which were worn, and some peculiar green jackets, there was nothing to distinguish them from an ordinary gathering of about one thousand men. Some were old men and several others youths not exceeding fifteen years of age.'

O'Neill's force reached the rail yard shortly after a locomotive had chugged away with the last of the rolling stock. A small party set off on a handcar but could not catch up to the train. After burning a bridge, this group joined the main body at Newbiggin's farm. Late in the afternoon a reconnaissance patrol spotted a group of mounted civilians to the north. O'Neill correctly surmised that they were Canadian scouts. He undoubtedly knew, at that point, that his presence on foreign soil was about to be contested.

Upon hearing of the Fenian concentration in Buffalo on May 31, Canadian military authorities had called out 14,000 militia volunteers, but the newly mobilized troops were not in position to oppose the Fenian landing. By June 1, however, two forces were gathering to dislodge the invaders. At the north end of the Welland Canal, near St. Catharines, Colonel George Peacocke assembled a force of 1,700 troops, which included the British 16th and 47th regiments of foot and a six-gun field battery. At Port Colborne, the southern end of the Welland Canal, Lt. Col. Alfred Booker took command of an 850-man force composed of the 2nd Militia Battalion, Queen's Own Rifles (QOR), the red-coated 13th Battalion of Infantry (Hamilton), and the York and Caledonia rifle companies.

A 42-year-old businessman from Hamilton, Ontario, Booker had never led a body of troops larger than a battalion. Now he found himself in command of a brigade manned primarily by excited college students from Toronto. He had no staff, no heavy weapons and no logistical support. Colonel Peacocke, perhaps realizing the vulnerability of the militia force, ordered Booker to rendezvous with him at Stevensville on June 2. Accordingly, Booker loaded his force on rail cars in the early hours of June 2 and headed for Ridgeway, the railhead nearest to Stevensville.

O'Neill, through his own intelligence sources, became aware of the two forces that were massing against him on the night of June 1. He clearly understood that if Booker and Peacocke linked up at Stevensville, his army would have to face a numerically superior force backed by artillery support. O'Neill knew that his only chance for success was to intercept Booker's militia between Ridgeway and Stevensville.

In the early morning of June 2, O'Neill gave orders for his 7th, 13th, 17th and 18th Irish Republican Army (IRA) regiments to break camp and march toward Ridgeway. Before moving out, he ensured that his troops destroyed 1,000 extra muskets, with which he had meant to arm the Irish Canadians who had been expected to flock to his colors.

The Fenians took up positions on Lime Ridge, which overlooked the road to Stevensville. O'Neill placed pickets across the road, and his small army, which now numbered about 500, prepared for battle.

Booker's force arrived in Ridgeway soon after dawn. Local farmers told him that the Fenians were just outside of town, but Booker held fast to his belief in earlier reports that they were farther away. He ordered his tired and hungry troops to fall in and set off for Stevensville.

Number 5 Company, QOR, which was the lead element, came under fire as it approached Lime Ridge. That company had been placed in the lead because it was armed with Spencer repeating rifles instead of the outdated muzzleloading Enfields carried by the other militia units. But since the troops had just received these new weapons on the previous day, it is doubtful that their accuracy matched their rate of fire.

Booker quickly deployed his force and closed with the Fenians. For more than an hour the Canadians and Fenians exchanged fire from behind rocks and trees. The Queen's Own Rifles, who had been issued only 28 rounds per man for their Spencers, began to run out of ammunition. Then the Canadians' first mistake came to light–the reserve ammunition had been left at the railhead in Ridgeway. They pulled back, to be replaced by three companies of the 13th Battalion, but things were about to get even worse for the Canadians.

O'Neill and his staff, who were on horseback, came forward to get a closer look at the battle action. As the mounted men approached, the inexperienced Canadians assumed that the Fenians were preparing for a cavalry charge. Private George MacKenzie of the 13th Battalion described what happened next: 'Then came that ridiculous and forever inexplicable alarm which turned our expected victory into defeat–the cry of 'Cavalry.' It is said to have originated with the shouts of some excited skirmishers; it appears to me that it was conveyed to us by a bugle call. Whatever the origin, we were soon scampering back to our former position on the road, with the idea that we could form a square. '

Just as they had drilled on the parade ground, the Canadians formed a tight-knit square to repulse the anticipated cavalry assault. The Fenians, who must have believed that the luck of the Irish had come through for them, concentrated their fire on the solid, exposed enemy mass in the middle of the road.

