Battle of Ridgeway: Fenian Raiders Rout Canadian Militiamen

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300px-Battle_of_Ridgeway Today in Military History – June 2, 1866 "We are the Fenian Brotherhood, skilled in the arts of war, And we're going to fight for Ireland, the land we adore, Many battles we have won, along with the boys in blue, And we'll go and capture Canada, for we've nothing else to do." ***Fenian soldiers’ song Irish nationalism has expressed itself in many ways over the years. Today’s TIMH moment is one expression which occurred shortly after the end of the War Between the States, aka the American Civil War. It is another fascinating little battle that has escaped the notice of most Americans. Today’s History Lecture: Ireland and the Fenian Brotherhood Beginning in 1169, Ireland was subjected to several centuries of English influence, conquest and control. In 1798, Protestant and Catholic Irish temporarily forgot their hatred of each other to launch a rebellion aimed at a united, independent Ireland. Despite receiving support from then-revolutionary France, the rebellion was put down. The potato famine of 1845-1846 resulted in widespread death – by starvation and disease – as well as massive emigration to Australia, Canada, the United States and other countries with large Irish immigrant populations. Another rebellion in 1848 prompted Irish nationalists to continue the call for a free Irish republic. In addition, many disposed Irish felt that action, not just talk, was needed to bring about independence for Ireland. In 1858, the Fenian Brotherhood was founded in America, followed shortly thereafter by the creation of its Irish counterpart, the Irish Republican Brotherhood. The Fenian founder, exile John O’Mahony, named his group after the Fianna, a mythical group of Irish nobles who were associated with Irish folk hero Finn McCool. They perfectly fit O’Mahony’s romantic vision of a new generation of warriors who would rise up and free the “old sod” from the rule of England. JohnO'Mahony1867 As the Brotherhood's director, or Head Centre, O'Mahony had extensive powers and was accountable only to the head of the Irish Republican Brotherhood in Ireland. Branches, called Circles, were established in all major American cities. Over each Circle, which might be composed of any number of men, there presided a Centre. Local Centres were elected by members of local Circles, but the senior officer in the state, the State Centre, was appointed by O'Mahony. Members of a Circle were often given military ranks of captain, sergeant, or private. Each member was required to pay an initiation fee of one dollar and weekly dues of ten cents. When the American Civil War commenced, nearly 150,000 ethnic Irish-Americans joined the Union Army. [Figures for the Confederate Army are sketchy, at best.] Fenian organizers did their best recruiting during the war itself, forming new Circles in many Eastern cities and even in the Union armies (they were particularly successful in the U.S. Army of the Cumberland in the western theatre of the war). Their experiences in that war would provide a basis for the Fenian leadership to take its next bold step. In the fall of 1865, the Fenian Brotherhood held a series of meetings in Cincinnati, OH to plan a bold stroke: the invasion of British possession of the Province of Canada. [Canada was not yet a nation as such, but the Fenian invasion would spur the process along.] Strategy was discussed and plotted. Unfortunately, their security arrangements could be characterized as extremely lax, as American and Canadian authorities learned about their plans very quickly. [The U.S. government, however, did nothing to stop the Fenian’s plans, at least at first. Part of that attitude can be traced to the perceived British sympathy for the Confederacy during the recent war. There was also a certain feeling of “payback” for the American inability to penetrate and conquer Canada during the War of 1812.] The Fenians launched fundraising efforts in major American cities. Their most successful money-extraction scheme involved the sale of bonds in the name of the non-existent “Irish Republic.” The bonds were to be redeemed six months after the recognition of the independence of Ireland. As a result, hundreds of thousands of Irish immigrants gave their hard-earned money to the Fenian cause. The Fenians purchased large amounts of surplus arms, ammunition and supplies. Civil War veterans began organizing Irish Republican Army regiments, in anticipation of action. However, early in 1866, a power struggle split the Fenians into two factions: the first, headed by founder O’Mahony, was more interested in raising money to support the independence of Ireland, while the other was inclined to military action. This second faction, called the “senate faction,” felt that even a moderately successful attack on the Province of Canada would provide them with the needed leverage to seek the independence of Ireland. tt13p5b Prelude to Battle: The Fenians’ Moves For several days in late May of 1866, passenger trains from the eastern and central U.S. carried large groups of men in civilian togs – many with military caps or uniform shirts. They were converging on Buffalo, NY. These men were the spearhead of the Fenian invasion of Upper Canada (modern-day province of Ontario). As the trains approached the outskirts of Buffalo early on the evening of May 31, many men jumped off when word was received that local police were rounding up Fenians at the city’s central train station. 