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Old Fort Erie and The Fenian Raids

Fort Erie (Wikimedia)

Fort Erie is often an overlooked fort in the Canadian-Niagara area, and it is important to share how crucial Fort Erie is too Canadian History. The last invasion of Canada took place at and around Fort Erie in 1866. The Fenian Brotherhood wanted Canada for its strategic Benefit and tried to take Canada by force.

The Fenians were a secret group of Irishmen who emigrated to the United States from Ireland. Some of its member wanted to invade part of Canada and exchange it with Britain from Irelands independence. Multiple attacks took place in Canada that were put down by Canadian forces causing casualties on both sides. The society was found by John O’Mahony in the United States and by James Stephens in Ireland.

The Crossing of the Fenians

During the last few days of May. 1866, there was talk of a body of men heading northward, to the lake borders. On the last day of May it was reported that a large body of men had arrived in Buffalo, New York. They were undoubtedly a group of Fenians that were believed to want to cross into Canada, where exactly was unknown. However, it was anticipated that the Fenians would want to attack Canada and was believed that Fort Erie would be the first place they would strike. The Fenians knew that a strike on Canada had to have complete secrecy and that keeping a large force of 2,000-3,000 men concealed would be a difficult task unless in the proper location. The Fenians decided to amass in Buffalo as it had the most amount of resident Fenians than any other border city and could easily keep the Fenians concealed and well fed. Buffalo conducted a lot of trade through it harbors allowing the Fenians to easily find a means of crossing the river without the United States to be able to find which boats were being used by the Fenians. The Fenians had another advantage in the fact that there were no Canadian forces within or around Fort Erie for 50 miles in any direction. This allows the Fenians to have a massive head start on the Canadians. Fort Erie was a direct line of defense for the Welland Canal which was a big point of interest for the Fenians as it directed trade away from Buffalo. With it destroyed it would be a massive blow to Canadian Trade and boost the trade though Buffalo helping many Fenians in Buffalo. On the Night of May 31st, they separated from there homes and used different roads to stay concealed until they group at Pratt’s Furnace where they had Canal boats wait to ferry them over.  The Fenians had 9 wagons full of ammunition and arms waiting for them to take over to fight the Canadians.  When the Fenians Landed Col. O’Neil, commander of the Fenian force, sent a force along Grand Trunk Railway towards Port Colborne while the main body heads towards Frenchman’s Creek. The Canadians had almost no way of knowing the full intentions or plans of the Fenian leaders but there was little doubt that the first objective would be the destruction of the Welland Canal.

During 1866, Fort Erie was attacked by the Fenians, Irish-American veterans from the civil war that wanted Irish independence from Britain. The Fenians attack Canadian militia that occupied the fort at the time out numbering them greatly the Canadians surrendered the fort to the Fenians. The Fenians had to retreat from the fort because they were worried about a large Incoming British force and could not reinforce their troops as the river was guarded by the American navy. With some of his troops deserting the Fenian troops had to surrender to the American navy.

Canadian Reaction

Early on June 1st, General Napier, commander of Canadian troops in upper Canada, received information about the crossing at Fort Erie. He immediately sent men to Port Colborne under the command of Col. Dennis to occupy and defend the position there. General Napier waited until noon on June 1st until he sent the rest of the force to Fort Erie, suspecting that Fort Erie was a distraction from the main attack. Realizing that Fort Erie was not actually a diversion he sent the rest of the force to Fort Erie to drive the Fenians out. Col. Peacock leading the 16th regiment was instructed to make St. Catherines his base of operations and to attack the enemy as soon as he could with force to guarantee success.  Upon his arrival at St. Catherines he received information that 800 Fenians were 2-3 miles out from a suspension bridge near Chippewa. He decided to protect the bridges of the Welland river and send 400 troops by train to Chippewa to protect the strategical point there. Col. Peacock wanted cavalry to use as scouts but the cavalry force in this province is weak and low in influence. Most officers in high positions were artillery or infantry officers and did not see the importance of cavalry. Cavalry provide tons of information and this allows the main force to find security and learn movements of the enemy. Col. Peacock also was without a military map, he was given a postal map of the area which didn’t have very accurate depictions of the landscape. To make up for lacking cavalry Col. Peacock decided to create a makeshift scouting force and sent them to Fort Erie to collect what information he could. With this improvised version of a good scouting force the information was conflicting and often emphasized or wrong. Peacock waited with 400 men at Chippewa waiting for reinforcements that should arrive in the morning.

Battle of Ridgeway

Col. Peacock had information that the Fenians would being heading through Ridgeway, near Fort Erie, and decided to send Lieut.-Col. Booker to Fort Erie to contain the Fenians.  Booker was a volunteer officer, and this was his first time in command of a brigade of infantry. On his way to Fort Erie he heard there were 600 Fenians nearby led by John O’Neil, a former union cavalry commander, this led to the deployment of his men, starting the Battle of Ridgeway. After heading down Ridge Road the advance guard relayed back that there were Fenians in position half a mile north of Garrison Road. The column then separated to flank left and right to scout the woods, while the main part of the column halted. The Canadian troops were broken up into 10 Companies, Company 5 was the advanced guard and was extended from the center while moving up slowly. Company 1 was on its left, and company 2 way on its right as skirmishers. Company 3,4 and 6 had the role of center supports, left support, and right supports respectively. The Canadians were moving up slowly and didn’t make it to far before they were engaged by Fenian sharpshooters that were posted behind rail fences and clump bushes. The first Canadian to die from Fenian bullet was Ensign Malcolm McEachren, an officer from company 5, who was shot in the stomach and died on the battlefield twenty minutes later. The Canadians slowly drove the Fenians from there position back into the woods, almost exhausting there ammunition they had to call in reinforcements to relieve the ammo exhausted troops. The 13th Battalion was called up to reinforce the Canadian troops and continues to drive the Fenians back int the entrenchments. The Fenians held a position on the right flank that the Canadians did not expect forcing a company to leave the wooded area and as this was happening, they heard a cry “Cavalry! Look out for cavalry” coming from down the road. The alarm was repeated as they observed a few Fenian horsemen coming around the corner. This forced Col. Booker to command company 1,2,3,5, and 8 to form a square to counter the incoming horsemen. But this was a false alarm, there were no incoming cavalry, this caused complete disorganization for the Canadian lines, Booker order company 1 and 2 to extend, allowing the other companies to reform lines. Once reformed, the reserves were too close to the line of skirmish and order them to retire, but this set off a domino effect since the 13th battalion saw the retiring companies and thought it was a general retreat causing them break lines and retire in a panic. The Fenians were on the verge of quitting but saw this opportunity and took it, as the Canadians were bundled up in the middle of the road the massive volley of Fenian bullets were a destructive force. The Canadians became quite demoralized and were unable to regain formation and were only able to halt for a moment to shot back at the chasing Fenians. The Battle of Ridgeway was a Fenian victory and the followed the Canadians eastward and then retreated to Fort Erie. The Canadians retreated to Port Colborne stressed and sleep deprived.

Events following Battle of Ridgeway

In the afternoon, Col. Peacock received information that the Fenians were retreating to Fort Erie and swiftly decided to pursue them in hopes that the would reach them by nightfall. Unfortunately for Peacock, he needed to leave 3 hours earlier in order to get to the Fenians before night, since he did not head straight to Ridgeway. The men marched for 9 miles in pursuit until halted as they sent cavalry ahead that spotted Fenians. They sent out small parties through the woods to try and scout the Fenians, but it was too dark for anyone to see and fight the enemy. They decided to sleep until daybreak with no fires allowed to be it as the enemy were nearby. They also heard news from telegram that a force of 2,000 crossed buffalo to join the up with the Fenians. Col. Peacock had plans to send a vessel to Fort Erie to patrol the river and prevent reinforcements or the escape of the Fenians. The Tug “Robb” was ordered to come from Dunnville that brought the Dunnville naval brigade and the Welland Canal Field Battery. They came ashore near Black Creek, as they didn’t not see any armed forces there. The landing force led by Col. Dennis when a mile or two inland towards the Black Creek. The Tug proceeded to go up the river towards Fort Erie. They retook Fort Erie to prevent the Fenians an easy escape route and delay the Fenians from out running the main Canadian force. The Fenians skirmished with the Canadians in Fort Erie and outnumbered the Canadians 10 to one. Col. Dennis realizing this escape into the night as his men were fighting or getting captured. He was able to link up with Peacock and continue the pursuit. The remaining Canadians went back to Port Colborne, leaving the Fenians in possession of Fort Erie. The Main Canadian force 3,000 strong were closing in on the Fenian force. This along with a United States naval detachment blocking any attempts for the Fenians to get reinforcement, forced O’Neil to retreat back to New York. The 850 who decided to retreat across back to New York ended up surrendering to the USS Michigan near Buffalo.

Primary Sources

  1. MacDonald, John A. (John Alexander). Troublous Times in Canada A History of the Fenian Raids of 1866 and 1870. N.p., 2006. Web.
  2. Chewett & Co, W. C. “The Fenian Raid at Fort Erie, June the First and Second, 1866.” Google Books, Google,
  3. Denison, George T. “The Fenian Raid of Fort Erie.” Google Books, Google, 

Secondary Sources

  1. Old Fort Erie: History: Niagara Parks, Niagara Falls Canada.” Old Fort Erie: History | Niagara Parks, Niagara Falls Canada.
  2. Grodzinski, John R.. “Fenian Raids“. The Canadian Encyclopedia, 04 June 2019, Historica Canada.
  3. Grodzinski, John R. “Fenian Raids.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 31 Aug. 2017
  4. Senior, Hereward. The Last Invasion of Canada : The Fenian Raids, 1866-1870. Dundurn Press, 1991. EBSCOhost