The Queen's Own Rifles of Canada
The Fenian Raid 1866
In the fall and winter of 1865 and the spring of 1866 there were rumours in Toronto of an imminent invasion of Canada by the Fenian Brotherhood. The militia were put on a hightened state of readiness and the Queen's Own were called to active service on March 7th, 1866, in anticipation of a St. Patrick's Day attack. They stayed on active duty for three weeks until the threat of invasion subsided. This was the beginning of the Feinian Raids.
The Feinian Brotherhood was an Irish American organization that was dedicated to freeing Ireland from British rule. Many of them were Civil War veterans who believed that if they captured Canada they could use it as a bargaining tool against Britain. In the fall of 1865 they organized themselves into an army and began their preparations to invade Canada. In March of 1866 they met in Cincinati and formulated their plan. Unfortunately their security was not very good and both the Canadian authorities and the American government knew what they were planning.
In April, an invasion of New Brunswick was halted when American officials seized a shipload of arms headed for waiting Fenian troops in Maine. The American government would not permit a violation of the Neutrality Act.
On June 1st, 1866, the Fenians invaded Canada. With 1500 men they crossed the Niagara River just north of Fort Erie. Upon landing they established a defensive position and sent out patrols. Their first operation was to occupy the town of Fort Erie where they demanded food and horses from the citizens. They offered Fenian bonds as payment but the Canadians refused to accept them. Telegraph wires were cut and railroad tracks were torn up.
The Fenians issued this proclamation;
We come among you as foes of British rule in Ireland. We have taken up the sword to strike down the oppressors' rod, to deliver Ireland from the tyrant, the despoiler, the robber. We have registered our oaths upon the alter of our country in the full view of heaven and sent out our vows to the throne of Him who inspired them. Then, looking about us for an enemy, we find him here, here in your midst, where he is most vulnerable and convenient to our strength. . . . We have no issue with the people of these Provinces, and wish to have none but the most friendly relations. Our weapons are for the oppressors of Ireland. our bows shall be directed only against the power of England; her privileges alone shall we invade, not yours. We do not propose to divest you of a solitary right you now enjoy. . . . We are here neither as murderers, nor robbers, for plunder and spoliation. We are here as the Irish army of liberation, the friends of liberty against despotism, of democracy against aristocracy, of people against their oppressors. In a word, our war is with the armed powers of England, not with the people, not with these Provinces. Against England, upon land and sea, till Ireland is free. . . . To Irishmen throughout these Provinces we appeal in the name of seven centuries of British inequity and Irish misery and suffering, in the names of our murdered sires, our desolate homes, our desecrated alters, our million of famine graves, our insulted name and race -- to stretch forth the hand of brotherhood in the holy cause of fatherland, and smite the tyrant where we can. We conjure you, our countrymen, who from misfortune inflicted by the very tyranny you are serving, or from any other cause, have been forced to enter the ranks of the enemy, not to be willing instruments of your country's death or degradation. No uniform, and surely not the blood-dyed coat of England, can emancipate you from the natural law that binds your allegiance to Ireland, to liberty, to right, to justice. To the friends of Ireland, of freedom, of humanity, of the people, we offer the olive branch of these and the honest grasp of friendship. Take it Irishmen, Frenchmen, American, take it all and trust it. . . . We wish to meet with friends; we are prepared to meet with enemies. We shall endeavor to merit the confidence of the former, and the latter can expect from us but the leniency of a determined though generous foe and the restraints and relations imposed by civilized warfare.
T. W. Sweeney.
From Fort Erie, the Fenians marched north along the river toward the town of Chippawa. They realized that the Welland Canal was the most important strategic asset in the area. Chippawa controls the north end of the canal.
Meanwhile the alarm had sounded in Toronto and across the province. Thousands of militiamen were called out. The Queen's Own Rifles paraded 356 men at 04:00hrs on June 1st. They boarded the steamer City of Toronto and sailed for Port Dalhousie. From there they travelled by train to Port Colburne and waited three hours while orders were prepared.
The plan called for Col Booker's column to travel by train to the town of Ridgeway and from there march north to meet Col Peacocke's column in the town of Stevensville. In Ridgeway they made their first mistake of the day. As they assembled at the station the train blew its whistle an buglers sounded assembly calls. This noise was heard by the enemy who took it as a warning and prepared to fight.
Marching north out of Ridgeway that morning, Col Booker had under his command the Queen's Own Rifles of Toronto (that was our name at the time), the 13th Battalion (who later became the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry) and the York and Caladonia Rifle companies. They marched up ridge road with No 5 Company of the Queen's Own leading. Local inhabitants had warned Col Booker that the Fenians were near but he dismissed the reports because his intelegence told him that the enemy was camped at the Black Creek the night before.
Indeed, on the evening of June 1st the Fenians had been camped at Black Creek, but when they learned that Peacocke's force was already in Chippawa, they decided to move against Booker's weaker column. The Canadians had conveniently divided their forces so Col O'Neil chose to defeat them in parts rather than allow them to unite into a stronger body. To this end, the Fenians broke camp at 03:00 on the morning of June 2nd and marched south along Ridge road. When they heard the train whistle and bugle calls coming from Ridgeway they prepared a hasty defense.
It was hot that morning as the Queen's Own marched through feilds of new corn. As they approached Garrison Road, No 5 Company came under fire from Fenian skirmishers; the battle had begun.
Initially the Fenian skirmishers fell back. They wanted to draw the Canadians toward their main line of defense. No 5 Company kept up the pressure as Col Booker deployed the rest of the column.
The Adjutant of the Queen's Own was Captain William Dillion Otter. This was his first battle. He went on to found the School of Infantry (later the Royal Canadian Regiment) and to lead a column in the Northwest Rebellion. He led the Canadians in South Africa and was Canada's first home grown General. In the official account of the battle he wrote;
The cost of the battle was;
Total twenty one.
"In Pace Paratus - In Peace Prepared"