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Preliminary Operations of the Fenian Forces Near Fort Erie

The Landing in Canada--Preliminary Operations of the Fenian Forces Near Fort Erie--Advance into the Interior.

About half-past three o'clock on the morning of June 1st the peaceful shores of Canada were reached by the invaders. The embarkation was made at Pratt's Iron Furnace Dock on the American side, and the landing took place at what was then known as the Lower Ferry Dock, about a mile below the village of Fort Erie. Just as the boats struck the shore, the color-bearers of Col. Owen Starr's 17th Kentucky Regiment sprang on to Canadian soil and unfurled their Irish flags amid terrific cheering by the Fenian troops. This was the first intimation that the people of the quiet vicinity received that an invasion had actually occurred, and it was a terrible awakening from peaceful slumber to most of them. There were no Canadian troops whatever within 25 miles of Fort Erie, and the invaders had it all their own way. The war material was quickly unloaded from the canal boats, and Gen. O'Neil at once began making dispositions of his force to hold his ground. The total number of troops that came over by the first boats was stated to be 1,340, with 2,500 stand of arms. This force was rapidly augmented during the day by reinforcements, so that by evening the strength of the Fenian army in Canada amounted to about 2,000 men.

After posting guards and throwing out pickets in various directions, Gen. O'Neil marched up to the village of Fort Erie with the main portion of his brigade, which he occupied without resistance. He then made requisition on the village authorities for meals for his men. He stated that he would do no personal injury to private citizens, but wanted food and horses, and these he proposed to take forcibly if they were not furnished willingly. Dr. Kempson, the Reeve of the village, in order to protect the citizens and prevent pillage, at once called a meeting of the Municipal Council, who decided to provide the food demanded. In some cases Fenian bonds were offered in payment for articles, but were not acceptable to the Canadian people, and were courteously and firmly refused.

Immediately after breakfast had been served and rations distributed, Gen. O'Neil made details of troops for various purposes. Guards were posted all along the river front, from the ruins of old Fort Erie to a point below Haggart's Dock, who were instructed to shoot any person who attempted to interfere with them. Detachments were sent to cut the telegraph wires and destroy part of the Buffalo and Lake Huron railway track (now the Grand Trunk), which was quickly done. A detail under command of Capt. Geary, of the 17th Kentucky Regiment, was despatched to burn Sauerwine's Bridge, on the railway track between Fort Erie and Ridgeway, and tear up the rails. This was only partially accomplished, as after the Fenians left some of the people residing in the vicinity rallied and extinguished the flames in the burning bridge before much serious damage was done. The railway track, however, was torn up for a considerable distance by the raiders.

An early morning train on the B. & L. H. Railway narrowly escaped capture by a detail of troops sent for that purpose. The train had just succeeded in transferring its passengers to the ferry boat "International" and was starting back westward empty, when the Fenians put in their appearance. The plucky engineer, seeing the danger, pulled the throttle of his engine wide open and saved the train from capture by a narrow margin.

After committing sundry other depredations in the way of cutting telegraph wires and destroying public property. Gen. O'Neil marched the main body of his troops down, the River Road to Frenchman's Creek, where they encamped in an orchard on Newbigging's Farm, about half, a mile north of the Lower Ferry. Here the Fenians began work on the construction of a line of breastworks and entrenchments, which kept them busily employed all afternoon.

A detachment of the 7th Buffalo Regiment, under command of Capt. Donohue, made a reconnaissance in the direction of Chippawa during the afternoon, and after discovering a party of mounted farmers, who they mistook for Canadian cavalry, fired a volley at them without effect and then retreated valiantly back to the Fenian camp, bombastically boasting that they had routed a strong force of British troops.

Other details had been busy seizing horses and food supplies, and mounted scouts galloped for miles in all directions, scouring the country seeking information as to the whereabouts of the Canadian forces, and at the same time distributing copies of the following proclamation:--

"To the People of British America:

