In the mid-19th century, Ireland’s discontent with British domination spread across the Atlantic and led to violent Irish-American raids on British North America (Canada).
The Fenian Brotherhood was an Irish-American group whose goal was to secure Ireland’s freedom from Britain. More militant Fenians believed that by attacking Canada and occupying important cities and transportation centers, they could force Britain into relinquishing Ireland in exchange for Canada. At the very least, they hoped they could precipitate a war between the United States and Britain, distracting London from uprisings in Ireland. The U.S. government knew about the Fenians but largely ignored them, as the government was still annoyed that Britain had given assistance to the Confederacy during the Civil War; plus, many Americans believed that it was only a matter of time before Canada was annexed into the United States anyway.
In 1866, the Fenians planned a five-pronged invasion of Canada from Illinois, Wisconsin, New York, Vermont, and the St. Lawrence River. These plans largely fell through or failed, but the attack from New York, led by John O’Neill, went ahead as planned. His group of about 700 men, many of them experienced Civil War veterans, crossed the Niagara River into present-day Ontario in the early morning of 1 June with the goal of seizing a canal connecting Lakes Erie and Ontario. He split his men into two groups and sent one to Fort Erie while his group captured a rail yard.
By late afternoon, O’Neill received word that two groups of Canadian soldiers were going to meet up to oppose him and his men. So he ordered his troops to move to intercept one of the Canadian groups before they could join with the other and greatly outnumber the Fenians. On the morning of 2 June, O’Neil and his men met and fought the Canadian force near Ridgeway, Ontario. The battle lasted about an hour and a half and ended when the Canadians retreated, thinking that O’Neill’s mounted scouts were actually a cavalry. When the Fenians saw the confusion in the Canadian ranks, O’Neill ordered a bayonet charge that sent them running.
Later that day, O’Neill and his men went on to Fort Erie, where they again fought and won against Canadian troops. Hearing of additional Canadian and British troops on the move, the Fenians then went back across the Niagara River, where they were arrested by U.S. authorities but released a few days later.
Although these Fenian raids didn’t end up having much effect on Ireland’s freedom, they did affect Canada. The raids showed the Canadian colonies the necessity of unification, leading to increased nationalism and eventually the formation of the Canadian Confederation.
Read more about the Fenian Raids and the Battle of Ridgeway.