Between 1866 and 1871, the Fenian Brotherhood, an independent armed force of Irish American Civil War veterans, raided Canadian territory from New Brunswick to Manitoba. These raids were intended to seize and hold parts of Canada hostage in return for Irish independence. Instead, they served to unite Canadians in the face of an external threat as they considered Confederation.
The largest of the Fenian raids, the Battle of Ridgeway, took place on 2 June 1866, near the town of Fort Erie, in present-day Ontario. Approximately 850 Canadian soldiers clashed with almost 800 Fenians. It was the first industrial-era battle to be fought by Canadians and the first fought exclusively by Canadian troops and led entirely by Canadian officers.
Though nine Canadians were killed in action during the Battle of Ridgeway, their sacrifice was not officially recognized until many years later, at which point they became the first “remembered” servicemen. This exhibit — which outlines the Fenian raids in general — commemorates the Ridgeway Nine, as those fallen militiamen are known.
Fenians were members of a movement started in 1857 to secure Irish independence from Britain. The term Fenian comes from the Irish Gaelic term Fianna — a band of mythological warriors. Some members of this movement were intent on taking Canada by force and exchanging it with Britain for Irish independence. From 1866 to 1871, the Fenians launched a series of small, armed incursions into Canada, each of which was put down by government forces — at the cost of dozens killed and wounded on both sides.
By the end of 1865, the Fenians had amassed nearly $500,000 and a force of roughly 10,000 American Civil War veterans. That year, the movement divided into two factions over the question of a military invasion of British North America. The pro-invasion group was led by William Roberts, while those who supported an uprising in Ireland itself were led by John O’Mahony.
A small group of Canadian Fenians was headed initially by Michael Murphy of Toronto, who supported the O'Mahony faction in the United States. The Canadian branch of the movement operated under the guise of the Hibernian Benevolent Society, a self-protection organisation founded in the aftermath of an 1858 St. Patrick’s Day Riot.
British and Canadian officials took the threat posed by the Fenians seriously and directed their spies to monitor the movement. By March 1866, it was evident that the Fenians were going to act against Canada, and 14,000 Canadian volunteers were called up for active duty. Nothing happened, and the volunteers were sent home. However, in April, the Fenians staged a raid against Campobello Island in New Brunswick, achieving nothing other than the destruction of a few buildings.
Battle of Ridgeway
On 1 June 1866, an advance party of 1,000 heavily armed Fenians crossed the Niagara River from Buffalo, New York, and invaded Canada. The Fenians were led by John O’Neill, a former US Calvary officer who had served in Ohio and West Virginia during the Civil War.
The Fenians quickly captured the undefended town of Fort Erie, Canada West, and its railway and telegraph terminals. They arrested the town council and the customs and border officials at the international ferry docks and forced the town’s bakery and hotels to provide them with breakfast. After cutting outgoing telegraph lines to Canada, the insurgents seized horses along with tools to build trenches and field fortifications.
The Canadians were poorly trained and unprepared for combat. Troops had scarce ammunition, no food or field kitchens, no proper maps, no provisions for medical care, no canteens for water, no tools for the proper care of their rifles and only half of the troops had previously practised firing their rifles with live ammunition. They were no match for the well-armed and supplied Fenians, whose mettle had been tested during the Civil War.
Having been ordered on 2 June 1866 to move to Fort Erie, Lieutenant Colonel Alfred Booker found 600 Fenians at Ridgeway and deployed his men. The battle opened well for the Canadians, who, despite their inexperience, performed well under fire. It was not until someone ordered them to prepare for cavalry that the tide turned, as the militiamen moved into a defensive formation designed to repel a cavalry charge. But there was no cavalry, and the Fenians were able to exploit the situation, forcing the Canadians from the field. Nine Canadians were killed and 33 wounded, while 14 Fenians were killed and an unknown number wounded.
Expecting to be overwhelmed by British reinforcements, the Fenians quickly turned back to Fort Erie, where they fought a second battle against a small but determined detachment of Canadians holding the town.
