Canadians had lived in fear of invasion from the United States since the American Revolution. Those fears had subsided only to be resurrected during the American Civil War. Once the war ended, Canada was attacked on multiple occasions by the Fenians.
Who were the Fenians?
The Fenians were Irish emigrants and patriots living in the U.S. Their goal was to achieve Irish independence by invading and taking control of Canada and then using it as a bargaining chip with Great Britain. The idea was that Canadian independence would be exchanged for Irish independence.
The Fenians established themselves in Ireland but their movement was crushed by Britain.
In the U.S., many Irish Civil War veterans joined the Fenian movement. When the raids began, the movement had around 10,000 men.
The Raids Begin
The British government (Canada was not yet an independent nation) was aware of the threat and used spies to discover what information they could. The militia also was called up.
The first attack came in April 1866 when a few buildings in New Brunswick were destroyed.
The threat, however, was not over. The Fenians were congregating in many border cities including Cleveland, Buffalo and Chicago to plan their next move while in Canada the militia was strengthened and British boats patrolled the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River.
Original plans were grand – involving invading multiple locations in what is now Ontario and Quebec – but they quickly proved impractical, lacking the necessary manpower and a means to transport supplies across water. A new plan was formed: the Fenians would attack Fort Erie by crossing the Niagara River in Buffalo.
On June 2, 1866, 850 Fenians crossed the river. Learning of the crossing, 20,000 British troops and Canadian militiamen were ordered to Port Colborne and Dunville to prepare. The result was the Battle of Ridgeway that resulted in 10 Fenian and nine Canadian deaths.
Later that day, another battle broke out in Fort Erie. Nine Fenians were killed, and 36 Canadians were taken prisoner.
The Fenians were forced to retreat back to the U.S. where they were arrested. Their leader, John O’Neill, was later freed.
A Situation Resolved
The raids continued until 1871. The newly formed Canadian government called for military volunteers to defend the border. Nevertheless, other attacks took place near Montreal, just north of the Vermont border in Quebec, and Emerson, Manitoba.
Each raid was swiftly dealt with and resulted in few casualties.
The day after the Emerson raid, the U.S. Army arrested the Fenians including O’Neill. It was the final raid.
Do you think the Fenians went about making their cause known in the best way? Leave a comment below.
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