The deadly hail of shot was too much for the Canadians. They began to withdraw in an orderly manner, but when O'Neill ordered a bayonet charge, they broke and ran. Further bloodshed was averted when the undisciplined Fenians abandoned the pursuit of their fleeing enemy in favor of collecting mementos on the battlefield. Canadian losses were 10 dead, 37 wounded and six prisoners. Seven militiamen were also felled by sunstroke, and three of them later died.

Knowing that Peacocke's force was marching south with its artillery, O'Neill could not take much time to savor his victory. Re-forming his small army, he set off for the Niagara River, leaving behind nine dead and 16 wounded (six of them seriously wounded).

Nearing Fort Erie, the Fenians came under fire from a small militia force that had been landed by tugboat. Seventy-six soldiers of the Welland Canal Field Battery and Dunnville Naval Brigade had been detailed to chase down straggling Fenian bands. Now they found themselves facing the main body.

For the Fenians there was no choice but to attack the Canadian force that stood firmly between them and the only path of retreat to the United States and safety. In a brief but intense firefight at close quarters, the Fenians eventually dislodged the Canadians, many of whom were rescued by tugboat. But the skirmish cost the Fenians four more men killed and 19 wounded. Canadian losses were six wounded and 36 prisoners.

O'Neill ordered his men into the transports waiting on the banks of the Niagara River. Also waiting for him was the eight-gun riverboat USS Michigan. When the Fenian barges cleared the Canadian shore, the gunboat escorted them to the United States, where their passengers were placed under arrest.

While the Canadians mourned their dead and United States authorities deliberated about the fate of the Fenians now in their custody, other Fenian forces were gathering to strike across the border, at Malone and Potsdam, N.Y., and at St. Albans, Vt.

British authorities were well-informed about the actions of the Fenians, but reports of their strength had been greatly exaggerated. British Regulars and Canadian militia units were mobilized and dispatched to the border at likely points of attack. Two hundred local militiamen assembled near the border town of St. Armand, Quebec, under the command of Captain W.W. Carter. There were also four Canadian militia captains in that 200-man unit, at least one of whom had sufficient military training to command it. The fact that they had all been passed over in favor of Carter, a Regular British army officer, was probably resented by his troops. He in turn did not place much trust in their fighting ability.

On June 4, Carter was informed that an army of 1,500 Fenians would strike near St. Armand. He immediately sent out a scout to gather additional information. The scout, James Keenan of Philipsburg, Quebec, rode straight into the chaotic Fenian camp at Highgate Falls, Vt., where he counted heads, sized up their weapons and had a good look around. Keenan reported to Carter that there were 200 Fenians at Highgate who were preparing to march east (not north toward the Canadian militia). After arguing with the Canadian captains, Carter ordered his force to withdraw. They then encountered a 10-man cavalry unit in full flight, which reported that the entire Fenian army was coming his way. This false report confirmed Carter's worst fears. He ordered the pace increased to double-time and did not halt until he reached St. Alexandre, about 15 miles north of the border.

The area north of St. Albans, Vt., lay wide open. That fact was bitterly apparent to the militiamen from the border towns, who looked on helplessly from St. Alexandre toward their undefended homes and families to the south.

When word of the retreat from St. Armand reached Montreal, additional militia units were mobilized, and plans were put in motion to get troops to the border area. Curiously, those preparations lacked any real sense of urgency, so no opposition was encountered by the 700 Fenians who crossed the border on June 7 and secured four villages in the area. Only in the town of Frelighsburg, Quebec, did the Fenians face some armed resistance, but that was light and short-lived.

This Fenian army was commanded by a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., Brig. Gen. Samuel Spear. Spear, unlike Colonel O'Neill, had at least one mounted unit, the 22nd Irish Cavalry, at his disposal. Spear's men, however, were an undisciplined lot who proceeded to loot houses, seize livestock and terrorize the local population.

