Between 1866 and the 1870s a small number of Irish nationalist exiles invaded British Canada several times from the United States in hopes of forcing Britain to grant Ireland its independence.
The Fenians failed; their attacks created new tensions between Canada and the United States but also sparked Canadian nationalism, helping secure support for the 1867 British North America Act that created modern Canada.
In 1857 refugees from the recent Irish Famine and supporters of the Young Ireland movement met in New York City to enlist Irish immigrants to help throw off centuries of British rule. Named for an ancient Irish hero, the Fenian Brotherhood would, by 1864, boast 10,000 members, including a women’s auxiliary.
From the beginning, the Fenians were plagued with internal leadership squabbles and were denounced by most of the Irish Roman Catholic priesthood. The American Civil War, however, presented an opportunity. For years, Americans had greedily eyed British Canada.
As Britain outraged the Union by deviously assisting the Confederacy, influential Americans called for troops to “destroy the last vestiges of British rule on the American continent, and annex Canada...” The United States also punished Canada by canceling a 12-year-old free-trade agreement.
Canada, the Fenians decided, was the hated British Empire’s most vulnerable point. As the Civil War neared its end, Fenians recruited Irish-American Union soldiers into their own ranks. After weeks of rumors, armed Fenians in May 1866 invaded the tiny village of Fort Erie, Ontario, from a bivouac north of Buffalo and soon raised their flags on Canadian soil.
On June 2 a hastily assembled Canadian volunteer force clashed with the Fenians at Ridgeway, losing the battle and seven of their men. Almost simultaneously, Fenians invaded eastern Canada from northern New York and Vermont, briefly occupying several villages south of Montreal.
In these and later instances, U.S. officials acted ambivalently to Fenian attacks staged from American soil. After Ridgeway, a U.S. warship was waiting to arrest hundreds of Fenian fighters as they reentered the U.S. side of Lake Erie.
A week later President Andrew Johnson warned the Fenians against breaking U.S. neutrality laws. But to the extent that Irishmen had become a crucial voting bloc in the northeastern United States, politicians of both parties jostled for Fenian favor.
Democrat Johnson, in a losing effort to prevent the Republican congressional sweep of 1866, canceled Fenian prosecutions and asked the Canadians to go easy on their Fenian captives, promising to return seized Fenian arms.
Meanwhile, Canadian leaders, already negotiating the creation of the Dominion of Canada, made official in March 1867, were looking into military inadequacies revealed at Ridgeway.
Renewed Fenian attacks, near Montreal in 1870 and in Manitoba in 1871, were fairly easily put down by the reorganized and energized Canadian armed forces. These were the Fenian Brotherhood’s last serious threats to Canadian sovereignty.
The cause of Irish freedom continued despite the Fenian collapse, finding more successful venues and leaders. As the Fenian era ended, so, too, did efforts to claim Canadian territory for the United States. The 49th parallel between the two North American nations became a peaceful border.