Why Did the Fenians Attack Canada?

Battle of Ridgeway C.W. (c. 1869) by Unknown Artist. A famous, yet inaccurate depiction of the battle, as it was fought in a modern skirmish style (fighting and hiding behind cover), not in a Napoleonic line format. [Source]

Continuing our look at ridiculous events in Canadian history: The Fenian Raids. You know, that time Irish-Americans invaded Canada to free Ireland from British rule.

People were probably just as confused back then at this turn of events as they are now. Despite the fact that the Fenian Raids (1866-1871) all ended in failure, their history is tied up with that of Canadian Confederation. This post looks at the historical context and the myths surrounding the consequences of the Fenian Raids, as well as what exactly happened.


An Evicted Family by Erskine Nicol (1853). Many Irish families were evicted from their farms during the Great Famine (1845-1852). Widespread crop failures not only made paying rent extremely difficult, but it is estimated that a million Irish citizens died of starvation and epidemic disease during this time.

Throughout the 1800s, a mixture of oppressive British rule, ongoing crop failures, and the devastating Potato Famine led to an exodus from Ireland. Over a million Irish citizens immigrated to either Canada, Australia, or America as a result. By 1860, 1.6 million Irish immigrants had settled in the United States, including John O’Mahony and Michael Doheny who were part of the failed 1848 Rebellion against Britain. They founded the Fenian Brotherhood (after Fianna Eirionn, mythical warriors of ancient Ireland), the American branch of the Irish Republican Brotherhood in 1858. Their goal? Irish independence by any means necessary. They began to organize the flow of money, arms, and provisions into Ireland.

Fightin’ Irish by Dale Gallon (1997).

Things did not really get underway until towards the end of the American Civil War (1861-1865) which many Irish immigrants participated in (on both sides). By the end of the war the Brotherhood, now 10,000 strong, became split on how best to achieve their goal. In 1865, Erin’s Hope, an American ship was intercepted by the British Navy. On board were men and ammunition bound for Ireland for a planned revolt. This particular failure led to an emergency Fenian convention in Philadelphia. Many started to feel that a successful homeland uprising was impossible. As a result, the more radical members began pushing for a major shift in tactics.

Fun Fact: During the raids, Fenians wore were a mix of civilian clothes and pieces of their former Union or Confederate uniforms.

New Target: Canada

Still technically British North America as this point (Confederation was two years away), the Fenians believed that if they successfully occupied the British colony, one of two things would happen:

  1. The British Crown would give Ireland its freedom in exchange for Canada.
  2. Britain would deploy thousands of troops to get Canada back/fight the US, thereby reducing British forces in Ireland to the level that a successful uprising by the people of Ireland could actually take place.

Supporters argued that they already had several things working in their favor. Most of them were Civil War veterans so they had both military experience and weapons too. Their high membership numbers and the overall large amount of Irish-Americans in the electorate meant that the Fenian movement and Irish interests held a good deal of political support. As such, the government was unlikely to interfere and may even support the invasion. Getting across the Canadian border wouldn’t be difficult as it was only protected by civilian volunteers. Finally, many Irish immigrants lived on the northern side of the border; 175,000 alone resettled there during the Great Famine. Surely once they heard about the Fenians’ cause, they would be supportive. The Fenians also hoped that an invasion would further aggravate the tension between English and French Canadians. In-fighting would make their mission even easier. To the Fenians it sounded like an A+ plan, but in reality…

From The Invasion of Canada by Kate Beaton. Please click on the image for the full, hilarious comic. (The US president depicted is Andrew Johnson, who assumed office following Lincoln’s assassination).

Campobello Island: The Battle That Never Happened

Located in the Bay of Fundy, Campobello Island was targeted by the Fenians in April 1866. Led by John O’Mahony, around 700 Fenians met in Maine to plan their attack. However, poor planning led to the men arriving several weeks before their weapons did. Campobello was doomed from the start, but even if ill-planning had not been a factor, taking the island would not have been easy. Roughly 5,000 men from New Brunswick volunteered as militiamen and were posted along the Saint Croix River. Britain sent over six Royal Navy warships.

To make matters worse, Michael Murphy, a Fenian based in Toronto, had been ordered to bring a number of men to join up with the rest in Maine, but the telegram which gave Murphy his instructions was intercepted. The whole lot of them were arrested when their train was halted in Cornwall, Ontario. The mayor had the men and their weapons seized, thrown in jail, and charged with treason. (Murphy and five others eventually escaped jail and fled over the border). Finally, the Canadian militia and Royal Navy never got a chance to fight. 700 US soldiers led by General George Meade (best known for winning the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War) came to Maine and dispersed the Fenians before they could launch their assault.

The Battle of Ridgeway: The Battle That Made Canada?

