|An idealized view of the Fenian attack on Ridgeway from an American illustrated newspaper.|
On June 2, 1867 members of the most successful of a series of armed raids across the international border into Canada by armed forces of the Fenian Brotherhood surrendered peacefully to U.S. authorities.
The Fenian Brotherhood, or at least one faction of it led by William R. Roberts, had publicly been raising money, stock piling arms, and drilling combat units for some years with the full knowledge and winking approval of the United States government.
The Brotherhood was founded in the U.S. in 1858 by John O’Mahony a junior leader of the Young Ireland rebellion of 1848-49. In turn they were inspired by the 1798 United Irishmen uprising. The Young Ireland movement had been crushed by British troops and many top leaders arrested and transported to the Australian penal colonies. O’Mahony and James Stephans were among the few leaders to escape to Europe.
O’Mahony crossed the Atlantic in 1856 to rouse the huge numbers of Irish immigrants who had poured into the United States during the Potato Famine. While O’Mahony was organizing the Fenians, Stephans returned to Dublin and organized its counterpart in the old country, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB.) The two organizations afterwards supported each other’s efforts.
Within a few years the Fenians in the U.S. split with the faction led by Roberts advocating a policy of attacks on Britain’s Canadian provinces in the hopes of either trading Canadian security for Irish Independence or goading the U.S. into war with Britain which would be coordinated with another Irish uprising. To finance the scheme the Brotherhood issued Bonds in the name of the Irish Republic redeemable “six months after the recognition of the independence of Ireland.” Hundreds of thousands of Irish immigrants eagerly snapped up the bonds. Thousands of stands of arms and even artillery were purchased. Armed, uniformed volunteer units were soon drilling in most big cities.
The government turned a blind eye to all of this, which at the time was not illegal. Many U.S. politicians still harbored American territorial ambitions in Canada and were not averse to using the Irish to that end. In 1860 American Secretary of State William Seward toyed with the idea of an invasion of Canada as a way of uniting North and South in a common fight and avoiding the looming Civil War.
That was a desperate, forlorn hope. During the course of the war the Lincoln administration grew increasingly irritated with the British government, which was quietly assisting the Confederacy because English mills were dependent on Southern cotton. The British sold arms to the South, financed and fitted some blockade runners, and even built ships designated for the Confederate Navy. And Confederate agenta were allowed free reign in Canada to plot various cross border incursions of their own.
At war’s end the Army allowed Irish born T.W. Sweeny to be temporarily detached from duty so that he could become Secretary of War for the Roberts’s Fenians. He recruited battle hardened veterans, including many members of highly decorated Irish units, to the Fenian militia companies. Sweeny began to plan raids to seize the transportation system in Canada. Fenian operatives in Canada reported back encouraging news of reservoirs of support for an invasion by the large number of Irish immigrants in the north.
By spring 1866 trainloads of uniformed Fenian troops were arriving in Buffalo for the planned invasion. Under the command of Civil War hero Colonel John O’Neill 800 to1500 troops crossed the Niagara River on May 31. With most of the troops across a Navy gunboat finally began turning back rear elements late in the day.
O’Neil and his men easily occupied Ft. Erie and he spent the day trying unsuccessfully to rally Canadian Irish immigrants and French Catholics to his side and gather local arms supplies.
Meanwhile Canadian militia and British Regulars rallied to the defense of the town of Ridgeway. Due to crossed communication and inexperience militia, the Anglo Canadian forces were defeated in a sharp little battle leaving 8 dead, two mortally wounded, and 27 injured. O’Neill reported lighter losses on his side, but the Canadians later boasted of finding 16 bodies on the field, perhaps to take away the sting of the humiliating loss.
O’Neil put the town to the torch and then anticipating the arrival of British re-enforcements, fell back on Ft. Erie where he fought another successful engagement against an outnumbered Canadian artillery battery fighting as infantry and the Dunville Naval Brigade.
Despite these victories without the expected outpouring of local support, with supply lines from America severed by the U.S. Military, and British reinforcements continuing to pour into the area O’Neill ordered a hasty retreat back across the Niagara. He lost more men in the confused return crossing than he had in battle.
After earlier ambivalence U.S. authorities, alarmed that a general war on the international frontier might break out were now acting more firmly. O’Neil and his men were forced to surrender their arms, but not arrested.
Within a week, following further skirmishing across the border in the St. Lawrence area the government purchased free railroad tickets home for the soldiers in exchange for their oral parole not to invade Canada again. Sympathetic Army officers even saw that many Fenian arms were returned to them.
In 1867 O’Neil was elected new President of the Fenian Brotherhood at a massive convention held in Philadelphia. The convention publicly proclaimed plans for another invasion and 5000 uniformed Fenians paraded through the streets.
The alarmed British speeded up the long planed reorganization of their Canadian holdings and the 1867 Canadian Confederation came into existence.
Some of the Fenian plans were diverted to support of an anticipated uprising in Ireland. A number of senior Irish-American officers landed in Ireland expecting to be placed in command of troops only to find little organization, a sputtering rebellion that was quickly suppressed by local authorities and arrest.
Subsequently the IRB would suspend support of both factions of the Fenians and underwrite a new American affiliate, the Clan na Gael.
The Fenians, or factions of them continued to engage in increasingly futile, almost comic opera raids in 1870 and 1871. But the patience of Irish Americans for such adventures was wearing thin.
The Brotherhood formally disbanded in1880 but dissident remnants were engaged in plots in the Pacific Northwest with the intent of seizing British Columbia. The presence of a strong Royal Navy squadron at Vancouver during the 1886 celebrations of the completion of the Trans-Canadian Railroad in effectively ended the Fenian threat once and for all.