Tuesday, October 2, 2007

The Fenian Raids 1866-1870

A Fenian Soldier

The Fenian Brotherhood started in Ireland to promote armed rebellion against British rule there and quickly spread to the United States where it met with sympathy from state and federal politicians. As the rebellion in Ireland failed to develop, the American wing began to see British North America as a potential object of attack. The Frontier Police force in Canada was soon re-organized to deal with this new threat and began collecting information on both sides of the border relating to the activities of the Fenians.

Despite dreams of large scale invasions, the Fenians never mounted more than small border raids, the largest being at Fort Erie in June of 1866.
One thousand men crossed the Niagara River and moved inland until they ran into a body of militia. After a short skirmish at Ridgeway the militia retreated. Within a day, news of approaching militia and British regulars convinced the invaders to retreat over the border again.

Field Marshal Garnet Wolseley, who served in Canada for nine years, assessed the country's military preparedness at that time: "The Canadians are a splendid race of men and they make first rate soldiers; but officers accustomed to command, or who were even instructed in the art of commanding were then few." Nevertheless, the Canadians took up their positions at the border and waited.

Due in some part to the unifying effect the Fenian threat had on their Canadian subjects, the British passed the British North America Act in 1867, creating the Dominion of Canada. Shortly after the new nation was established, the British government began to withdraw the Regular garrisons at Kingston and Quebec. Clearly the Dominion of Canada was expected to provide for its own defense. Accordingly, Canada passed the first Militia Act in 1868, under which an administrative system was established to train and organize a 40,000-member militia force.

John David Hillman’s obituary in the Rodney newspaper refers to his service in 1870. I am still working on finding out what militia company he served with.

The effects of the Fenian raids were profound. They provided the impetus to create the Canadian union in 1867. Also, the response by Canadians to recruitment speaks of a change in the views of Canadians. By the 1860’s many Canadian families like the Hillman’s were second or third generation. Their focus and energies was in Ontario not England or Scotland. I tend to view the Fenian raids and one step towards a Canadian nationalism that became evident by the time of Vimy Ridge in 1917.