Fenian Raids: Area Map (June 1-2,1866) [Source + Additional Maps]

The Fenians came up  with a new plan, invade Canada West and East (soon to be Ontario and Quebec) at multiple places and cut off Canada West to deprive them of possible British reinforcements. They planned to attack Fort Erie to draw troops away from Toronto so they could get their hands on the Welland Canal. On June 1, 1866, over 800 Fenians led by Lieutenant-Colonel John O’Neill crossed the Niagara River and seized Fort Erie. They cut telegram wires, stole horses and food, destroyed a bridge and some railway tracks. They left civilians alone however. Rather than advance, O’Neill had his men set up a strategic position just north of Ridgeway.

In response, around 850 militiamen from the Queen’s Own Rifles of Toronto, advanced towards Ridgeway. They were under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Alfred Booker. Despite being warned about a surprise attack, he walked them straight into an ambush. Somehow the battle did not end up being a slaughter despite the Canadians being highly inexperienced. They did not have proper maps, food, and had not practiced with the rifles that they had just been given the day before. At first the battle seemed to go well for the Canadians. They managed to drive some Fenians from their positions while under fire. However, a series of confusing commands threw them into disarray. The Fenians used this to their advantage, charged towards, and broke the Canadian line. Nine Canadians were killed in action while only two Fenians shared the same fate. The Canadian militia retreated to Port Colbourne. The Fenians went back to Erie, but fearing another engagement they retreated to Buffalo. Along the way they were intercepted by the American Navy and surrendered.

Not-So-Fun Fact: The Fenians last-ditch attempt to invaded Canada happened in 1871. O’Neill and 40 men crossed the border and took over a customs office. The US army came in and arrested the lot of them before the Canadian militia arrived. O’Neill never did jail time as the US courts dropped the charges since his crime had been committed in Canada.

Long-Term Consequences

So who benefited from all this?

Sort of.

The Fenian Raids happened while Canada was slowly moving towards Confederation. This is why some historians argue that the Battle of Ridgeway “made” Canada. Nothing brings Canadians together like the threat of annexation by the United States. For this to be true though, Ridgeway would have had to have been used as a rallying point in Upper Canada for Confederation, but it wasn’t. Ridgeway was an embarrassing hot mess that highlighted the incompetency of Canada West’s militia department. Who was in charge of it? John A. Macdonald. As Attorney General and Minister of Militia, Macdonald made sure few Canadians even heard about the battle by suppressing the transcripts of the two official court inquiries. Once Macdonald was Prime Minister, his government refused to recognize the veterans and casualties of Ridgeway—those involved were labelled as cowards. To this day, the names of the Ridgeway Nine do not appear in the Book of Remembrance in Ottawa.

The non-battle that was Campobello had more of an impact. In the New Brunswick legislative election of 1865, the main issue was Confederation. Premier Samuel Tilley, who was in favor of it, lost the election. Public opinion did a 180 though following the Fenian Raid on Campobello. Tilley’s government came roaring back in the 1866 election and the legislature went on to vote 38 to 1 in favor of Confederation.

Long story made short: Macdonald got what he wanted and the perception of vulnerability was a definite factor behind Confederation, but to label Ridgeway as a game-changer is misleading.

Veterans of the Fenian Raids stand together at Queen’s Park, Toronto (c. 1900) [Source: LAC]

Why Did the Fenians Fail So Hard?

Aside from the plan being ridiculous from the get-go, the Fenians suffered from poor leadership and a lack of support from both sides of the border. They were broadly (and incorrectly) seen by the public and press as a radical Catholic terrorist group. There was a lot of antagonism towards Irish-Canadians; many thought they condoned and supported the Fenians. Some even speculated that the Fenians were part of a secret conspiracy by the Pope. As a result, thousands  came out against the Fenians. Canadians of Irish descent by-and-large did not support the invaders. (Some historians point out that most Irish-Canadians were Protestants from Northern Ireland and would have never supported a cause supposedly led by Catholic terrorists). English and French Canadians did not start fighting with one another as the Fenians had hoped. Also, the Fenians had overestimated the influence of Irish interests in US politics. The US  had just finished fighting the Civil War and the last thing the country needed as a war with Britain. After the failed invasion, the Fenian Brotherhood fell apart.


“Fenian Raids,” Canada’s Military Heritage. Accessed from: http://canadianmilitary.page.tl/Fenian-Raids.htm

Grodzinski, John R.. “Fenian Raids”. The Canadian Encyclopedia. Toronto: Historica Canada, March 2014. Accessed from: http://thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/fenian-raids/

Parakh, Deepa. “The Fenian raids — 1866” Lundy’s Lane Historical Museum. Accessed from: https://niagarafallsmuseums.ca/pdf/The-Fenian-Raids-1866.pdf

Vronsky, Peter. “From Rebels to Revolutionaries: A Brief History of the Founding of the Fenians and the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) in Ireland and the United States, March 17, 1858,” Accessed from: http://www.fenians.org/fenianbrotherhood.htm

Vronsky, Peter. Ridgeway: The American Fenian Invasion and the 1866 Battle That Made Canada. Toronto: Allen Lane. (2011).


















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