250px-Canada_upper Within several hours several hundred Fenians were roaming the Buffalo city docks, looking for anything that would float to transport them across Lake Erie and the Niagara River to land on the Canadian shore. The gunboat USS Michigan sailed into Buffalo harbor, hoping to block any water traffic carrying Fenian raiders across to Canada, but they weren’t very successful, at first. By dawn of June 1, about 1300 Fenians had crossed over to Canada, heading for the town of Fort Erie, located a mile or so north of the ruins of the former military post of the same name. An advance party of invaders had occupied the old fort, raising a Fenian flag (a green field with a gold harp and the letters “IRA” in gold). As the Fenians arrived on shore, muskets and ammo were parceled out to the men. The primary objective of the invaders was Port Colborne, a city on Lake Erie that was the southern terminus of the Welland Canal, an important transportation hub for Upper Canada, located 14 miles west of Fort Erie. They also sought to capture bridges over the canal, tear up local railroads, and cut telegraph lines. Their intent was to isolate this portion of Upper Canada to allow more of their Irish-American brethren to cross from Buffalo. Then, the invaders would take on any British regular or Canadian militia forces sent against them, drawing them away from Toronto. This would allow other Fenian forces to invade Canada and capture Upper Canada, effectively holding the province for ransom in return for freedom for Ireland. Unfortunately, almost as soon as the invaders arrived, things began to unravel. Fenian desertions became epidemic. Soon, General John O’Neill, the Fenian officer in charge, was down to 400-500 effectives. He was reinforced later on June 1 by about 200 or so Fenians ready to go into action. Further, O’Neill and his men tried to rally support for Irish independence by appealing to the locals to join their cause, even offering them surplus uniform jackets and muskets to arm anyone that might join them. They were met with at best indifference, at worst with outright hostility from the native Canadians, which perplexed them greatly. Also, O’Neill demanded food from the locals, as his men had not brought any provisions of their own. The Canadian citizens provided the invaders with sustenance – bread, ham and coffee – but refused to take the Fenian bonds as payment. Later, on June 1, O’Neill ordered his men to march northwestward along the Niagara River, finally stopping at the Newbigging Farm near Frenchman’s Creek several miles from Fort Erie to make camp. The Irish-Americans, many veterans of Sherman’s March to the Sea in 1864, began constructing defensive works they called “bullet-screens.” These were pieces of timber laid on top of fences, from ground to rails, then covered with dirt and sod, forming crude lean-tos of a sort. Soon afterwards, Fenian scouts returned to their encampment, reporting that Canadian militia units and British regulars had set out to contest the Fenian invasion. General O’Neill ordered his command to move northward, then turn sharply west and south toward Port Colborne. He hoped to hold Canadian reinforcements moving south from Toronto, then move on the Welland Canal and catch any other enemy forces that might be moving to attack him. At 9 pm., a lookout on the USS Michigan reported that the bridge over Frenchman’s Creek was on fire. The blaze had been ordered by Gen. O’Neill, and consisted of 300 muskets and excess supplies that were not being used, which were piled onto the bridge and set on fire. At the same time, the Fenian raiders were ordered to leave their campfires burning as they began their inland march. They marched through the night, traversed a cedar swamp, maked one ordered stop to rest, then continued on until they encountered Lime Ridge, a local prominence about a mile north of the town of Ridgeway. The Fenians again set up bullet-screens, posted skirmishers and sharpshooters along the road to town, and awaited the arrival of Canadian forces that scouts had reported coming from Port Colborne. Prelude to Battle: The Canadians’ Moves qor-firing