The Fenians
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The Fenians

With the end of the American Civil War in 1865, another kind of menace was building on the United States border. This threat to the security of British North America would also push the colonies closer to union.

The Fenians were an Irish Catholic Group that hoped to free Ireland. For years they had been preparing to do battle with the British Army in North America. The Fenians' idea was to tie the enemy down, while brothers back home fought in Britain. When the American Civil War ended in April 1865, a group of former northern solders, mostly Irish Americans, formed small units intent on raiding Canada.

Rumours reached New Brunswick that the Fenians intended to occupy Campobello Island, in the mouth of Passamaquoddy Bay. The invasion collapsed, but it instilled in Maritimers the fear of possible war.

An election was called, and a pro-Confederation party was returned to power, partly on the threat of a Fenian invasion and partly through bribes to the electorate.

The Fenians presented a more palpable threat in Upper Canada. On June 1, 1866, an estimated 1,500 Fenians crossed into Canada at the Niagara River at Buffalo.

Upper Canada resident Amelia Harris wrote, "They crossed the river from Buffalo below Black Rock. It is telegraphed that there are about 1,500 of them. 1,000 Volunteers & some companies of the 16th have gone to repel them. It is to be hoped that we shall have a good account of them by tomorrow. ... The garrison had arranged for a picnic ... but on account of the Fenians no one was allowed to leave the Barracks, so the picnic was turned into a dance in the mess room. Edward, Sophia & George went..."

Two days later, the news that thousands of Fenians had crossed into Upper Canada reached Harris in church, and the militia left during the Litany. The volunteers clashed with the Fenians at Ridgeway and the volunteers were routed. Ten Canadian were killed and 38 wounded.

But by June 5, the fear in London, (Upper Canada) at least, had waned. "The Fenian excitement continues but not so absorbing as it was," Harris reported. "There is a great feeling against General Napier & Colonel Peacock ... It is said that Gen Napier was drunk and that Col Peacock delayed so that the volunteers at [the Battle of] Ridgeway were sacrificed."

On June 18, the volunteers all returned to their homes.

The next spring, the Fenians threatened again. John A. Macdonald suspended the protection of habeas corpus for anyone suspected of being involved with them.

But the Fenians remained a largely ineffective group. Their main gift was instilling fear. Although the Fenians failed to mount a decisive military action, they became a compelling symbol for the need for Confederation.
The Fenians were an Irish Catholic Group that hoped to free Ireland by attacking the British colonies in North America. (Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada)
The Fenians were an Irish Catholic Group that hoped to free Ireland by attacking the British colonies in North America. (Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada)

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