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Fenian raids

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Fenian Raids

Depiction of the Fenian charge during the Battle of Ridgeway
DateApril 1866 – October 1871
Result Anglo-Canadian victory[1]
 United Kingdom
Fenian Brotherhood
Commanders and leaders
Canada John A. Macdonald
Canada George-Étienne Cartier
Canada J. Stoughton Dennis
Canada William O. Smith
John O'Mahony
Thomas Sweeny
John O'Neill
Samuel P. Spear
Owen Starr

Prior to invasion:
10,000-14,000 local volunteers (March 1866)[2]
Start of war: Canada

 United Kingdom

In 1870:

Start of war:
850+ (May 1866)[2]
In 1870:

In 1871:

Casualties and losses
35 killed
53 wounded
54 captured

142[citation needed]
24 killed
48 wounded
59 captured
1 cannon seized
131[citation needed]
  1. ^ Raids that were carried out in 1866 took place in the Province of Canada and the colony of New Brunswick; prior to Confederation in 1867.

The Fenian raids were a series of incursions carried out by the Fenian Brotherhood, an Irish republican organization based in the United States, on military fortifications, customs posts and other targets in Canada (then part of British North America) in 1866, and again from 1870 to 1871. A number of separate incursions by the Fenian Brotherhood into Canada were undertaken to bring pressure on the British government to withdraw from Ireland, although none of these raids achieved their aims.

In Canada, the incursions divided its burgeoning Irish-Canadian population, many of whom were torn between loyalty to their new home and sympathy for the aims of the Fenians. Protestant Irish immigrants were generally loyal to the British and fought with the pro-Union Orange Order against the Fenians.

While authorities in the United States arrested the men and confiscated the arms of the Fenian Brotherhood, there was speculation that some in the U.S. government ignored the preparations undertaken by the Fenians due to anger over British assistance to the Confederacy during the American Civil War.[a] The Fenian raids were one of the factors that led to Canadian Confederation, as the provinces united to face the threat of invasions.


Early raids (1866)[edit]


The Dedham, Massachusetts chapter of the Fenian Brotherhood, which had offices in the Norfolk House, hosted a meeting at Temperance Hall in which a raid into Canada was organized.[3] John R. Bullard, a recent Harvard Law School graduate, was elected moderator of the meeting and, having been swept up in his own sudden importance and fever of the meeting, ended his animated speech by asking "Who would be the first man to come forward and pledge himself to go to Canada and help free Ireland?"[4] The first of the roughly dozen men to sign the "enlistment papers" were Patrick Donohoe and Thomas Golden.[4] Thomas Brennan said he could not participate, but donated $50 to the cause.[4] The meeting ended with the group singing "The Wearing of the Green."[4] The raid was a failure.[4] Some of the men got as far as St. Albans, Vermont, but none made it to Canada.[4] A few were arrested and some had to send home for money.[5]

New Brunswick[edit]

John O'Mahony, a former colonel of the 69th Regiment of New York State Militia, led the first raid into British North America, in April 1866

Led by John O'Mahony, this Fenian raid occurred in April 1866, at Campobello Island, New Brunswick. A Fenian Brotherhood war party of over 700 members arrived at the Maine shore opposite the island intending to seize Campobello from the British. Royal Navy officer Charles Hastings Doyle, stationed at Halifax, Nova Scotia, responded decisively. On 17 April 1866, he left Halifax with several warships carrying over 700 British soldiers and proceeded to Passamaquoddy Bay, where the Fenian force was concentrated. This show of force by Doyle discouraged the Fenians, and they dispersed.[6] The invasion reinforced the idea of protection for New Brunswick by joining with the British North American colonies of Nova Scotia, and the United Province of Canada, formerly Upper Canada (now Ontario) and Lower Canada (Quebec), to form the Dominion of Canada.[7]

Canada West[edit]

After the Campobello raid, the "Presidential faction" led by Fenian founders James Stephens and John O'Mahony focused more on fundraising for rebels in Ireland. The more militant "Senate Faction" led by William R. Roberts believed that even a marginally successful invasion of the Province of Canada or other parts of British North America would provide them with leverage in their efforts. After the failure of the April attempt to raid New Brunswick, which had been blessed by O'Mahony, the Senate Faction implemented their own plan for invading Canada. Drafted by the senate "Secretary for War" General T. W. Sweeny, a distinguished former Union Army officer, the plan called for multiple invasions at points in Canada West (now southern Ontario) and Canada East (now southern Quebec) intended to cut Canada West off from Canada East and possible British reinforcements from there.[8] Key to the plan was a diversionary attack at Fort Erie from Buffalo, New York, meant to draw troops away from Toronto in a feigned strike at the nearby Welland Canal system. This was the only Fenian attack, other than the Quebec raid several days later, which was launched in June 1866.

