On June 1, 1866, the Irish Fenian raid of Canada launched. A three-pronged invasion with the goal of capturing Quebec and making it the seat of the Irish Republic-in-exile.
In the sleepy town of Ridgeway, Ontario – just a stone’s throw from Crystal Beach, the “Southern Shore of Canada” and former home to the Niagara region’s most beloved amusement park – there stands a stone memorial cairn, an unobtrusive roadside monument most travelers overlook as they pass north toward Niagara Falls or east toward Buffalo.
Barricaded behind a black wrought iron fence, the cairn stands upon the scene of a largely forgotten battle from a century-and-a-half ago. It is a reminder of a defining moment in the Canadian Confederation and a political hot potato that sparked tensions between the governments of the United States and Britain. It is a reminder of the day the Irish Fenians invaded Canada.
During the Great Starvation of the 1840s, more than one million Irish emigrated from Ireland to America. These immigrants proved to be invaluable resources to the Union during the Civil War. And after the war, there were enough of them that only a foolhardy politician would ignore the causes held dear by such a large constituency.
In this environment, the American branch of the Fenian movement thrived. Founded primarily to raise funds and obtain weaponry to send back to Ireland for a military rebellion against the English occupiers, the American Fenian organizers adopted a new strategy at the close of the Civil War. They would take the fight for Irish freedom to British Canada.
In 1865, an American ship, Erin’s Hope, was intercepted by the British navy en route to Ireland. The vessel was loaded with men and ammunition bound for a planned Fenian revolt. When the mission failed, the American Fenians held an emergency convention in Philadelphia. William Randall Roberts, a radical firebrand, was elected president of the American Fenians, and he pushed for an invasion of the British North American colonies of Canada.
It was risky – some might say foolhardy – strategy, but a strategy that seemed viable at the time. The Fenian movement enjoyed a measure of political support in the United States, and the U.S. government generally allowed Fenian meetings and gatherings to go uninterrupted. The Fenians had military training and weaponry. Thousands of US Civil War veterans who supported the cause of Irish nationalism had been allowed to purchase their rifles and ammunition at a steep discount from the Union and Confederate armies, and Canada’s borders were virtually unsecured, guarded by citizen volunteers.
If the Fenians could secure strategic bridgeheads, such as the Welland Canal, they could disrupt trade and block the arrival of military reinforcements. With some luck, the cause would attract the support of the 175,000 Irish who emigrated to Canada during the famine, as well as exploit tensions between French Canadians and British Canadians.
A Fenian invasion could spark a conflict in Canada that would occupy the British and set the stage for rebellion in Ireland. Even if it failed, the invasion could draw worldwide attention to the English occupation of Ireland; just as the Irish Fenians had no business claiming Canada, England had no legitimate ownership claim over Ireland.
The plan was for a three-pronged invasion, with a goal of capturing Quebec and making it the seat of the Irish Republic-in-exile.
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A western wing of 3,000 men was to gather in Chicago and Milwaukee, under the leadership of Brigadier-General Charles Tevis, a West Point graduate.
A central wing of 5,000 men was to gather in Cleveland and Buffalo. General John O’Neill, a colonel in the Union army and a native of Drumgallon, County Monaghan, was to lead this group.
But these two brigades were meant to be feints for the largest wing. A force of 16,800 Fenians would assemble in St. Albans, Vermont under the leadership of Brigadier-General Samuel M. Spear. Spear’s troops would deploy after Tevis and O’Neill made landfall, and would march on Montreal as the army of the Crown rushed westward to stave off the invaders and to protect Toronto, a likely target for the Fenians.
The planned invasion was no secret. Newspapers, such as the Buffalo Courier, ran letters calling for action, including one from the prominent Fenian leader Patrick O’Day. “The plans for action are perfected, and all that is now required is arms to place in the hands of the thousands of brave men who are today ready to take the field and fight for their country’s liberation,” O’Day wrote.
