Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

A captured Fenian cannon and men of the Missisquoi Home Guard (the Red Sashes) following the raid on Eccles Hill, on May 25, 1870.Handout

Christopher Klein is the author of When the Irish Invaded Canada: The Incredible True Story of the Civil War Veterans Who Fought for Ireland’s Freedom.

Patriotic revellers in both the United States and Canada will celebrate the births of their countries this week. Mother Britain’s North American offspring share the world’s longest peaceful international border, but the two neighbours once sported a fierce – and sometimes violent – sibling rivalry. In fact, the advent of Canada as a self-governing country 152 years ago came in the wake of an invasion of its southern border by a private army of gun-toting Americans.

These days, the idea of an American attack on Canada may be confined to the ludicrous domain of silver screen farces such as South Park or Michael Moore’s movie Canadian Bacon, but shortly after the U.S. Civil War a band of Union and Confederate veterans carried out an invasion that no Hollywood screenwriter could have concocted.

Barely a year after Robert E. Lee relinquished his sword at Appomattox, hundreds of Irish-American soldiers who had been forced to flee to the United States by starvation and fought on both sides of the Civil War united to undertake one of the most fantastical missions in military history – to hold the British colony of Canada hostage and ransom it for Ireland’s independence.

It’s no blarney.

In fact, the self-proclaimed Irish Republican Army attacked Canada not just once, but five times between 1866 and 1871 in what are collectively known as the Fenian Raids. The incursions came at a time when the United States had turned its land-hungry eyes north to fulfill its Manifest Destiny, and there was nothing clandestine about American aspirations.

With Great Britain’s tacit support of the Confederacy causing Anglo-American relations to be at their lowest ebb since the Redcoats torched the White House in the War of 1812, one bill introduced in Congress called for the incorporation of Canada into the United States with the admission of four new states represented by 29 congressmen. A Michigan senator even proposed sending a 200,000-man army – composed equally of Union and Confederate veterans – to confiscate Canada from the British and “weld the North and South together by a bond of friendship.”

When representatives of the Fenian Brotherhood, a revolutionary organization founded in New York City in 1858 to support the overthrow of British rule in Ireland, told President Andrew Johnson of their plans to invade Canada, the commander-in-chief reportedly said he would turn a blind eye to their activities. Why have the U.S. government send an army north when it could just outsource the job to immigrants?

In today’s parlance, these refugees from Ireland’s Great Hunger were “radicalized” by their experiences living under the thumb of the British. For hundreds of years, British rulers had attempted to extinguish Ireland’s religion, culture and language, and when 1 million people died after the potato crop failed in the 1840s, some Irish believed their colonizers were trying to exterminate them altogether.

The Fenian Brotherhood established its own state-in-exile complete with its own president, constitution and capitol building in the heart of New York City. It raised money for its military ventures by selling war bonds in denominations of $10 to $500, payable six months after the founding of the Irish Republic.

The organization’s first foray into Canada, however, proved a fiasco. A plan to seize Campobello Island off the tip of eastern Maine in April of 1866 fizzled after the group was infiltrated by spies, and the Irish-American rebels returned to New York with nothing more than a Union Jack snatched from a customs house.

The raid, however, coincided with a growing movement to unite the provinces of Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia in a semi-autonomous confederation. To some Canadians, the Irish menace demonstrated that a union was necessary for the region’s defence. The Nova Scotia assembly, which had previously opposed confederation, overwhelmingly adopted a resolution in favour of it, and pro-confederation forces in New Brunswick won decisively at the polls just weeks after the last Fenian departed Maine.

The Fenians launched a far more consequential attack in June of 1866, when General John O’Neill marched 800 men dressed in Union blues and Confederate greys through the streets of Buffalo before crossing the Niagara River into Ontario. Gen. O’Neill’s experienced forces defeated a much larger army of British regulars and Canadian militiamen at the Battle of Ridgeway before being forced to retreat after their supply lines were severed.

Gen. O’Neill’s invasion of Ontario and a subsequent raid days later into Quebec alarmed many Canadians living along the American border, persuading them that a confederation was necessary to protect their families and property. As rumours of another Fenian attack spread, a new Canadian nationalism began to sprout. “The covenant of our nation­ality has been sealed with blood,” proclaimed Toronto’s Daily Telegraph.

That surging patriotism spurred the passage of the British North America Act, which created the Dominion of Canada with its own parliament. In celebration of its enactment on July 1, 1867, towering bonfires lit up the night in Ottawa, a backwater logging town selected by Queen Victoria to be the new federal capital in part because it was considered far enough north of the border to be protected from another American incursion.

The Fenians had succeeded in bringing self-government to one outpost of the British Empire – just not the one they intended.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe