Fenian Raids 1866

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Date: 1866 to 1866
Location: North Americamap
Surnames/tags: Fenian Canada Irish
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Fenian Raids 1866

Campobello Island Raid (1866)

Led by John O'Mahony, this Fenian raid occurred in April 1866, at Campobello Island, New Brunswick. A Fenian Brotherhood war party of over 700 members arrived at the Maine shore opposite the island intending to seize Campobello from the British. British commander Charles Hastings Doyle, stationed at Halifax, Nova Scotia responded decisively. On 17 April 1866 he left Halifax with Royal Navy warships carrying over 700 British regulars and proceeded to Passamaquoddy Bay, where the Fenian force was concentrated. This show of British might discouraged the Fenians, and they dispersed. The invasion reinforced the idea of protection for New Brunswick by joining with the British North American colonies of Nova Scotia, and the United Province of Canada, formerly Upper Canada (now Ontario) and Lower Canada (Quebec), to form the Dominion of Canada.

Niagara Raid (Battles of Ridgeway and Fort Erie) (1866)

Veterans of the Fenian Raid, 1866

After the Campobello raid, the "presidential faction" led by Fenian founders James Stephens and John O'Mahony focused more on fundraising for rebels in Ireland. The more militant "senate faction" led by William R. Roberts believed that even a marginally successful invasion of the Province of Canada or other parts of British North America would provide them with leverage in their efforts. After the failure of the April attempt to raid New Brunswick, which had been blessed by O'Mahony, the senate faction implemented their own plan for invading Canada. Drafted by the senate "Secretary for War" General T. W. Sweeny, a distinguished former Union Army officer, the plan called for multiple invasions at points in Canada West (now southern Ontario) and Canada East (now southern Quebec) intended to cut Canada West off from Canada East and possible British reinforcements from there. Key to the plan was a diversionary attack at Fort Erie from Buffalo, New York, meant to draw troops away from Toronto in a feigned strike at the nearby Welland Canal system. This would be the only Fenian attack, other than the Quebec raid several days later, that would be launched in June 1866.

Approximately 1000 to 1300 Fenians crossed the Niagara River in the first 14 hours of June 1 under Colonel John O'Neill. Sabotaged by Fenians in its crew, the U.S. Navy's side-wheel gunboat USS Michigan did not begin intercepting Fenian reinforcements until 2:15 p.m. — fourteen hours after Owen Starr's advance party had crossed the river ahead of O'Neill's main force. Once the USS Michigan was deployed, O'Neill's force in the Niagara Region was cut off from further supplies and reinforcements.

After assembling with other units from Canada and travelling all night, Canadian troops advanced into a well-laid ambush (Battle of Ridgeway) by approximately 600–700 Fenians the next morning north of Ridgeway, a small hamlet west of Fort Erie. (The Fenian strength at Ridgeway had been reduced by desertions and deployments of Fenians in other locations in the area overnight.)

The Canadian militia consisted of inexperienced volunteers with no more than basic drill training but armed with Enfield rifled muskets equal to the armaments of the Fenians. A single company of the |Queen's Own Rifles of Toronto had been armed the day before on their ferry crossing from Toronto with state-of-the-art 7-shot Spencer repeating rifles, but had not had an opportunity to practise with them and were issued with only 28 rounds per man. The Fenians were mostly battle-hardened American Civil War veterans, armed with weapons procured from leftover war supplies, either Enfield rifled muskets or the comparable Springfield.

The opposing forces exchanged volleys for about two hours, before a series of command errors threw the Canadians into confusion. The Fenians took advantage of it by launching a bayonet charge that broke the inexperienced Canadian ranks. Seven Canadians were killed on the battlefield, two died shortly afterwards from wounds, and four would later die of wounds or disease while on service; ninety-four more were wounded or disabled by disease. Two Fenians were killed and sixteen wounded.

After the battle, the Canadians retreated to Port Colborne, at the Lake Erie end of the Welland Canal. The Fenians rested briefly at Ridgeway, before returning to Fort Erie. Another encounter followed that saw several Canadians severely wounded and the surrender of a large group of local Canadian militia who had moved into the Fenian rear. After considering the inability of reinforcements to cross the river and the approach of large numbers of both militia and British regulars, the remaining Fenians released the Canadian prisoners and returned to Buffalo early in the morning of June 3. They were intercepted by the gunboat Michigan and surrendered to the American navy.

Until recently it was alleged that the turning point in the battle was when Fenian cavalry was erroneously reported and the Canadian militia ordered to form square, the standard tactic for infantry to repel cavalry. When the mistake was recognized, an attempt was made to reform in column; being too close to the Fenian lines, it failed. In his recent new history of Ridgeway, however, historian Peter Vronsky argues the explanation was not as simple as that. Prior to the formation of the square, confusion had already broken out when a unit of the Queen's Own Rifles mistook three arriving companies of redcoat Hamilton 13th Battalion for British troops. When the Queen's Own Rifles began retiring to give the field to what they thought were British units, the 13th Battalion mistook this for a retreat, and began withdrawing themselves. At this moment that the infamous "form square" order was given, completing the debacle that was unfolding on the field.

