A BATTLE WON IN A LOST WAR - RIDGEWAY
By Jon Guttman
From the June issue (Volume 23, Issue 5)
In the 1860s a series of conferences and negotiations led to the peaceful transition of British North America from a collection of four colonial provinces to the autonomous Dominion of Canada, still recognizing the sovereignty of Queen Victoria but conducting its affairs through its own elected parliament and prime minister. This became official on July 1, 1867, but the process toward independence was, to a certain extent, influenced by tempestuous events occurring in its southern neighbour.
From 1861 to 1865, one might have called it the Divided States of America, as soldiers in Union blue and Confederate gray fought over the issues of central government versus a state’s right to secession and on the issue of slavery. In the course of the United States’ most ruinous conflict, relations between Washington and London were sometimes strained to the brink of another war. Great Britain, whose textile industry craved cotton from the southern states, considered recognizing the Confederacy until January 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation put the moral issue of slavery front and centre to an empire that had been first to ban the slave trade.
Notwithstanding its official neutrality, however, many Britons sympathized with the South and Confederate blockade runners conducted a brisk, if risky, clandestine trade with British firms. Additionally, six Confederate cruisers, or commerce raiders, built by British shipwrights, virtually wrecked the hitherto-dominant U.S. Merchant Marine. Between those factors and the fact that Canada was crawling with Confederate secret agents, relations across the border were tense throughout the Civil War.
As things ultimately transpired, hostilities between the United States and British North America never recurred. Almost a year after the Civil War ended, however, the provinces did have to face the challenge of invasion from a bizarrely different enemy — the Fenians.
In 1863, Irish immigrants who had come in the wake of the potato famine of the 1840s and an unsuccessful rising against the British government in 1848 formed the Fenian Brotherhood, whose name was derived from Fianna
Eirionn, a legendary band of 3rd century warriors. Dedicated to throwing off British rule and creating an independent Irish republic, the Fenians elected John F. O’Mahony as their first president, only to see him ousted by William Randall Roberts in 1865. It was Roberts who conceived of a multi-pronged invasion of British North America, aimed at seizing enough real estate and vital centres of commerce and communication, such as Toronto, to proffer as ransom in exchange for Irish independence.
Far-fetched though the plot seemed, many Fenians perceived factors that improved the odds. First and foremost, they were aware of the strain in Anglo-American relations, among whose post-war manifestations was an American demand for monetary restitution for the depredations of such British-made sea raiders as CSS Alabama and Shenandoah. Under such circumstances, the Fenians believed, President Andrew Johnson — who had expressed sympathy with their cause — would support their invasion, or at least look the other way.
One other advantage on which the Fenians counted heavily lay in the men slated to carry out the invasion. During the Civil War thousands of Irish immigrants and exiles had enlisted in regiments of whichever state in which they happened to have settled and had fought with distinction, often facing each other on the battlefield. Among these veterans was Captain John Charles O’Neill, a son of County Monaghan who since coming to America in 1848 had acquired a reputation for daring in Union service. As the conflict began winding down in Tennessee, O’Neill had broached the idea of forming a postwar Fenian army among both fellow Irishmen in Yankee blue and prisoners of war in Rebel gray.
British North America, born of the Seven Years War, had seen its share of conflict since 1763, with redcoats defending Quebec against a small but doughty force from the rebelling 13 colonies in 1775 and British regiments supplemented by Canadian militia fending off more than a dozen American invasion attempts between 1812 and 1814. In 1866, however, few of the militiamen defending Canada had fired their guns in anger, whereas the Fenians could boast hundreds of armed supporters who had “seen the elephant.”
For whatever assets the Fenians possessed, however, they faced major problems, the most intrinsic of which was their inability to unite and coordinate. This first came to light on April 14, 1866, when some 700 of O’Mahony’s followers, acting independently of Roberts’ political faction, gathered in Maine to raid Indian Island, New Brunswick, on April 14, 1866, with the intention of seizing nearby Campobello Island for use as a naval base. British warships carrying 700 troops from Halifax, Nova Scotia, combined with a lack of supplies and the arrival on April 17 of U.S. Army MGen George G. Meade to defuse the situation, led to the raid’s abandonment.
This premature and abortive act, however, had squandered the element of surprise, alerting the British authorities, whose secret agents and informants had already tipped them off to just how serious the Fenians’ plans were. MGen George T.C. Napier, who had already called up 10,000 volunteers in March 1866, raised that number to 20,000 in May, also commandeering 13 steamboats. The Campobello affair also had some influence on Britain’s ultimate agreement to a confederation of the provinces as a single dominion.
The Fenian plans were further handicapped by much wishful thinking. For one thing, negotiations on the issue of British restitution for damages its sea raiders had inflicted on American merchant ships were underway, and the Johnson administration had no desire to upset them by incurring accusations of violating the Neutrality Act of 1818. In consequence, regardless of any personal sympathies, the Fenians were naïve to expect any help from Washington.
Another forlorn Fenian hope was that of swelling their ranks with Irishmen living in Canada, most of whom were Protestant. Even Catholic immigrants had found economic opportunities and social treatment in Canada to be much better than they had known in the British Isles — and had no desire to jeopardize that arrangement by an act of treason.
