Just over fifty years had passed since British Canada had successfully fought off an invasion and defeated the American armed forces during the War of 1812. Since the end of the war, following the Treaty of Ghent in 1814, the two countries had enjoyed a period of mutual trade and peace; albeit an uneasy peace. In the mid 1800s Canadian newspapers carried stories of the Underground Railroad, a clandestine series of safe houses stretching from the United States to Canada with the purpose of providing slaves a means of reaching freedom in Canada. Also of interest to the Canadians was news of the American Civil War that had started in 1861, nearly tearing the United States apart, until the end of hostilities in 1865.
The American people on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line had seen enough of the ravages of war and looked forward to peace returning to their country. This should have been a period were Canada also felt safe but the end of the Union/Confederate struggle brought a new source of danger to the northern British colony in the form of the Fenian Brotherhood. The Fenian Brotherhood, in the United States, comprised of former Union soldiers of Irish descent who felt as much or more allegiance to Ireland than to the United States; certainly they felt nothing but contempt for the British.
The Fenian Brotherhood
The Fenian Brotherhood, in Ireland, had its beginnings during the Potato Famine, or The Great Famine, of 1845 to 1852 and was one of a number of revolutionary groups seeking independence for Ireland from British rule. In 1848 a poorly planned insurrection by a group called Young Ireland was quickly put down by the British and its leader, James Stephens, fled to Paris. While in self- imposed exile he honed his skills at revolution and returned to Dublin in 1858. Once back in Dublin he formed the Irish Republican Brotherhood that was later known as the Fenian Brotherhood. This movement grew and spread throughout Ireland mainly helped due to the unrest caused by the depression of the early 1860s. This growth was closely monitored by British authorities and a planned revolt in 1865 was crushed and James Stephen was taken into custody. He was not in British hands long as he managed to escape to France and then to the United States. With the revolutionary movement all but eliminated in Ireland the movement to free Ireland fell on the shoulders of the Fenian Brotherhood in America.
During the Brotherhood’s third national convention in 1865 James Stephens challenged the American chapter’s leadership of John O’Mahony as failing to be aggressive in attacking the British. The result was that O’Mahony found himself elected president but through constitutional changes had little power, that being in the hands of the president of the senate, William Randall Roberts. These changes made Roberts the rallying point for the anti-O’Mahony faction. Roberts believed that the invasion of British Canada, mainly through Ontario and Quebec could result in the Fenians taking Canada and using the eastern provinces’ sea ports to disrupt British shipping. Failing this they at least hoped to create enough tension between Americans and the British to start an Anglo-American war. Such a war, they believed, could only assist those in Ireland to win their freedom. Planning for this invasion fell to a former Union Army Brigadier General, Thomas Sweeny, who had been elected secretary of war and appointed commander in chief of the Fenian forces at the Philadelphia convention. O’Mahony continued to work toward funding an insurrection within Ireland itself. This rift between the two factions divided the Fenian Brotherhood into opposing camps. Undaunted by this divisive situation Sweeny (the commander in chief of the Roberts camp) continued with his plans for the invasion of Canada for the spring of 1866.
The Fenian Brotherhood at this point must have appeared disjointed and possibly fractured to the extent where it had been rendered impotent to carry out either faction’s initiative. However, on the other side of the ocean something was happening that would change everything. Rather than taking advantage of this rift in the Brotherhood the British took both threats, of rebellion within Ireland and the invasion of Canada, most seriously. The result was a suspension of habeas corpus in Ireland. The intention of the suspension of this basic civil right was meant to target rebels and thereby remove the threat on the “home front”. What resulted was the arrest of 150 Irish Americans who may or may not have had Fenian affiliation, along with suspected Irish Nationalists. A more serious impact of their actions came from the Americans. Outrage that Americans had been imprisoned by the British for no apparent reason began to spread throughout the nation encouraged by the Fenian Brotherhood. The question as to the guilt or innocence of those imprisoned was not considered, only that they were American citizens and more importantly to the Fenian Brotherhood, Irish. The second and perhaps the most important point was that the rift between the two factions within the Brotherhood had been healed. This attempt to eliminate the threat to the British, at home, had strengthened and fortified the Roberts and O’Mahony camps into one single minded goal; the invasion of Canada.