The Canadian government had been alerted to the Fenian incursion almost immediately. The Governor General of Canada called out the militia on May 31, and the Queen’s Own Rifles (QOR) were mobilized and took the train from Toronto to Port Colborne. The men were wearing their winter green uniforms with black trousers and black shakos, as well as their winter greatcoats and other winter gear. Most of the soldiers were armed with Enfield rifle-muskets, except for the 5th Company, who had been issued new breech-loading Spenser repeating rifles on June 1 as they prepared to leave for action. They had no time to train with their new weapons and had only the most basic knowledge of their operation. Other Canadian units included the 13th Volunteer Battalion of Hamiliton (clad in the expected red coats and deep blue trousers, including winter gear), and two rifle companies from the towns of York and Caledonia, again all of them armed with Enfield rifles. Nearly all of these units were militia units, more than half of the young men were under the age of 20. They were laborers, office workers and the like, what would probably be called “weekend warriors.” None of them had heard a shot fired in anger. Their total strength was just under 900 men, the QOR comprising 480 men, and the other three units making up the remainder. Arriving at Port Colborne, the Canadians detrained and awaited orders. The commander of these men, Lieutenant Colonel J. Stoughton Dennis, was concerned that more Fenians would attempt to cross the river to reinforce their fellows. Consequently, he commandeered the steam tug WT Robb with a force of 80 men and at 3:30 a.m. began heading eastward along the shore, hoping to intercept and pick up any further waterborne Fenian forces. Unfortunately, Dennis took this action without the approval of his immediate superior, Colonel George J. Peacocke, who commanded a second column of 1400 Canadian militia moving towards the Fenians’ abandoned camp near Frenchman’s Creek. Peacocke sent orders to the Port Colborne column, and at 5 a.m. on June 2 the Canadians boarded trains for the journey to the town of Ridgeway. With Dennis’ absence command devolved onto Lt. Col. Alfred Booker, by profession an auctioneer, who was riding the only horse on the Canadian side that day (the horse belonged to Major Skinner, commander of the 13th Battalion, brought via railcar). The militiamen arrived at Ridgeway about 7 a.m. Due to the early morning heat, company sergeants told their men to leave behind their greatcoats and other winter gear. [The thermometer at the Ridgeway railroad station read sixty two degrees Fahrenheit at about 7 a.m. It was reported that later that morning the temperature was in the mid-seventies…] There was some confusion about the issuing of ammunition, as no other horses to pull the ammo wagons had been brought along. Therefore, each unit took what they wished before the wagons were sent back with the trains. Some units left the town with 60 rounds per man, while others took 40 or less. One company took none, and had to beg and borrow from other units later that morning. As the militiamen were forming up in town, a series of bugle calls and train whistles alerted the nearby Fenians that the Canadians were nearby. The Canadians then began marching to the northeast, seeking to hook up with Col. Peacocke’s column, which was proceeding from the town of Black Creek to nearby Stevensville. The QOR led the way, with the 5th Company and their Spencers in the lead. As they marched along, local farmers appeared and told Booker that the Fenians were just outside of town. Booker, however, dismissed their reports and continued his march. The Battle At about 7:30 a.m., the QOR’s 5th Company encountered Fenian skirmishers, who opened up briskly on the approaching militiamen. The Canadians replied in kind, using up a great deal of their 40 rounds per man they were issued when they received their new Spencer rifles. The trailing companies of the QOR shook themselves out to either side of the 5th Company, deploying in fields of new corn. Fenian forces moved to support their brethren, being warned of the approach of the Canadians. Being Civil War veterans mainly, the Fenian soldiers let loose with concentrated volleys that took the militiamen by surprise. Later reports stated that the Canadians were convinced the enemy was armed with repeating rifles. british After about an hour, though, the Fenians began to run low on ammo and were pushed back from their bullet-screens. [Before leaving their camp at the Newbigging Farm, they had dumped thousands of rounds of ammo into Frenchman’s Creek to lighten their load.] Just as the invaders were ready to break, several events conspired to change the course of the battle. Lt. Col. Booker had been issuing orders by bugle call, and the signals became more confusing as the battle progressed. Also, some Canadian units began to run low on ammo, and started to fall back, which spurred some units to move forward to take their places. Then, a general call of “Watch out for cavalry!” trickled up and down the militia line. Apparently, a few mounted Fenian scouts had been mistaken for cavalry. Some Canadian units thought they heard a bugle call to form square, a classic maneuver to counter cavalry attacks. Some officers began to issue orders to their men to counter the mistake, which only contributed to greater confusion. Some of the militiamen thought a retreat had been ordered, and they began to flee in panic. Seeing the muddled lines of their enemy, the Fenian officers ordered first several more volleys, then a bayonet charge. The sight of cold steel apparently made up the minds of the militiamen, who recoiled from the screaming Civil War veterans and routed back to the town of Ridgeway. Several militia units were cohesive enough to cover their comrades’ retreat, and the Fenians left them alone. After about a two or three hour fight, the Fenians were masters of Lime Ridge. bayonets Despite the reported hotness of the firing on both sides, casualties were relatively light. The Fenians lost between four and six men killed and ten wounded, while the Canadians suffered 10 dead and 37 wounded, most of them in the QOR. Footnote #1: Realizing that his force would soon be caught in a Canadian pincer, Gen. O’Neill ordered his men to fall back to Fort Erie. The next day, the Fenians began a disorganized retreat across the Niagara River, some men building rafts, some even trying to swim across. Many were picked up by U.S. naval patrols, and some were captured by Canadian forces. Footnote #2: A number of captured Fenians were put on trial by the Canadian government later in 1866, with 21 found guilty of participating in an illegal invasion of Canada, and seven were sentenced to be hanged. Pressure from the U.S. government, however, resulted in none of them seeing the gallows. Most were eventually repatriated back to the U.S. Footnote #3: As a result of the continued threat of Fenians, a year later four Canadian provinces formed the Confederation of Canada. In essence, the Fenian invasion caused the formation of a nation, but it wasn’t the one they were hoping for… Footnote #4: The order of battle for the fight at Ridgeway: FENIANS: Brigadier General John O’Neill, commanding officer 7th Buffalo Irish Republican Army Regiment (Col. John Hoye) 13th Tennessee Irish Republican Army Regiment (Capt. Lawrence Shields) 17th Kentucky Irish Republican Army Regiment (Col. Owen Starr) [Louisville company wore blue uniform jackets with green facings] 18th Ohio Irish Republican Army Regiment (Lt. Col. John Grace) [“Fenian Cleveland Rangers” wore green caps with green shirts] Indiana detachment, Irish Republican Army (Capt. James Haggerty) New Orleans company, Irish Republican Army [Fenian Louisiana Tigers] CANADIANS: Lt. Col. Alfred Booker, commanding officer 2nd (Queen's Own) Battalion, Volunteer Militia Rifles (Major Gilmore) 13th (Hamilton) Battalion, Volunteer Militia Rifles (Major Skinner) Caledonia Company, Volunteer Militia Rifles (attached 13th Battalion) York Company, Volunteer Militia Rifles (attached 13th Battalion)
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Keep it up man!.. This blog rocks.. Btw i love traveling, mostly troughout europe.. Been to Amsterdam, Berlin.. I live in Ohrid Macedonia tho..Its a nice place. You can come visit.

Hi there, I'm currently trying to source some archive images of John O'Neill and the Fenian Invasion of Canada for a television series we are producing at the minute. I was hoping you might be aware of who owns the copyright of the images you have above as I would love to use them but need permission etc. Looking forward to your response, kind regards,


This weblog seems to get a great deal of visitors. How do you promote it? It offers a nice individual twist on things. I guess having something useful or substantial to say is the most important thing.

Hi Aine, We are producing a one hour stage presentation here in Sarasota, Fl. on St. Patrick's Day as a fund raiser for a 501 that promotes history. It's amazing how so much of this little incident that had so much to do with the founding of the modern nation of Canada is forgotten. One would expect this of Americans...But Canadians? We have found a lot of stuff. I'm1/2 Canadian and grew up very near the battle did my co-host Sen. Marlow Cook of Kentucky (retired). It is being scripted and features the actual songs and music of the time. I am currently trying to match some of the tunes with the lyrics. I suspect a lot tunes come from American Civil War songs...both the Fenian and the Canadian. We'd love to share. Bill

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