The Fenian Raid 1866

The Battle of Ridgeway (sometimes referred to as the Battle of Lime Ridge) was contested near Ridgeway, Canada West, on June 2, 1866, between Canadian troops and an irregular army of Irish-American invaders, the Fenians. It was the largest skirmish of the so-called "Fenian Raids".

The New York City-based Fenian Brotherhood was attempting to support related groups in Ireland to force the United Kingdom into negotiating toward the formation of an independent Irish Republic. They took advantage of the ready supply of arms in the United States after the recently concluded Civil War, and of the ample number of unemployed young men who had emerged from that conflict with some degree of military training. It was still a ragtag army, however, that assembled on the American shore of the Niagara River during the last weeks of May 1866. The Fenians had made little attempt at secrecy, and both American and British authorities were aware of the imminent military operation. Despite half-hearted American attempts to prevent the river crossing — the United States was loath to go out of its way to help the British after the latter's support of the Confederacy in the Civil War — the Fenian troops, led by General John O'Neill, a former Union cavalry commander, secured boats and transferred some 800 men across the Niagara, landing just above Fort Erie, Canada West, before dawn on June 1, 1866. O'Neill spent the first day trying to rally the local citizenry to the Fenian cause and to commandeer supplies for his mission, but his force was plagued by desertions almost from the outset. By nightfall O'Neill estimated he had perhaps 500 effectives remaining.

Meanwhile, the British were mobilizing both local militias and British garrison troops to defend against the impending invasion. The Fenians night-marched north across Frenchman's Creek, then turned inland on the morning of June 2, taking up a defensive position near the present town of Ridgeway. There they clashed with 850 advancing Canadian militia commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Alfred Booker. Both forces were inexperienced and the skirmish that ensued was marked by confusion and ill-timed retreats by each side. Some of the Canadian militiamen mistook Fenian scouts on horseback for cavalry. Orders to defend against a cavalry charge, although quickly countermanded, led to chaos in the Canadian ranks and Booker ordered a withdrawal after only one to three hours of battle. The Fenians soon fell back to Fort Erie. Canadian casualties included 9 dead and 37 wounded. O'Neill said he had four or five men killed, but Canadians found six Fenian bodies on the field.

The Ridgeway victory was complemented by a second successful engagement later that day at Fort Erie. However, the rapid and massive convergence of British and Canadian reinforcements continued to convince many of the Fenians to return in haste to the United States - some on logs, on rafts, or by swimming. O'Neill and his remaining 317 effectives surrendered their arms to waiting U.S. authorities.

Fenian units involved in the battle were the 7th Buffalo (NY), 18th Ohio, 13th Tennessee, and 17th Kentucky Fenian Regiments, and an independent Company from Indiana. Canadian units included The Queen's Own Rifles of Toronto and the 13th Hamilton Battalion. Canadian Orangeman Alexander Muir, author of the unofficial Canadian anthem "The Maple Leaf Forever," fought with the Queen's Own at Ridgeway.


Fenian Raid Certificate




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