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Niagara Raid (Battles of Ridgeway and Fort Erie) (1866)

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Niagara Raid (Battles of Ridgeway and Fort Erie) (1866)

The Fenians now split into two factions. The original faction led by Fenian founders James Stephens and John O'Mahony focused more on fundraising for rebels in Ireland. The more militant "senate faction" led by William R. Roberts believed that even a marginally successful invasion of the Province of Canada or other parts of British North America would provide them with leverage in their efforts. After the failure of the April attempt to raid New Brunswick, which had been blessed by O'Mahony, the senate faction implemented their own plan for invading Canada. Drafted by the senate "Secretary for War" General T. W. Sweeny, a distinguished former Union Army officer, the plan called for multiple invasions at points in Canada West (now southern Ontario) and Canada East (now southern Quebec) intended to cut Canada West off from Canada East and possible British reinforcements from there. Key to the plan was a diversionary attack at Fort Erie from Buffalo, New York, meant to draw troops away from Toronto in a feigned strike at the nearby Welland Canal system. This would be the only Fenian attack, other than the Quebec raid several days later, that would be launched in June 1866.

Approximately 1000 to 1,300 Fenians crossed the Niagara River in the first 14 hours of June 1 under Colonel John O'Neill. Sabotaged by Fenians in its crew, the U.S. Navy's side-wheel gunboat USS Michigan did not begin intercepting Fenian reinforcements until 2:15 p.m. — fourteen hours after Owen Starr's advance party had crossed the river ahead of O'Neill's main force. Once the USS Michigan was deployed, O'Neill's force in the Niagara Region was cut off from further supplies and reinforcements.

After assembling with other units from the province and travelling all night, the Canadians advanced into a well-laid ambush (Battle of Ridgeway) by approximately 600-700 Fenians the next morning north of Ridgeway, a small hamlet west of Fort Erie. (The Fenian strength at Ridgeway had been reduced by desertions and deployments of Fenians in other locations in the area overnight.)

The Canadian militia consisted of inexperienced volunteers with no more than basic drill training but armed with Enfield rifled muskets equal to the armaments of the Fenians. A single company of the Queen's Own Rifles of Toronto had been armed the day before on their ferry crossing from Toronto with state-of-the-art 7-shot Spencer repeating rifles, but had not had an opportunity to practise with them and were issued with only 28 rounds per man. The Fenians were mostly battle-hardened American Civil War veterans, armed with weapons procured from leftover war supplies, either Enfield rifled muskets or the comparable Springfield.

The opposing forces exchanged volleys for about two hours, before a series of command errors threw the Canadians into confusion. The Fenians took advantage of it by launching a bayonet charge that broke the inexperienced Canadian ranks. Seven Canadians were killed on the battlefield, two died shortly afterwards from wounds, and four would later die of wounds or disease while on service; ninety-four more were wounded or disabled by disease. Eight Fenians were killed and sixteen wounded.

After the battle, the Canadians retreated to Port Colborne, at the Lake Erie end of the Welland Canal. The Fenians rested briefly at Ridgeway, before returning to Fort Erie. Another encounter followed that saw several Canadians severely wounded and the surrender of a large group of local Canadian militia who had moved into the Fenian rear. After considering the inability of reinforcements to cross the river and the approach of large numbers of both militia and British regulars, the remaining Fenians released the Canadian prisoners and returned to Buffalo early in the morning of June 3. They were intercepted by the gunboat Michigan and surrendered to the American navy.

Until recently it was alleged that the turning point in the battle was when Fenian cavalry was erroneously reported and the Canadian militia ordered to form square, the standard tactic for infantry to repel cavalry. When the mistake was recognized, an attempt was made to reform in column; being too close to the Fenian lines, it failed. In his recent new history of Ridgeway, however, historian Peter Vronsky argues the explanation was not as simple as that. Prior to the formation of the square, confusion had already broken out when a unit of the Queen's Own Rifles mistook three arriving companies of redcoat Hamilton 13th Battalion for British troops. When the Queen's Own Rifles began retiring to give the field to what they thought were British units, the 13th Battalion mistook this for a retreat, and began withdrawing themselves. At this moment that the infamous "form square" order was given, completing the debacle that was unfolding on the field.

A board of inquiry determined that allegations over the alleged misconduct of Lieutenant-Colonel Alfred Booker (13th Battalion), on whom command of Canadian volunteers had devolved, had "not the slightest foundation for the unfavourable imputations cast upon him in the public prints". Nevertheless, the charges dogged Booker for the rest of his life.

A second board of inquiry into the battle at Fort Erie exonerated Lieutenant-Colonel J. Stoughton Dennis, Brigade Major of the Fifth Military District, although the President of the Board of Inquiry, Colonel George T. Denison, differed from his colleagues on several key points.

Five days after the start of the invasion, U. S. President Andrew Johnson issued a proclamation requiring enforcement of the neutrality laws, guaranteeing the Fenian invasion could not continue. Generals Ulysses S. Grant and General George Meade went to Buffalo, New York to inspect the situation. Following instructions from Grant, Meade issued strict orders to prevent anyone from violating the border. Grant then proceeded to St. Louis. Meade, finding that the battles were over and the Fenian army interned in Buffalo, went to Ogdensburg, New York, to oversee the situation in the St. Lawrence River area. The U.S. Army was then instructed to seize all Fenian weapons and ammunition and prevent more border crossings. Further instructions on 7 June 1866 were to arrest anyone who appeared to be a Fenian.

Ironically, though they did nothing to advance the cause of Irish independence, the 1866 Fenian raids and the inept efforts of the Canadian militia to repulse them helped to galvanize support for the Confederation of Canada in 1867. Some historians have argued that the affair tipped the final votes of reluctant Maritime provinces in favour of the collective security of nationhood, making Ridgeway the “battle that made Canada.”

In June 2006 Ontario’s heritage agency dedicated a plaque at Ridgeway on the commemoration of the 140th anniversary of the battle. Many members of today's Canadian army regiment, The Queen's Own Rifles of Canada, return to the Ridgeway battle site each year on the weekend closest to the June 2 anniversary for a bicycle tour of the battle sites.

Alexander Muir, a Scottish immigrant, author of the "The Maple Leaf Forever" and member of the Orange Order, fought at Ridgeway with the Queen's Own Rifles.

A Fenian commander was Brigadier General Thomas William Sweeny, who was arrested by the United States government for violating American neutrality. Nevertheless, he was soon released and served in the Regular Army until he retired in 1870.

The total casualty figures for the Fenian Raids into Canada 1866, including deaths from disease while on service in both Canada West (Ontario) and Canada East (Quebec), were calculated by the Militia Department in 1868 as 31 dead and 103 wounded or struck by disease (including a female civilian accidentally shot by the militia.)