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The Fenian Raids
Original title:  Black and white photo of 53 soldiers in the No. 1 Company of the QOR of C. in Ridgeway June 2, 1866.

Source: Link


After the failure of the O’Mahony wing [see Introduction] of the Fenians to take Campobello Island in New Brunswick, the Roberts wing launched its first attack on Canada. Leading the troops (now estimated to be closer to 1,000 strong rather than the 600 given below), was Colonel John O’NEILL:

“Early on 1 June [1866] he led a force, which according to his own account numbered 600 men, across the Niagara River and occupied the village of Fort Erie. The next day he encountered north of Ridgeway a detached column of Canadian volunteers commanded by LieutenantColonel Alfred BOOKER consisting mainly of the Queen’s Own Rifles, of Toronto, and the 13th Battalion, of Hamilton. In a sharp little fight the Fenians (many of them, like O’Neill, certainly Civil War veterans) routed the inexperienced Canadians, who retreated on Port Colborne.”

 

While Booker’s men were fighting at Ridgeway, Lieutenant-Colonel John Stoughton DENNIS tried to cut off the Fenian route back to the United States:

“Dennis landed 70 of his men at Fort Erie in an attempt to find out where the Canadians were and to dispose of the prisoners he had taken. Some 150 Fenians appeared, but, confident of victory and unaware that more Fenians were coming up, Dennis urged his men forward. Following an exchange of fire, he ordered a retreat; the tugboat cast off without him and he was forced to disguise himself as ‘a labouring man.’ He escaped, but 34 of his men did not.”

 

Even though he had retreated from superior British forces, O’Neill became a hero for many Irish American nationalists. In Canada, he was viewed as the archetypal villain, attacking a peaceful and inoffensive people for the chimerical goal of Irish independence.

Further east, another Fenian force was gathering, intent on Montreal. Among those who set out to stop them was Lieutenant-Colonel William Osborne SMITH:

“In the worst crisis of the Fenian troubles, the raids of June 1866 [see Alfred Booker*], Smith was in command on the frontier south of Montreal. On 5 June he made an arduous march with the Victoria Rifles and other troops from Hemmingford to Huntingdon, over roads broken up by rain, which probably averted an attack by Fenians assembled at Malone, N.Y. Major-General James Alexander Lindsay*, the regular officer commanding in Canada East, described Smith in his report on the operations as ‘a most valuable officer, energetic and active.’”

 

Smith was also in charge of the Quebec frontier four years later, when O’Neill attempted another invasion of Canada, as described in his biography:

“Early in 1870 O’Neill quarrelled with his ‘Senate,’ losing much support. On 25 May, with those portions of the brotherhood still prepared to follow him, he attempted a raid at Eccles Hill on the border near Frelighsburg, Quebec. Ample warning had enabled the Canadian authorities to take precautions. The Fenian vanguard was fired on as soon as it crossed the border, and fled. O’Neill himself was arrested by a United States marshal. At the end of July he was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment, but with other Fenian prisoners was pardoned by President Ulysses S. Grant in October.”

 

The last Fenian raid occurred in 1871, at the instigation of William Bernard O’DONOGHUE, an Irish nationalist who, a year earlier, had participated in the provisional government of Louis RIEL in Manitoba, but who later criticized his former leader for being too pro-British:

“In January 1871, O’Donoghue carried a secret petition to President Ulysses S. Grant asking the United States to intervene in Red River. When Grant refused to act, O’Donoghue turned to the Fenian Brotherhood. He obtained only moral support from the brotherhood, but did succeed in enlisting the active help of two Fenian leaders, John O’NEILL and J. J. Donnelly. Then he drew up a constitution for the proposed Republic of Rupert’s Land naming himself as president, and, with O’Neill, led on 5 Oct. 1871 a small force of some 35 men, recruited among the unemployed labourers in Minnesota, across the Manitoba frontier. Riel’s influence prevented the Métis from joining him and the so-called Fenian invasion of Manitoba collapsed. O’Donoghue was captured by a group of Métis and taken back to Minnesota.”

 

To learn more about the Fenian raids of 1866, 1870, and 1871, please see the following biographies:

 

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