As the British Consul was gathering intelligence on the Fenian movement, paranoia began sweeping the Canadian citizenry. There were whispers that Catholic priests were using the Mass to recruit Fenians for military action. A new rebel song was being heard in pubs throughout the Northeast:
We are the Fenian Brotherhood, skilled in the arts of war,
And we’re going to fight for Ireland, the land we adore,
Many battles we have won, along with the boys in blue,
And we’ll go and capture Canada, for we’ve nothing else to do.
In May 1866, the Fenians began to move their troops into place. Fenians from Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana traveled north to Buffalo. The movement did not go undetected by British intelligence. An intelligence agent posted in Buffalo sent a telegraph to his superiors reporting that there were “many strange military men” in Buffalo. The following day, he sent a second report simply stating “This town is full of Fenians!”
On May 30, General O’Neill arrived in Buffalo. Instead of the 5,000 troops promised him, he found just 1,000 men awaiting his command. However, the Fenians had managed to obtain canal boats to ferry them across the Niagara River from Buffalo to Fort Erie, Canada, and delaying the launch could jeopardize the availability of those vessels. In addition, Buffalo Mayor John Wells was an avowed opponent of the Fenian movement and had alerted the British consuls in Toronto and Ottawa about the forces amassing in his city. A delay could have compromised the entire movement.
It was decided that O’Neill’s invasion would take place as scheduled. In the early morning hours of June 1, 1866, one thousand Irish freedom fighters boarded boats and, in the inky blackness of night, crossed the Niagara River with rebellion on their minds. At 3:30 a.m., the Irish landed in Canada.
O’Neill’s plan was to land in Fort Erie and march to Welland, Ontario to establish a bridgehead at the Welland Canal, a vital trade and travel route. If he was unable to reach Welland before British forces mobilized against him, he would fall back on the area of Lime Ridge, a geographically advantageous area that would allow the Fenians to take the high ground and stave off British advances below the ridge.
Upon landing, the Fenians began ripping up railway posts, cutting telegraph lines, and destroying bridges. O’Neill moved his forces north to Frenchman’s Creek and established a defensive base, fortified with split rail barricades. Surprisingly, instead of marching the 13 miles west toward Welland immediately, O’Neill opted to remain in this defensive position for the entire day of June 1. A battalion headed by Colonel Owen Starr took the international railway ferry and captured six members of The Royal Canadian Rifles stationed in the old Fort Erie. Starr then posted sentries at nearby taverns and raised the Irish tricolor flag. A proclamation was read, stating, in part:
“We come among you as the foes of British rule in Ireland. We have taken up the sword to strike down the oppressor’s rod to deliver Ireland from the tyrant, the despoiler, the robber … We have no issue with the people of these provinces and wish to have none but the most friendly relations. Our weapons are for the oppressors of Ireland. Our blows shall be directed only against the powers of England; her privileges alone shall we invade, not yours.”
By most accounts, the Irish invaders conducted themselves in a gentlemanly fashion. Outside of seizing horses and confiscating victuals and other supplies (including dried beef, 50 gallons of cider, dried apples, bottles of wine, and blankets, according to a handwritten inventory on file at the Fort Erie Historical Museum), the Fenians did not harass or abuse Canadian civilians.
In the words of Canadian Assemblyman George Denison, who was stationed in Fort Erie during the time of the invasion, “They have been called plunderers, robbers, and marauders, yet, no matter how unwilling we may be to admit it, the positive fact remains that they stole but few valuables, that they destroyed, comparatively speaking, little or nothing, and they committed no outrages on the inhabitants but treated everyone with unvarying courtesy. It seems like a perfect burlesque to see a ragged rabble without a government, country or flag-affecting chivalrous sentiments and doing acts that put one in mind of the days of knight-errantry.”
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Back in Buffalo, additional Fenian reinforcements were gathering. However, the American government, which had largely given the Fenians free rein in the past, found itself in a precarious position. With tensions between the U.S. and England still high due to England’s support of the Confederacy during the Civil War, the Fenian invasion could be lighted match tossed upon a powder keg and seen as an American act of war.
