It’s April 1866 and John Mahony, a former colonel in the New York State Militia’s 69th Regiment, is at the head of an invading force as it marches towards Campobello Island, New Brunswick. Back then this was part of British North America – what we today know as Canada. Mahony, an Irish-American is leading a band of Fenians, supporters of independence for Britain’s colonial possession, Ireland.
And although this was the first raid into British territory by Irish-American Fenians, it was by no means the last. The next incursion into Canadian territory came on June 1, 1866, in fact. This time, the Irish Republicans invaded the province of Canada West, which today is Southern Ontario. Up to 1,300 men traversed the River Niagara, led by Colonel John O’Neill, another former Union officer.
This attempted invasion was aimed at Canada East – modern-day Quebec – and the operation started on June 7, 1866. General Samuel Spear led around 1,000 Irish patriots into the territory and succeeded in seizing various townships. They were subsequently met by a Canadian force at a place called Pigeon Hill. And like the previous two attempts to take Canadian territory, this essentially ended in failure.
After those operations of 1866, things quietened down for a while, and it was to be 1870 before the Fenians tried their hand again. There were multiple incursions into Canadian territory during that year, in fact. One notable incident came in May 1870. Fenians moved on Quebec, meeting a force of Canadian troops at the Battle of Trout River near the town of Huntingdon. The Canadians again defeated the Irish-Americans.
The final throw of the Fenian dice came in 1871, when a force led by O’Neill launched an attack from the U.S.’ Dakota Territory, as it was then called. However, the Fenian leadership disowned the final assault and O’Neill consequently resigned his membership of the group. The Irish-American force planned to seize part of Manitoba near Winnipeg, but this raid also ended in failure.
So why were Irish-Americans attacking Canadian territory in the mid-19th century? And how were they able to do this from the U.S., which wasn’t at war with the British? We’ll start by examining the motives of the Irish-Americans before looking at the U.S. government’s involvement – and its possible collusion with the Fenians.
Large numbers of Irish immigrants had started to arrive in America in the 18th century. The best estimates put the number that had arrived by 1775 at around 250,000. However most of those were Protestants who could trace their lineage back to either England or Scotland. They were actually a minority in an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic Ireland. And it was mainly the Roman Catholics who bitterly opposed British rule, an attitude that they subsequently brought with them to the U.S.
Indeed, as the year 1800 rolled round, only 20,000 or so Irish Catholics had arrived in America. They only started to make the westward journey across the Atlantic in large numbers during the mid-19th century, in fact, prompted by the poverty and hunger caused by the Great Irish Famine. That, in turn, was the result of a blight that ravaged the country’s potato crops.
The pace of Irish immigration to the U.S. accelerated rapidly as the 19th century progressed. Indeed, during the 40 years from 1820, nearly two million made the journey, with around three-quarters moving following the Great Famine. So the misery, disease and starvation that afflicted the Irish people as a result of the potato crop failing was a powerful motivation in the mass exodus that Ireland experienced in the 19th century.
Like most other immigrants to the U.S., the Irish were loyal to their new country. A rare exception to this, however, was the St. Patrick’s Battalion of Irish-Americans who battled on the side of the Mexicans during the Mexican-American War of 1845-8. They were motivated by the prejudice that many Irish Catholics met when they arrived in America. But these Irish soldiers fighting on the Mexican side were numbered in the mere hundreds.
Indeed, as the 19th century went on, many Irish had become American enough to fight on one side or the other in the Civil War. During the conflict, some 20,000 Irish Americans who lived in the South fought on the Confederate side. But many more Irish, the Catholics in particular, had settled in the northern states, and their loyalties lay with the Union.
In fact, close to 150,000 soldiers on the side of the Union were recorded as being Irish-born, and possibly as many again were of Irish heritage. Moreover, no fewer than 38 Union Army regiments bore names that included the word “Irish.” Since, as we’ve seen, the majority of Irish immigrants had settled in the North, it’s hardly surprising that many more fought for the Union than the Confederacy.
