Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
January 2005

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Fenian Raids



[This article was written by D. C. Masters in 1948. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]


Fenian Raids, a series of raids upon the British North American colonies by members of an Irish nationalist organization which was founded in 1858 by James Stephens for the purpose of separating Ireland from the British Empire. In Ireland the organization was known as the Irish Republican or Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood. The American branch, known as the Fenian Brotherhood, was named after the Fenians (Fiann) who were the legendary defenders of Ireland in the time of Finn. After a period of slow development, the movement derived great impetus from the American Civil war, as many Irish sympathizers received military training and experience in the Union army. Under the direction of John O'Mahony, the sole purpose of the American brotherhood, from the time of its inception, had been to raise money for a rising in Ireland. In 1865, however, Colonel Roberts and General Sweeney led a movement against O'Mahony in favour of an attack upon Canada. From then until 1870 the "Canadian wing" of the brotherhood made constant threats of hostilities against British North America .


In April, 1866, at the instigation of the O'Mahony faction, who wished to forestall their rivals, some hundreds of Fenians, under General Dorian Killian, gathered on the New Brunswick border. They accomplished a brief violation of British neutrality on the island of Campobello at the mouth of the Ste. Croix. But the prompt action of British and American war vessels and of British, colonial, and American military forces foiled this attempt.


During the last two or three days of May, 1866, numbers of Fenians began moving toward the border and massed at various cities and towns on the frontier from Detroit to St. Albans, Vermont. On May 31, the Canadian adjutant-general was ordered to call out 14,000 volunteers; these were ready for service in 24 hours. On the evening of May 31, a force of about 600 Fenians under "General" John O'Neill, a former officer in the Union army, invaded the Niagara peninsula from Buffalo and encamped at Frenchman's creek, near Fort Erie, where they remained until the evening of June 1. Meanwhile on June 1 a force of approximately 1,240 Canadian volunteers had been despatched to Port Colborne, while Colonel Peacock arrived with 600 British regulars at Chippawa on the evening of June 1; here he was strongly reinforced the following morning. In moving to join forces with Peacock, the Port Colborne force under Colonel Booker encountered and attacked O'Neill's force near the village of Ridgeway. After driving in the Fenian outposts, the Canadian volunteers were thrown into disorder by O'Neill's counter-attack and retreated ignominiously to Port Colborne. The Fenians retired to Fort Erie, where they overcame a small force of volunteers which Colonel Dennis of Toronto had foolishly landed from the tug Robb from Port Colborne. The Fenians then escaped from Canada on a scow in time to avoid an action with Peacock's force.


On the Quebec frontier, 1,800 Fenians, under General Spier, on June 7 crossed the border from St. Alban's at Pigeon hill and captured the villages of Frelighsburg and St. Armand. But on June 9, at the advance of a Canadian force from St. Alexandre, they retired into the United States.


Between 1866 and 1870 the British-American colonies were kept in a constant state of alarm by repeated rumours of Fenian aggression. Finally on May 25, 1870 a body of 300, under O'Neill, crossed the border from Vermont, but were repulsed at Eccles hill by a small force of volunteers under Colonel Chamberlain. Later in the day, when Chamberlain had been reinforced, a second Fenian attempt upon the hill was repulsed. Further west on the Huntingdon frontier a force of Fenians crossed the border on May 27 near Holebrooke's Corners, and took up a strong position, but fled precipitately at the approach of a combined force of regulars and volunteers. In 1871 O'Neill and a group of his followers, without the support of the Fenian council, joined O'Donoghue, a former member of Louis Riel's rebel government, in an ignominious raid on Manitoba. The raiders were overpowered by an American force without even encountering a small body of Canadian volunteers who were advancing toward the frontier.


Although abortive, the raids had important results. They led to the grant by the Canadian parliament of increased appropriations for defence and to a much-needed re-organization of the Canadian militia force. In the case of New Brunswick they helped to swing opinion in favour of Confederation; in the British North American colonies as a whole the atmosphere of apprehension arising from the raids was conducive to the development of a distinctive Canadian nationality. A growing mistrust of British policy arose from Gladstone 's casual attitude towards the raids and from the failure of his government to secure any compensation from the United States. Finally, the raids developed in Canada an active antipathy against the United States for its tolerant attitude toward the raiders. See F. W. Campbell, The Fenian invasion of Canada of 1866 and 1870 (1904), Gen. E. A. Cruikshank, The Fenian raid of 1866 (Wetland County Historical Society Papers and Records, vol. ii), Col. G. T. , Denison, History of the Fenian raid on Fort Erie with an account of the battle of Ridgeway (Toronto, 1866), Capt. John A. Macdonald, Troublous times in Canada: A history of, the Fenian raids of 1866 and 1870 (Toronto, 1910), John P. Pritchett, The origin of the so-called Fenian raid on Manitoba in 1871 (Canadian Historical Review , March, 1929), C. P. Stacey, The Fenian troubles and Canadian military development, 1865-71 ( Proceedings of the Canadian Historical Association, 1935), and Fenianism and the rise of national feeling in Canada at the time of Confederation (Canadian Historical Review, September, 1931). [A more recent source is Mabel Gregory WALKER, The Fenian Movement, Colorado Springs, Ralph Myles Publisher, Inc., 1969, 215p.]

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Source: D. C. MASTERS, "Fenian Raids", in W. Stewart WALLACE, ed., The Encyclopedia of Canada, Vol. II, Toronto, University Associates of Canada, 1948, 411p., pp. 328-329.

© 2005 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College