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An Abridged History of Canada
Chapter XXXVI.—The Fenian Invasion -1866


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.

Colonel Dennis 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 reinforcements.

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 early graves.

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 native land.

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.


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