About 1000 to 1300 Fenians crossed the Niagara River in the first 14 hours of June 1 under Colonel John O'Neill.[9][8] Sabotaged by Fenians in its crew, the U.S. Navy's side-wheel gunboat USS Michigan did not begin intercepting Fenian reinforcements until 2:15 p.m.—14 hours after Owen Starr's advance party had crossed the river ahead of O'Neill's main force.[10][11] Once the USS Michigan was deployed, O'Neill's force in the Niagara Region was cut off from further supplies and reinforcements.

After assembling with other units from Canada and travelling all night, Canadian troops advanced into a well-laid ambush by approximately 600–700 Fenians the next morning north of Ridgeway, a small hamlet west of Fort Erie. (The Fenian strength at Ridgeway had been reduced by desertions and deployments of Fenians in other locations in the area overnight.)[12][13]

Canadian Militia troops at the Battle of Ridgeway consisted of inexperienced volunteers with no more than basic drill training but armed with Enfield rifled muskets equal to the armaments of the Fenians. A single company of the Queen's Own Rifles of Toronto had been armed the day before on their ferry crossing from Toronto with state-of-the-art seven-shot Spencer repeating rifles, but had not had an opportunity to practise with them and were issued with only 28 rounds per man. The Fenians were mostly battle-hardened American Civil War veterans, armed with weapons procured from leftover war supplies, either Enfield rifled muskets or the comparable Springfield.[14]

Members of the Canadian Militia were ambushed by the Fenians at the Battle of Ridgeway in June 1866

The opposing forces exchanged volleys for about two hours, before a series of command errors threw the Canadians into confusion. The Fenians took advantage of it by launching a bayonet charge that broke the inexperienced Canadian ranks. Seven Canadians were killed on the battlefield, two died shortly afterwards from wounds, and four later died of wounds or disease while on service; ninety-four more were wounded or disabled by disease.[15] Ten Fenians were killed and sixteen wounded.

A funeral for soldiers killed during the Fenian attacks in Canada East, 30 June 1866.

After the battle, the Canadians retreated to Port Colborne, at the Lake Erie end of the Welland Canal. The Fenians rested briefly at Ridgeway, before returning to Fort Erie. Another encounter, the Battle of Fort Erie, followed that saw several Canadians severely wounded and the surrender of a large group of local Canadian Militia who had moved into the Fenian rear. After considering the inability of reinforcements to cross the river and the approach of large numbers of Canadian Militia and British soldiers, the remaining Fenians released the Canadian prisoners and returned to Buffalo early in the morning of June 3. They were intercepted by the gunboat Michigan and surrendered to the United States Navy.[16]

The traditional historical narrative alleges that the turning point in the Battle of Ridgeway was when Fenian cavalry was erroneously reported and the Canadian Militia ordered to form squares, the standard tactic for infantry to repel cavalry. When the mistake was recognized, an attempt was made to reform in column; being too close to the Fenian lines, it failed. In his 2011 history of Ridgeway, however, historian Peter Vronsky argues the explanation was not as simple as that. Prior to the formation of the square, confusion had already broken out when a unit of the Queen's Own Rifles mistook three arriving companies from the 13th Battalion of The Royal Hamilton Light Infantry for British troops. When the Queen's Own Rifles began retiring to give the field to what they thought were British Army units, the 13th Battalion mistook this for a retreat, and began withdrawing themselves. At this moment that the infamous "form square" order was given, completing the debacle that was unfolding on the field.[17]

A board of inquiry determined that allegations over the alleged misconduct of Lieutenant-Colonel Alfred Booker (13th Battalion), on whom command of Canadian volunteers had devolved, had "not the slightest foundation for the unfavourable imputations cast upon him in the public prints". Nevertheless, the charges dogged Booker for the rest of his life.[citation needed] A second board of inquiry into the battle at Fort Erie exonerated Lieutenant-Colonel J. Stoughton Dennis, Brigade Major of the Fifth Military District, although the President of the Board of Inquiry, Colonel George T. Denison, differed from his colleagues on several key points.[citation needed]

