May 31, 1866: Irish Invade Canada in Effort to Free Ireland (Fenian Raids)

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A Brief History

On May 31, 1866, Irish nationalists known as Fenian Brotherhood invaded Canada in an attempt to force Britain into granting Ireland independence. This invasion was not the first raid into Canada by the Fenians, an American based Irish Republican group, nor would it be the last, with raids starting in April of 1866 and continuing until 1871.

Digging Deeper

As many as 10,000 Irish Americans were involved in the Fenian movement, a movement motivated by the British crushing of the Irish Independence movement in 1865. Those Fenians involved with the raids were mostly battle hardened veterans of the US Civil War. The Canadians recognized the looming threat, and mobilized 10,000, then 14,000 militiamen to defend the Canadian border areas. The number of troops called up was again increased, this time to 20,000. This militia was poorly trained if at all, and the one unit armed with Spencer repeating rifles had no practical experience with the weapons and had only 289 rounds per man. Thirteen Canadian gunboats were assigned patrol duties on the Great Lakes and border rivers to intercept any attempts to invade Canada by the Fenians.

Canadian Home-Guard defending against Fenians in 1870

Meanwhile, American authorities also took measures to prevent any raids from the US into Canada by arresting Fenian members and leaders and patrolling against any potential invasion.

Numbering as many as 1300 Irishmen, on May 31, 1866 the Fenians crossed the Niagara River into Canada, after fist sabotaging the US gunboat USS Michigan to allow safe passage. The Michigan was repaired quickly, and within 14 hours was back in service, cutting off further crossings by Fenian reinforcements and supplies.

USS Michigan, seen here after her name was changed to USS Wolverine in 1905.

This militant faction of Fenians, known as the “senate faction” were unhappy with the leadership of the founders “presidential faction” that preferred to conduct money raising efforts in the US to fund Irish nationalist struggling to free Ireland against the English in Ireland. Led by William Roberts and Lieutenant Colonel John O’Neill, the senate faction raiders hoped to force the British into negotiations by the military pressure on Canada, as well as galvanize Irish Canadians into supporting the cause.

Canadian militia responding to the invasion on June 2, 1866 blundered into a battle with the Fenians at Ridgway, resulting in 9 Canadians killed, 37 wounded, and 22 of the wounded later dying of their wounds or disease/infection. The Fenians lost 6 to 8 men killed and 16 wounded. (Sources have conflicting numbers of casualties.) The next major battle of the invasion was at Fort Erie later the same day (June 2), resulting in 6 Canadians wounded and 36 captured by the Irish. The Fenians lost another 9 men killed and 14 wounded, and were forced to flee back across the Niagara River to the United States, ending the invasion.

An 1869 illustration of the Battle of Ridgeway: Charge of General O’Neill’s Fenians upon the Canadian troops, causing their rout.

Only 6 days later, on June 8, 1866, a force of 200 Fenians attacked near Montreal, but fled on the advance of overwhelming Canadian forces (over 10,000 militiamen). Raids resumed in 1870 and 1871, but after that were basically done in the Eastern half of Canada (Ontario and Quebec). Later in the 1870’s and 1880’s the Fenians did agitate and threaten to invade in Western Canada, but did not mount actual raids. By the late 19th Century the threat to Canada from the Fenians was over.

The Fenian raids on Canada provided no tangible positive results for the Irish, but on the contrary provided the Canadians with increased national cohesion and a distrust of Americans, as the Fenians were believed to be openly tolerated by American authorities. This increased Canadian patriotism also led to the willingness of the various provinces to join in confederation and build the nation that Canada is today.

Location of Canada

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

MacDonald, Capt John A.  Troublous Times In Canada: A History Of The Fenian Raids of 1866-1870.  CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2012.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.