Five days after the start of the invasion, U. S. President Andrew Johnson issued a proclamation requiring enforcement of the neutrality laws, guaranteeing the Fenian invasion could not continue. Generals Ulysses S. Grant and General George Meade went to Buffalo, New York to inspect the situation. Following instructions from Grant, Meade issued strict orders to prevent anyone from violating the border. Grant then proceeded to St. Louis. Meade, finding that the battles were over and the Fenian army interned in Buffalo, went to Ogdensburg, New York, to oversee the situation in the St. Lawrence River area. The U.S. Army was then instructed to seize all Fenian weapons and ammunition and prevent more border crossings. Further instructions on 7 June 1866 were to arrest anyone who appeared to be a Fenian.

Ironically, though they did nothing to advance the cause of Irish independence, the 1866 Fenian raids and the inept efforts of the Canadian militia to repulse them helped to galvanize support for the Confederation of Canada in 1867. Some historians have argued that the affair tipped the final votes of reluctant Maritime provinces in favour of the collective security of nationhood, making Ridgeway the "battle that made Canada."

In June 2006 Ontario’s heritage agency dedicated a plaque at Ridgeway on the commemoration of the 140th anniversary of the battle. Many members of today's Canadian army regiment, The Queen's Own Rifles of Canada, return to the Ridgeway battle site each year on the weekend closest to the June 2 anniversary for a bicycle tour of the battle sites.

Alexander Muir, a Scottish immigrant, author of "The Maple Leaf Forever" and member of the Orange Order, fought at Ridgeway with the Queen's Own Rifles.

A Fenian commander was Brigadier General Thomas William Sweeny, who was arrested by the United States government for violating American neutrality. Nevertheless, he was soon released and served in the Regular Army until he retired in 1870.

The total casualty figures for the Fenian Raids into Canada 1866, including deaths from disease while on service in both Canada West (Ontario) and Canada East (Quebec), were calculated by the Militia Department in 1868 as 31 dead and 103 wounded or struck by disease (including a female civilian accidentally shot by the militia.)

Boards of Inquiry for Ridgeway

A board of inquiry determined that allegations over the alleged misconduct of Lieutenant-Colonel Alfred Booker (13th Battalion), on whom command of Canadian volunteers had devolved, had "not the slightest foundation for the unfavourable imputations cast upon him in the public prints". Nevertheless, the charges dogged Booker for the rest of his life.

A second board of inquiry into the battle at Fort Erie exonerated Lieutenant-Colonel J. Stoughton Dennis, Brigade Major of the Fifth Military District, although the President of the Board of Inquiry, Colonel George T. Denison, differed from his colleagues on several key points.

In 1862 formation of the 13th Battalion (later the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry) was authorized and the command was given to Isaac Buchanan. Booker took it over in 1865 in preference to another officer, James Atchison Skinner, while retaining over-all command of the active force in Hamilton. In the same year he commanded several volunteer companies on the Niagara frontier following the St Albans raid by a group of Southerners in October. He had been examined by a board of three imperial officers in 1864 and received the first 1st class certificate of military qualification ever granted by the Department of Militia Affairs. His strenuous voluntary services brought some rewards: he was wont to refer to “the special approval and personal commendation” of the Prince of Wales in 1860 and to his presentation to Queen Victoria in 1864.

The event with which Booker’s name is chiefly connected is the battle of Ridgeway fought on 2 June 1866 between Canadian volunteers under his command and the Irish Republican Army under John O’Neill. On 1 June, when news of a Fenian invasion was received by British military officials, Booker was instructed to call out the 13th Battalion and take it to Port Colborne. He picked up two additional volunteer companies (the York and Caledonia) en route, and found the 2nd Battalion of Toronto already there when he arrived late the same day. Because he was senior to the 2nd Battalion’s temporary commander, John Stoughton Dennis, Booker took command of the whole force.

The volunteers under Booker were to act in conjunction with imperial troops commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel George J. Peacocke; both were under the orders of Major General George Napier. Peacocke was to meet Booker in Port Colborne but the place was changed to Stevensville. Booker, however, had better knowledge of the whereabouts of the Fenians than Peacocke, and he suggested that he take his column to Fort Erie and attack them at Frenchman Creek; the scheme was vetoed by Peacocke.

