The Abrogation of
Reciprocity Treaty—The Fenian Brotherhood— O'Neil invades Canada from
Buffalo, June 1st—The Fight at Ridge way—Fenians threaten Prescott and
Cornwall—"General" Spear crosses the frontier of Lower Canada—He is
promptly repulsed, June 8th—Last Parliament of "Old Canada" meets at
Ottawa, June 8th—It revises the Tariff and prepares for Confederation.
Tub reciprocity treaty
between the United States and Canada was now approaching the period of
its expiration by effluxion of time. It had been of immense commercial
advantage to both countries. Under its provisions the international
trade had grown to the enormous value of seventy million dollars
annually. The United States Government, however, refused to grant its
renewal except/ under conditions highly disadvantageous to Canada. The
Canadian ministry were willing to make considerable concessions to the
United States, and even to accept legislative reciprocity if the
continuance of the treaty could not be secured. The exigencies of the
American Government, and the delusion on the part of at least some
members of Congress, that Canada could be thus coerced into annexation
with the United States, however, overrode every effort for the
continuance of the treaty. The vast indebtedness incurred by the war led
to the adoption of a high customs tariff for revenue purposes,
afterwards increased for the protection of the manufacturing interests.
The suspension of the
treaty, however, was not so disastrous in its effects as was
anticipated; and there were many counterbalancing advantages to the
country resulting from its interruption. It greatly stimulated the
development of Canadian manufactures and the growth of foreign and
intercolonial commerce, and aided the scheme of confederation. Instead
of promoting annexation, the abrogation of the treaty had precisely the
opposite effect. It opened new avenues of trade and industry, and
convinced the Canadians of their ability to prosper without depending so
largely on commercial intercourse with the United States; it also
fostered a spirit of patriotism and nationality.
This spirit was still
further promoted by contemporaneous events. The hostile demonstrations
of the Fenian brotherhood caused considerable alarm along the frontier,
and provoked just indignation against United States officials who, for
political purposes, favoured this infamous organization, and pandered to
the unreasoning prejudices and antipathies of its members.
The ostensible object
of this armed conspiracy was the liberation of Ireland from English
rule, and the avenging of its ancient wrongs. As a means to that end,
although the relevancy is not very apparent, the conquest of Canada was
proposed, and multitudes of infatuated "patriots" contributed large
amounts of money and formed local organizations in the chief American
cities and frontier towns. Gangs of reckless desperadoes, created by the
civil war, and even some leaders of higher rank and of considerable
military skill and experience, joined the lawless movement. The arms,
equipments, and military stores of the disbanded United States armies
being thrown upon the market, large quantities were purchased at a low
rate and stored at points convenient for the invasion of Canada.
The plan of operations
of the Fenian brotherhood was twofold. The first scheme proposed a
combined attack, at several points of the frontier, on Canada, where, it
was asserted, the' Irish " patriots" had many sympathizers. The other
and still more insane plan contemplated* a direct attack upon Ireland.
The former was promoted by " President" Roberts and "General" Sweeney;
the latter by a rival section of the brotherhood, under the leadership
of "Head Centre" Stephens and "Colonel" O'Mahony.
Saint Patrick's day,
the 17th of March, was announced as the date of the menaced invasion.
The Canadian Government replied to the threat by calling out ten
thousand volunteers. In four and twenty hours fourteen thousand sprang
to arms for the defence of the country.
Saint Patrick's day,
however, passed without any disturbance of the peace. By the middle of
May, the invasion having seemingly exhausted itself in futile threats, a
considerable proportion of the volunteer force were withdrawn from the
frontier and allowed to return to their homes. But secret preparations
were being made for a number of simultaneous attacks on Canada. One
expedition from Detroit, Chicago, and other western cities, was directed
against the Lake Huron frontier; another, from Buffalo and Rochester,
was to cross the Niagara River; a third, from New York and the eastern
cities, was to cross the St. Lawrence at. Ogdensburg, sever the
communication between the eastern and western portions of the country at
Prescott, and menace the seat of government at Ottawa. Meanwhile the
right wing of the invading force was to harass and plunder the frontier
settlements of the Eastern Townships. The result of these grand schemes
was singularly incommensurate with their magnitude.
The main attack was on
the Niagara frontier. The city of Buffalo swarmed with lawless ruffians,
and before daylight on Friday, June 1st, some fourteen hundred of them,
under the command of " General" O'Neil, crossed from Black Rock and took
possession of the village of Fort Erie. O'Neil was, however, utterly
disappointed in any Canadian demonstration of sympathy, if such were
expected. During the night, leaving a guard at Fort Erie to cover his
retreat, he advanced ten miles south-westward towards the Welland Canal,
probably with the intention of destroying the locks and cutting the
railway. He halted under cover of some woods near the village of
Ridgeway, and threw up a slight breastwork of logs and rails.
