Border Raids Promoted Confederation in Canada
By Howard Morton Brown
Carleton Place Canadian, 17 March, 1966
Community preparations for Confederation Centennial Celebrations are on the way throughout Canada. They have begun already to reflect a new degree of the energy and self-respect gained by every nation which honours its great men and their deeds, and by every district and community which shows a sense of pride in its past accomplishments and a confidence in its future.
The uniting of Canada from the Atlantic to the West, and then to the Pacific and the Arctic Oceans, was not heralded only by the wise plans of our elected representatives, bewhiskered and top-hatted, meeting a century ago in sessions of hard bargaining and minor ceremony. It came first from urgent needs of the town and country people of Ontario and Quebec, and those of the Atlantic provinces. Their most pressing needs had become those of sheer self-preservation in a time of increasing difficulty. The way out was seen at last to be a joining of British North American colonies into a confederation having the strength and will to survive and grow. The amazing transformation which was to appear across much of the northern half of North America in the short space of one hundred years remained undreamed in the land which was to become second in geographical size to only the present union of Russia and second in material standards of living to only its United States southern neighbour.
The most dramatic of the pressures which rallied public unity and led to the forming of the infant federal union was one which came particularly close to home in this part of Canada. It was a threat of long standing which reached its final stage in the last attacks to be made on our borders by armed forces of an enemy. Canadian preparations and United States vaccilation reduced these last American-based assaults upon Canada to the proportions of guerrilla raids, made in the year before Confederation and renewed four years later. They were met and repelled by our own volunteer soldiers, backed and aided by British troops. These exploratory tests, launched with the ill-concealed encouragement of United States advocates of northern expansion, hastened and strengthened the Confederation which molded Canada into a nation united from its outset by fires of adversity.
The attempted Canadian invasions of 1866 and 1870 remain well remembered in local traditions in Ontario and Quebec as the now remote Fenian Raids. Their backgrounds lay in the destructive horrors of the United States Civil War, which in 1861 introduced a decade of crisis in Canada. Northern United States attitudes and conduct on the high seas, coupled with the needs of trade, brought immediate critical relations between Great Britain and the United States and the first large scale organization of a trained Canadian volunteer militia.
Apprehension remained at the end of the American Civil War in 1865 that restless Northern elements might turn to the harassment of their Canadian and other British colonial neighbours. The move from the United States soon came. It centered in an organization calling itself the Fenian Brotherhood, formed to promote by force the separation of Ireland from Great Britain. Members of this Irish separatist group in the United States were joined at the end of the Civil War by thousands of demobilized Irish Americans and other unsettled adventurers ready for further military action.
Their leaders late in 1865 put in motion ambitious plans for raising a private army of sufficient strength to conquer and subvert at least a part of the adjoining British colonies. They arrogantly claimed that, after conversion of these supposedly downtrodden colonies into a free Irish republic, their Irish Canada with the aid of other nations would drive the British eventually by force of arms from the motherland of Ireland.
The president of the United States was the deplorable and later impeached Andrew Johnson of Tennessee. United States government authorities appeared to ignore and failed to stop the arming and drilling of thousands of American Fenian recruits at points extending from New Brunswick’s borders to the Niagara and western river frontiers of Canada. Our Canadian government late in 1865 assigned volunteer militia units to several months of winter guard duty at Prescott, Niagara, Windsor and Sarnia. The Brockville Rifle Company also served on night guard at Brockville from December until the first general call to the frontier in the following March. A year earlier it had been one of the units of the forces guarding western points from Amherstburg to Sarnia, to prevent any repetition of a secretly planned Confederate raid from the Canadian side such as had been made on St. Albans, Vermont.
The Fenian forces gathered and were armed in the spring of 1866 at border mustering centres including Calais and Eastport in Maine, St. Albans and other places in northern Vermont, and in upper New York State at Malone, Potsdam and Ogdensburg and Cape Vincent, Oswego and Rochester. Western and southern Fenian contingents arrived at Detroit, Cleveland, Toledo, Erie and Buffalo. When a New Brunswick Fenian foray was blocked by both British and United States naval and military intervention, a three-pronged campaign against Canada was prepared. One force was to enter at Fort Erie and cut canal and railway communications. One was to cross at Prescott with Ottawa as its objective. The third hoped to advance through the Eastern Townships on Montreal.