"We come among you as the foes of British rule in Ireland, We have taken up the sword to strike down the oppressors' rod, to deliver Ireland from the tyrant, the despoiler, the robber. We have registered our oaths upon the altar of our country in the full view of heaven and sent up our vows to the throne of Him who inspired them. Then, looking about us for an enemy, we find him here, here in your midst, where he is most vulnerable and convenient to our strength... We have no issue with the people of these Provinces, and wish to have none but the most friendly relations. Our weapons are for the oppressors of Ireland. Our bows shall be directed only against the power of England; her privileges alone shall we invade, not yours. We do not propose to divest you of a solitary right you now enjoy... We are here neither as murderers, nor robbers, for plunder and spoliation. We are here as the Irish army of liberation, the friends of liberty against despotism, of democracy against aristocracy, of the people against their oppressors. In a word, our war is with the armed power of England, not with the people, not with these Provinces. Against England, upon land and sea, till Ireland is free... To Irishmen throughout these Provinces we appeal in the name of seven centuries of British iniquity and Irish misery and suffering, in the names of our murdered sires, our desolate homes, our desecrated altars, our million of famine graves, our insulted name and race--to stretch forth the hand of brotherhood in the holy cause of fatherland, and smite the tyrant where we can. We conjure you, our countrymen, who from misfortune inflicted by the very tyranny you are serving, or from any other cause, have been forced to enter the ranks of the enemy, not to be willing instruments of your country's death or degradation. No uniform, and surely not the blood-dyed coat of England, can emancipate you from the natural law that binds your allegiance to Ireland, to liberty, to right, to justice. To the friends of Ireland, of freedom, of humanity, of the people, we offer the olive branch of peace and the honest grasp of friendship. Take it Irishmen, Frenchmen, American, take it all and trust it... We wish to meet with friends; we are prepared to meet with enemies. We shall endeavor to merit the confidence of the former, and the latter can expect from us but the leniency of a determined though generous foe and the restraints and relations imposed by civilized warfare.

"(Signed) T. W. Sweeny.

"Major-General Commanding the Armies of Ireland."

During the afternoon and evening there was considerable excitement and uneasiness in the Fenian camp, caused by rumors of the near approach of the Canadian troops, and officers and men steadily prepared for any emergency. Gen. O'Neil had been expecting heavy reinforcements all day, but they failed to appear, although it was estimated that there were over 10,000 Fenians then assembled in Buffalo and vicinity, with a plentiful supply of arms and ammunition. A few came over in rowboats as evening approached, but the large forces that were expected remained on the other side, cautiously awaiting developments.

It was the evident intention of the Fenian army to penetrate the country and capture and destroy the Welland Canal, and subsequent events confirmed that as part of their plan of campaign.

As the shades of night fell, strong guards were posted around the Fenian camp, and the roads leading thereto were effectively picketed. From reports brought in by his scouts and spies, Gen. O'Neil learned that two Canadian columns were being mobilized--one at Chippawa and the other at Port Colborne--and he resolved to make a quick dash on one of these before a junction could be effected between the two, counting upon a surprise and the prestige of his men as veteran soldiers to win a victory. A council of war was therefore held by O'Neil and his officers, and it was resolved to make an advance immediately.

About 10 o'clock that night the men were aroused and commanded to "fall in" for the movement forward. A large quantity of arms and ammunition which had been brought over for the use of the expected reinforcements was now found to be an impediment, and O'Neil decided to destroy them to prevent their falling into the hands of the Canadians. Consequently hundreds of rifles and other munitions of war were burned or thrown into Frenchman's Creek before leaving their camp.

The Fenian column then started down the River Road towards Black Creek. On arrival at a point near that stream they bivouacked by the roadside and awaited reports of scouts. It was here that Gen. O'Neil learned that a force of Canadian volunteers would leave Port Colborne for Ridgeway early on the morning of June 2nd, and he decided to go forward and attack them. It was just about daybreak that he put his brigade in motion and moved west by an old bush road until he struck the Ridge Road, which bears south-west from the river to Ridgeway. As they marched along the latter highway in the early hours of a bright, beautiful morning, the Fenians were in fine fettle and "spoiling for a fight." They had some mounted scouts in advance, cautiously feeling the way. When within a few miles of Ridgeway Station this advance guard heard the whistle of a locomotive, and soon after bugle calls, which signified the arrival of the Canadian troops. The scouts galloped back to O'Neil with the information, and he at once halted his brigade, closed up his column, and began making preparations for battle.

Gen. O'Neil's experience in the military campaigns of the Civil War had taught him many useful lessons, which he had evidently profited by, as his choice of a battleground on Limestone Ridge was admirable, and the skilful disposition he made of his forces was commensurate with the ability of a high-class tactician.

Limestone Ridge, along which the so-called "Ridge Road" runs, has an elevation of about 35 feet over the surrounding country, and at the point where O'Neil took up his main position is about half a mile wide, with patches of bush and clumps of trees alternating with open fields. On both sides the country is comparatively cleared, so that an extensive view is obtainable from the summit of the ridge, which was of decided advantage to O'Neil, as he could watch the approach of advancing troops from almost any direction. Here he posted his brigade and hastily began the construction of breastworks and barricades of fence rails and earth. A force of sharpshooters and skirmishers were thrown out well to the front and along the flanks of this position, and after all dispositions for battle had been carefully made, Gen. O'Neil coolly awaited the arrival of the Canadian troops, who were advancing from Ridgeway totally ignorant of the fact that there was a lion in their path.

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Troublous Times in Canada, A History of the Fenian Raids of 1866 and 1870

Fenian Raids of 1866 - 1870


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