On This Day -Drivetime – 11.4.1866 Fenian invasion of Canada


The Battle of Ridgeway, 1866.



Between 1866 and 1871 American Fenians – mostly veterans of the Civil War – attempted, on no less than five occasions, to invade Canada with some nebulous idea of seizing what was known through most of the 1860s as British North America and only giving it back when Ireland was granted an independent republic. Most of their efforts were cack-handed and disorganised. The raid on Campobello Island, New Brunswick, in April 1866 is typical. Led by one of the founders of the movement, John O’Mahony, this attempt landed 700 Fenians on the Canadian island which adjoined the state of Maine. The small force, however, sensibly placed discretion ahead of valour when it was informed that British warships were on the way. The occupation of the island was painlessly brief.

Another raid in 1870 was betrayed by the most famous English spy in the American Fenian ranks, Thomas Beach, who posed, for many years, as a French Canadian Henri le Caron, but whose information ensured that the British and Canadian authorities were well-informed about what the Fenians were up to.

The Fenian raids are generally represented as pathetic and disorganised fiascos. This is true of four out of the five – but not of the second raid, in June 1866.

The plan for this incursion was put together by former Union General Thomas William Sweeney, a Corkman known as ‘Fighting Tom’. The force, of about 1,300 Fenians, was led by former Union Army Colonel John O’Neill. It managed to cross the Niagra River without any American interference. A US gunboat – the Michigan – tried to stop them. But it had been sabotaged by a Fenian member of its crew and didn’t crank up until fourteen hours after most of the Fenian rebels had already made the crossing.

O’Neill’s men defeated a Canadian militia force at the Battle of Ridgeway. The Canadian defenders were boys before men – they were mostly inexperienced and badly armed troops facing well-equipped Irish veterans of the American Civil War. The result was the first Irish victory against a British force since Fontenoy in 1745.

The following day that first success was repeated at Fort Erie, a lakeside stronghold described, flatteringly, by the New York Times as a ‘deserted dunghill’.

The Times was just as complimentary towards the Fenian force itself, describing its members as ‘heroes of the stamp who bravely led the retreat at Bull Run’. The paper then advised the British-Canadian forces ‘not to spare them on our account . . They would be lying and stealing here if they were not raiding there.’

The Fenians described themselves as the Irish Republican Army – some went into battle wearing uniforms bearing the legend ‘IRA’ – it was the first time the letters are known to have been used in a context other than that of the accumulation of an American pension fund.

The USS Michigan finally managed to extract the Irish spanner from its works and get moving. It stopped Fenian reinforcements crossing into Canada. Rather than wait for the arrival of a vastly superior British regular force O’Neill withdrew and evacuated his men by barge back across the Niagra to Buffalo. There the Fenians surrendered to US forces. A little known fact – included among the Irish invaders was a small force of Mohawk Indians and a smaller group of Black Civil War veterans.

In a mopping up operation the U.S. army was instructed to arrest anyone ‘who looked like a Fenian’. Raising the obvious question – how do you look like a Fenian? The Americans took the whole affair very seriously indeed. General Sweeney, the Civil War hero, was arrested for his part in the invasion. Oddly though he continued to serve in the US Army until he retired in 1870. Or maybe that was his punishment.

One effect the raid did have was that it hastened the formation of the Confederation of Canada – so the Fenians can, in a sense, claim to be Canada’s Founding Fathers.

In a far less successful incursion two months beforehand Fenian forces led by John O’Mahony briefly occupied Campobello Island, New Brunswick, 148 years ago, on this day.