The Fenian Raid(s) of Upper and Lower Canada

Fenian Soldier


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 1866.

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:
British - 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 Hill.

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 sovereignty.

All battles ceased and 5,166 Fenian troops were paroled in Buffalo by the 15th of June 1866.

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 tool.

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 fool".

 

 

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