In preparation for the proposed invasion of Canada a Fenian delegation headed by their secretary of the treasury, Bernard Doran Killian, approached the President of the United States, Andrew Jackson, and Secretary of State, William H. Seward. Their mission was to ascertain the position the United States would take if the Fenians were able to take ground north of the American/Canadian border. There was hope that the American government would primarily ignore the Fenian preparations for the invasion as well as see any military gains secured by U.S. forces. Whatever the unofficial reply to the Fenians was there is evidence that is was vague at best. Given the mind set of those fanatically committed to a cause this vagueness was taken as an unspoken vote of confidence and support for their cause.
In early 1866 the former rival factions of the Fenian Brotherhood were prepared to carry out their invasion plans; one group led by Roberts to invade the Province of Canada (Ontario) the other under O’Mahony to take Campobello Island in New Brunswick. Unfortunately for the Fenians any element of surprise had been lost due to their lack of security. As early as 1844 talk of the proposed invasion had been discussed openly at political meetings and even published in the American newspapers. The British had infiltrated their organization and with the unintentional assistance of the media of the day their plans were as good as an open book for anyone even slightly aware of current affairs to read. So the stage was set, not for the all-out invasion of Canada as originally envisioned by the Brotherhood; there were no grand armies facing off on the battlefields of old, just a series of smaller actions. Some of these smaller actions did enjoy a limited degree of success but others failed to reach their initiatives. These smaller less successful raids were termed as “Comic Operas” by some newspapers, ignoring the fact that in any armed conflict men were injured and killed.
Battles and Skirmishes
The hoped for invasion of Canada scheduled for St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1866, led by General John O’Neill, a former cavalry officer of the Union Army, failed to materialize due to the lack of willing Fenians available.
Having said this there was an attack of sorts on that date at Waterloo, Quebec, which is on the rail line 35 miles east of Montreal. The Terrebonne Infantry Co. quickly defeated the force of what turned out to be only four Fenians, two of which were captured. Records show that the “attacking force” comprised of four misguided Canadian members of the Fenian Brotherhood acting on the belief that they would be part of the proposed glorious St. Patrick’s Day invasion, which failed to materialize.
The next attack, this time by American members of the Fenian Brotherhood, took place off the coast of New Brunswick against the Campobello and Indian Islands along the Maine border. The initial attack happened on April 14th, 1866 when a small party of Fenians landed on Indian Island, made a few threats, stole a flag and then retired. Another attempt was made by Fenians aboard the Ocean Spray on April 19th, however American authorities stopped the vessel and seized their arms. The Fenians were warned that America would enforce the neutrality laws which brought to a close the proposed invasion plan of Campobello Island with the exception of a couple of small raids that managed to burn a few buildings, fire a round or two and retreat. So ended the O’Mahony plan, however more serious battles were soon to take place as we shall see.
General John O’Neill leading a force of 850 men on May 31st, 1866 crossed at Buffalo, N.Y. to Fort Erie, Ontario advancing north to Frenchman’s Creek, three miles from the crossing. There they encamped and waited in vain for reinforcements to arrive. On June 1st, undaunted, they advanced further up the Niagara River to Ridge Road, camped for the night then moved west about a mile and a half to Limestone Ridge. So far they had been unchallenged however on June 2nd they met the 840 strong Canadian Militia, consisting of the 2nd Battalion (Queen’s Own Rifles); 13th Battalion (Hamilton) and 95 men of the York and Caledonia Rifle Companies under command of Lt. Col. Alfred Booker. After two hours of fighting the Canadian Militia retired upon receiving reports of a Fenian Cavalry approaching their position. These reports turned out to be false. What was to be later called the Battle of Ridgeway turned into a route for the Canadians back to Ridgeway. The saving grace for the Canadians was that O’Neill and his army retired to Fort Erie rather than taking advantage of the Canadian route. There O’Neill was confronted by another Canadian militia consisting of 110 men of the Dunnville Naval Brigade and Welland Canal Field Artillery Battery under command of Lt. Col. J.S. Dennis (2nd Batt. Queens Own Rifles) and Capt. Chas. S Akers of the Royal Engineers. After a short battle the Canadians were overrun by the larger Fenian force who took a number of prisoners. O’Neill then withdrew over the Niagara River after releasing his prisoners, knowing that the United States would not allow him to detain prisoners in keeping with the agreement of neutrality between America and British Canada.
