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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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The Battle of Ridgeway

battle-of-ridgewayThe Battle of Ridgeway, sometimes called the Battle of Lime Ridge or Limestone Ridge, is fought on June 2, 1866 in the vicinity of the town of Fort Erie across the Niagara River from Buffalo, New York between Canadian troops and an irregular army of Irish American invaders, the Fenians.

The Fenian insurgents, led by Brigadier General John O’Neill, a former Union cavalry commander who had specialized in anti-guerrilla warfare in Ohio, secures boats and transfers some 800 men across the Niagara River, landing above Fort Erie, before dawn on June 1, 1866. An additional 200–400 Fenians and supplies cross later in the morning and early afternoon until the U.S. Navy gunboat, the USS Michigan, begins intercepting Fenian barges at 2:20 PM.

O’Neill spends the first day trying to rally the local citizenry to the Fenian cause and to commandeer supplies for his mission, but his force is plagued by desertions almost from the outset. An additional column of 200 Fenians join his group, bringing his total strength at Ridgeway to at least 650 men.

Meanwhile, the British are mobilizing both local Canadian militia and British garrison troops to defend against the impending invasion of Canada. The Fenians night-march north across Black Creek through a cedar swamp, then turn inland on Ridge Road on the morning of June 2, taking up a defensive position on Limestone Ridge near the present Canadian town of Ridgeway. There, they clash with 850 advancing Canadian militia commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Alfred Booker of the 13th Battalion.

In the first hour of the battle, the Canadians appear to prevail, driving Fenian skirmishers back across Bertie Road. Then the tide turns and, to this day, it is not clear what causes the impending chaos. O’Neill, observing the chaos breaking out in the Canadian ranks, quickly orders a bayonet charge that completely routs the inexperienced Canadians. The Fenians take and briefly hold the town of Ridgeway. Then, expecting to be overwhelmed by British reinforcements, they quickly turn back to Fort Erie where they fight a second battle, the Battle of Fort Erie, against a small but determined detachment of Canadians holding the town.

The Canadian loss is nine killed on the field, four dying of wounds in the immediate days following the battle, 22 dying of wounds or disease later and 37 are wounded, some severely enough to require amputation of their limbs. O’Neill says that four or five of his men are killed, but Canadians claim to have found six Fenian bodies on the field. The relatively low casualty figures make this an interesting battle for proponents of theories about soldiers’ reluctance to shoot to kill, but might also be accounted for by the fact that the Fenians had deployed only their skirmishers in an attempt to lure the Canadians towards their main force which did not advance until the last minutes of the battle when they launched a bayonet attack that broke Canadian lines.

The battlefield is designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1921 and is the last battle fought in the province of Ontario against a foreign invasion. The action at Ridgeway has the distinction of being the only armed victory for the cause of Irish independence between the Irish Rebellion of 1798 and the Irish War of Independence (1919).

(Pictured: An 1869 illustration of the battle: Charge of General O’Neill’s Fenians upon the Canadian troops, causing their rout.)

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Birth of Civil War Officer John O’Neill

john-oneillJohn Charles O’Neill, Irish-born officer in the American Civil War and member of the Fenian Brotherhood, is born on March 9, 1834 in Drumgallon, Clontibret, County Monaghan. He is best known for his activities leading the Fenian raids on Canada in 1866 and 1871.

O’Neill receives some schooling in Drumgallon. He emigrates to New Jersey in 1848 at the height of the Great Famine in Ireland. He receives an additional year of education there and works in a number of jobs. In 1857 he enlists in the 2nd United States Dragoons and serves in the Utah War (May 1857 – July 1858), apparently deserting afterwards to California.

In California, he joins the 1st Cavalry and serves as a sergeant in the American Civil War with this regiment until December 1862, at which time he is commissioned as an officer in the 5th Indiana Cavalry. He is credited as being a daring fighting officer, but believes he has not received due promotion, which leads to a transfer to the 17th United States Colored Infantry as captain. He leaves the Union Army prior to the end of the conflict, marrying Mary Crow, with whom he has several children.

While in Tennessee, O’Neill joins the militant Irish American movement, the Fenian Brotherhood, which eschews politics in favor of militant action to expel the British presence in Ireland. He attaches himself to the group led by William Randall Roberts, who wishes to attack Canada.

O’Neill, ranked as colonel, travels to the Canada–US border with a group from Nashville to participate in the Fenian raids. The assigned commander of the expedition does not appear, so O’Neill takes command. On June 1, 1866, he leads a group of six hundred men across the Niagara River and occupies Fort Erie.

The following day, north of Ridgeway, Ontario, O’Neill’s group encounters a detached column of Canadian volunteers, commanded by Lt-Col. Alfred Booker. The inexperienced Canadians are routed by the Civil War veterans. O’Neill withdraws back to Fort Erie and fights a battle against a detachment led by John Stoughton Dennis. With overwhelming numbers of Canadian forces closing in, O’Neill oversees a successful evacuation on the night of June 2-3 back to United States territory. He is later charged with violating the neutrality laws of the United States but the charges are later dropped.