One of the consequences of the fact that so many Irish-Americans fought in the Civil War was that by the end of the conflict, many of them had military training and combat experience. So this meant there was a body of men available to take part in the military adventures of the Fenian Brotherhood.
An Irish Republican group, this Fenian Brotherhood was established by Michael Doheny and John O’Mahony in 1858. The organization’s aim was to free Ireland from its colonial masters, the British. It had its own constitution and elected officers and in 1863 staged its inaugural national congress in Chicago.
The Fenians also had a successful method of fundraising. They sold bonds, in fact, which would be redeemed when Ireland gained its independence from Britain. These bonds were subsequently sold to hundreds of thousands of Irish-Americans.
The money raised was then used to buy weaponry, and the Fenian leadership began to formulate plans to attack Canadian territory. As far as the Irish-American Fenians were concerned, anywhere that was controlled by Britain was fair game in their struggle to gain independence for the country of their forefathers. Moreover, they reportedly made little effort to conceal their intentions from the American government.
Although there was no overt support from the U.S. for the Fenians, the government made no efforts to suppress the movement despite its plans to invade a neighboring country. In fact, some elements among the U.S. authorities were far from unhappy to see this development. There was a lingering resentment, for instance, that the British had remained neutral during the Civil War instead of siding with the Union.
Indeed, there were even signs of active support from the U.S. administration. President Andrew Johnson was keen to press the U.S. claim for compensation from the British. This arose from the fact that U.K.-constructed ships under the Confederate flag had done considerable damage to Union assets during the Civil War. Perhaps a quick invasion of Canada might convince the British to pay up. It’s said that Johnson even had meetings with the Fenian leaders.
And the plan for these Fenian raids was nothing if not ambitious. The strategy was to use military force to take control of Canada’s transport system. The Fenians would then negotiate with the British. Using their seizure of the transport infrastructure as a bargaining chip, they would offer to restore it to Britain in return for a free Ireland.
In 1866 the Fenians decided that their first target would be Campobello Island. It lies off the coast of modern-day New Brunswick, Canada, just to the north of the U.S. border and the state of Maine. In April a raiding band of some 700 Fenians under the command of John O’Mahony gathered in Maine, ready to cross the narrow channel that separates Campobello from the mainland.
However, the British were quick to act against this Fenian incursion. On April 17 a flotilla of warships sailed from Halifax, Novia Scotia. Aboard were 700 British soldiers led by General Sir Charles Hastings Doyle. The destination was a place called Passamaquoddy Bay, the location of the majority of the Fenian invaders.
The appearance of such a strong British Force seems to have entirely unsettled the Fenian troops. They fled, and that was the end of this particular operation. But despite the fairly abject failure of the mission, there was another one in the works that would soon be activated. This time, the operation would be planned by another ex-Union officer, General T. W. Sweeney.
The attack on Canada in this operation was to involve multiple Fenian assaults on two regions called Canada West and Canada East. In the modern nation, Canada West is in the south of Ontario while Canada East lies in the southern part of Quebec. The first attacks were to be on Canada West.
A central part of the strategy was an assault on Fort Erie that would be launched from Buffalo, New York, across the Niagara River. This assault was actually intended to be a diversion that would force the British to send their soldiers from Toronto. The attack would concentrate on the Welland Canal network.
On June 1, 1866, in excess of 1,000 Fenians led by Colonel John O’Neill crossed the Niagara. Yet again, he was an officer who had fought with the Union Army during the Civil War. And at first, thanks to the fact that Fenians had disabled the U.S.S. Michigan, the Irish were unopposed.
But after the ship’s crew got her back into working order hours later, the Michigan sailed against O’Neill and his men, effectively blocking off their lines of supply. Canadian militiamen now moved on the Fenians after an all-night march. But they walked straight into an ambush that the Irishmen had prepared, and the Battle of Ridgeway ensued.
The Canadian force was made up of volunteers with little or no training or combat experience, although they were well armed with Enfield muskets and some Spencer repeating rifles. Many of the Fenians, on the other hand, were veteran soldiers who’d recently fought in the Civil War, which had only ended the year before.
