On June 1, 1866, a group of Fenian soldiers cross the border from the United States into Canadian territory. The events of the so-called Fenian invasion of Canada leave the organisation utterly discredited and cause much dismay among Irish American communities.
The roots of the invasion go back to 1865 when the Fenians in the United States break into two factions, one headed by William Roberts and the other by John O’Mahony, a founding member of the Fenian Brotherhood in the United States. It is the Roberts wing which proposes a Fenian invasion of Canada. A number of facts are put forward by Roberts and others in support of this plan. In 1865 there are tens of thousands of battle-hardened Irish veterans of the American Civil War, as well as many officers from both the Union and Confederate armies. It is initially proposed to utilise these soldiers for an incursion into Canada that would be timed to coincide with a revolution in Ireland, thus causing Great Britain to be engaged in two widely separated theatres of war.
When it becomes apparent that the hoped-for rising in Ireland is not going to take place, the goal of the invasion is changed. The Fenians now hope that they can engineer a border incident that will entangle British forces in a war with the United States.
At the time the U.S. Government has a fractious relationship with their British counterparts, a remnant of the British Empire‘s partiality towards the Confederacy during the American Civil War. During the war the British Government comes close to granting diplomatic recognition to the Confederacy and British shipyards provide raiding vessels such as the notorious USS Alabama to the South. While this ill-feeling is unlikely to lead to full-scale conflict, the U.S. Government is in no mood to provide any aid to the British in Canada. President Andrew Johnson is aware of the Fenian’s plans but does little to hinder them.
The two competing Fenian factions launch separate operations. In April 1866, the O’Mahony wing attempts to seize Campobello Island near New Brunswick but the Fenian attackers are easily dispersed by U.S. naval forces. The Roberts wing launches its attack on Canada under the command of a civil war veteran, General John Charles O’Neill, on June 1, 1866.
General O’Neill leads a force of over one thousand men into Canadian territory near Fort Erie, Ontario. His invading army has some initial success, winning two engagements including the so-called Battle of Ridgeway with around ten fatalities (with a similar number on the Canadian side). O’Neill’s troops keep their discipline and local civilians are respected, as are Canadian prisoners of war. One soldier, Lance Corporal William Ellis, later writes, “the Fenians treatment of myself and the other prisoners was kind and considerate in the extreme.”
Yet, O’Neill is aware that far larger Canadian forces are approaching and on June 3 feels it prudent to take his army back to American territory, while they await reinforcements. However, the U.S. government is now fearful that events are spiralling out of control. Once back across the border, O’Neill’s army is met by American troops who intervene to prevent the Fenians from making any further attacks. Over the following days the Fenian army is broken up by American forces. O’Neill is arrested by U.S. Marshals and temporarily incarcerated. A second, smaller, incursion into Canada follows on June 6 but this, too, makes little headway. This second Fenian army is also broken up by U.S. forces when back on American soil. By June 8 the Fenian invasion of Canada is over.
The whole invasion demonstrates the futility of the Fenian strategy. It proves that the Canadians would fight to preserve their territory and that they could mobilise thousands of their population to do so. There is little hope that the Fenians could muster the required number of troops necessary to seize and then to hold Canadian territory. Most importantly, there could be no doubt now that the U.S. Government would not, despite its tempestuous relationship with the British Empire, offer any support to a Fenian invasion. Nor would the U.S. Government allow itself to be embroiled in a border war with British or Canadian forces. Nevertheless, these lessons are ignored by some Fenians for whom the idea of attacking Canada is a worthwhile objective over the following few years.
In 1870 another convention takes place amid more internal wrangling within the Brotherhood. There, a decision is made to launch a new attack on Canada. Once again John O’Neill commands the Fenians, among whose army is John Boyle O’Reilly, a young journalist. O’Reilly makes detailed reports on the invasion, an event that proves disastrous for Fenianism in the United States.
(From: “The Fenian Invasion Of Canada, 1866” by Ian Kenneally, The Irish Story, http://www.theirishstory.com)