Canadians lived in fear of invasion from the United States starting with the American Revolution. Those fears were heightened during the American Civil War. After the war’s end, Canada was attacked on multiple occasions in what became known as the Fenian Raids.
Who were the Fenians?
The Fenians were Irish emigrants and patriots living in the United States. 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 Britain crushed the movement.
Many Irishmen who were Civil War veterans joined the Fenian movement. When the raids began in April 1866, the movement had around 10,000 men.
The Raids Begin
The British government [Canada was not a nation until 1867] was aware of the threat and used spies to uncover information. The militia also was called up.
The first attack came in New Brunswick where a few buildings were destroyed.
The Fenians congregated in many border cities including Cleveland, Buffalo and Chicago to plan their next move. In Canada, meanwhile, the militia was strengthened, and British boats began patrolling the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River.
The Fenians’ original plan was grand – invading multiple locations in what is now Ontario and Quebec – but this quickly proved impractical. The Fenians lacked the necessary manpower and a means to transporting supplies across water.
A new plan was devised: the Fenians would attack Fort Erie by crossing the Niagara River in Buffalo.
On June 2, 1866, 850 Fenians crossed the river. Twenty-thousand British troops and Canadian militiamen were ordered to Port Colborne and Dunville to prepare. The resulting Battle of Ridgeway killed 10 Fenians and nine Canadians.
Another battle broke out in Fort Erie later that day. Nine Fenians were killed, and 36 Canadians were taken prisoner.
The Fenians were forced to retreat back to the United States where they were arrested. Their leader, John O’Neill, was later freed. The threat, however, was not over.
A Situation Resolved
The raids continued until 1871. Other attacks took place near Montreal, just north of the Vermont border in Quebec, and in Emerson, Manitoba.
The newly formed Canadian government called for military volunteers to defend the border. 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. The Emerson raid was the final raid.
Updated: 21 October 2020
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