The Canadian government of the united present provinces of Ontario and Quebec had introduced an urgent militia bill when the early border stresses of the Civil War appeared. It was designed to provide for a trained force of 50,000 men, raised by selective service if necessary, as compared to a number of not more than five thousand volunteers covered by the initial Canadian military training law of 1855. The government was defeated on this conscription issue of 1862 but militia expansion began. A similar act was passed at a later stage of the American war. Voluntary enlistments and Fenian defeats made it unnecessary to invoke its provisions of compulsion for the balloted enrolments, which were initiated but not enforced.
Defence action in 1866 began against threatened March attacks which failed to materialize. Ten thousand volunteers were called up at militia centres throughout the area of Ontario and Quebec, then in its last year as the Province of Canada. The greater part of this number was dispatched to guard the united province’s long and vulnerable southern approaches. Fourteen thousand men had responded to the call. Among those alerted for action were seven Lanark and Leeds companies forming a provisional battalion under Major James Crawford of Brockville. It was composed of the rifle and infantry companies of both Perth and Brockville, the Carleton Place Rifle Company under Captain James C. Poole, the Almonte Infantry Company under Captain James D. Gemmill, and the Gananoque Rifle Company. Severe cold and several weeks of frosty Canadian guard and drilling duties postponed the Fenian invasion.
The Main Attack
The main attack came three months later when an advance contingent of more than one thousand Fenians, led by their general John O’Neill, crossed the Niagara River by boat from Buffalo and entered Canada at the first of June near Fort Erie. They were met the next day by a slightly larger force of Canadian militiamen. In the Battle of Ridgeway and in a Fort Erie engagement, Canadian casualties were about ten killed and forty wounded. Among those of the ranks of the Queen’s Own Rifles killed in the action at Ridgeway was John H. Mewburn, university student, age 21, only son of Harrison C. Mewburn who at this time was headmaster of the Carleton Place grammar school. With losses close to twice the Canadian number and with laggard American military prevention of their reinforcement, the Fenians withdrew across the river.
From Vermont about one thousand of the Fenians who had gathered at St. Albans entered the Eastern Townships on June 4. Until effective Canadian forces reached the area, they plundered the neighbourhood of Frelighsburg, Pigeon Hill, and St. Armand for several days. With slight losses they withdrew due to lack of reinforcements. After the launching of these unsuccessful Canadian raids, American authorities tardily disarmed and dispersed the main border forces of these invaders, and charged and released on bail a number of their leaders.
The thrust of the third prong of Fenian attack, intended along the St. Lawrence front between Kingston and Cornwall, failed to develop when all troops available in the area of Eastern Ontario were placed on active service to oppose it. Militia companies and units of British regiments joined in the defence of Kingston, Prescott and Cornwall, in all about three thousand at Kingston, two thousand at Prescott and two thousand at Cornwall. Brockville river front and railway communications were protected by the provisional battalion which already had been called up in March, formed of the Brockville, Perth, Carleton Place, Almonte and Gananoque companies. Most of the Canadian militia at the end of the 1866 Fenian Raids was released after about three weeks’ active service. The remainder continued on guard duty for periods up to six months.
United States authorities provided railway transportation for some thousands of the Fenian forces to their home towns from points including Buffalo, Malone and St. Albans. A July resolution passed by the House of Representatives reflected United States attitudes by recommending suspension of proceedings in the United States courts on all charges against Fenians wherever possible and sought release of Canada’s Fenian prisoners who had been captured in their unprovoked armed assaults upon this province.
The prisoners captured at Fort Erie were removed to Toronto where on preliminary inquiry about forty were discharged and deported. Trials of forty remanded prisoners opened in Toronto in October before Mr. Justice John Wilson and a jury, and continued until January. The judge, a native of Lanark County, had himself in his youth been tried as a principal in the fatal Wilson-Lyons duel at Perth. Half of these accused were acquitted. The remainder, convicted of high treason in the case of British subjects and the rest under a law passed for such cases during the Canadian Rebellion period, were sentenced to be hanged. After several of the convictions were appealed unsuccessfully, the sentences all were commuted to varying terms of imprisonment in Portsmouth Penitentiary at Kingston, and within a few years the last had been released. Three of six convicted Missiquoi County Fenian prisoners also had been sentenced to be hanged, when fourteen had been tried at Sweetsburg.
One of the Canadian estimates of this time of stress was that of Captain James Poole in his Carleton Place Herald. While advocating moderation in punishment of the captured “dastard Fenian foes”, he declared in retrospect:
“Brother Jonathan has had his eye on Canada for a long time past, and though we read much about ‘friendly relations’ they exist only on paper. Both the American government and Press have done all they could, with safety to themselves, to encourage the Fenians in an attack on Canada. Had they not been afraid of a growl from the British Lion they would have done more.”