Five days after the start of the invasion, U. S. President Andrew Johnson issued a proclamation requiring enforcement of the neutrality laws, guaranteeing the Fenian invasion could not continue. Generals Ulysses S. Grant and General George Meade went to Buffalo, New York to inspect the situation. Following instructions from Grant, Meade issued strict orders to prevent anyone from violating the border. Grant then proceeded to St. Louis. Meade, finding that the battles were over and the Fenian army interned in Buffalo, went to Ogdensburg, New York, to oversee the situation in the St. Lawrence River area. The U.S. Army was then instructed to seize all Fenian weapons and ammunition and prevent more border crossings. Further instructions on 7 June 1866 were to arrest anyone who appeared to be a Fenian.[citation needed]

Fenian commander Brigadier-General Thomas William Sweeny was arrested by the United States government for violating American neutrality. Nevertheless, he was soon released and served in the United States Army until he retired in 1870.[18]

Canada East[edit]

Crowds celebrate the return of militiamen in Montreal, 1866.

After the invasion of Canada West failed, the Fenians decided to concentrate their efforts on Canada East; however, the U.S. government had begun to impede Fenian activities, and arrested many Fenian leaders. The Fenians soon saw their plans begin to fade. General Samuel Spear of the Fenians managed to escape arrest, and, on June 7, Spear and his 1000 men marched into Canadian territory, achieving occupancy of Pigeon Hill, Frelighsburg, St. Armand and Stanbridge. At this point the Canadian government had done little to defend the border, but on June 8 Canadian forces arrived at Pigeon Hill and the Fenians, who were low on arms, ammunition and supplies, promptly surrendered, ending the raid on Canada East.[19]

Timothy O'Hea was awarded the Victoria Cross for actions he took at Danville, Canada East, on June 9, 1866, at about the time of the Pigeon Hill Raid. Although only about 23 years old, O'Hea, a private in the 1st Battalion of the Rifle Brigade stationed in Canada, saw the threat posed by a burning railway car containing ammunition and fought the blaze single-handedly for an hour, saving the lives of many in the area.

Later raids (1870–71)[edit]

From 1870 to 1871, the Fenian Brotherhood organized several raids into the Canadian provinces of Quebec and Manitoba.

In addition to organizing raids against those provinces, the Fenian Brotherhood also organized openly in the Northwestern United States in the 1870s, threatening the security of the Colony of British Columbia.[citation needed][b] Although the Fenians never launched a raid against British Columbia, tensions were sufficient that the Royal Navy sent several large warships to the new railhead at Vancouver, British Columbia, during celebrations for the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1886.[citation needed]


In 1870, a Fenian raid at Eccles Hill was repulsed by the Canadian Militia.

Another raid by the Fenians occurred on 25 May 1870. The Canadians, acting on information supplied by Thomas Miller Beach, were able to wait for and turn back the attack at Eccles Hill.

The Battle of Trout River was a military conflict that occurred on 27 May 1870. It was a part of the Fenian raids. This battle occurred outside of Huntingdon, Quebec near the international border about 20 kilometres (12 mi) north of Malone, New York. The location of this battle should not be confused with Trout River in the Northwest Territories.

Manitoba-Minnesota border[edit]

John O'Neill, after the failed 1870 invasion, had resigned the Senate Wing and then joined the Savage Wing. In return he was given a seat on the Savage Wing governing council. In 1871 O'Neill and an odd character named W. B. O’Donoghue asked the Savage Wing Council to undertake another invasion of Canada across the Dakota Territory border. The Council, weary of Canadian adventures in general and O’Neill in particular, would have none of it. O'Neill's idea was turned down, but the Council promised to loan him arms and agreed they would not publicly denounce him and his raid.

O'Neill resigned from the Fenians to lead the invasion, which was planned in Saint Paul, Minnesota, to invade Manitoba near Winnipeg. About 35 men, led by O'Neill, William B. O'Donoghue, and John J. Donnelly, hoped to join forces with Louis Riel's French-Indian Métis. On October 5, O'Neill's force managed to capture a Hudson's Bay Company post and a Canadian customs house which they believed to be just north of the international border. A U.S. survey team had determined the border was two miles further north, placing the Hudson's Bay post and the customs house both inside U.S. territory.[20] O'Neill, J. J. Donnelly and ten others were taken prisoner near Pembina, Dakota Territory, by U.S. soldiers led Captain Loyd Wheaton.

