CityNews, in partnership with the Historical Society of Ottawa, brings you this weekly feature by Director James Powell, highlighting a moment in Ottawa's history.
Canadians are taught in school that Canada was the product of the Fathers of Confederation immortalized in the 1883 painting by Robert Harris. (The original painting was destroyed in the 1916 fire that gutted the Centre Block on Parliament Hill.) The fathers include such notables as John A. Macdonald, Thomas D’Arcy McGee, George-Étienne Cartier, George Brown, Étienne-Paschel Taché, Samuel Tilley, and Charles Tupper. One “father” that is seldom mentioned is the Fenians.
Waves of Irish immigrants had come to North America during the first half of the nineteenth century following the Irish Rebellion of 1798, and the potato famine of the 1840s with the ensuing “clearances” or evictions of starving, penniless, farm labourers. About 2,250,000 Irish men women and children took the perilous journey across the Atlantic, of whom roughly 500,000 came to Canada. Needless to say, many Irish immigrants harboured few warm feelings towards the British who controlled Ireland. Some continued their fight for an independent Ireland using violence. One such group was the Fenians.
They saw their chance in the mid-1860s. The U.S. Civil War ended in 1865 with a victory for the northern Union Army. Thousands of war-hardened soldiers of Irish descent were demobilized. Sympathy for the Irish cause and bitterness towards the British was running high in the United States at that time. During the Civil War, Britain and British North America were neutral but had favoured the Confederate cause.
War had almost broken out between the Britain and the U.S. Union government in 1861 over the “Trent affair” when a U.S. naval ship stopped the Trent, a British merchantman, and forcibly took captive two Confederate diplomats on their way to London from Cuba. Britain protested this violation of its neutrality. In Canada, militias were hastily organized to help defend their country in the event of an American invasion.
In the end, the Union government backed down and returned the two Confederate emissaries, unwilling to fight a war on two fronts. While the threat of war receded, British-American relations remained cool owing to the success of the Confederate commerce raider Alabama, which had been built in secret in Britain in 1862, and blockade runners based in British possessions in the West Indies and Bermuda who traded arms to the South in exchange for cotton for the textile factories of Britain.
In 1865, Fenians based in the United States tried to free Ireland. They failed miserably. A ship carrying arms and munitions to Ireland was seized by the British en route. Meanwhile, the Irish people ignored the call to revolt. Following this setback, a group of American Fenians came up with a new, quixotic plan. They would invade British North America. Once this was accomplished, they figured they would have a base of operations to continue the fight for an independent Ireland, or would use their conquest of Canada to somehow force the British to leave Ireland. Led by former senior U.S. army officers (for example, the Fenian Secretary of War was General T.W. Sweeny, the commander of the 16th United States Infantry), the slogan at the 1865 Fenian Convention in Cincinnati was “On to Canada!”
With U.S. public opinion anti-British, the hope was that the U.S. government would turn a blind eye to the assembly of Fenian soldiers and munitions on the frontier with Canada. The Fenian leaders believed that as many as 50,000 war-hardened volunteers would join their army and that the Irish in Canada would rise up and join the invading force. (In actuality, the Fenian cause had few supporters in Canada where Irish settlers were prospering and whose religious rights were protected.) They thought that a quick victory would result in the recognition of an Irish Republic by the United States government, and subsequently by European nations.
Fenian conventions, meetings and fund-raisers in the United States were extensively covered in the press. So, their plans and objectives were hardly secret. British spies also kept an eye on them. Initially, Canadian and British authorities didn’t take the Fenians too seriously believing that the U.S. government would intervene if they went too far. But by early March 1866, rumours were rife that a Fenian invasion was imminent, possibly on St. Patrick’s Day. Armed men and were assembling on several points on the Canadian border as well as out east in Maine on the border with the Colony of New Brunswick.
On 7 March 1866, the government of the Province of Canada under John A. Macdonald called for 10,000 men of the volunteer forces to be mobilized in defence of the Province in 24 hours for three weeks duty, and go wherever required. The call-up included Ottawa’s Civil Service Rifle Corps which went on parade the following afternoon.
The Civil Service Rifles had been formed in Quebec City in 1861 following the Trent affair. When the seat of government moved to Ottawa in 1865, the Corps moved as well. Two days after Macdonald’s call to arms, the Rifles were guarding Gilmour’s Armoury on Hugh Street. According to a history of the Rifle Corps, on that first night of guard duty no rations had been provided for the sergeant, the two corporals and the twelve men on duty. So, somebody ordered in a lavish meal consisting of beef sirloin and plum pudding from the posh, members-only Rideau Club. The meal was described “as find a spread as any gourmand could possibly desire.” Unfortunately, the men had a hard time enjoying it. Twice, they were called out in the middle of their meal leaving Rideau Club waiters to keep things warm. Finally, the men sat down to eat fully dressed and armed.
Other area volunteer units were also mobilized. These included the Bell’s Corner Company, the Argenteuil Rangers, 1st Company, the Ottawa Rifles, 1st, 2nd and 3rd Companies, and the Buckingham Infantry Company. These companies, along with the Civil Service Rifles, were assembled into the Ottawa Provisional Battalion under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Wily at the end of March. Later in 1866, the 43rd Carleton Battalion of Infantry was formed uniting units from Bell’s Corners, Huntley, Metcalfe, North Gower, Munster, Richmond, Manotick, Vernon and Duncanville.
