The Fenian Brotherhood was founded in the US in 1858, based on the idea that Ireland should be free of English rule to become an independent, self-governing Republic. The Brotherhood traced its lineage back to 1758. By 1866, much if not most of the membership were battle hardened veterans of the Civil War, ended only a year earlier.
Fenians invaded Canada no fewer than five times between 1866 and 1871. The idea was to bring pressure on Britain to withdraw from Ireland, so these attacks were directed toward British army forts, customs posts and other targets in Canada.
Irish Canadian Catholics were divided by the raids, with many feeling torn between loyalty to their new home and sympathy for the Fenians’ objectives. Canadian-Irish Protestants and French Catholics were generally loyal to the crown, and many took up arms against the raiders.
700 Fenians headed north to Campobello Island, New Brunswick in April 1866, intending to seize the island. The war party became discouraged and dispersed after a show of force by the British Navy at Passamaquoddy Bay, but they would be back.
Next, a group of 1,000 to 1,300 Fenians sabotaged the US Navy side-wheeler gunboat USS Michigan, and slipped across the Canadian border at the Niagara River on June 1. A Fenian ambush west of Ft. Erie led to the Battle of Ridgeway, in which 13 Canadian Militia were killed. 94 were wounded or incapacitated by disease.
Further fighting took place the following day, in which the Canadian Militia’s inexperience led to battlefield confusion. A number were taken prisoner. Realizing that they couldn’t hold their position, the Fenians released their prisoners and withdrew to Buffalo on the 3rd, but again they would be back.
This seems to have been the high water mark of the Fenian uprising. President Andrew Johnson began to crack down, dispatching Generals Ulysses Grant and George Meade to Buffalo to assess the situation. Their orders on the 7th of June were to arrest anyone who even looked like a Fenian.
The Fenian “army of liberation” may have had little effect on Irish Independence, but it served to fire up Canadian Nationalism. Canada was more properly called “British North America” in those days. It seems that the Fenian raids tipped many of the more reluctant votes toward the security of nationhood, particularly in the Maritime provinces. Historians will tell you that Ridgeway is “the battle that made Canada.” The Canadian Confederation was formed in 1867, uniting Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ontario and Quebec into one Dominion of Canada.
There would be several more Fenians raids in the years that followed, from Pigeon Hill and Mississquoi County in modern day Quebec, to the 1870 Pembina raid in the Dakota territory.
US authorities ultimately arrested the men and confiscated their arms, but many felt that the government had turned a blind eye to the invasions, seeing them as payback for British assistance to the Confederacy during the late Civil War.
The Fenian Brotherhood was a nation within a nation, organized for the purpose of winning Irish independence by force. A member of the British House of Commons rightly called them “a new Irish nation on the other side of the Atlantic, recast in the mould of Democracy, watching for an opportunity to strike a blow at the heart of the British Empire.”
In modern times, scores of self-styled ‘Militia’ have adopted the use of military style drill in this country, from the far-left Los Macheteros and Black Panthers, to Posse Comitatus and the far-right militia units of the nineties. Yet, I believe it is accurate to say, the Fenian Brotherhood remains the only organization in United States history, to have publicly armed and drilled on this scale.
“We are the Fenian Brotherhood, skilled in the arts of war,
And we’re going to fight for Ireland, the land we adore,
Many battles we have won, along with the boys in blue,
And we’ll go and capture Canada, for we’ve nothing else to do”.
Fenian soldier’s song