The farcical raid was doomed from the very start. It actually took place inside the United States, and the Métis under Riel had signed a pact with the British just as the invasion began. Riel and his Métis captured O'Donoghue and gave him to U.S. authorities. In a somewhat muddled federal response, O'Neill was arrested twice – once in Dakota and once in Minnesota – but was released and never charged for "invading" U.S. territory. The men captured with him were released by the court as simply "dupes" of O'Neill and Donnelly.[21][20]


Canada General Service Medal issued for service in the Canadian Militia related to the Fenian incursions in 1870

Support for the Fenian Brotherhood's invasion of Canada quickly disappeared and there was no real threat after the 1890s. Nevertheless, the raids had an important effect on all Canadians. Ironically, though they did nothing to advance the cause of Irish independence, the 1866 Fenian raids and the inept efforts of the Canadian Militia to repulse them helped to galvanize support for Confederation in 1867. Some historians have argued that the affair tipped the final votes of reluctant Maritime provinces in favour of the collective security of nationhood, making Ridgeway the "battle that made Canada."[22] Alexander Muir, a Scottish immigrant, author of "The Maple Leaf Forever" and member of the Orange Order, fought at Ridgeway with the Queen's Own Rifles.[citation needed]

The raids also aroused a martial spirit among Canadians by testing the militia's strength. Because of their poor performance, the militia took efforts to improve themselves. This was achieved without the huge cost of a real war.[23] The militia possessed an authorised strength of 40,000 men, however, during the period of the 1866 raids, a total of 37,170 volunteers turned out.[23] The greatest impact of the Fenian raids was in the developing a sense of Canadian nationalism and leading the provinces into Confederation. This was seen as necessary for survival and self-defence; the raids showed Canadians that safety lay in unity and were an important factor in creating the modern nation-state of Canada.[19][24]

The Fenian raids caused increased anti-American sentiment in Canada and the Maritimes because of the U.S. government's perceived tolerance of the Fenians when they were meeting openly and preparing for the raids.[19] However, many Americans saw this as retribution against British-Canadian tolerance and aid to the Confederate Secret Service activities in Canada against the Union during the Civil War (such as the Chesapeake Affair and the St. Albans Raid).[25][26][27][28] An estimated casualty figure for the Fenian Raids into Canada 1866, including deaths from disease while on service in both Canada West (Ontario) and Canada East (Quebec), was calculated by the Militia Department in 1868 as 31 dead and 103 wounded or struck by disease (including a female civilian accidentally shot by the militia.)[29]


A monument at Queen's Park to commemorate Canadian militiamen who died during the Battle of Ridgeway

Several memorials were erected throughout Canada, commemorating those who volunteered with the Canadian Militia fought during the raids. These monuments include the Canadian Volunteers Monument in Queen's Park, Toronto, and the Battle of Eccles Hill Monument in Frelighsburg, Quebec. In June 2006 Ontario's heritage agency dedicated a plaque at Ridgeway on the commemoration of the 140th anniversary of the battle. Many members of the Queen's Own Rifles of Canada return to the Ridgeway battle site on the weekend closest to the June 2 anniversary for a bicycle tour of the battle sites.[citation needed]

In Buffalo, a historic marker commemorates the June 1866 Fenian incursion into Fort Erie and Ridgeway, Ont. The marker is located in the Black Rock neighborhood in Tow Path Park on the west end of Hertel overlooking the Niagara River.[30]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Most notably: British blockade runners carrying arms supplies, the construction of multiple Confederate warships including the commerce raider CSS Alabama, harboring Confederate diplomats, allowing Confederate intelligence agents to operate both within the UK and her overseas colonies, particularly Canada and the Bahamas.
  2. ^ The Colony of British Columbia did not join Canadian Confederation until 20 July 1871, several months before the last Fenian raid took place.