After a couple of hours of exchanging small-arms fire, the battle intensified with a bayonet offensive by the Fenians. The ill-trained Canadians fled in the face of the onslaught with seven of their number dying. The Fenians, meanwhile, lost two men dead and 16 wounded. In addition, this Canadian militia defeat was rapidly followed by a second one at the Battle of Fort Erie.
But although things appeared to be going well for the Fenians, in fact their position was extremely precarious. As mentioned earlier, their lines of supply had been cut by the deployment of the U.S.S. Michigan. In addition, American officials also began to arrest Fenians who were trying to traverse the Niagara to join the attack. Clearly, the U.S. government was beginning to lose patience with the activities of these troublesome Fenians.
Indeed, not long after the Canada West operation had been launched, President Johnson made an order that these attacks must end. American soldiers consequently began confiscating weaponry from the Fenians and actively preventing them from crossing the border into Canada. The Fenian leader in the Canada West assault, General Sweeney, was also arrested.
In fact, Sweeney’s arrest is an excellent example of American ambivalence towards the Fenians and their attempted invasions of Canada. Sweeney was held for only a short time and was then released without charge, although he had in theory broken the country’s neutrality laws. And after his release, he even resumed his U.S. Army career for another four years.
Then there was the plan to invade Canada East. In truth, the Fenians were considerably weakened by their ultimate failure in their Canada West operation. On top of that, many of their senior officers had been incarcerated. But one leader, General Samuel Spear, escaped. And on June 7, 1866, he set off for Canada East at the head of 1,000 men.
Initially unopposed, Spear and his men occupied a place called Pigeon Hill and other nearby positions. The next day, however, Canadian defenders marched on Pigeon Hill. And by now, the Fenians were running out of food and ammunition. Once the Canadians appeared, the Irishmen soon capitulated, bringing to an end this chapter of the story of Irish-American incursions into Canadian territory.
But that wasn’t altogether the conclusion of this strange tale. Because on May 25 the Fenian Brotherhood, led again by John O’Neill, started another operation. But this time the Canadians had been given prior warning of the Fenian invasion and were waiting for them at a location called Eccles Hill, near the city of Montreal in today’s province of Quebec. In the ensuing battle there, militiamen and other armed locals succeeded in repelling the Fenians.
Then, a couple of days later came the Battle of Trout River, not far from the Canada-U.S. border. This time, O’Neill and his Fenians were faced by three Canadian military units. The Canadians opened a disciplined and withering barrage on the Irish-Americans, who retreated back across the border into the U.S. The Fenians subsequently claimed that this hadn’t been a defeat. But it must have looked very much like one to any dispassionate observer.
It seems that those failures didn’t discourage O’Neill, however, who began to plan another operation. But the Fenians had apparently had enough of this series of failed efforts to invade Canada. It’s been said that they’d also had their fill of O’Neill. In any case, they refused to participate in his plans.
Nonetheless, the Fenains did promise not to actively interfere with the mission, and O’Neill now stepped down from the Fenian Brotherhood so that he could lead this assault on Manitoba. The Irishman had about 35 men at his disposal, and this small force succeeded in seizing a Hudson’s Bay station and a customs checkpoint.
However, it transpired that the position that O’Neill and his men captured was in fact within the borders of the U.S. Indeed, Canada was actually a couple of miles further north. O’Neill was subsequently arrested, perhaps the only American ever to have been detained for invading U.S. territory. In the end, though, he was released without charge, as were his followers.
It’s easy enough to laugh at this final fling by the Fenians in their attempts to invade the British colony of Canada. But the desire of many Irish-Americans to see Ireland freed from the rule of the British was serious enough. Of course, it would be decades before Ireland achieved partial independence. That finally came in 1922.
Moreover, the Fenian raids did have one unintended consequence. Many Canadians were dismayed by the chaotic response to these invasion attempts. As a result, they demanded a stronger federation of the Canadian territories. And the Confederation of Canada in 1867 was the nation’s first step towards complete independence. So, it’s not too much of a stretch to assert that the Irish helped the Canadians to gain their status as a sovereign nation.