Booker considered that to “keep my appointment at Stevensville was my obvious duty,” and accepted Napier’s expectation that the Fenians would not attack until the two columns had arrived there. Booker’s force reached Ridgeway by train and began the march to Stevensville. His troops – young, inexperienced, and ill trained – consisted of 480 men in the 2nd Battalion under Charles Todd Gilmor, 265 in the 13th under J. A. Skinner (in temporary command as Booker had taken command of the whole column), and about 50 in each of the York Company and the Caledonia Company. Gilmor’s advance guard, however, met the Fenians under O’Neill about midway between Stevensville and Ridgeway, and became heavily engaged. Booker then learned that Peacocke had been delayed at Chippawa; there was now no hope that the imperial troops would hear the fighting and come to Booker’s aid. According to Gilmor, “the situation of the Volunteers was thereby rendered most critical, as it seemed improbable we would hold our position for the two hours we were thus left unsupported.” Neither side had artillery or cavalry.

Booker drove back the Fenians, but when he ordered parts of Skinner’s 13th to replace the companies under Gilmor which were low in ammunition, O’Neill counterattacked. “A scene of confusion ensued” and Booker’s force was routed. Booker was unable to regroup his men at Ridgeway, and retired to Port Colborne, while O’Neill, wishing to return to the U.S.A., and unable to take advantage of his military success, moved to Fort Erie. In all, nine of Booker’s men were killed in action. Peacocke’s column, which had artillery, was never engaged. Subsequently it was hinted that Peacocke should be court-martialed, but Sir John Michel (commander of the forces) let it be known that the volunteers’ weapons were such that “at present the unfortunate Canadians fight at a disadvantage” and that if the Canadian government had authorized money for a dozen mounted volunteers Peacocke’s force would have been warned in time to destroy the Fenians.

The British military placed responsibility on the Canadian government, but a court of inquiry demanded by Booker and presided over by George Taylor Denison II failed to assign blame at the same time indicating Booker’s personal courage. The officers of the 13th, however, showed no intention of letting matters lie. Skinner and others hired a former protégé of Isaac Buchanan, Alexander Somerville, to write a malicious account of the battle. Somerville later admitted that the officers were “hostile to Colonel Booker and blind to fair play” and that the book was “doing the work of Col. Booker’s personal enemies.”

Booker’s resignation on 30 July 1866 from command of the 13th Battalion was followed by permission to retire from the militia in 1867; he retained his rank, a virtual vindication of his actions by the Canadian government. The reasons for the defeat were, however, too deeply entwined with imperial and Canadian attitudes to defence to allow Booker’s comeback in the volunteer movement.

Units in Defence at Ridgeway include:

- 10th Royals (Toronto)
- 13th Battalion, Volunteer Infantry (Hamilton)
- 1st Prince of Wales Volunteer Rifle Regiment
- 20th Battalion, Volunteer Infantry
- 29th Battalion, Volunteer Infantry
- 2nd Queen's Own Volunteer Rifles Battalion
-No. 9 Company from University College
-No. 8 Company from Trinity College
-No. 10 Company (Highland Company)
-No. 5 Company
- 35th Battalion, Volunteer Infantry
- Argenteuil Rangers
- Columbus Infantry Company
- Hochelaga Light Infantry
- Royal Light Infantry
- Sarnia Frontier Battalion
- Sarnia Provisional Battalion
- St. John's Troop of Cavalry
- St. Therese Corps
- Thorold Volunteer Company
- Windsor Provisional Battalion
- 47th Regiment of Foot, Lancashire, British Army

Fenian Units at Ridgeway include: 13th Regiment Memphis Company, TN 18th Regiment "Cleveland Rangers", Cleveland, OH 19th Regiment “Irish Republic Volunteers”, Cincinnati,  Ohio 7th Regiment “Irish Army of Liberation”,  Buffalo, New York James Hugh Haggerty's Company, Terre Haute, Indiana

Pigeon Hill Raid (1866)

After the invasion of Canada West failed, the Fenians decided to concentrate their efforts on Canada East; however, the U.S. government had begun to impede Fenian activities, and arrested many Fenian leaders. The Fenians soon saw their plans begin to fade. General Samuel Spear of the Fenians managed to escape arrest, and, on June 7, Spear and his 1000 men marched into Canadian territory, achieving occupancy of Pigeon Hill, Frelighsburg, St. Armand and Stanbridge. At this point the Canadian government had done little to defend the border, but on June 8 Canadian forces arrived at Pigeon Hill and the Fenians, who were low on arms, ammunition and supplies, promptly surrendered, ending the raid on Canada East.

Timothy O'Hea was awarded the Victoria Cross for actions he took at Danville, Canada East, on June 9, 1866, at about the time of the Pigeon Hill Raid. Although only about 23 years old, O'Hea, a private in the 1st Battalion, Rifle Brigade (The Prince Consort's Own), British Army, stationed in Canada, saw the threat posed by a burning railway car containing ammunition and fought the blaze single-handedly for an hour, saving the lives of many in the area.


  • Peter Vronsky. (2011) "Ridgeway: The American Fenian Invasion and the 1866 Battle That Made Canada". Allen Lane. 432pp. website
  • Hereward Senior. The Last Invasion of Canada: The Fenian Raids, 1866-1870. Toronto: Dundurn Press/Canadian War Museum, 1991.

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