In the fall and winter of 1865 and the spring of 1866 there were rumours in Toronto of an imminent invasion of Canada by the Fenian Brotherhood. The militia was put on a heightened state of readiness and the Queen’s Own were called to active service on 7 March 1866, in anticipation of a St. Patrick’s Day attack. They stayed on active duty for three weeks until the threat of invasion subsided. This was the beginning of the Fenian Raids.
The Fenian Brotherhood was an Irish American organization that was dedicated to freeing Ireland from British rule. Many of them were Civil War veterans who believed that if they captured Canada they could use it as a bargaining tool against Britain. In the fall of 1865 they organized themselves into an army and began their preparations to invade Canada. In March of 1866 they met in Cincinnati and formulated their plan. Unfortunately, their security was not very good and both the Canadian authorities and the American government knew what they were planning.
In April, an invasion of New Brunswick was halted when American officials seized a shipload of arms headed for waiting Fenian troops in Maine. The American government would not permit a violation of the Neutrality Act.
On 1 June 1866, the Fenians invaded Canada. With 1,500 men they crossed the Niagara River just north of Fort Erie. Upon landing they established a defensive position and sent out patrols. Their first operation was to occupy the town of Fort Erie where they demanded food and horses from the citizens. They offered Fenian bonds as payment but the Canadians refused to accept them. Telegraph wires were cut and railroad tracks were torn up. The Fenians issued this proclamation;
To the people of British America:
We come among you as foes of British rule in Ireland. We have taken up the sword to strike down the oppressors’ rod, to deliver Ireland from the tyrant, the despoiler, the robber. We have registered our oaths upon the altar of our country in the full view of heaven and sent out our vows to the throne of Him who inspired them. Then, looking about us for an enemy, we find him here, here in your midst, where he is most vulnerable and convenient to our strength. . . . We have no issue with the people of these Provinces, and wish to have none but the most friendly relations.
Our weapons are for the oppressors of Ireland. our bows shall be directed only against the power of England; her privileges alone shall we invade, not yours. We do not propose to divest you of a solitary right you now enjoy. . . . We are here neither as murderers, nor robbers, for plunder and spoliation. We are here as the Irish army of liberation, the friends of liberty against despotism, of democracy against aristocracy, of people against their oppressors. In a word, our war is with the armed powers of England, not with the people, not with these Provinces. Against England, upon land and sea, till Ireland is free. . . .
To Irishmen throughout these Provinces we appeal in the name of seven centuries of British inequity and Irish misery and suffering, in the names of our murdered sires, our desolate homes, our desecrated altars, our million of famine graves, our insulted name and race — to stretch forth the hand of brotherhood in the holy cause of fatherland, and smite the tyrant where we can. We conjure you, our countrymen, who from misfortune inflicted by the very tyranny you are serving, or from any other cause, have been forced to enter the ranks of the enemy, not to be willing instruments of your country’s death or degradation.
No uniform, and surely not the blood-dyed coat of England, can emancipate you from the natural law that binds your allegiance to Ireland, to liberty, to right, to justice. To the friends of Ireland, of freedom, of humanity, of the people, we offer the olive branch of these and the honest grasp of friendship. Take it Irishmen, Frenchmen, American, take it all and trust it. . . . We wish to meet with friends; we are prepared to meet with enemies. We shall endeavor to merit the confidence of the former, and the latter can expect from us but the leniency of a determined though generous foe and the restraints and relations imposed by civilized warfare.
T. W. Sweeney. Major General commending the armies of Ireland
From Fort Erie, the Fenians marched north along the river toward the town of Chippewa. They realized that the Welland Canal was the most important strategic asset in the area. Chippewa controls the north end of the canal.
Meanwhile the alarm had sounded in Toronto and across the province. Thousands of militiamen were called out. The Queen’s Own Rifles paraded 356 men at 04:00 hrs on 1 June. They boarded the steamer, City of Toronto and sailed for Port Dalhousie. From there they travelled by train to Port Colburne and waited three hours while orders were prepared. The plan called for Colonel Booker’s column to travel by train to the town of Ridgeway and from there march north to meet Colonel Peacock’s column in the town of Stevensville.