Meanwhile, President Andrew Johnson made a decision that ultimately dashed the Fenians' hopes. On June 5, he declared that the U.S. Neutrality Laws of 1818 would be upheld. No further Fenian attempts to invade Canada would find U.S. authorities looking the other way.

On June 8, Spear received word that U.S. marshals in St. Albans had impounded his ammunition and supplies. Furious at what they saw as a stab in the back by their own government, the Fenian volunteers began a disorganized retreat into the United States.

A combined force of British Regulars and Canadian militia reached the border area on June 9, only to find that most of the Fenians had already withdrawn. However, the Royal Guides, a volunteer cavalry unit composed primarily of Montreal Hunt Club members, encountered a party of about 200 Fenians near Pigeon Hill. Under the command of Captain D. Lorne MacDougall, the Guides charged with drawn sabers, hurtled the Fenians' breastworks and hacked at the Irish Americans as they raced for the border. Not only did the Guides' valiant charge result in the taking of 16 Fenian prisoners, but it also salvaged what was left of Canadian military honor.

British troops and Canadian militia, including an artillery battery, moved into place to secure the border. Act One of the drama was over, but the Fenians had at least attained one of their objectives–thousands of British Regulars were now on their way to Canada.

Fenians who had been imprisoned by the United States were quietly released after the hostilities were over. Those who had been captured in Canada were not so fortunate, many receiving lengthy prison sentences. O'Neill enjoyed a hero's welcome in Irish-American communities across the country, as the Fenians continued fund-raising to support their future military plans.

A gala military review was staged on Montreal's Champs de Mars to celebrate the successful defense of British North America. The Royal Guides were given the place of honor. But Canadian military authorities knew that their ill-prepared, poorly equipped militia had narrowly averted a disastrous defeat at the hands of a group of armed adventurers. The actions of the U.S. government, while not supportive of the Fenian invaders, were anything but friendly to Canada. With the Fenians openly regrouping, and with a powerful, covertly hostile neighbor to the south, Canada needed to strengthen her defenses.

The first task was to rearm the militia. Most soldiers sent to defend the border in 1866 carried antiquated, muzzleloading rifles, many of which lacked ramrods and had damaged firing mechanisms. Colonel Patrick MacDougall filed this report on the state of Canadian weapons in 1867: 'It is very difficult to enforce proper cleaning of their arms by volunteers; they take pride in turning out on parade smart and clean and soldier-like so far as regards the outward appearance; but it is too often the case that their rifles are so fouled within that they cannot be fired.'

Steps were quickly taken to acquire newer breechloading weapons. The Canadian government purchased 3,000 Peabody rifles, with bayonets, from the Providence Tool Company of Providence, R.I. Starr carbines and Spencer repeating rifles were also acquired in the United States. The farmers of the St. Armand area, concerned about their lack of defense during the Fenian raid of 1866, sent two representatives south to Massachusetts, where they bought 40 Ballard sporting rifles. It is curious to note that the U.S. government took no steps to impede those arm sales to a foreign government with whom relations were strained. The British government, however, assumed the lion's share of strengthening Canada's arms. In 1867, 30,000 breechloading Snider-Enfield rifles, complete with all necessary equipment, were shipped to Canada for immediate issue to the militia.

Due in some part to the unifying effect the Fenian threat had on their Canadian subjects, the British passed the British North America Act in 1867, creating the Dominion of Canada. Shortly after the new nation was established, the British government began to withdraw the Regular garrisons at Kingston and Quebec. Clearly the Dominion of Canada was expected to provide for its own defense. Accordingly, Canada passed the first Militia Act in 1868, under which an administrative system was established to train and organize a 40,000-member militia force.

While Canada was emerging as a nation, John O'Neill's star had been rising quickly within the Fenian organization. In 1868, he was elected president of the Irish Republican Brotherhood Senate. But all was not well within the fractious, quarrelsome group. As O'Neill attempted to rebuild the Fenian army for another strike across the Canadian border, he began to lose the Senate's support.

