New Dominion Repelled Fenian Raiders

Carleton Place Canadian, 12 May, 1966

By Howard Morton Brown


The testing of Canada’s defences at the time we were preparing to base our future on Confederation, and some of the men who shared in meeting that test, have been the subjects of the earlier parts of this story of the threats to Confederation known as the Fenian Raids.  The attacks on Canada made across its now undefended southern border in the memorable Confederation years, together with earlier risks of a recurrence of war with the United States, were among the impelling reasons for forming the federal union which is to be honoured in local and national centennial celebrations next year as the birth of our present nation.

The traditions of military service of the men of the Ottawa Valley had their beginnings in the stocks which first settled in the Valley.  Among them were many who both in Europe and North America had worn the King’s uniform in war, as had their ancestors.  The quartermaster general’s department of the forces of British North America had carried out the task of placing on their lands the large number of families of Scottish and Irish emigrants and demobilized soldiers brought here in the area’s formative years of 1816 to 1822.  Known first as the Rideau Military Settlements, this area became the judicial district of Bathurst, containing the greater part of Lanark and Carleton counties and of the later settled present county of Renfrew, with Perth as the judicial and district administrative seat of the district, which included the site of the future capital of Canada.

As confidently expected when the settlement of this area was planned after the War of 1812, its men were ready to serve their sovereign and their new homeland’s needs in the next calls to arms.  These came in attacks on Canada’s borders after the Canadian Rebellion and again after the United States Civil War, and finally in the great challenges of the past fifty years.

The Fenian Raids of 1866 had caused a further strengthening of the Canadian militia and a continued vigilance.  Among Eastern Ontario military units which were constituted then were the 41st and 42nd Battalions.  Both were groupings of militia companies which had been formed to help face the American pressures of the previous five years.  The six rifle companies designated as those of the areas of Brockville, Carleton Place, Gananoque, Merrickville, Pakenham and Perth became the 41st Battalion, Brockville Rifles, under Lieut. Colonel James D. Crawford.  The 42nd Battalion of Infantry, formed in October, 1866, under Lieut. Colonel Jacob D. Buell, was composed of the six infantry companies based on Almonte, Brockville, Fitzroy, Landsdowne, Perth and Smiths Falls.  These two officers contended for parliamentary seats in the first federal elections.  At Confederation, Colonel Crawford was elected to Parliament for the Brockville riding, a riding which in the next two elections was won by Colonel Buell.

In local promotions of November and December, 1866, Captain Poole of Carleton Place and Captain Gemmill of Almonte became majors of their battalions.  Lieutenant John Brown, Carleton Place merchant, became captain of this town’s  No. 5 Company.  Peter McDougall, textile manufacturer, was commissioned Captain of the Almonte company, with James Rosamond, junior, as lieutenant.  Continued company training, with quarterly inspections and annual summer battalion exercises, were carried on for general defence purposes and in anticipation of any further Fenian move.

A lighter side of militia service in the 1860’s is seen in a report of an evening gathering before the local companies left for their eight days of battalion training in June, 1868; when “the men of Carleton Place Rifle Company entertained their officers to a first class supper in Metcalf’s Hotel, in this village.  The room was tastefully decorated.  The proceedings wound up with a ball, to the tune of “We won’t go home till morning.”

At his year’s camp the men were “allowed one dollar per diem, out of which they pay for their rations, but as these are chiefly upon the club system they are enabled to save seventy-five cents a day.”  Major Poole, the Carleton Place Herald publisher, observed that they were “well trained, stout hearted brave boys who wished no better sport than balancing accounts with General O’Neil’s invading army.  The Fenians should be treated as ordinary ruffians.”  The Snider rifles, he added, were “the most effective weapons in the world.”  He is said to have provided some evidence of the latter claim himself in Brockville during the 1866 raids.  A somewhat improbable version of an 1866 episode of the guarding of the Brockville front, with Captain Poole named as star performer, was related in an Old Boys Reunion souvenir number of the Brockville Recorder forty years after the event.  Clearly improved with age and described by its contributor to be “undoubtedly true”, it claimed:

“All vessels passing the sentries on the docks were challenged.  One night a small scow was noticed passing up close to shore.  She was challenged by the sentry but he received no response from the scow.  The sentry was ordered to fire by Captain Poole, the officer in command.  He being averse to doing so, the Captain took the rifle and fired at the scow’s lantern.  The shot smased the lantern and cut the halter of a horse that was on deck.  The horse backed up and fell into the hold, breaking its leg.  The scow then came to shore and proved to be a smuggler, which accounted for the desire of its captain to escape close scrutiny.  Captain Poole paid for the horse.”

Carleton Place provided its battalion’s brass band, and in June, 1869, it was reported that “through the exertions of Lt. Colonel Crawford, M.P., 41st Battalion clothing and accoutrements have been obtained from the Government for the Band of the Battalion, whose headquarters are in Carleton Place.”  A remaining photograph of the band in uniform performing in front of a row of army tents, appears to have been made either during the yearly training period at Brockville in September 1869, or when on active service in 1870 at Cornwall.



The renewal of a military campaign against Canada was approved in secrecy at what was called the ninth annual convention of the Fenian Brotherhood, held in December, 1869, in the city of New York.  Every American state at that time was said to have been represented by delegates.  Arms and ammunition estimated as sufficient to equip fifteen thousand men were smuggled in the following spring to storage depots between Ogdensburg and St. Albans.  Malone and St. Albans were selected as main Fenian northern mustering bases.  Canadian detection of these preparations led to the posting of five thousand men for a short time in April on Quebec’s borders facing New York and Vermont, where crossings into Canada could be made without water transportation.  Additional units were placed at Windsor and Sarnia.

In May over a thousand Fenians under their military leader and brotherhood president John O”Neill gathered as a vanguard at Franklin, Vermont.  When a border crossing from this point was repelled at Eccles Hill in the last week of May, with Fenian casualties, their leader O’Neill was placed under arrest, on re-entering his home country in his hasty retreat.  A smaller Fenian contingent from Malone occupied an entrenched Trout River position inside the Huntingdon border from which it was expelled with even greater ease and a few casualties among the invaders.

The Fenian plans proved to be unsuccessful at every turn.  They were confined by much nearer to adequate United States government political and military intervention, and were blocked by thorough Canadian defence measures.  After the failure of their efforts a number of Fenian leaders were arrested by United States authorities.  “General” John O’Neill was sentenced to six months imprisonment.  His third and final filibuster was an 1871 attempt to lead an expedition into Manitoba in support of the program of Louis Riel.

Canadian militia forces were rushed to main Ontario river border points when the Fenians began their moves in May of 1870 into Quebec’s Eastern Townships.  Principal Ontario places of attack were expected to be on the St. Lawrence River front at Cornwall and Prescott.  Orders for Ontario Militia units to occupy defence posts from Cornwall to Sarnia were sent by telegraph on May 24th.  In Eastern Ontario, men throughout the Ottawa and St. Lawrence valleys, already alerted, left Victoria Day celebrations under active service orders.

To Be Continued….

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