In Ridgeway they made their first mistake of the day. As they assembled at the station the train blew its whistle an buglers sounded assembly calls. This noise was heard by the enemy who took it as a warning and prepared to fight. Marching north out of Ridgeway that morning, Colonel Booker had under his command the Queen’s Own Rifles of Toronto (that was our name at the time), the 13th Battalion (who later became the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry) and the York and Caledonia Rifle companies. They marched up ridge road with No 5 Company of the Queen’s Own leading.
Local inhabitants had warned Col Booker that the Fenians were near but he dismissed the reports because his intelligence told him that the enemy was camped at the Black Creek the night before. Indeed, on the evening of 1 June the Fenians had been camped at Black Creek, but when they learned that Peacock’s force was already in Chippewa, they decided to move against Booker’s weaker column. The Canadians had conveniently divided their forces so Colonel O’Neil chose to defeat them in parts rather than allow them to unite into a stronger body. To this end, the Fenians broke camp at 03:00 hrs on the morning of 2 June and marched south along Ridge road. When they heard the train whistle and bugle calls coming from Ridgeway they prepared a hasty defense.
It was hot that morning as the Queen’s Own marched through fields of new corn. As they approached Garrison Road, No 5 Company came under fire from Fenian skirmishers; the battle had begun. Initially the Fenian skirmishers fell back. They wanted to draw the Canadians toward their main line of defense. No 5 Company kept up the pressure as Colonel Booker deployed the rest of the column. The Adjutant of the Queen’s Own was Captain William Dillon Otter. This was his first battle. He went on to found the School of Infantry (later the Royal Canadian Regiment) and to lead a column in the Northwest Rebellion. He led the Canadians in South Africa and was Canada’s first home grown General. In the official account of the battle he wrote;
Second June, 1866 (Saturday), paraded at Port Colborne at 12:30 a.m. and marched to a train, on which was the 13th Battalion of Hamilton and the York and Caledonia Rifle Companies, who had arrived the night before. At 4 a.m. a detachment of a 125 officers and men of our own corps arrived from Toronto.
It was intended that the force should leave at 2 a.m., but further orders detained us until 5 a.m. These orders were from Colonel Peacock, H. M. 16th Foot, who was to be in command, and were brought by Captain Akers, Royal Engineers.
At 5 a.m., in obedience to Colonel Peacock’s orders, the force left Port Colborne, the strength being, Queen’s Own 480, 13th Battalion, York and Caledonia Companies about 400, in all say 880, under the command of Colonel Booker, 13th Battalion. Moved to Ridgeway station on the B & L. H. Railway, where we left the train and marched toward Stevensville, for the purpose of forming a junction with Colonel Peacock’s column.
No. 5 Company, Q.O.R. (armed with Spencer repeating rifles), formed the advance guard, followed by the remaining companies of the battalion, the 13th Battalion and York Company, the Caledonia Company finding the rear guard. In this order the column moved about two miles, when at 7 a.m. the Fenians were discovered to our front. The advance guard was immediately extended from its centre, Nos. 1 and 2 on its left and right. No. 3 centre supports, No. 4 left, No. 7 as a flanking party to the left, supported by No. 8, and Nos. 6 flanking to the right, No. 9 and 10 in reserve. After an advance of say half a mile, No. 6 was sent as a support to No. 2 on the right. Immediately the Fenians, who were extended behind the fences, their main body being well posted in a wood, opened fire, which was immediately returned by our men, who continued steadily advancing. The firing became general, being heaviest on our centre and right. At almost the first fire Ensign McEachren was hit in the stomach, and being taken to the rear, died in twenty minutes.
We continued driving them for about an hour, when our skirmishers being reported out of ammunition, Nos. 9 and 10 companies were sent to the right, and the 13th Battalion order to relieve us, which they did by sending out three companies to skirmish, and who had not being engaged fifteen minutes, when the cry of “Cavalry” was raised at seeing two or three Fenian horsemen advancing towards us. Colonel Booker ordered the reserve (Queen’s Own) to “Prepare for Cavalry” and the companies forming it, viz.: Nos. 1,2,3,5, and 8, formed square. The mistake was immediately seen, the order given to “Reform Column” and two leading companies (Nos. 1 and 2) to “extend.” On re-forming, the reserve being too close to the skirmish line, was ordered to retire, the left-wing of the 13th who were in our rear, seeing our men retire and thinking we were retreating, broke and retired in a panic, on seeing which our men also broke and ran.
