We are the Fenian Brotherhood, skilled in the arts of war, And we’re going to fight for Ireland, the land we adore, Many battles we have won, along with the boys in blue, And we’ll go and capture Canada, for we’ve nothing else to do. ~ Fenian soldier’s song
I first learnt of the Fenian Raids while researching my father’s family. His ancestors lived on the South Shore of Nova Scotia. A few members were ‘on call’, ready to be mustered in case of an attack on home soil. Through my genealogy research, I’ve learnt more about the raids and their threat to Canada. This threat, if it had seen fruit, might have created a far different country than we see today.
When the American Civil War (1861–1865) ended, many soldiers returned home to their families and began reconstructing their lives. But some had nowhere to go or knew life only as a soldier.
Out of these men looking for direction and a cause were those of Irish descent who sympathized with their homeland suffering under British rule. After a failed attempt in 1865 by the Fenian Brotherhood, an Irish nationalist organization, to reclaim Ireland on home soil, another plan was hatched in the United States.
Under the direction of Colonel William R. Roberts of New York, the Fenian Brotherhood planned to capture Canada and hold it hostage until Britain granted Ireland independence. Although all of the British Colonies from Newfoundland to British Columbia were threatened between 1866 and 1871, actual military raids took place only along the US-Canada border between New Brunswick and Manitoba.
Colonies not directly threatened provided men to help bolster the troops in locations under attack. One such company was mustered from Owen Sound, NL and sent to Oakville, ON where it was held on reserve. Many years ago, a gardener in Owen Sound made an amazing discovery when he dug up a medal awarded to Private R. (Robert) Breckenridge, Owen Sound 1st Company, for his participation in the Fenian Raids (See the newspaper clipping here).
The majority of the raids were successfully defended by the Canadian militias and the British troops stationed in Canada. One incident took place near the village of Ridgeway, Ontario. About 900 Fenian soldiers advanced on June 1, 1866. They were met by a small force of Canadian citizens who banded together to thwart the attack. Unfortunately, these men were no match for the experienced enemy, and the Fenian troops won the battle. However, the stand was enough to send the raiders running before the regular troops arrived.
Troublous Times in Canada by Fenian Raid veteran and Canadian, John A. MacDonald, is available on the Canadian Genealogy website. The book, published in 1910, describes the events leading up the raids, details of actual raids and the overall attempt at the Canadian invasion by the Fenian Brothers.
One section, Dangers Which Existed Previous to Confederation of the Provinces, is particularly worth reading as it outlines the United States’ Proposal of Annexation of Canada, including all lands from Newfoundland to Columbia (British Columbia).
The damage and disruption caused by the Fenian Raids were minimal, and in a small way, Canadians can thank these Irish soldiers. The threat to our homeland strengthened the idea of a union and in 1867, a new Dominion was born.