On orders from the Department of the Militia, volunteers across the Province extended their guard duty to bank branches, railway stations, telegraph offices, and post offices. Here in Ottawa, there were little trouble beyond a couple of minor incidents. On one occasion, an old drunkard was taken into custody when he threatened to burn down the armoury.
A second, more serious incident occurred at the railway station when Private Maingy was assaulted by Patrick Mahoney. Maingy subdued Mahoney who was conveyed to the guard house. When he subsequently appeared before a magistrate, Colonel Wily of the Ottawa Provisional Battalion intervened and asked that mercy be shown. The judge complied, fining Mahoney $10 plus costs for common assault. The judge told Mahoney him he had been lucky as Maingy could have shot him.
With the Fenian scare seemingly passed without incident, the Provisional Battalion stood down in early April but not before the officers and non-commissioned officers of the Civil Service Rifle Corps held a grand ball at the British Hotel on Sussex Street. With the hall decorated with flags and the crest of the Rifles with a triple row of swords radiating from it, unformed men and their ladies danced the night away. Both the Premier, John A. Macdonald, and the Minister of the Militia, George-Étienne Cartier, attended.
Scarcely had the Ottawa Provisional Battalion stood down, the Fenian scare took on more serious proportions. In mid-April, Fenians, who had been assembling in Maine for some weeks, tried to attack Campobello Island, part of the New Brunswick. The attack was a dismal failure. The Fenians were easily dispersed by the Royal Navy that had sent ships to the area from Halifax. While some buildings were destroyed, there was no loss of life.
By late May, the focus of attention shifted back to Canada with reports of Fenians assembling in great numbers along the Canadian border, including at Ogdensburg, New York. Reportedly, the citizens of Prescott could hear the bugles of Fenian soldiers on the other side of the St. Lawrence. In Buffalo, New York, an alarmed British consul sent a telegram asking the Great West Railway to stop all traffic between Hamilton and the frontier with rumours of a pending attack on the Welland Canal. The next day, the shocking news was received in Ottawa that the Fenians had crossed the border and had seized the town of Fort Erie.
Immediately, the volunteer militias were called out, including the Ottawa Provisional Battalion under Colonel Wily. At 2am on the morning of 6 June, the Civil Service Rifles along with the Bell’s Corners Infantry Company, the No. 2 Garrison Artillery, the Buckingham Company, and the Hawksbury Company boarded a train of the Ottawa and Prescott Railway Company ready to go to defend Prescott.
Fortunately, the frontier remained quiet and the men were finally dismissed without leaving Ottawa. However, they were called on to patrol the streets of Ottawa and to guard the opening of the first session of the Provincial Parliament in Ottawa by Lord Monck. At this first session, two bills were given speedy passage and Royal Assent in response to the Fenian crisis: one to suspend the habeus corpus Act for one year, and another to provide for trial of state offenders by Courts Martial.
The invading Fenian army of roughly 1,000 experienced and well-armed ex-U.S.-Army soldiers under command of General John O’Neil gained a temporary measure of success at the Battle of Ridgeway near Niagara taking 36 prisoners when Canadian troops withdrew. Nine Canadian soldiers died on the field along with six Fenians. The Fenians won another victory in a skirmish called the Battle of Fort Erie. However, the victory proved to be fleeting. The Fenian troops fled back to the United States on hearing of the approach of some 5,000 British regulars and Canadian volunteers, and surrendered to the U.S. Navy.
A few days later, a force of about 1,000 Fenians under the command of General Samuel Spear crossed the border into the Eastern Township of Canada East, and occupied the border communities of Pigeon Hill, St Armand, Frelighsburg, and Stanbridge. However, they quickly surrendered on the approach of Canadian and British troops when they ran low on ammunition. Timothy O’Hara, a private in the Prince Consort’s Own Rifle Brigade was awarded the Victoria Cross for heroism for putting out a fire on a railway train loaded with ammunition. O’Hara was Irish.
In total, the Canadian Militia counted 32 dead and 103 wounded in the 1866 Fenian campaigns in the Province of Canada. Another British soldier died of heat stroke.
This was not the end of the Fenians. In 1868, D’Arcy McGee, the great Irish-Canadian leader and patriot, who had ridiculed the Fenians, was assassinated on Sparks Street in Ottawa. A Fenian, Patrick Whelan, was arrested and later hanged for the crime. In 1870, two small Fenian “armies” crossed the border into the Eastern Townships of Quebec near Missisquoi. At Eccles Hill, one group, again led by General O’Neil, was defeated by local Canadian volunteers.
The Fenians lost five men and 18 wounded. There were no casualties on the Canadian side. The second band of Fenians was defeated at Trout River, Quebec and sent packing back across the border. Again, there were no Canadian casualties. In 1871, a small Fenian band of 35-40 men, once again led by General O’Neil, took over a trading post at Pembina on the fuzzy border between Manitoba and North Dakota. Canadian troops in Winnipeg and St. Boniface were mustered but the Fenians were quickly subdued by the U.S. Army.
The Fenians failed in achieving their goal of capturing Canada and liberating Ireland. But they succeeded in swinging public opinion in the Province of Canada, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia in favour of Confederation. In unity, British North America would find strength.