Regardless of all, however, William Roberts’ invasion plan proceeded and on May 31 John O’Neill — now a Fenian colonel — staged about 700 men through Buffalo, New York and secured boats to cross the Niagara River. At 0130 hours on June 1, the first 250 men of LCol George Owen Starr’s 17th Kentucky Fenian Regiment raised the green flag with golden harp in the Upper Canadian town of Fort Erie, cut telegraph lines and took control of the railway yards. Over the next 13 hours, O’Neill and as many as 800 more Fenians crossed the river. The sidewheel gunboat USS Michigan had been stationed nearby, but the absence of navigator Patrick Murphy and engineer James P. Kelley, who were engaged in a “night on the town” (suspected to have been deliberately suggested by Kelley, a Fenian sympathizer), delayed its appearance on the scene until 1420 hours, when it began intercepting Fenian barges.
The Fenians had not meant the Niagara crossing to be their principal move, but merely a means of drawing British forces away from Toronto and Quebec, which the Fenian “Secretary of War,” BGen Thomas W. Sweeny, intended as the main targets of his multi-pronged invasion. The feint succeeded to an extent, as LCol George Peacocke led a militia force to Chippewa while ordering LCol Alfred Booker to Port Colborne.
As things turned out, however, Fort Erie was the only place the Fenians occupied. Throughout the invaders’ brief stay, the locals reported few acts of theft or abuse — O’Neill had a scrupulous eye on public relations and his disciplined veterans behaved themselves accordingly. Even so, his attempts to garner local support proved fruitless, while desertions shrank his own force to about 500 by nightfall. He was later joined by 200 Fenians, who had been guarding Black Creek against any British advance from Chippewa, but then received word of another British force approaching from Port Colborne.
After a brisk night march across Black Creek and through a cedar swamp, O’Neill and about 650 Fenians took up a defensive position on Limestone Ridge near the hamlet of Ridgeway, west of Fort Erie. There, on the morning of June 2, they met Booker’s 841-man force, consisting of his 13th Battalion of Hamilton, the 2nd Queen’s Own Rifles (QOR) and militia companies from nearby Caledonia and York. With the exception of a Royal Engineers captain serving as a liaison officer at Fort Erie, all of the officers opposing the invasion were Canadian by birth. Roughly half of the militiamen ranged from age 20 to as young as 15. Although the green-uniformed 2nd QOR was equipped with modern seven-shot Spencer rifles, nobody had had live fire practice on them and each man carried only 28 rounds.
In spite of the vast discrepancy in experience, the first 90 minutes of the engagement went surprisingly well for the Canadians, who stood their ground with commendable discipline against seasoned opponents whose rapid, steady rate of fire caused some to think that they had Spencer repeaters rather than single-shot muzzle-loading Springfield and Enfield rifles. The Fenians, in fact, were gradually falling back, though not for the reasons Booker might have thought.
Then, suddenly, things went terribly wrong. Various accounts claim that the sight of horsemen caused the Canadians to form a square in anticipation of a charge, only to have the order countermanded, or that when redcoats of the 13th Battalion turned up nearby, the 2nd QOR mistook them for British reinforcements and moved to join them. In any case, the Canadian formation fell into chaotic disarray and O’Neill, spotting a golden opportunity, ordered a bayonet rush. Facing a charging phalanx bellowing the Irish Brigade’s battle cry of “Fallagh
ballagh” (clear the way), 28 University of Toronto students hastily called to the colours took the brunt of it with tragically predictable results — most fell dead or wounded as Booker ordered a retreat to Port Colborne.
Although the Fenians won the field, it had cost them six men killed and another three who would later die of wounds. The Canadian slain included Ensign Malcolm McEachren, a first sergeant, a corporal and six privates, in addition to which four of their 41 wounded would subsequently die of wounds, as well as six from disease. Booker’s leadership came in for criticism, as did the Canadian militia’s effectiveness in general (for almost 20 years the QOR had to endure popular interpretation of its abbreviation as “Quick, Over to the Rear!”). Things could have been far worse, however. The Fenians they fought were in fact skirmishers conducting a fighting retreat with the intention of drawing their opponents into an ambush by their main force that, had the Canadians not retreated, would probably have had a much bloodier outcome.
After briefly occupying Ridgeway, O’Neill retired to Fort Erie, defeating and repulsing a second Canadian force along the way, but with supplies and reinforcements cut off, his army depleted by desertions and word of 5,000 more troops on the way, he knew his position was untenable. In the early morning of June 3 he released his Canadian prisoners and led 850 of his men back over the Niagara River — where USS Michigan,
two tugboats and a revenue cutter were waiting to arrest them.
Five days after the invasions began, President Johnson issued a proclamation reaffirming the United States’ neutrality laws and that the Fenians’ activities would not be tolerated. Many were arrested, including Sweeny and O’Neill, though they were soon paroled.
In a belated follow-up to the Niagara raid, on June 6 Major General Samuel P. Spear, born in Boston, Massachusetts and a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, led about 1,000 Fenians from St. Albans, Vermont into Quebec to occupy Pigeon Hill, Frelighsburg, St. Amand and Stanbridge. A small local militia force wisely withdrew and, for a time, Spear’s men looted the area; but on June 8 reinforcements arrived and the Fenians pulled back. Some 200 were attacked near the border by cavalry, resulting in 16 being taken prisoner. Those who returned to St. Albans found their camp occupied and their equipment impounded by the U.S. Army. On June 9 the Fenian Council of War ordered all of its remaining troops to stand down.
The Battle of Ridgeway acquired an iconic status among Irish and Canadians alike. It was the only major engagement of the invasions and the Fenians had won it, though they ultimately lost a campaign that was doomed before it began. The Canadians commemorated their dead in what had been the defence of their home soil against foreign invaders. Less than a year later, that soil became their nation.
Incredibly, the Fenians would make another raid to the north in 1870. This attempt would prove even more foolhardy than the first, for instead of British ground they were invading Canada, whose defenders would be all the more motivated and ready.