  1. ^ Senior p. 191
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h "Fenian Raids". britannica.com.
  3. ^ Hanson 1976, p. 240.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Hanson 1976, p. 241.
  5. ^ Hanson, Robert Brand (1976). Dedham, Massachusetts, 1635–1890. Dedham Historical Society. Archived from the original on 2021-04-28. Retrieved 2021-05-23.
  6. ^ "Fenian raids". Dictionary of Canadian Biography (online ed.). University of Toronto Press. 1979–2016.
  7. ^ Dallsion, Robert L. Turning back the Fenians: New Brunswick's Last Colonial Campaign Goose Lane Edition. 2006.
  8. ^ a b Civil War Vets Wanted to Invade Canada to Liberate Ireland Archived 2019-03-17 at the Wayback Machine By Blake Stilwell, 15 Mar 2019, military.com
  9. ^ The Fenian raid at Fort Erie, June the first and second, 1866: with a map of the Niagara Peninsula, shewing the route of the troops, and a plan of the Lime Ridge battle ground. Toronto: W. C. Chewett & Co., 1866.
  10. ^ Log Entry, Friday June 1, 1866, USS Michigan Logbook No. 16, July 24, 1864, to August 30, 1866: Logbooks of U.S. Navy Ships, 1801–1940, Records of the Bureau of Naval Personnel, 1798–2003, RG24. (National Archives Building, Washington, DC) NARA.
  11. ^ E. A. Cruickshank, "The Fenian Raid of 1866", Welland County Historical Society Papers and Records, Vol 2, Welland Canada: 1926. p. 21; John O’Neill, Official Report of the Battle of Ridgeway, Canada West, Fought on June 2, 1866 (June 27, 1866), New York: John A. Foster, 1870. pp. 37–38
  12. ^ O'Neill's strength in the Fenian camp at Frenchmen's Creek was estimated at 250 by a Canada West Frontier Police detective who infiltrated the camp. He also reported that later in the night an additional 200 Fenians joined the column from the camp, bringing the total to at least 450. See: Detective Charles Clarke to McMicken, telegram, June 2, 1866, MG26 A, Volume 237, p. 103878 [Reel C1663] Canada Archives.
  13. ^ Peter Vronsky, Ridgeway: The American Fenian Invasion and the 1866 Battle That Made Canada, Toronto: Penugin-Allen Lane, 2011. pp. 46–47
  14. ^ Fenian Brotherhood. Proceedings of the second National Congress of the Fenian Brotherhood, held in Cincinnati, Ohio, January 1865. Philadelphia: J. Gibbons, 1865.
  15. ^ Abstract of Names of Claimants for Pensions and Gratuities, Fenian Raid Service Records, Adjutant General's Office, United Canada, Pensions and Land Grants, RG9-I-C-5; Compensation of Injuries, Wounds, etc, Received on Active Service Fenian Raids 1866–1868 Volume 32, page 13, National Archives of Canada
  16. ^ Buffalo Evening Post, June 5, 1866, p. 2. (June 5, 1866). "The Fenians!". Archived from the original on November 12, 1996. Retrieved September 23, 2021.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link) CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  17. ^ Peter Vronsky, Ridgeway: The American Fenian Invasion and the 1866 Battle That Made Canada, Toronto: Penguin-Allen Lane, 2011. pp. 141–145.
  18. ^ "Tom Sweeny: He Wasn't Called "Fighting Tom" For Nothing". Archived from the original on 2009-05-11.
  19. ^ a b c Neidhardt, W.S. Fenianism in North America The Pennsylvania State University Press. 1975.
  20. ^ a b General John O'Neill's Last Hurrah Archived 2012-03-07 at the Wayback Machine by Michael Ruddy [webpage with sources]
  21. ^ Regan, Ann (2002). Irish in Minnesota. Minnesota Historical Society Press. pp. 44–45. ISBN 0-87351-419-X.
  22. ^ Vronsky, Peter (2011). Ridgeway : the American Fenian invasion and the 1866 battle that made Canada. Toronto: Allen Lane Canada. ISBN 9780143182849.
  23. ^ a b Senior, Hereward. The Last Invasion of Canada: The Fenian Raids of 1866–1870 Dundurn Press. 1991, p.138.
  24. ^ Charles Perry Stacey, "Fenianism and the Rise of National Feeling in Canada at the Time of Confederation." Canadian Historical Review 12.3 (1931): 238–261.
  25. ^ Bradley A. Rodgers (1996). Guardian of the Great Lakes: The U.S. Paddle Frigate Michigan. University of Michigan Press. p. 117. ISBN 9-7804-7206-6070.
  26. ^ "10 ways Canada fought the American Civil War". Maclean's. August 4, 2014.
  27. ^ Peter Kross (Fall 2015). "The Confederate Spy Ring: Spreading Terror to the Union". Warfare History network.
  28. ^ "Montreal, City of Secrets: Confederate Operations in Montreal During the American Civil War". Baraka Books.
  29. ^ Peter Vronsky, Ridgeway: The American Fenian Invasion and the 1866 Battle That Made Canada, Toronto: Penguin-Allen Lane, 2011. p. 261
  30. ^ "The Fenian Invasion of 1866 Historical Marker". www.hmdb.org (in English and Irish). Retrieved 2024-01-27.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]