Fenianism was the name given to the Irish Republican
Brotherhood (IRB). It is the English version of the Gaelic
'Na Fianna', a term which refers to the ancient protectors
of the Ard Ri (High King). The IRB was formed in 1858 in
Ireland, with a mandate to create a free and independent
Ireland. In North America the IRB was led by John O'Mahony,
a veteran of the 1848 Irish insurrection. Membership in the
USA included thousands of Irish Brigade, Union and
Confederate army veterans.
In October of 1865 at a
convention in Philadelphia, USA, John O'Mahony lost his
dictatorship over the IRB. William Randall Roberts of New
York (born in Cork) was elected Chief Executive of the
Senate. Cork born Major-General 'Fighting Tom' Sweeny of the
Mexican War and American Civil War fame was appointed
Secretary of War. Attending the convention, and claiming to
represent 125,000 British North American members, was
Michael Murphy of Toronto. The seed was planted at this
meeting to strike Great Britain's Achilles' heel. Sweeny was
charged with developing a plan to secure an independent
territory for Ireland where an ‘Irish Republic in exile’
would be established and used as a bargaining chip to free
Ireland, similar to what was done in Texas by the USA.
Sweeny devised a plan which
involved three striking forces. One was to be led by
Brigadier Charles Tevis whose 3,000 men would assemble in
Chicago and advance to Stratford (between Detroit/Windsor
and Toronto). Another 5,000 men would be led by Brigadier
William F. Lynch and would cross in two groups. One from
Cleveland to Port Stanley joining the first at London (Upper
Canada - Ontario). The other, crossing at Buffalo to secure
Hamilton. These two forces would create a threat to Toronto,
the capital of British North America, causing the
British to send all their forces to the area in defense.
Information gathered by the IRB suggested there were 8,000
regular and 20,000 militia men in Upper and Lower Canada
(Ontario and Quebec).
While this distraction was
underway the Irish and French of Montreal would destroy the
railway at St. Ann's Bridge thus eliminating the return of
troops. The real threat would be led by Brigadier Samuel P.
Spear. His 16,800 men would attack Lower Canada. Brigadier
Michael C. Murphy would lead his cavalry to take Cornwall
and Prescott then move east to threaten Montreal. The
Montreal Irish would rise to support them and French
radicals would supply fresh horses which were in shortage
since the American Civil War. They would then seize
Pointe Levis opposite Quebec City. Fenian warships would
then sail in to seal the St. Lawrence River. If Montreal and
Quebec could not be taken Spear was to secure the area
between the Richelieu and St. Francis Rivers.
Sherbrooke would be established as their capital.
While plans were in final
stages, Roberts (Chief Executive of the IRB) had a meeting
with US President Andrew Johnson. It is said that the
president agreed to "recognize the accomplished
facts". The President ordered the release of prisoner
John Mitchel, who had connections with the French Republic
government and whom the IRB could make use of to raise money
in France. Mitchel departed in November as the IRB's
Ambassador to France.
Sweeny's plans were approved by
the IRB senate on February 19th, 1866 in Pittsburgh.
Following this event, a bitter O'Mahony made and carried out
his own plan of attack in an attempt to regain his lost
control of the IRB. A force of 1,000 Fenians led by Bernard
Doran Killian entered New Brunswick from Calais and
Eastport, Maine, to seize the island of Campobello.
Informers had tipped the British off weeks before and they
were ready. The battle was short and the Fenians utterly
defeated. The British thought this was the main
"raid" that was being hinted of by others and
believed the threat was over. This was the 19th of April
The real event was scheduled
for Thursday, 31 May 1866 and new problems arose. On the
scheduled day, only 1,000 to 5,000 men could be assembled at
Buffalo. Their leader Brigadier Lynch was afflicted with a
fever and could not partake. Sweeny telegraphed an order for
Lynch's adjutant, Colonel Sherwin to go to Buffalo and take
command, but he could not arrive until late in the day of
June 1st. Sweeny then ordered Hynes to appoint the
senior officer as acting Brigadier and commence the attack.
Colonel's John Hoy of the 7th Reg't of Buffalo, Owen Starr
of the 17th Reg't of Louisville, John Grace of the 18th
Reg't of Cleveland and John O'Neill of the 13th Reg't of
Nashville were present. Co. Monaghan born John O'Neill was
the senior officer and took command.
On the 1st of June, at 3:15 in
the morning, Owen Starr (a cavalry officer) led his men
across the river and proceeded to Fort Erie to capture the
railroad depot. Their advance was detected and nine cars
were steamed away by four engines prior to their arrival.
They did take Fort Erie which was manned by only six members
of the Royal Canadian Rifles. Starr raised the tricolour,
the present day flag of the Irish Republic, at Fort Erie.
O'Neill's force was across by
dawn and busily setting up an HQ at Frenchman's Creek. He
took the day to rest his men, thus losing the element of
surprise. By 5:00 in the afternoon Hoy's men were detected
by military scouts near Chippewa.