Just previous to this the retire was sounded to Nos. 1 and 2 of the Queen’s Own, who not seeing the necessity of the order, disobeyed, until it was again sounded, when they reluctantly moved to the rear, the remainder of the skirmish line doing the same, though not understanding the reason of their recall, but on seeing the reserve in disorder, they too became demoralized and fled. The fire of the now pursuing Fenians became hotter than ever, and the volunteers being crowded up in a narrow road, presented a fine target to their rifles, causing our poor fellows to fall on all sides.
It was in vain the officers endeavored to rally the men, several times squads, and even a company were collected, but never in sufficient force to check the pursuit, though a constant fire was kept up until the Fenians ceased following. For the first two or three hundred yards it was a regular panic, but after that the men fell into a walk, retiring in a very orderly manner, but completely crestfallen.
The enemy followed to Ridgeway Station and there gave up the pursuit, moving onto Fort Erie. We’ve returned to Port Colborne, arriving at about 1 p.m. very tired and hungry, not having had any sleep the previous night nor any food that day.
Had the “retire” not been sounded we should have beaten them in 10 minutes more, for part of their force was actually retreating before we commenced to retire.
General O’Neill in command of the Fenians, and other officers of their force, owned to some of our wounded whom they captured (owing to our not having ambulances or vehicles of any description) that we “behaved splendidly and were mistaken by them for regulars, owing to our steadiness, and that we had fought five minutes longer they must have succumbed, as their men were fast becoming demoralized.”
The following Canadians were also prisoners in the hands of the Fenians, having been captured at Ridgeway and brought back to Fort Erie by Gen. O’Neil, who subsequently abandoned them when he made his flight back across the river:
The cost of the battle was:
|Rifleman William D. Smith||No. 2 Company|
|Lance-Corporal Mark B. Defries||No. 3 Company|
|Ensign Malcolm McEachern||No. 5 Company|
|Rifleman Christopher Alderson||No. 7 Company|
|Rifleman William Fairbanks Tempest||No. 9 Company|
|Rifleman Malcolm McKenzie||No. 9 Company|
|Rifleman John Harriman Mewburn||No. 9 Company|
|No. 1 Company||Ensign William Fahey||knee|
|No. 1 Company||Rifleman Oulster||leg (calf)|
|No. 2 Company||Sergeant Hugh Matheson||thigh
(died June 11)
|No. 2 Company||Corporal Francis Lakey||mouth
(died June 11)
|No. 2 Company||Rifleman William Thompson||neck|
|No. 3 Company||Captain J. B. Boustead||contused|
|No. 3 Company||Lieutenant J. H. Beaven||thigh|
|No. 3 Company||Rifleman Chas. Winter||thigh|
|No. 4 Company||Chas. Lugsdin||lung and arm|
|No. 5 Company||Chas. Bell||knee|
|No. 5 Company||Rifleman Capp||wrist|
|No. 6 Company||Lieutenant W. C. Campbell||shoulder|
|No. 6 Company||Corporal Paul Robins||knee (since
|No. 6 Company||Rifleman Rutherford||foot|
|No. 7 Company||Sergeant W. Foster||side|
|No. 9 Company||Rifleman E. T. Paul||knee|
|No. 9 Company||Rifleman R. E. Kingsford||leg|
|No. 9 Company||Rifleman E. G. Paterson||arm|
|No. 9 Company||Rifleman W. H. Vandersmissen||groin|
|No. 10 Company||Colour-Sergeant F. McHardy||arm|
|No. 10 Company||Rifleman White||arm (since
Total Twenty One.
You can read more on the Fenian Raids:
- At the Canadian Military History Gateway.
- W.C. Chewett & Company, The Fenian Raid Into Canada (Fenian Raid at Fort Erie) compilation of newspaper articles on the Fenian raids, published August 1866.
- Denison III, George T. The Fenian Raid on Fort Erie with an Account of the Battle of Ridgeway, published August 1866.
- Somerville, Alexander. Narrative of the Fenian Invasion of Canada. Hamilton, C.W. [Ont.] : Joseph Lyght, 1866. investigative history, published September 1866.
- Macdonald, John A. Troublous Times In Canada: A History of the Fenian Raids of 1866 and 1870, including full transcripts of the Booker Inquiry, Toronto : Printed by W.S. Johnston & Co, 1910.
- Vronsky, Peter Ridgeway: the American Fenian Invasion and the 1866 Battle That Made Canada, Published by the Penquin Group, 2011.