This Week in History
Battle of Ridgeway
For the week of Monday, May 30, 2016
On June 2, 1866, the Battle of Ridgeway was fought between Canadian militia and a Fenian raiding force on Limestone Ridge, near the village of Ridgeway in the southern part of the Niagara Peninsula, Ont. The 840 Canadian defenders were mostly under-trained volunteers from the Queen’s Own Rifles, 13th Battalion, and the York and Caledonian Rifle Companies. They engaged a force of between 500 and 800 Fenian raiders from the United States, many of whom were veterans of the Civil War, led by Lieutenant-Colonel John O’Neill.
The Fenian Brotherhood was formed in Ireland in 1858, with the objective of liberating Ireland from British rule and establishing an Irish Republic. The American branch of the Brotherhood was formed under Irish immigrant John O’Mahony. In autumn 1865, the Fenians organized an army and prepared for an invasion of British North America. The plan was to capture the British North American territories and hold them hostage until Britain withdrew from Ireland. The first raid occurred in 1866 at Campobello Island, New Brunswick. The initial response of the American government to these raids was mixed. Officially, the raids were a violation of the Neutrality Act and many Fenians were arrested for their role in the raids. Unofficially, many Americans were sympathetic to the Fenians and most raiders who were arrested were released without charges.
Beginning in the fall of 1865, rumours persisted in Toronto about an impending Fenian invasion. The militia was made aware of the situation and placed at a high state of readiness. On May 31, 1866, John A. Macdonald ordered troops to proceed to Port Colborne. Lieutenant Colonel Alfred Booker commanded the force. He was a militia officer, but held no battle experience.
On June 1, 1866, residents of Fort Erie woke to the sight of Fenian raiders who had hired boats to cross the Niagara River. The Fenians came with extra uniforms and arms for the new recruits that they expected to find. They were astonished when no Canadians joined them! The Fenian leader demanded food and horses from the locals and offered Fenian bonds in return. The bonds were rejected.
At 7:30 a.m. on June 2, 1866, the two sides skirmished for two hours. The Fenians were initially driven back. The Canadians’ lack of experience took its toll, however, when a group of mounted Fenian scouts were mistaken for cavalry and, in the resulting manoeuvres, the Canadian line became disorganized. When a military bugler sounded withdrawal the militia retreated in confusion. The Fenians pressed forward and 37 Canadians were injured, with nine fatalities. The Fenians pursued as far as Ridgeway where they turned back for fear of being cut off by the larger British force marching toward them from the north. They were back in the United States on the morning of June 3rd. The raids continued for another five years but the Canadian militia had learned many lessons from Ridgeway and every subsequent raid ended with Canadian victory. The movement collapsed in 1871 without having conquered British North America.
The year 2016 marks the 150th anniversary of the Fenian Raids. The Battle of Ridgeway has been designated a National Historic Site because the threat of the Fenians was a major factor in the formation of Canada. The raids increased patriotism, forced Canadian militias to become more professional, and caused many Canadians to consider the value of uniting British North America under a single government. These factors were important to the success of Confederation in 1867.
To learn more about Canadian nationalism and identity, read Goldwin Smith asks, “Should the United States annex Canada?”, and A Collision of Orange and Green. For more on Confederation, see Dream of a Nation, A Murder on Sparks Street, and Canada’s First Election in the This Week in History archives.
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