The Fenians struck again a few days after the Battle of Ridgeway. On 8 June, approximately 200 of them crossed the frontier near Huntington, to the south of Montréal. After advancing several kilometers and discovering that a large body of Canadian and British troops were converging on them, they turned around quickly upon. The defenders managed to catch and defeat the Fenians at Pidgeon Hill, which ended this round of attacks for a few years.
According to Peter Vronsky, historian and author of Ridgeway: The American Fenian Invasion and the 1866 Battle That Made Canada, this iconic representation of the Battle of Ridgeway is not accurate. The Canadians are depicted in British redcoats, but Canadian volunteers were actually dressed in both redcoats and green tunics, depending on which battalion they fought with. Meanwhile, the Fenians were dressed in blue Civil War uniforms or civilian clothing and many wore green scarves.
Also, the battle was not fought in the traditional line formation depicted here — in which ranks of men stand shoulder to shoulder facing the enemy.
Thomas D'Arcy McGee
Thomas D’Arcy McGee, a Father of Confederation, publicly denounced the Fenian movement. He encouraged the Irish national struggle to follow more or less the Canadian model of self-government within the British Empire and was eventually seen as a traitor by the very Irish community he sought to defend. In 1867, he expressed a desire to leave politics.
In the early hours of Tuesday 7 April 1868, McGee was assassinated outside of his Ottawa home. The authorities suspected a Fenian conspiracy and swiftly arrested a man named Patrick James Whelan. Whelan maintained his innocence throughout his trial and was never proven to be a Fenian. Nonetheless, he was convicted of murder and hanged before more than 5,000 onlookers on 11 February 1869.
The Dominion Police was organized by the federal government in 1868 to guard the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa following McGee’s assassination. The service also provided bodyguards for government leaders and operated an intelligence service whose agents infiltrated the Fenian Brotherhood. The force was absorbed by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in 1920.
On 25 May 1870, John O’Neill (who had been proclaimed a hero after Ridgeway and appointed inspector-general of the Fenian forces) with some 600 Fenians, left Vermont for Québec. At Eccles Hill, just north of the border, they were met by a detachment of the 60th Missisquoi Battalion and elements of the Dunham Volunteers and another volunteer unit known as the Home Guard, commanded by Canadian lieutenant-colonel Brown Chamberlain. The Fenians were defeated in a short, sharp action, with 5 men killed and 18 wounded. There were no losses to the Canadians.
Two days later, another group of Fenians crossed the border into Québec at Trout River, about 15 km west of Eccles Hill. The 50th Canadian Battalion, the Montreal Volunteer Artillery and the British 69th Regiment swiftly dealt with this invasion, and the Fenians fled back across the border. Again, there were no Canadian casualties.
John O'Neill attempted one more raid in the fall of 1871. Hoping to receive support from Louis Riel and the Métis , O’Neill crossed the Manitoba border at Emerson and, with 40 men, took over a customs office. Instead of supporting O'Neill, Riel raised volunteers to defend the frontier.
The Fenian Raids owe their origin to Irish aspirations for independence. Although the Fenians did not achieve this goal, their raids revealed shortfalls in the leadership, structure and training of the Canadian militia, which led to a number of reforms and improvements in the years to come. More importantly, the threat the irregular Fenian armies posed to British North America, along with growing concerns over American military and economic might, led to increased support among British and Canadian officials for Confederation and the formation of the Dominion of Canada in 1867.
The history of the Battle of Ridgeway was muted in Canadian military heritage and history, and the Canadian government was reluctant to acknowledge the veterans of the battle for nearly 25 years.
On 2 June 1890, the 24th anniversary of the Battle of Ridgeway, the Veterans of ’66 Association protested by laying flowers at the foot of the Canadian Volunteers Monument at Queen's Park, Toronto. It took a 10-year campaign of protests and lobbying before the Canadian government sanctioned a Fenian Raid medal and land grants to surviving veterans in 1899–1900.
The protest became an annual memorial event known as Decoration Day, when graves and monuments of Canadian soldiers were “decorated” in flowers. For the next 30 years, Decoration Day was Canada’s military memorial day — the first “remembrance” day — commemorated on the weekend nearest to 2 June and honouring Canadians who fell in the Battle of Ridgeway, the North-West Resistance (1885), the South African War (1899–1902) and the First World War (1914–18).