On June 1, 1866, Canada was attacked by a military force which travelled in two rented tugs and some canal boats! The invaders were Fenians (see March 17) who sailed across the Niagara River to Fort Erie, Ontario! As nobody was awake, they had to knock on doors to get people up. They wanted Canadians to join them and be liberated from the “tyranny of Britain.” The good folks of Fort Erie couldn’t see things that way, but they wanted to be nice to the strangely dressed men carrying green flags with harps and gold crowns on them. They fed them cooked ham, tea and coffee.
The Fenians had intended to spread out through the Niagara Peninsula after landing at Fort Erie, but they had been up all night. The weather was warm, and so they lay down under the trees and slept for a while. The rest of the day was spent in handing out proclamations from “General” Sweezy and “General” O’Neill, saying that their only quarrel was with the oppressors of Ireland, and that they offered Canadians “the olive branch of peace and the honest grasp of friendship.”
Meanwhile, official opinion in Canada West (now Ontario) wasn’t friendly at all. The Queen’s Own Rifles of Toronto, the 13th Battalion from Hamilton, and a force of regulars from St. Catharines were rushed to the area. The Caledonian and York Rifles Companies also arrived. The Canadian troops had only thirty-five bullets each and no food or water. Some of their commanding officers had no experience in warfare and little military training.
The Fenians suddenly realized that the invasion was no picnic; there were already casualties. General O’Neill was hoping for reinforcements from Buffalo where 10,000 Fenians had assembled. They were having a good time listening to speeches and drinking whisky, and did not want to leave. The United States Government then decided that it had better do something, and sent an armed revenue cutter to patrol the Niagara River.
Some of the Fenians who had landed in Canada tried to swim back to the United States and were drowned. General O’Neill then shaved off his whiskers and fled in disguise. The tugs and canal boats came back and took off the rest of the force, towed by the American patrol boat. The skirmishing lasted until Sunday, June 3.
To read more about this, there are a few sites I recommend. A good place to begin is at CBC Learning, and the History of Canada Book Series to read book excerpt, then there’s another excerpt to be found at Russian Books.org. Another great site with great information, is Fenian Raid. Then there’s the Queen’s Own Rifles for another good site. You will also want to click your way to Ridgeway Battle.
Prefer to hold an actual book to read about this? No problem. There’s The History Of Canada Series: The Last Act: Pierre Trudeau, the Gang of Eight, and the Fight for Canada, and Troublous Times in Canada, a History of the Fenian Raids of 1866 and 1870.