The first Fenian Raid on Canada had been a rather anticlimactic non-event, with the O’Mahony wing of the American Brotherhood left in tatters in the aftermath. But the Campobello operation had been mere prelude to the main event of the Fenian designs on the Canadian provinces, which would now begin much further west. The events in Maine contributed to a certain air of complacency at many different levels of Canadian administration, from governors to militia captains, who felt that the Fenian threat might well have been exaggerated. But they were soon to find out the hard way that, when properly led, the Fenians could cause a great deal of trouble.
There were plenty of warning signs. A large amount of Fenians were noted as assembling in the town of Buffalo, New York, on the Canadian border, in late May. This invasion was largely the brainchild of T.W Sweeney, one of the leading men of the Roberts Wing in the Fenian Brotherhood. A Cork man who emigrated to the States in 1832, Sweeney had fought in the Mexican War, the Indian campaigns and the Civil War, where his achievements eventually led him to the rank of Brigadier-General. As part of the Fenians, Sweeney stepped into a role analogous to that of a Secretary of War, formulating the plan to send Fenian soldiers over the border while not taking an active part in the operations himself.
Sweeney’s overall plan was an extremely ambitious affair. It called for multiple crossings all along the border, utilising over 10’000 well equipped men. Two columns would attack Canada (the province) in the west, designed as a feint to draw the defenders away from the key urban areas of Toronto and Montreal, an effort to be supported by attacks around the area of Detroit. Then, to the east, more columns would be free to threaten Montreal and the surrounding townships. The strategy called for the capture and temporary occupation of numerous forts and towns, most notably Sherbrooke, chosen as the future capital of the Irish Republic in exile.
Sweeney’s plan was largely a fantasy, its every facet based on wishful thinking. The Fenians would never be able to rally enough men to implement it, let alone arm them all properly. The Fenians had little cavalry and no artillery to speak of. The weather would have been a debilitating factor – Sweeney actually called for winter operations, so rivers frozen over could be crossed easier – and Sweeney blindly dismissed both the potential threat of Canada’s militia defenders and the possibility of intervention from the French-Canadian community, whom he insisted would either stay neutral or actively aid the Fenians. Lastly, he also seemed to dismiss the actions of American authorities, who might (and would) turn a blind eye to singular short-term raids, but were unlikely to stand idly by if such a grand advance took place. The overall objectives of this campaign remained as grandiose and out of reach as ever: the Fenians were in no position to hold ground in Canada for a long period of time. This raid would be as much about keeping the Fenians and their cause in the headlines as it was about achieving tangible results.
In the end, the operations designed for the far west stuttered due to the inability of local transport links, rail and boat, to assemble the Fenian regiments being called up fast enough: only half of the expected amount of troops arrived at their Chicago assembly point. There was more success in the assembly of troops in the Cleveland area though, where Fenians from Tennessee and Kentucky were posted, a varied bunch, wearing various scraps of uniform from the Civil War.
The leader that emerged of this force was a man named John O’Neill. O’Neill, a Monaghan native, had emigrated to American in 1848, served in the Morman War, deserted and then re-enlisted for the Civil War, where he volunteered to command a company of black soldiers for a chance at faster promotion. After the war, he had gravitated to a position of leadership among Tennessee Fenians, leading the “13th Regiment” of that state to Cleveland in 1866. When the actual appointed commander of that section of the operation failed to appear, O’Neill found himself as the ranking officer, and was ordered to proceed with an attack across the border.
O’Neill and his troops moved to Buffalo, which had a sizeable Irish-American community they could use for lodgings and support. Arms had been stockpiled there as far back as February, though never in enough numbers.
In the early hours of the 1st of June, O’Neill made his move, now being in command of regiments from Ohio, Indiana and Buffalo as well as those from Tennessee and Kentucky. That morning, O’Neill marched his 900 or so men to the Niagara River, crossing on canal boats pulled by tugs, and landed a short distance from the Canadian town of Fort Erie. Due to the geography of the area, the Fenians actually moved west over the border, not north. This on its own was a momentous step in purely propaganda terms: the Fenians unfurled their flags on British territory, the crossing itself already more of a victory than anything the Fenians had achieved before. The American Navy did have forces nearby, but it took over 12 hours for them to start intercepting the barges.
But what was O’Neill to do from there? He was supposed to be leading a raiding force that formed a diversion for others, but as it turned out O’Neill would be largely on his own. O’Neill’s military career had no experience with such things. Lacking any higher instructions, he and his men marched to Fort Erie, occupied it bloodlessly and cut communications around the town. Fort Erie provided food and some horses for his troops, begrudgingly, before O’Neill ordered his men to entrench around a local farm. More arms were ferried across, but the expected reinforcements that O’Neill needed to do more did not materialise.
The local authorities, woken out of their slumber by what had happened and by the rumours that had been oft heard in the build-up, assembled a force of militia in nearby Chippawa in the north and Port Colbourne further west. By the 2nd of June, news of these two forces force had reached O’Neill ears, thanks largely to the scouts he had been able to send out on horseback. Not wanting to be caught by forces moving in from two directions, O’Neill decided to advance, heading down a road towards the small settlement of Ridgeway.