The next engagement took place on June 9th, 1866 at St. Armand, Quebec. A Fenian force under General Spier and Manon was charged by 40 men of the Royal Guides of Montreal. Several Fenians were killed and sixteen taken prisoner, being sent to Montreal, before the Brotherhood retreated.
The final battle of 1866 took place on June 22nd when a few marauding Fenians crossed the border from Vermont and advanced on Pigeon Hill, Quebec. The Fenians opened fire with a few haphazard rounds completely missing about 75 men of the 21st Batt. (Richelieu Light Infantry) as well as a few men of infantry companies from Granby, Waterloo and Frelightsburg. Considering that the Fenians were supposed to be battle hardened Civil War veterans, and the large number of Canadians as targets, calls into question as to just how dedicated they were to the Fenian cause.
The struggle to take Canada from the British had amounted to a complete debacle in 1866 and 1870 was to bring even less success to the Fenian Brotherhood. There were to be only two raids in 1870, both in Quebec; the first at Eccles Hill on May 25th and the second and last on May 27th at Trout River.
The Fenian attack on Eccles Hill was to be against a small force consisting of the Missisquoi Home Guard and the 60th Batt. (Missisquoi) commanded by Lt. Col. Brown Chamberlin. This small force was quickly reinforced by the 3rd Victoria Rifles and the Montreal Troop of Cavalry commanded by Lt. Col. Wm. Osborne-Smith. Following a charge by the 60th Batt. and Missisquoi Home Guard supported by the 3rd Victoria Rifles the Fenians broke and retreated in confusion. The Canadians had enjoyed a complete route of the enemy forces.
About 10 miles from Eccles Hill is Trout River, the site of the final attempt by the Fenian Brotherhood to capture British Canada. In the early morning of the 27th of May a Canadian force of 250 strong, consisting of the 50th Batt. (Huntingdon Borderers), Montreal Garrison Artillery, Montreal Field Battery, Montreal Field Artillery and Montreal Engineers along with a detachment of the British 69th Regiment engaged the Fenians. After a determined advance by the Canadians and British the Fenian forces broke and fled back to safety across the border into the United States for the last time, leaving behind three killed, several wounded and one captured.
Although the whole Fenian incident may appear quite farcical even non-consequential to the casual observer of history the impact on Canada was quite profound. Through the 1850s and early ‘60s British North America was working on the resolution of various problems with the proposed British North American Act which would see the provinces join to form the Dominion of Canada. Politicians being what they are this was a long and drawn out procedure. The Fenian Raids brought to light the need for Canada to maintain a well trained and equipped standing militia to counter any external threat. The actions by the Brotherhood also made the “Fathers of Confederation” realize that the time for endless debate was over and in 1867 the British North American Act 1867 was signed and Canada became the Dominion of Canada. This original confederation, comprised of the old Province of Canada (Upper and Lower Canada) being divided into Ontario and Quebec along with Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, would eventually grow into the 10 Provinces we see as Canada today.
No doubt Canada would have gained independence at a later date as the British Government and even Queen Victoria herself considered Canadian Confederation desirable. However, the Fenian Brotherhood no doubt had an unwitting hand in expediting that procedure.
Turning Back the Fenians, Robert L. Dallison
Canada General Service Medal Roll 1866-70 John R. Thyen
Canadian Campaigns 1860 -70 David Ross, Grant Tyler, Rick Scollins