American General George Meade ordered that the international border from Erie, Pennsylvania, to Oswego, New York, be secured to prevent any additional incursions. Battleships were moved into position, and the border became a militarized zone.
By the evening of June 1, O’Neill had begun his movement toward Welland. However, his troops had been sighted by local horsemen and his field intelligence reported that the British forces were already alert and on the move and that they would beat him to Welland. O’Neill opted to fall back to Lime Ridge and wait for the British to arrive.
The Fenians moved along the wooded ridge, an ideal defensive engagement position. They met the British forces in Ridgeway.
The British had received poor intelligence. They believed the Fenians were a motley crew of drunkards and amateur soldiers. They severely underestimated O’Neill’s abilities as a field general. The British forces were met by an advance group of Fenian skirmishers. Gunfire broke out and the sides exchanged volleys. The British moved additional units to the front and positioned the Queen’s Own riflemen to the flank, confident that they could overpower the ragtag Fenians. The Fenians began to retreat, and the British pressed forward.
But as the British advanced, they were ambushed by a battalion hidden on the ridge near Bertie Road. The British turned their forces towards the enfilade, while the reserve Fenian line advanced in from their northern post.
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At that time, horsemen were sighted on the ridge, causing the British to believe they were under imminent attack by a cavalry unit. The panicked British collapsed into a square formation, the standard defensive tactic against cavalry. But as generals shouted conflicting orders, and the cavalry report proved to be false, the British fell back in confusion and retreated, being chased from the field by the Fenians.
Twenty-eight men were killed (10 British, 18 Fenians), 62 men were wounded (38 British, 24 Fenian). It proved to be the greatest military battle of the Fenian movement, and one of the few successful Irish campaigns against the British in Irish Republican history.
O’Neill fell back to the defensible stronghold of Fort Erie to await word on enforcement and updates on the movements of Generals Tevis and Spears. Upon arriving at the fort, they encountered a tugboat deploying additional British forces. The Fenians quickly bested this unprepared contingent, forcing a retreat and capturing 36 men, to claim their second military victory.
At Fort Erie, O’Neill learned that the invasion would be a failure. The eastern and western wings had never crossed to Canada. They had failed to secure transport and were intercepted by American authorities. Reinforcements amassed in Buffalo could not cross the river. Unable to receive additional ammunition and supplies, severed from additional Fenian troops held back in Buffalo, and realizing that the other two invasion wings had never deployed, O’Neill made the best military decision the situation afforded. He decided to retreat.
O’Neill and his officers were arrested and charged with violating the Neutrality Act of the United States. The Fenian soldiers were held for several days on open scows, forced to endure the elements and baking summer sun, as they awaited their fate. Eventually, the rank-and-file were released and provided with free transportation to their home states, courtesy of the United States government. In exchange, they were asked to renounce their Fenian ties and to promise that they would not become involved in any future violations of the Neutrality Act or risk criminal prosecution.
O’Neill and his officers were held for several weeks, allowing the tension and excitement of the invasion to die down. After a cooling-off period, they were fined and quietly released.
On June 6, President Andrew Johnson, bowing to pressure from the British, issued a statement reinforcing U.S. neutrality and calling for the arrest of the leading Fenians, including Fenian President William Randall Roberts.
This proved to be the death knell for the Fenian movement in America. It proved that the U.S. government would not support an Irish rebellion, despite the growing political influence of the Irish. The invasion accelerated the Canadian push for Confederation, as the Fenians had shown that Canada’s defenses were unsatisfactory. The Fenians attempted additional invasions into Canada, but each attempt fizzled, and the Fenian cause generally fell out of favor in America.
Largely forgotten, the Battle of Ridgeway has become a footnote in Irish and American history. On a field where the cause of Irish independence was championed in battle and bloodshed, all that remains is a quaint roadside monument; a silent memorial to the cause of independence and freedom.
For more visit www.IrishAmerica.com.
* Originally published in May 2014. Updated in May 2023.