Meanwhile the tidings
of invasion aroused the country. The volunteers rushed to arms, and
active preparations were made for the repulse of the enemy. The citizen
soldiers of Toronto, Hamilton, and other places near the scene of
action, promptly mustered in force, and were despatched by train or
steamer to the appointed places of rendezvous. The Queen's Own Rifle
Brigade—a Toronto volunteer corps —the Thirteenth Battalion of Hamilton,
and the York and Caledonia volunteers, under command of Colonel Booker,
concentrated on Friday evening, June 1st, at Port Colborne, at the Lake
Erie entrance to the Welland Canal.
Colonel Peacock, with a
thousand volunteers and seven hundred and fifty regulars, with a battery
of artillery, took post, late the same night, at the historic village of
Chippewa, near the Falls of Niagara.
Early on Saturday
morning Colonel Booker's force, ignorant of O'Neil's whereabouts, were
conveyed by train to Ridgeway, and thence advanced towards Limeridge,
with the intention of joining Peacock's command. About eight o'clock
they discovered the enemy securely posted among the trees on a rising
ground. The volunteers pressed the enemy steadily back for more than a
mile under a heavy fire. Some mounted Fenians now came in sight, and
under the apprehension that a force of cavalry was at hand, the order
was given to form squares. The skirmishers, having exhausted their
ammunition, also retired on their supports. This double movement threw
the volunteer troops into confusion, soon converted into a retreat,
which, however, was gallantly covered by the Queen's Own and the
Thirteenth Battalion, who kept up a steady fire on the advancing enemy.
In -this disastrous affair seven Toronto volunteers were killed. The
Fenians at once retreated on Fort Erie.
meanwhile had occupied the village of Fort Erie with a force of seventy
men, conveyed in a tugboat from Port Colborne, and had captured the
Fenian guard of sixty men. These he confined on board the tugboat, which
was employed to patrol the river and prevent the arrival of Fenian
Colonel Dennis' handful
of men was in turn overpowered by O'Neil's command, more than tenfold
his number, which had now returned. It captured forty and wounded
thirteen of the volunteers, but not till the latter had inflicted a loss
of five killed and several wounded on the enemy.
O'Neil was now anxious,
with his misguided dupes, to escape, however ignominiously, from the
country he had so wantonly invaded. He therefore, during the darkness,
stole across the river with the bulk of his force in canal boats, tugs,
skiffs, and every available means of transport. His own pickets, and all
his Canadian prisoners, were left behind. On Sunday morning Colonel
Peacock's advance guard marched into Fort Erie, but only in time to
capture a number of Fenian stragglers.
That Sabbath day was
one of unwonted excitement throughout Canada. In many of the churches
bulletins announcing the names of the killed and wounded were read from
the pulpits. Towards evening the city of Toronto was moved by a common
sorrow as it never was moved before, as the bodies of her slaughtered
sons were received in silence by an immense concourse of people. Two
days later they were borne, amid the mourning of a multitude, to their
The country was now
thoroughly aroused. The volunteers were called out in force, and were
massed at convenient centres from which to move to whatever point seemed
menaced with attack. At the military depots long railway trains, laden
with batteries of artillery, and with shot, shell and other war
materiel, stood on the sidings awaiting, with steam up, the summons to
the point of danger. Hundreds of Canadian youth employed in the United
States threw up their engagements, and hastened home to defend their
Several points on the
frontier were threatened with invasion. A large body of Fenians
assembled at Ogdensburg, as if for a dash across the St. Lawrence and a
raid upon the capital. But regular and volunteer troops, rapidly massed
at Prescott, and a gunboat which patrolled the river, effectually
prevented an attack.
The would-be invaders
now moved eastward to Malone, opposite Cornwall; but a force of three
thousand Canadian troops at the latter point made them prudently desist
from their designs. The spirited remonstrance of the British minister at
Washington compelled the United States Government at length to interfere
and restrain this wanton violation of international right and comity.
General Meade, an able and honest United States officer, seized a large
quantity of Fenian arms, ammunition and military stores at Ogdensburg,
and effectually paralyzed the movements of the marauders.
On the 8th of June,
however, "General" Spear, with some two thousand Fenian ruffians,
crossed the frontier near St. Alban's, and took up a position three
miles from the border. They forthwith began to plunder and ravage the
neighbourhood, but the prompt rally of the Canadian forces compelled
them to retreat precipitately to the sheltering territory of the United
States, where they were disarmed and dispersed by General Meade.
So ended in ignominy
and disgrace to all its actors, aiders and abettors, the wanton and
unprovoked Fenian invasion of Canada. The result was not an unmixed
evil. The expense to the country of the transport and maintenance of
troops—of whom forty thousand volunteers alone were at one time, under
arms—and the cost of guarding its extensive frontier, was great. The
sacrifice of precious lives was irreparable and lamentable; but the glow
of patriotic enthusiasm which was kindled in the hearts of the people
made the country realize its strength, and developed a national feeling
that was a guarantee of its ability to assume the new and important
national duties to which it was about to be summoned.
On the same day that
the gallant Hochelaga Voltigeurs were repelling invasion from the
eastern frontier (June 8th), the Legislature of the country was opened
in the new parliament buildings at Ottawa. Resolutions were passed
defining the constitutions of Upper and Lower Canada, in furtherance of
the scheme of confederation; and on the 18th of August, the last
Parliament of the old Canadian provinces was prorogued.