The Irish Invade Canada: June 1,1866

This text comes from our book, Lands of Hope and Promise: A History of North America.


Since the American Revolution, many Americans, from common folk to statesmen, had wanted to annex Canada. Annexation had been one of the goals of the War Hawks in 1812; and though, at that time, the attempt had failed, the dream never died. After the Civil War, the goal of annexation could unite even the likes of President Johnson, Secretary Seward, Senator Sumner, and U.S. Grant.

Clement Vallandigham

Canada had been troublesome to the union during the Civil War. Confederate spies and commissioners had operated north of the border and from Canada had even raided a Vermont town. Clement Vallandigham had published his manifestos against the Lincoln government from Windsor, Ontario. After the war, however, the tables had turned. Irish nationalists in New York City, members of the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood, the “Fenians,” had conceived a plan: they would invade Canada, seize possession of it, and hold it hostage for Ireland’s independence from Great Britain. Seven Fenian “invasions” of Canada occurred between 1866 and 1871, the most important being an invasion of the Niagara Peninsula in June 1866.

Fort Erie, across the Niagara River from Buffalo, New York, had been abandoned by British troops for over 40 years. In the early morning hours of June 1, 1866, “General” John O’Neil and 1,500 Irish soldiers crossed the Niagara River and raised the green Fenian flag over the fort. The same day, warned of the invasion by the British consul in Buffalo, about 2,000 British regulars and Canadian militia converged on Chippewa, about 13 miles northwest of Fort Erie. Learning that a lone Canadian militia unit was approaching his position, O’Neil marched inland to destroy it before it could join the main body of the British and Canadians. On the morning of June 2, the Fenians took a defensive position on raised ground called Limeridge and awaited the militia.

When the Canadian militia reached Limeridge, it attacked the Fenian position. At first, the Canadians drove the Irish back; but when a few Irish soldiers on horseback appeared, the militia, who were all infantry, thought the Irish had cavalry and began to withdraw. The Fenians, seeing their confusion, charged, and the militia retreated, suffering ten dead and many wounded.


An 1869 depiction of the Battle of Limeridge

Knowing that a larger militia force awaited them, the Fenians retreated to Fort Erie, from whence they drove out a contingent of soldiers that had been posted there since their withdrawal. But failing to receive reinforcements, the Fenians withdrew to the U.S. side of the Niagara River, where they were all promptly arrested. United States authorities, however, soon released the insurgents and paid their train fare to their homes.

Though unsuccessful from the Irish point of view, the Fenian raids led to important changes in Canada. For some time, Canadian “Federationists” had been calling for a certain degree of self-rule and independence from Great Britain. As an independent nation, Canada would have less to fear from United States expansionists. Canadian elections in 1866 brought Federationist victories in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. These provinces, along with Ontario and Quebec, sent delegates to London to discuss the idea of a federation with British government authorities.

These meetings culminated in the British North American Act of 1867. Under this act, the “Dominion of Canada,” as it was to be called, would conduct its domestic affairs separately from Great Britain while remaining subject to Her Majesty, Queen Victoria. The British government, though, would still control Canada’s foreign affairs. Parliament would appoint a governor general to represent the queen in Canada.

Sir John Macdonald

The Dominion of Canada was inaugurated on July 1, 1867, with Sir John Macdonald as its first premier. Like Great Britain, Canada had a two-house parliament. Unlike the United States, each province was not conceived of as sovereign; the Canadian federal government appointed all provincial governors. Gradually other provinces joined the original provinces: British Columbia in 1871 and Prince Edward Island in 1873. In 1869, Canada obtained the Northwest Territories from the Hudson’s Bay Company.

The United States Congress viewed the creation of the Dominion of Canada “with extreme solicitude”; for, after all, it was not a purely republican but a “monarchical confederation.” Expansionists in the United States saw the formation of the dominion, especially when it eventually spread from the Atlantic to the Pacific, as a definite check to their dreams of annexation. On their northern border stretched a new, and different, constitutional order — a model of what the United States might have become had they remained under the rule of Great Britain.

Several disputes regarding fishing rights and border questions still remained between Canada and the United States. Under President Grant, these questions were settled amicably in 1872 in the Treaty of Washington. Though a lion in war, Grant proved to be capable administrator in peace. The two great English-speaking countries of North America would be able to occupy the continent, without war, for generations to come.


Memory of Another Rebellion


"Follow Me Up to Carlow," is an Irish folk song commemorating a Irish victory over 3,000 English soldiers at the Battle of Glenmalure in 1580.



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