Ireland’s Wars: Fort Erie

The Fenians under John O’Neill had won a victory at Ridgeway, sending the first column of militia they had come up against reeling backwards. But even as they were enjoying that success, additional threats were moving in, in the form of both additional militia and professional regulars, intent on defending local resources and driving the Fenians back over the border.

The remainder of the campaign in the area revolved largely around the small settlement of Fort Erie. The name was a misnomer, as the location was not really fortified, consisting of little more than a single street along the waterfront, covered by a handful of buildings. Fort Erie had been the first place the Fenians had taken after they arrived on Canadian shores, but only stayed briefly before moving out to what eventually became Ridgeway: now, lacking the kind of numbers or supply train to keep advancing, they were coming back in that direction barely a day since they left. The next moment of combat would take place there, but would come with the same terrible miscalculations and farcical decision making as had occurred at Ridgeway.

This time, the man on the spot would be Lt Colonel John Dennis, the other militia commander of note in the area, who had essentially gone off on his own authority in the previous few days, seeking to transport his own militia troops via boat to attack the Fenians at their supposed HQ, Fort Erie, or at least to hit them in the rear while Booker was advancing into their teeth. As we saw last time, that didn’t really work out.

Dennis was sailing on a tug dubbed the W.T. Robb, with a ramshackle amount of militia, some with uniforms and some without, backed up by part-time artillerymen who had joined them at Port Colbourne, only without any artillery to speak of. On getting close to Fort Erie, Dennis saw that there were no Fenians present; he kept going to the second reported Fenian encampment, and found that similarly abandoned.

Lacking anything better to do, and completely ignorant of what had occurred at Ridgeway, Dennis put some of his men ashore with the intention of sorting out Fenian pickets and patrols, an operation undertaken with partial success. After trying to get in contact with nearby regular troops, Dennis embarked his men on the Robb and sailed back in the direction of Fort Erie.

Dennis busied himself there trying to make arrangements for Fenian prisoners, still ignorant of everything that had been going on elsewhere. When he heard word that the Fenian army under O’Neill was nearby, coming back from Ridgeway, he was left with a choice: to retreat in the face of the superior numbers he was suddenly facing, or to fight it out. Dennis, so far hardly showcasing himself as an exemplary leader, briefly took the first option before changing his mind and re-landing his men, taking up positions around Fort Erie.

The Fenians were aware that they were marching back into trouble. Their advanced units, under a Colonel Bailey, swung into the town from the north and engaged Dennis’ troops: after a brief firefight they withdrew, attacked again, and were forced back again, with Bailey killed. While they was going on, O’Neill had sent other troops to seize the high ground above the town, that Dennis had ignored. With firing coming in from the north and the east, Dennis ordered a retreat. His men essentially had to scatter, with some, including Dennis himself, holding up in whatever houses and buildings they could get access to, until Fenian pressure and a lack of ammunition forced them to surrender. Dennis would later be unsuccessfully court-martialled. A few made it back onto the Robb, which steamed away, all the way back to Port Colbourne.

While it was not as bad a defeat as Ridgeway – Dennis was badly outnumbered – the Fort Erie skirmish still illustrates some catastrophic failings on behalf of the Canadian militia. Dennis was floundering around in the hunt for something pro-active to do, and allowed himself to be caught out by O’Neill’s numerically superior force. He should never really have attempted to hold Fort Erie, and a handful of casualties was the result, as well as an embarrassing number of prisoners temporarily falling into Fenian hands (not that the Fenians had the capability of looking after them, most being let go quite quickly). His indecisiveness was obvious, and the result was yet another Fenian victory, albeit a very minor one, even while the campaign generally had turned against O’Neill.

Because the end was in sight. Despite Ridgeway, and despite Fort Erie, the Fenians in Canada were already on their last legs. They were running short on everything, not least ammunition and food, with little left to scrounge in the local area, and no sign of anything else being sent over the river: the American Navy was now doing its job, and no more supplies or men would make it over the border. Worse, tens of thousands of troops, regulars and militia, were now within only a few hours march of O’Neill and his 700 or so Fenians.

O’Neill, recognising that Fort Erie could not be held, took his men to a position called the “old Fort” by locals, probably the remnants of the fortification that had given the settlement its name, just south of the town itself. A brief council of war had presented O’Neill with two options: to either fight it out in a last stand where they stood, or to retreat back over the water to America. O’Neill was actually of a mind to take the first option, at least to a certain extent: he felt the Fenians might still have the capability to engage in one last action, especially from prepared defensive positions. But he was over-ruled by the majority of his men, who were hungry and worried about the size of the foes coming in on top of them. They had won their victories, and now they wanted to go home, not die for Ireland.

At midnight on the 3rd of June, the Fenians commenced their final retreat over the river. On the way, they weree intercepted by the US Navy, and the leaders detained while the rank and file were left to wait, briefly mistaken as reinforcements for the invasion by Canadian militia who rapidly “liberated” Fort Erie when they realised what was actually happening.

The Fenian invasion was over, but the aftermath went on. Within a few days, tens of thousands of militia were on site, for a battle they had all missed. On the other side of the border, what Fenians that were not in US custody dispersed from Buffalo, while those that were were paroled on lenient terms, with some allowed to retake commissions in the American military. They had lost 18 men killed and 24 wounded in the few days they had been in Canada.

The end of the campaign was undoubtedly a defeat, and the Fenians activities provoked a bigger enforcement of neutrality laws on the part of US authorities than the Fenians might have expected. By the 6th, President Johnson had issued an official proclamation condemning the organisation, ending any pretensions of official American support, but the propaganda value of what had occurred at Ridgeway was gigantic, generating new revenue and recruitment streams for the Roberts wing of the Fenians for years afterwards.

And yet, the 1866 raids were not quite over. On a different part of the frontier, the Fenian efforts were not going quite as spectacularly.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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4 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: Fort Erie

  1. Tony says:

    18 killed? With respect Sir I don’t know why you are taking your figures from one side of the conflict only. The age old military practice of one side bigging up its enemy’s casualties while playing down its own should be apparent to you of all people Sir.

  2. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Index | Never Felt Better

  3. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The Pigeon Hill Raid | Never Felt Better

  4. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Eccles Hill And Trout River | Never Felt Better

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