The 150th anniversary of the Fenian Raids: the militia roots of today’s Army are planted

Article / October 30, 2016 / Project number: 16-0081

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Ottawa, Ontario — When it comes to keeping Canadian history alive, the Army Reserve is a force to be reckoned with.

“The Fenian Raids, where Americans of Irish descent decided to invade parts of Canada in order to convince Britain to release Ireland from British rule seems really farfetched [today, but] all those recently returning veteran soldiers of Irish descent from the American Civil War were a huge threat to the Canadian colonies,” explained Second Lieutenant David Pampe, Quartermaster for The Queen’s Own Rifles (QOR), an Army Reserve unit in Toronto.

Some Canadian historians argue that 2016, which is the 150th anniversary of the New Brunswick and Ontario Fenian Raids and the 10 regiments created in response to that threat (and then augmented with professional regiments in 1866) , deserves to be as significant a date as 2017 - Canada’s 150th birthday.

And that the role played by those New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Upper and Lower Canada volunteer militia can been seen as important as that played by the politicians then negotiating Confederation.

"The Canadian Constitution refers to 'Peace, order and good government.' Before good government could be established with Confederation, there needed to be peace and order. The Canadian volunteer militia achieved this during the Fenian Raids,” explained Jane Davies, historian and manager of Fort Erie Museum and Cultural Services.

The museum is located in Fort Erie, Ontario, which includes the village of Ridgeway – the site of the most violent of the Fenian-Canadian clashes.

Canadian Army Regiments: Caretakers of our history

2Lt Pampe’s thorough understanding of the Fenian Raids is not unusual for an Army Reservist.

“The Fenian Raids resulted in the first casualties of our regiment so we take them seriously. That is one of the things we are most proud of ─ our passing down of stories,” he explained.

There are currently 17,302 members of the Canadian Army Reserve. Each of these members is required to learn the history of their regiment. Every regiment maintains, along with their regimental history, a museum of artifacts.

At the headquarters of the QOR at Toronto’s Casa Loma, for instance, there is a uniform of Ensign Malcolm McEachern, the first soldier of the modern Canadian Army to die. He was killed at Ridgeway.

“When we join, we are given the Regimental Catechism. We are expected to learn it and know it. The QOR were right there on Juno Beach and they were in the Battle of Ridgeway,” explained 2Lt Pampe, who still has his original copy of the catechism from when he joined the QOR in 1998.

Celebrating a nation-building battle

So significant is this year of Canadian military anniversaries that some Army Reservists are taking their Regimental chronicles on field trips to two Fenian Raids celebrations.

Soldiers from the 30th Field Artillery Regiment of Ottawa fired a 19th century cannon at Fort Wellington, Ontario on May 28, after a cenotaph ceremony commemorating the raids. On the June 4 anniversary of the Battle of Ridgeway, the QOR, along with the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry and in partnership with the town of Fort Erie, will celebrate that nation-building battle. 

As Ms. Davies explained, the Town of Fort Erie wished to thank the descendants of the regiments that protected local citizens 150 years ago.

“The battle has been called ‘The Battle that created Canada.’ This conflict, and actually losing the battle but not the war, was a catalyst for Confederation. It made people think, ‘Oh we should band together as a country and have our own defence and our own military,’” said Ms. Davies.

Ms. Davies, along with Jude Scott, has compiled a book of quotes and watercolour paintings on the Fenian Raids, which will be featured in a six-month exhibit at the Canadian War Museum, timed for the 150th celebration of Canada.

The Battle of Ridgeway

On June 1, 1866, the Fenian army of more than a thousand soldiers, which would soon grow to 2,000, crossed the Niagara River and captured Fort Erie.

Led by Lieutenant-Colonel Alfred Booker, 850 Canadians clashed with the Fenians on Ridge Road the next day in what would become known as the first modern industrial-era battle to be fought and led exclusively by Canadians. Despite the inexperience of the troops, many of them University of Toronto students just pulled from final exams, they performed well under fire, according to historic accounts from the time.

However, the anticipated reinforcement of another 600 British and Canadian troops, under Lieutenant-Colonel George Peacocke, would never reach the battle.  Lieutenant-Colonel (Ret’d) Dan Mackay, former commanding officer and long-time historian for The Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa (Duke of Edinburgh's Own) explained that LCol Peacocke was using a map showing all the postal routes, which were not necessarily the most direct.

“Moreover, he did not have any cavalry, which could have provided him with valuable intelligence, including where the Canadian Militia force was located, as well as the Fenian Force, and the best route to join up with them.”

The absence of LCol Peacocke and his troops, poor communications and a questionable order to prepare for cavalry led to a Canadian defeat at Ridgeway. Nine Canadians were killed and 32 wounded. Another eight soldiers died within the year following the battle due to disease from contaminated drinking water.

Earlier Fenian Raids on the East Coast

Prior to the Battle of Ridgeway were the April 1866 Fenian Raids off the coast of New Brunswick.

Dr. Lee Windsor, Fredrik S. Eaton Chair in Canadian Army Studies at the University of New Brunswick and former member of the 8th Canadian Hussars (Princess Louise’s) said the well-established New Brunswick militia, in place since 1793 and reinforced after 1812, mobilized quickly to deter the threat against the maritime region of what was soon to become Canada.

“The story most people know is that British military presence deterred the Fenians. The story that’s not normally included is that the mobilization of the New Brunswick militia also deterred them at every potential entry-point into the province,” he explained. “The New Brunswick militia was rock-solid. It had been well-established for a long time.”

The Fenian threat eventually ended in 1871 after two further unsuccessful attacks in Quebec and Manitoba.

The Fenian Raids of 1866 and the Confederation of Canada in 1867 stand side-by-side in the calendar. Like the Canadian Army Reserve’s unflagging preservation of the parallel histories of their regiments and their country, one cannot be without the other.

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By Anne Duggan, Army Public Affairs

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