Heritage Moments: Buffalo, the Fenian Invasion and the Making of Canada

May 23, 2016

Depending on what side of the border you’re on, the story of the Fenian Invasion of June 1, 1866, is told differently. In Western New York it’s remembered as a brave fight for Irish independence against British oppression. On the Niagara Peninsula it’s a brave fight for self-defense against a surprise attack from a warlike America.

The truth depends on your point of view, but one thing is certain: Canada became a nation because of what happened in Buffalo, Fort Erie and Ridgeway that day and on the two days that followed.  

Throughout May 1866, hundreds of Irish-American Civil War veterans of the Union and Confederate armies – the Fenian Brotherhood -- gathered secretly in Buffalo to carry out an armed invasion of the Niagara Peninsula. Some were from the city’s Irish First Ward, others came from across the North and as far away as Louisiana. Their goal: sabotage the Welland Canal, threaten to occupy part of Ontario (or Canada West, as it was then called) and force the British Empire to grant Ireland its freedom.

Canada West had no effective defense against such an attack. Throughout the U.S. Civil War Canadians had watched the gigantic armies of the North and South slaughter each other. They feared what would happen if a reunited America decided to invade again, as it had in the War of 1812, or if freelance Americans attacked Canada, as in the Rebellion of 1837. To make matters worse, Britain was extricating its forces from North America, and turning over responsibility for defense to the various scattered colonies like Canada West and Canada East (Quebec).

Starting at 2 a.m. on June 1, about 1,000 Fenians eluded the U.S. authorities, boarded boats at Black Rock and crossed the Niagara. Soon the alarm went up on the Canadian side, hastily summoning militia units to Niagara like the Queen’s Own Rifles. The roughly 1,000 men who arrived were hardly regular soldiers – their ammunition was defective, and the Queen’s Own consisted largely of University of Toronto students, called away from taking their final exams. The battles that lay ahead would be the first ever fought entirely by Canadians, with no British soldiers or officers present.

The Fenians, by contrast, were war-hardened veterans of remarkable discipline. They set up strong positions on strategic ridgelines. They meticulously refrained from looting the civilians they encountered in Fort Erie and Ridgeway. And they posted this friendly yet menacing proclamation:

“We come among you as the foes of British rule in Ireland, exiled from that native land of ours by the oppression of British aristocracy and legislation, our people hunted down to the emigrant ships, or worse, to that charnel of government institutions, the poor-house … We have taken up the sword to strike down the oppressor’s rod and deliver Ireland from the tyrant … We have no issue with the people of these provinces, and wish to have none but the most friendly relations … Our blows shall be directed only at the power of England … and all who raise an arm to defend her, or frustrate or defeat us, belong to the common enemy, and as such will be dealt with. As we know how to recognize the services of our friends, so also do we know how to punish the depredations of our foes.…”

On the morning of June 2 the Canadian militiamen blundered into the Fenian positions at Limestone Ridge in the fields outside Ridgeway.* “To most of us, who had been in the war, it was plain that fighting was new to them,” a Fenian officer later said. “They exposed themselves unnecessarily, which trained men never do.” 

The first to die was Ensign Malcolm McEachern, a 35-year-old Toronto store manager, Sunday school teacher and father of five. A half dozen other Canadians -- three laborers and three university students – were shot to death over the next two hours. However, it could have been much bloodier; the Canadians retreated before they were lured too deeply into the Fenian positions.

That afternoon in Fort Erie, a small Canadian force landed by boat and to their horror found they were surrounded by Fenian soldiers. They broke and ran, hiding in houses, many refusing to surrender. On two occasions, cornered Canadians killed Fenian soldiers with bayonet thrusts – a shocking act even on the battlefields of the Civil War. Yet the Fenians, maintaining their admirable discipline, took the militiamen prisoner without exacting reprisal. In all, eight Fenians died that day in Ridgeway and Fort Erie: three from Cleveland, one from Cincinnati, one from Indiana and three Buffalonians – Maj. John C. Canty, a railroad worker; Lt. Edward Lonergran, a ship’s carpenter; and a Maj. Bigelow.

The fighting in Fort Erie was watched in Buffalo by cheering crowds lining the shore. But the U.S. authorities had locked down the port, preventing Fenian reinforcements and ammunition from crossing the river. Cut off, the Fenians decided to release their Canadian prisoners and return to Buffalo, where they were promptly arrested. By the night of June 3 it was all over – but several more men on both sides would die from wounds sustained in battle or from disease contracted while on the march.

The Fenians were the first Irishmen to fight under the name “Irish Republican Army.” Over the next few years they conducted a handful of other raids elsewhere in Canada, but none nearly as large or effective as the attack they launched from Buffalo. Ultimately, it would take 50 more years of struggle before their goal of a free Ireland was realized.

But the invasion’s effect on the far-flung colonies of British North America was galvanizing and immediate. Frightened by the possibility of bigger, more devastating attacks from the United States, in 1867 Canada West, Canada East, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick banded together for common self-defense, confederating as a new nation -- the Dominion of Canada. Over the next several years, more provinces joined confederation, and the threat from the United States receded. Today, Canada is strong and free, and America’s closest friend and ally; the Niagara River is perhaps the friendliest border in the world.

Yet it was here 150 years ago, on the terrifying battlefield at Ridgeway and in the blood-soaked streets of Fort Erie, that modern Canada was born.

*The most comprehensive and insightful account of the Fenian Invasion is Peter Vronsky’s remarkable University of Toronto doctoral dissertation Combat, Memory and Remembrance in Confederation Era Canada: The Hidden History of the Battle of Ridgeway, June 2, 1866. Vronsky also maintains a detailed website about the Battle of Ridgeway.

Cast (in order of appearance):

Fenian officer: Mike Dugan

Fenian solider: Jesse Tiebor

Narrator: Susan Banks

Sound recording: Omar Fetouh (WBFO)

Sound editing: Michael Peters (WBNY, Buffalo State)

Piano theme: Excerpt from “Buffalo City Guards Parade March,” by Francis Johnson (1839)

Performed by Aaron Dai

Produced by the Niagara Frontier Heritage Project

Written by Jeff Z. Klein

Assistant producer: Karl-Eric Reif

Casting: Darleen Pickering Hummert (Pickering Hummert Casting, 234 Carmel Rd., Buffalo)

Special thanks to:

Brian Meyer, WBFO news director , 2016

Nick Lippa, WBNY general manager, 2015-16 academic year

Webpage written by Jeff Z. Klein (Niagara Frontier Heritage Project)