Within a few hours the British
had 400 regular troops, 6 field guns and 1,115 militia men
dispatched. On the following day, June 2nd, they were joined
by 1,000 men from Port Colborne in Stevensville. Another 100
men from the Welland Canal Field Battery and the Dunnville
Naval Brigade took a tug around Fort Erie to cut off any
possiblility of a Fenian retreat across the Niagara River.
At 3:00 in the morning of June
3rd, O'Neill's troops were on the move towards Port Colborne.
A battle ensued a few miles north of Ridgeway. O'Neill
prepared an ambush. Starr's men were to begin the conflict
and retreat, drawing the British into the trap. The firing
began at 8:00 AM with 10 companies of the Queen's Own
Rifles. They saw the scouts, heard a bugle call and expected
cavalry, so they formed squares. O'Neill had his men fix
bayonets and screaming "Fág an Bealach!"
("Clear the way!"), they charged on foot. The
British retreated all they way to Port Colborne chased
partway by Starr.
The Battle of Ridgeway - 3rd June 1866Casualties:
16 killed, 2 dying later of wounds, 2 dead by heat stroke,
74 wounded, 6 captured from the Queens Own Rifles, Caledonia
Rifles, 13th Battalion, York Rifles and the 2nd Battalion.
IRA* - 5 killed, 2
dying later of wounds, and 17 wounded.
( * The Fenian Raiders were the
first to introduce the term Irish Republican Army or IRA
which was prominently displayed on their uniform buttons)
O'Neill once again rested while
the British forces at Stevensville rose to 101 officers and
1,841 men. At the same time Lt.Gen. U.S.Grant was in Buffalo
closing the border preventing Sherwin's 4,000 Fenian troops
from crossing and supporting O'Neill. The Welland Field
Battery and Dunnville Naval Brigade took Fort Erie back.
They were then confronted by Hoy's men, retreating to Fort
Erie and the Fort change hands once again after the IRA Lt.
Col Michael Bailey had been shot under a white flag of
truce! Lt .Col. Stoughton Dennis who was in Command of the
British forces had later faced a court martial for cowardice
and desertion but was exonerated.
By the evening of June 2nd,
O'Neill was surrounded by approximately 5,000 British
troops. This was when O'Neill discovered that he was the
only mobile force, no other Fenian forces had entered Upper
Canada! Tevis hadn't even attempted, making excuses for
delaying, until it was too late. Sherwin had been stopped by
Grant on the US side. O'Neill began his retreat by barge
across the Niagara River at 2:00 on the morning of June 3rd
1866. He was intercepted and arrested by the Captain of the
American warship USS Harrison.
Many prisoners were tried in
Toronto, 22 were sentenced to death. John O'Neill and his
officers faced charges of violations of the neutrality laws
at the Erie County Courthouse in NY. They were found guilty
and sentenced. Subsequently when the "smoke
cleared" they were released.
On the 6th of June, General
Spear took advantage of the disorder in Upper Canada and
gave the order for his men to cross into Lower Canada.
Brigadier Michael C. Murphy advanced 15 miles into Lower
Canada before being driven back. Spear led his 2,000 men
from St. Albans to Frelighsburgh, St. Armand, Slab City and
East Stanbridge. On Friday the 8th of June Col. Michael
Scalan's regiment defeated the British forces at Pigeon
The promised rising of the
Irish in Montreal did not happen due to the strength of the
regular British forces present who were joined by 10,000
militia men and 3 warships in the harbour with their guns
aimed at the Fenians. On June 9th, 1866, Spear retreated.
Lt. Col. Livingston of the US 3rd Artillery Reg't gave the
British permission to cross the border to capture the
retreating Fenians. Some were run through with swords while
he looked on. Mrs. Eccles of Vermont was accidentally shot
and killed by a British soldier while she was standing on
her doorstep. US citizens were outraged and Livingston was
subsequently reprimanded for allowing a violation of US
All battles ceased and 5,166
Fenian troops were paroled in Buffalo by the 15th of June
O'Neill, the hero of the Battle
of Ridgeway, was later elected President of the Senate of
the IRB and attempted yet another crossing at Prescott in
1870 but failed. Yet again he made an offer to Louis Riel
(fighter for the rights of the Metis in Manitoba and
descendant of an Irishman (O')Rielly) at Red River and this
failed also. O'Neill retired to a town on Elkhorn River
which was named after him: O'Neill, Nebraska.
Some little known facts:
1. Not all the men
that comprised the Fenian IRA were Irish. Records show that
they were accompanied by 500 Mohawk Indians from the
Cattaraugus Reservation in New York and one company of 100
African American veteran soldiers of the Union Army.
2. On the 6th of
June, US President Johnson made a deal with the British,
having received $15,000,000 reparation payment for losses
incurred during the American Civil War as a result of the
British partiality to the South. In return the US passed
neutrality laws and would enforce them on the Fenians. He
had successfully used the Fenians as a political bargaining
The Fenians had been used as a
pawn by the American government and had terribly
underestimated the strength of the British (Canadian)
forces. Present history refers to the attempt as
"foolish" and to their leader, O'Neill, as "a