The penetration of O’Neill’s organisation by British and Canadian spies ensures that his next venture into Canada, the Battle of Eccles Hill, in 1870 is known in advance, and Canada is accordingly prepared. After the Battle of Trout River ends in a disorganized rout, O’Neill is arrested by United States Marshal George P. Foster and charged with violating neutrality laws. He is sentenced to two years in prison in July 1870 but he and other Fenians are pardoned by President Ulysses S. Grant that October.

Though he renounces the idea of further attacks on Canada, he changes his mind at the urging of an associate of Louis Riel, William Bernard O’Donoghue. With the latter, and without the backing of the bulk of the Fenians, he leads an attack on the Hudson’s Bay Company‘s post at Pembina, Manitoba, on October 5, 1871. The area is then disputed between America and Canada. He is arrested by American troops.

In 1874 O’Neill embarks on a lecture tour along the east coast, encouraging the poor Irish that they would have a better standard of living if they would resettle with him in Nebraska. The first Irish colony in Nebraska is set up in Holt County in the town that bears his name today – O’Neill, Nebraska. His legacy is in the communities that exist in Nebraska today. These settlements are thriving and successful farming communities. John O’Neill can claim credit for the spirit of generosity that is still part of these communities today.

In 1877, while on a speaking tour in Little Rock, Arkansas, O’Neill becomes ill and returns to his home in Nebraska. His condition continues to deteriorate and, after been admitted to St. Joseph’s Hospital Omaha in November 1877, suffers a paralytic stroke and dies on January 8, 1878.


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Death of General John Charles O’Neill

general-john-oneillJohn Charles O’Neill, Irish-born officer in the American Civil War and member of the Fenian Brotherhood, dies on January 7, 1878. He is best known for his activities leading the Fenian raids on Canada in 1866 and 1871.

O’Neill is born on March 9, 1834, in Drumgallon, Clontibret, County Monaghan, where he receives some schooling. He emigrates to New Jersey in 1848 at the height of the Great Famine. He receives an additional year of education there and works various jobs. In 1857 he enlists in the 2nd United States Dragoons and serves in the Utah War (May 1857 – July 1858), apparently deserting afterwards to California.

In California, O’Neill joins the 1st Cavalry, and serves as a sergeant in the American Civil War with this regiment until December 1862, at which time he is commissioned as an officer in the 5th Indiana Cavalry. He is credited as being a daring fighting officer but believes he has not received due promotion, which leads to a transfer to the 17th United States Colored Infantry as captain. He leaves the Union Army prior to the end of the conflict, marrying Mary Crow, with whom he has several children.

While in Tennessee, O’Neill joins the militant Irish-American movement, the Fenian Brotherhood, which eschews politics in favor of militant action to expel the British presence in Ireland. He attaches himself to the group led by William Randall Roberts, who wishes to attack Canada.

O’Neill, ranked as colonel, travels to the Canada–US border with a group from Nashville to participate in the Fenian raids. The assigned commander of the expedition does not appear, so O’Neill takes command. On June 1, 1866, he leads a group of six hundred men across the Niagara River and occupies Fort Erie.

The following day, north of Ridgeway, Ontario, O’Neill’s group encounters a detached column of Canadian volunteers, commanded by Lt-Col. Alfred Booker. The inexperienced Canadians are routed by the Civil War veterans. O’Neill withdraws back to Fort Erie and fights a battle against a detachment led by John Stoughton Dennis. With overwhelming numbers of Canadian forces closing in, O’Neill oversees a successful evacuation on the night of June 2-3 back to United States territory. He is later charged with violating the neutrality laws of the United States, but the charge is dropped.

The split between two factions of the Fenians remain, and penetration of O’Neill’s organisation by British and Canadian spies ensures that his next venture into Canada in 1870 is known in advance, and Canada is accordingly prepared. After the Battle of Trout River ends in a disorganized rout, O’Neill is arrested by United States Marshal George P. Foster and charged with violating neutrality laws. That leads to O’Neill’s imprisonment in July 1870 with a sentence of two years, but he and other Fenians are pardoned by President Ulysses S. Grant that October.

Though O’Neill renounces the idea of further attacks on Canada, he changes his mind at the urging of an associate of Louis Riel, William Bernard O’Donoghue. With the latter, and without the backing of the bulk of the Fenians, he leads an attack on the Hudson’s Bay Company‘s post at Pembina, Manitoba, on October 5, 1871. The area is then disputed between America and Canada. He is arrested by American troops.

Following his military career, O’Neill works for a firm of land speculators in Holt County, Nebraska. He dies of a paralytic stroke on January 7, 1878, and is buried in Omaha, Nebraska.