Perhaps believing that a military victory would unite the organization, or perhaps choosing to act before his power base totally collapsed, O'Neill prepared for another invasion of Canada in the spring of 1870. He established a base of operations at Franklin, Vt., where he positioned his war stocks of 15,000 weapons and 3 million rounds of small-arms ammunition. O'Neill had also been able to acquire at least one field artillery piece. The time came for his volunteers to assemble, but no more than 400 men arrived to arm themselves for the next great Fenian expedition. A far smaller group was assembling near Malone, N.Y., to conduct a simultaneous attack. When General O'Neill and his small army set off for the Canadian border on the morning of May 25, 1870, they must have been greatly disappointed that so few of their comrades had turned out for the invasion.

Lieutenant Colonel William Osborne Smith, a Canadian career army officer, was the commander of the military district that lay in the path of the Fenian advance. Osborne Smith had received intelligence reports of Fenian activity as early as May 22 and had issued orders for the militia to mobilize. While units from the Montreal area marched south, local militia organizations occupied defensive positions on the border.

The farmers who had suffered property losses during the Fenian raids of 1866 had banded together to form the Missiquoi Home Guard. With Ballard sporting rifles firmly in hand, 37 members of the guard occupied the strategic heights of Eccles Hill, which gave them a commanding view of the border to the south. Lieutenant Colonel Brown Chamberlin soon reinforced the home guards with members of the 60th Missiquoi Battalion.

Osborne Smith, who was hurrying to the border with the 3rd Victoria Rifles and the Montreal Troop of Cavalry, raced ahead to Eccles Hill. He conferred with Chamberlin about the defense plan and then galloped away to bring up additional units. After traveling a few miles, Osborne Smith was halted by a messenger from the south who informed him that the Fenian attack had commenced. Turning around, Osborne Smith drove his lathered mount back to Eccles Hill, where he personally assumed command.

The Fenian advance guard crossed the border around noon. As the Irishmen marched in close ranks, they came under a withering hail of fire from the concealed positions of the home guards. Surprised by the Canadian troops' determined defense, the Fenians scattered, either taking cover or retreating across the border.

Just after 1 p.m., U.S. marshals located O'Neill near the Vermont border and arrested him. O'Neill, who probably realized that his offensive was doomed to failure, made no effort to evade the lawmen.

One of the Fenian leaders who fell during the attack was Captain E. Croman, a Civil War veteran who had somehow managed to receive a first-class certificate from the Montreal Military School for militia officers. He died of his wounds a few days after the battle.

For several hours the militia and the Fenians exchanged fire. At about 2 p.m., the Montreal Cavalry and the Victoria Rifles arrived to bolster the Canadian defenses. Likewise, the Fenian force was strengthened by 100 men of the 4th New York Fenian Regiment.

At 5:45 p.m., Osborne Smith was informed that the Fenians were bringing up field artillery to bombard the Canadian position. He determined that it was time to seize the initiative. Positioning the Victoria Rifles on high ground to cover the attack, he ordered the home guards and the 60th Missiquoi Battalion to advance. The Canadian charge was too much for the Irish Americans, who sprinted across the border, leaving much of their equipment behind. Two Fenians were killed and several more were wounded. The victorious Canadians were completely unscathed.

A halfhearted Fenian attack near Holbrook Corners, Quebec, was easily repulsed two days later by a massed force of 1,000 Canadian militia and British Regulars. The Fenian drama was over.

In 1871 John O'Neill tried to instigate an uprising in Manitoba with a band of 40 Irish Americans and Métis (Canadians of French and Indian ancestry). This uncoordinated action, which was not sanctioned by the Fenian leadership, was suppressed in short order by U.S. authorities.

Ultimately, the Fenians failed in their attempt to liberate Ireland. Still, one must marvel at the courage that brought them to risk their lives in the pursuit of a cause that was so obviously futile. It is ironic that their lasting legacy was the baptism, in fire and blood, of the Canadian army.

Colonel Patrick MacDougall's report summed up the effect of the Fenian raids on the Canadian nation: 'By uniting all classes, and by the opportunity afforded of testing its military organization, they [the Fenians] have given the Province [Canada] a proud consciousness of strength, and have been the means of obtaining for it, in England, in particular, and before the world at large, that status and consideration as a great people.'

This article was written by P.G. Smith and originally published in the February 2000 issue of Military History magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!

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