The arrival of the Fenians had sent local authorities scurrying to get militia companies out into the field, but it took a critical 24 hours for any force to get within striking distance of O’Neill. So quickly was the mobilisation sent out that the orders were somewhat bungled, and only infantry militia were called up. Regular troops were called up too, but were further away from the site of the campaign. The forces advancing towards O’Neill were a mixed group of various companies now operating in Battalion strength for the first time. They were variously armed with older guns and newer models, and were similarly supplied. The vast majority had no real military experience, and no capability of staying in the field for too long. Even in uniform they differed, some with the traditional redcoats and others with the more modern green.
They were commanded a Lt Colonel Alfred Booker, a career officer who had never been in a battle, a common trait among militia officers. Other commanders in the vicinity became victims of some hapless miscommunications: regular troops under a Colonel Peacocke followed a plan of campaign that was changed by others without him being adequately informed and another militia leader, Lt Colonel John Stoughton Dennis, followed a plan that was abandoned by the others without him being told. As a result, different columns of militia, regular troops and even naval assets in the area were all operating independently, without any sort of useful cohesion, a situation exacerbated even more by the lack of cavalry to use as scouts.
Booker advanced on the morning of June 2nd, towards where he thought the Fenians still were, entrenched around the farm outside Fort Erie, where he hoped that a bold attack would scatter them, especially after some inaccurate reports reached him that they were drinking. He ignored other reports that the Fenians were actually advancing towards him. O’Neill, hearing that militia were ahead of him, did the opposite. He took high ground at a place called the Lime Ridge Road, ordered his men to put up breastworks and barricades, and sent out lines of advanced guards to act as an outward line of defence, who also set up pickets in wooded areas on either side of the road.
Around 8am, the advanced units of militia suddenly encountered the Fenians: fire was exchanged at distance, to no casualties. Booker ordered his militia, maybe 850 men in all, to deploy in a wide front and advance: the initial units were relieved as the militia pushed up, firing all the while. Casualties on either side were few, and the militia looked like they were prevailing: the advanced units of the Fenians, outnumbered though better shots, were obliged to fall back, but did not do so in any kind of panic: it must be remembered that most of the Fenians had very recent experience in the most modern kind of warfare. The kind of men that had faced Confederate advances at Gettysburg or made desperate assaults like those at Cold Harbour were not the kind who would cut and run in the face of this kind of attack.
It was at this point in the fighting, as the Fenians withdrew back to the ridge where they were based, that the tide began to shift. Booker’s troops were far too strung out, blundering into woods where little Fenians were to be fought. Moreover, there was confusion as rival companies melded into each others’ lines. The militia, under fire for the first time in their lines, were not advancing to inevitable victory.
O’Neill, in a position where he wasn’t even sure of what kind of troops he was fighting, was worried about being outflanked, and decided to make an attack before this became a reality. This advance was a loose enough one, but made an immediate impression on the elements of the militia it came into contact with, who wavered under the strain.
It was the critical moment of what we call the “Battle of Ridgeway” today. A better quality of soldier commanded by a better quality of officer would have been able to absorb the Fenian advance and throw it back. But Booker and his militia were not those men. Instead, in a truly infamous moment for Canadian military history, Booker saw a small amount of enemy cavalry – in reality, the entirety of the Fenian horse, who had only been used for scouting – and thought that a massive attack was upon his men. He gave the critical command for his reserve companies to form square.
I’ve talked about infantry squares before, but a quick recap may be in order: it is an excellent formation when dealing with a cavalry attack, as horses cannot be compelled to attack a square that has massed bayonets facing outward. However, it’s next to useless against infantry or artillery: indeed, it essentially cuts into quarters the effective firing line of an infantry force.
Booker soon realised his mistake when no more enemy cavalry appeared, but by then it was too late. The retreating militia ran into the situation of companies that had formed square and were now being ordered back into line. Confusion reigned supreme, and when the advancing Fenians pressed the attack, the confusion became a rout. The militia simply disintegrated, and nothing Booker or his other officers could do would stem the tide. Indeed, the number of different counter-orders now only added to the confusion.
The militia struggled back in the direction of Port Colbourne. The Fenians did not pursue after taking the field. The battle was over. The casualties were light: ten killed on the militia side, with 37 wounded, in exchange for an estimate of ten Fenian dead and several wounded.
It was a strange reversal of fortune for soldiers fighting for Irish freedom, to be the ones with all of the advantages in men, experience, guns and terrain. The result of the battle, with all of the negatives that Booker was dealing with – some that he wasn’t even fully aware of – was not at all surprising when one looks at the entirety of the circumstances.
Regardless, Ridgeway was a major moment for the Fenians and Irish nationalism as a whole. It was claimed as the first military victory for Irish republicanism since 1798: essentially true, unless you count the odd raid of the Ribbonmen as a “victory” for such a cause. It would go on to be claimed as the only republican victory between 1798 and 1919. As such, regardless of what came after, it gave the Fenians exactly what it wanted: it gave their movement success, relevance and notice. The Fenians had advanced into British territory and won.
Ridgeway, despite the poor performance of the militia, also holds a special place in the history of Canada, the first battle where Canadian born soldiers fought under Canadian born officers. The events of the battle, and its result, would mean it would take over 30 years for the people who fought there to be recognised officially, but today Ridgeway is seen as a vital part of Canadian military history.
Of course, the campaign wasn’t over. O’Neill had won a victory, but other militia and regular troops were in the area, even if they were temporarily waylaid. The Fenians would have more fighting to do in Canada before it was all done.
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