On June 1st 1866, a determined group of Civil War veterans boarded barges from Buffalo, crossed the Niagara River, and invaded Canada.
The Fenian Brotherhood had one goal in mind: liberate Ireland. They wanted nothing to do with Canada directly, but instead wanted to drain British resources overseas by creating a distraction in North America, allowing the Irish on the homefront to rebel against a weakened British army. Canada was a means to an end, and the roughly 1,300 Fenians who brought war on our shores expected – and received – an easy fight.
Canadians knew for a long time they weren’t immune to invasions. This was first apparent during the War of 1812. Then fears resurfaced after Britain reduced its commitment to the Province’s security in the 1850s and insisted the Canadas take care of itself. Several Military Acts followed, which were admittedly weak attempts at training reserve troops and building a dismal army. Next to a nation of 2,591,067 living Union and Confederate veterans, Canada’s paid army of 5,000 was powerless, but it gave the illusion of a fighting-chance.
This illusion manifested itself into reality, with everything going against the Canadians. The Fenians came ready for battle with 2,500 technologically advanced arms leftover from the Civil War. The Brotherhood was a well-funded international organization – and a proud owner of a primitive submarine that could be used if necessary during battle – who supplied their soldiers with the equipment necessary for their mission. The Fenians were very effective fighters. Upon entering a town, they secured necessary resources like food and horses, cut telegraph lines, took town officials prisoner, and set up a controlled perimeter. They had detailed maps of each town and had previously sent spies to survey the area. The Fenians entered Canada West knowing the realities of war, having seen the bloodiest battles to ever take place in North America, and were determined to free their homeland. Most believed, like Thomas Jefferson had speculated half a century earlier, that capturing Canada would be a “mere matter of marching.”
Against these hardened Civil War veterans came 800 amateur recruits, of which half were under the age of 20. Most had never actually fired a real bullet from their outdated rifles (of which they were only supplied five rounds of ammunition). Some had never even handled a gun. Even in the 1860s Canada had a very different gun culture from the United States, and most on the north side of the border had no interest in them. This new generation of soldiers, having never engaged in actual battle, still operated as though they were in 1812. Canadian soldiers were ignorant of the fact that warfare had changed enormously in the past five years. The tactic of coordinated volleys was replaced by individual stealth and marksmanship. Speed was replaced by precision. One Canadian soldier even complained that “the Fenians were cowards” and that they “did not expose themselves long enough to take a good aim.” Canadians, on the other hand, exposed themselves to enemy fire unnecessarily.
But if the soldiers were unprepared, the officers were clueless. Troops were still prepared to battle in the traditional way, with two flag bearers included in the ranks. The experienced Civil War veterans knew better that flags, while patriotic, were the biggest target in giving away one’s position – and a marksman’s best friend. In addition, officers had no maps. Instead, the commander of the operation was left with a rudimentary postal map of the Niagara region taken from an almanac, displaying post offices and mail delivery routes, but that’s all. This was their turf, but they had no idea what it looked like. Instead they relied on local help and gut feelings.
When Fenian troops were preparing themselves to cross the Niagara River in late May, many of the Canadian soldiers were sitting in university exam rooms. It cannot be exaggerated enough just how inexperienced and militarily incompetent these recruits were. Most were looking for a thrill, thinking war would be a romantic and exhilarating experience. But instead it was a dreadful experience. The region was experiencing its first hot day of the season, but the troops were not supplied with water canteens. Additionally, most soldiers went to battle without any food rations, with many having not eaten in recent days.
But against all odds, the Battle of Ridgeway started off well for the Canadian troops. They were having successes pushing the Fenians back from Limestone Ridge and suffered little casualties. Then a fatal and unfortunate event took place, the story of which is unclear to this day. In all likeliness, a group of Canadians mistook Fenian scouts on horseback for cavalry, and shouted orders to change formation (ending their offensive position). In the confusion and panic, orders were yelled to retreat. The Fenians, seeing the breaks in rank, charged the Canadians with bayonets and drove them out, retaking Ridgeway.
The Fenians still expected that Britain would send reinforcements for the defeated Canadian troops. The Canadian militia was also preparing to send more reserves in to battle. Anticipating the reinforcements, the Fenians left Canada. Upon arriving in the United States, they were forced to lay their arms down.
This was a humiliating defeat for Canada West, and for twenty-five years most Canadians chose to forget about it. But its historical significance cannot be overlooked. The fear of another invasion had always troubled the psyche of Canadians and especially residents of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Fenian troops had attempted to raid New Brunswick earlier in the same year but failed. The new attack on Ridgeway proved that they might try again. And if a relatively small group of Irish rebels could defeat the current militia, how were they supposed to defend themselves against the entire American army if they situation ever arose? With Britain out of the defence question and the status-quo not working efficiently, Confederation promised to give Canada more autonomy in creating a proper trained military to protect their borders.
The battle was small, as it lasted two days, and only saw 15 battleground deaths. It was plagued by inexperience, misunderstandings, screw ups, and failure on the Canadians’ parts. But it shaped our nation. It was the first modern battle fought by Canadians, the last foreign invasion in Ontario, and the first battle fought solely by Canadians. From 1890 until 1931, June 2nd served as our Remembrance Day (called Decoration Day). The Battle of Ridgeway – and the Fenian Raids in general – are not normally considered key moments in Canadian history, but they were a milestone that brought our country together.