The Battle Of Ridgeway

Play episode
Hosted by

First, welcome to my new patrons, including Jason Hall and Spencer M., who join Iris Gray and Renee Belliveau as patrons.

Also, a big thank you to Phil Maynard, another patron of the show whose support is greatly appreciated.

The Fenian Raids are not generally known in Canada these days but during the mid-19th century, they represented a real problem for Canada as it was moving towards Confederation. The Fenians were members of a movement to secure the independence of Ireland from Britain. Outlawed in the British Empire, they were able to operate in the United States openly and freely. Known as both the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the Fenian Brotherhood, today the entire organization is generally known as Fenians.

Beginning in 1866 and lasting for the next five years, the Fenians would conduct armed incursions into Canada with the goal of seizing land and holding it ransom in return for Irish independence. There was the hope among the Fenians that this would create a serious situation within Britain and, ideally, create a war between the United States and Britain, which in turn would weaken the British hold in Ireland after a planned rebellion broke out.

On the American side of things, they did what they could to prevent the Fenian raids from their territory but this did not stop the Fenians from conducting a raid on Campobello Island, New Brunswick in April of 1866. By late May of that year, the group had stolen enough guns and ammunition to arm 20,000 men.

The Fenians were not just random people who wanted to try pushing for a fight. Many were American Civil War veterans, who were hardened by battle and had served as officers, infantrymen, sappers, gunners and more.

This brings us to June 1, 1866. The Fenians were feeling confident thanks to the recent successful incursions into Canada and on that day, 1,000 heavily-armed Fenians crossed the Niagara River at Buffalo and entered Canada. They were led by John O’Neill. O’Neill had emigrated to New Jersey in 1848 from Ireland during the Great Famine. He enlisted with the Second United States Dragoon’s in 1857. He would desert in California in 1858 but would eventually become a sergeant in the American Civil War, serving with the First Regiment until December of 1862 when he was commissioned as an officer in the Fifth Indiana Cavalry. Known for being a daring officer, he would eventually reach the rank of Captain. By the time of the Fenian Raid, he was a colonel.

With their skill and ample weapons, the Fenians captured Fort Erie, along with hits railway and telegraph terminals. The Fenians then arrested the town council, and the border officials and forced the bakery and hotels in the town to provide them with breakfast. They also flew the flag of Ireland over the fort.

The invaders then seized horses in the town, as well as tools and began to build fortifications and trenches around the town. The Fenians attempted to rally the Canadians to their cause but no one took them up on the offer and many of their own troops deserted as soon as they arrived in Canada. O’Neill himself estimated that he only had 500 men left out of 1,000 by the end of the evening. Thankfully for him, reinforcements of about 250 men arrived later in the evening.

Within this one day, the Fenians had conducted the first successful raid from the United States in 50 years, and controlled the Niagara frontier from Black Creek to Fort Erie.

With their control of that area, they were within marching distance of Welland Canal, the only naval passage between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie.

The next day, the Canadian militia would respond.

Due to the raids into Canadian territory, 22,000 Canadian militia were mobilized, who would fight with the British infantry already in Canada.

With the Fenians now in possession of the area around Fort Erie, two Canadian militia units, the Queen’s Own Rifles and the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, were mobilized. Colonel Alfred Booker would take command of the brigade of battalions. Booker was a wealthy auctioneer from Hamilton who was also well-respected among many in the community. In 1851, he had been commissioned as an ensign, eventually reaching the rank of captain in the Volunteer Militia Battery of Artillery of Hamilton in 1855.

During the evening of June 1, into the morning of June 2, Booker took a train to Ridgeway and marched to the nearby town of Stevensville. There, he would join the British troops and Canadian militia for the counterattack.

Booker was ordered to avoid the Fenians as he marched his troops towards Stevensville. What Booker and the British did not know was that the Fenians had marched to a ridge just north of Ridgeway during the night. This ridge was along the route the Canadians were taking to the community. Booker had been warned that the Fenians were laying an ambush on the ridge, but he choose to march towards them anyways, and engaged in contact despite orders to avoid the Fenians.

At first, things were looking up for the Canadians during at least the first hour of the battle. The Canadians were able to drive the Fenians from their positions but then something changed and even today it is not known why the battle suddenly turned against the Canadians. One theory is that militiamen mistook the Fenian scouts on horseback for cavalry. Thinking they were about to be hit by mounted soldiers, Booker ordered the troops into a square to defend against a Calvary charge. This had the unfortunate side effect of exposing the troops to Fenian rifle fire. Booker, realizing the mistake, quickly cancelled the order but he was unable to reform the Canadian ranks under the intense fire.

While this is one theory about why the battle suddenly changed, another is that the troops mistook the 13th Battalion as British troops relieving them and they began to withdraw, triggering panic among the other Canadian troops who mistook that withdrawal for a retreat.

From the Fenian perspective, O’Neill could see the chaos breaking out and he decided to take advantage of it, ordering a bayonet charge that tore through the Canadian ranks. The Fenians were then able to take the town of Ridgeway, but only held it briefly as they expected to be overwhelmed by the British soon, and they moved back to Fort Erie. While there, they fought a brief battle against a small detachment of Canadians holding the town.

In the evening of June 2, O’Neill discovered that the U.S. Navy was bringing gunboats in to intercept any Fenian reinforcements that would be crossing the Niagara River. O’Neill and the Fenians attempted to get back to the United States using logs, rafts, or just swimming. Nearly all were caught and arrested by the US Navy in the middle of the river. They were taken back to the United States and released on the expectation they would return to their home states.

In the battle, nine Canadians were killed, often called The Ridgeway Nine at the time, and 33 were wounded. Some were wounded severely enough that they had to have limbs amputated. Another four militia volunteers would die from their wounds, or diseases they contracted from Ridgeway. It is not known exactly how many Fenians were killed in the battle, but it is believed to be 14.

The Queen’s Own Rifles still exists to this day, having been active since 1860 and those who died in the battle are considered to be the first casualties of the Canadian Army, predating the Army itself by almost 20 years. As a result, Ensign Malcolm McEachren of the Queens Own Rifles can be considered the first Canadian Army soldiers to be killed in action, the first of thousands of come over the next 150 years.

One of the dead was Private James Henry Morrison, who was 17 when he died from illness and exhaustion after the battle. He had joined to get extra money after the death of his father, so he could care for his mother and sister.

One survivor of the battle was Alexander Askin, who would go on to become a civil engineer and survey the route of the railroad out to the west.

The battle has the distinction of being the only armed victory for the cause of Irish Independence between the Irish Rebellion of 1798 and the Irish War Of Independence in 1919. This battle was also the first one fought completely by Canadian soldiers, and led by Canadian officers, since no British troops took part. It was also the last battle fought against foreign invaders in what would one day become Ontario.

Why did the battle turn against the Canadians who were deployed quickly against the incursion? For one, they were poorly trained with little ammunition and were not trained for combat. They had no food, field kitchens, maps or even medical care or canteens of water. Some troops were forced to scoop water from roadside dishes and drink it out of their hats. This water was most likely contaminated with many things from farm run-off, and malaria was in the area. It is believed that this is how Private Morrison died.   They had no tools to care for their rifles and only half of the Canadian troops had even practiced firing their rifles with live ammunition. On the other side, the Fenians were Civil War veterans who had seen battle many times.

O’Neill for his part vowed to return to Canada soon in the Fenian fight and he would lead subsequent attacks in 1870 and 1871, both of which failed.

No blame was put on the militia department for its inability to prepare the troops. John A. Macdonald, future prime minister of Canada, was the Minister of the Militia at the time and instead of receiving blame, it was put on the frontline troops. While the troops panicked and broke, no officers were blamed despite leading the troops and the government received no blame despite undersupplying the troops.

The Queen’s Own Rifles earned the name of Quickest Outta Ridgeway, while the 13th Battalion was given the name The Scarlet Runners.

Due to the embarrassment of the defeat, the battle was hidden away in Canadian military history and heritage and the Canadian government would not acknowledge the veterans of the battle for 25 years. In 1890, the Veterans of ’66 Association would hold a protest at the Canadian Volunteers Monument by laying flowers at the foot of the monument on June 2, the 24th anniversary of the battle. It would be another 10 years of protests and lobbying before the Canadian government created the Fenian medal and gave land grants to the surviving veterans.

The protest by the battle survivors became an annual event called Decoration Day, when the graves and monuments of Canadians soldiers were decorated with flowers. For the next three decades, Decoration Day was the national military holiday and the first version of what would be Remembrance Day, held ever weekend nearest to June 2. It acknowledged those that had died in the Battle of Ridgeway, the North West Rebellion, the South African War and the First World War. This tradition stopped in 1931 when Nov. 11 was established as the official national Memorial Day.

For those in the area, for years afterwards, they were able to still find bullets lodged in trees.

While the battle is long since in the past, over 150 years, it is still mostly forgotten and wiped from history today. The battle location is a National Historic Site, and a cairn with interpretive signs are set up nearby. The Canadian Volunteer Monument in Queen’s Park honours the nine men who died in the battle.

The lack of remembrance for this battle and the Fenian Invasion is unfortunate. The invasion helped to uplift the sense of nationhood in Canada and also helped urge the push for Canada to become a nation, something that was already in the process by this point. The need for a unified Canada to guard its borders had become apparent.

In 2013, petitions from the City of Toronto and the Town of Fort Erie were sent to the federal government asking that the Ridgeway Nine be restored to Canadian military memorial heritage by including them in the national Books of Remembrance in Ottawa.

This request was not approved.

Information comes from Canadian Encyclopedia, Wikipedia, The Spec, The Star,, Upper Canada History, The Niagara Peninsula: A Pictorial Record

Liked it? Take a second to support CraigBaird on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

Leave a Reply

More from this show

Canadian History Ehx
%d bloggers like this: