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«Combat, Memory and Remembrance in Confederation Era Canada: The Hidden History of the Battle of Ridgeway, June 2, 1866 Peter Wronski (Peter Vronsky) ...»

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Benedict Maryniak, The Fenian Raid and Battle of Ridgeway June 1-3, 1866, http://www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~dbertuca/g/FenianRaid.html [retrieved October 2008] Canada. Meade was ordered to ―take the best steps you can to prevent these expeditions from leaving the United States.‖72 So many Fenians had now assembled in Buffalo, that on May 31, the U.S. Attorney there William A. Dart, alerted the navy gunboat U.S.S. Michigan at Buffalo and ordered the closing of the port to outbound traffic between 4:00 P.M. and 9:00 A.M. and prohibited in other hours any outbound traffic without the vessel being first inspected by U.S. Customs.73 The Michigan was a formidable vessel, armed with a 64-pounder 8-inch pivot gun, a 30-pounder Parrott rifled gun, six 24-pounder Dahlgren smoothbore howitzers, five 20-pounder Parrott rifles, and two 12pounder Dahlgren boat howitzers but as we will see below, the Fenians were prepared for it.74 With this developing alert, Sweeny now had to act before U.S. authorities shut his operation down completely. Despite the fact that the Fenian forces had not assembled as planned on the other points of the frontier, or perhaps to inspire them to mobilize faster, Sweeny now telegraphed the attack code signal to the central invasion wing assembled in Buffalo: ―You may commence work‖ with Sweeny‘s initials reversed ―S.W.T.‖75 General John O‟Neill: “The High Priest of Fenianism” When Fenian General William F. Lynch failed to appear at Cleveland to lead the centre wing, Sweeny turned at the last minute to the most senior available Fenian officer on location, a former U.S. Cavalry captain, the thirty-two year old John O‘Neill, a colonel commanding the Thirteenth Fenian Regiment of Nashville Tennessee, who had arrived by train with his men the day Grant to Meade, May 30, 1866, Telegrams Collected, Records of the Office of the Secretary of War, RG 107, National Archives Building, Washington D.C. NARA [s.n.] The Fenian Raid at Fort Erie, Toronto: W.C. Chewett & Co., 1866, p. 30 [hereinafter ―Chewett‖] Bradley Alan Rodgers, Guardian of the Great Lakes: The U.S. paddle frigate Michigan and iron archetype on the Inland Seas, doctoral dissertation, Cincinnati OH: Union Institute, 1994, p. 308 Grant to Meade, May 30, 1866, Telegrams Collected before.76 Sweeny promoted O‘Neill to General and put him in command of the invasion on the Niagara frontier. Much of what will happen to the Canadians at Ridgeway will have to do with the skills and character of John O‘Neill. Sweeny could not have chosen a better field commander for the task.

John O‘Neill was born March 9, 1834 in Drumgallon, County Monaghan, Ireland. His widowed mother immigrated to the United States in search of better opportunities, leaving John in the care of his paternal grandfather who engaged a private tutor to educate him in the fear that a national school would endanger his Catholic faith. John arrived in the U.S. to join his mother with the famine migrations in 1848 at the age of fourteen and completed one more year of schooling in Elizabeth, New Jersey.77 O‘Neill travelled as a sales agent for Catholic publishing houses. In 1855 he opened a Catholic Book Store in Richmond, Virginia and while residing there became a member of the ‗Emmet Guard‘ then the leading Irish nationalist organization in that region. In 1857 he gave up his business and joined the U.S. Cavalry, fighting in the Second Mormon War in Utah in 1858-1859. Afterwards he went off to California to seek his fortune.

When the Civil War broke out, O‘Neill joined the 7th Michigan Cavalry as a sergeant and served in the Army of Potomac‘s Peninsula Campaign in Virginia in 1862. After the withdrawal of the army from the peninsula, he was commissioned as a lieutenant and dispatched to Indiana, where he was retained for some time as instructor of cavalry, drilling the officers of a force then being raised for defence against incursions of Confederate guerrillas. He subsequently entered the 5th Indiana Cavalry and served with that regiment 1863-1864 in Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee.

Sweeny, Official Report, Denieffe pp. 259-260 Gerald R. Noonan ―General John O'Neill‖, Clogher Record, Vol. 6, No. 2 (Clogher Historical Society: 1967), pp.

277-319 O‘Neill developed a reputation as an anti-insurgency specialist and was tasked to hunt down the legendary Confederate guerrilla cavalry commander Brigadier General John Hunt Morgan, whose Morgan‘s Raiders terrorized Ohio riding in as deep as the suburbs of Cincinnati in July 1863. On July 19 Morgan was crossing from Ohio into West Virginia over Buffington Bar in the Ohio River with 2,460 men, artillery and plunder when they were charged by O‘Neill with 50 horsemen. The attack was so sudden and savage that 600 of Morgan‘s Raiders were driven towards nearby U.S. Navy gunboats which took them into captivity and Morgan was forced to abandon his guns and supplies, surrendering several days later.78 O‘Neill distinguished himself as an aggressive cavalry officer cutting down his enemies with his sabre in an era in which cavalry charges were few and rare. His feats would be mentioned in dispatches several times.79 His men were quoted as saying, ―We know of seven rebels he has killed with his own hands. We know he charged and put to rout 200 rebels with 33 men. We know he charged two regiments of Morgan‘s command with fifty men, and took three of their guns. Let every officer in the service do that well, and the privates will soon finish the balance.‖80 In December 1863 O‘Neill was heavily wounded at the battle of Walker‘s Ford on the Clinch River in east Tennessee.81 Frustrated by his lack of promotion, at his own request O‘Neill was appointed captain in the 11th U.S. Colored Infantry, and was detailed to the Military Examining board, sitting at Nashville, Tennessee.82 He was promised the colonelcy of a black regiment of cavalry but the organization of these troops was dispensed with towards the close of C.P. Stacey, John O‘Neill: The Story of the Fenian Paladin, citing War of the Rebellion, Official Records, pp.





367-9 C.P. Stacey, John O‘Neill: The Story of the Fenian Paladin, [unpublished manuscript], n.d., C.P. Stacey Papers, University of Toronto Archives. Stacey cites, War of the Rebellion, Official Records, Series I, Vol 23, Part i pp.

367-9 Report of Colonel Felise W. Graham (O‘Neill killed two with his sabre);

John Savage, Fenian Heroes and Martyrs, Boston: Patrick Donahoe, Franklin Street, 1868. p. 385 C.P. Stacey, John O‘Neill, citing War of the Rebellion, Official Records vol 31 Part I, p. 429 C.P. Stacey, John O‘Neill, citing Official Records, Series III, Vol 4, pp. 766-767 the war. 83 As O‘Neill‘s wound becoming troublesome, he resigned his commission in November 1864 and married May Crowe of San Francisco that month.84 Settling at first in Pulaski, Tennessee, O‘Neill opened a military service claims office, assisting demobilized veterans with their claims. While his previous Fenian activities are unknown, in May 1865, O‘Neill moved to Nashville where he founded a Fenian circle. As his biographer C. P. Stacey commented, ―O‘Neill did not originate these notions, but he became their high priest...‖85 On May 27, 1866 in answer to Sweeny‘s call, O‘Neill and his 115 strong Nashville IRA ―regiment‖ (really of slightly more than company strength) left by train first for Louisville Kentucky, where he joined another Fenian unit and then onto Cleveland before they finally rolled into the outskirts of Buffalo in the early morning of May 30.86 Despite months of reports from secret agents in Buffalo of the loading of weapons and large assemblies and movement of Fenians, everyone from Macdonald, McMicken, MacDougall and Napier in Canada to U.S. Secretary of State Seward and U.S. Army commanders, all by late May stubbornly refused to believe the continued warnings as anything other than just more ‗cry wolf‘, until the anti-Fenian Mayor of Buffalo, Chandler J. Wells and U.S. Attorney William Dart began telegraphing urgent alerts of the impending invasion to the mayors of Hamilton and Toronto on May 31.87 (At best, McMicken claimed he had urged MacDougall to deploy troops on May 30 (see above p. 71).) As thousands of Fenians continued converging in Buffalo behind him, O‘Neill suddenly led a force of about 1,000 men into Canada across the Niagara River in the early morning hours of June 1. As we will see below, over the next eight hours several Reid, p. 143; Scian Dubh [James McCarroll], Ridgeway: An Historical Romance of the Fenian Invasion of Canada, Buffalo, NY: McCarrol & Co, 1868. pp. 75-88; J.F. Dunn, ―Recollections of the Battle of Ridgeway‖, Welland County Historical Society Papers and Records, Vol 2, Welland Canada: 1926. pp. 50-52 Gerald R. Noonan, p. 279 C.P. Stacey, John O‘Neill, p. 18 Sweeny, Official Report, Denieffe pp. 259-260 Chewett, p. 29; Jenkins, Fenians and Anglo American Relations, p. 143 hundred more Fenians would follow, raising the number of total insurgents to perhaps as high as 1,300-1,500.

The Fenian army that crossed into Canada is frequently portrayed by historians as a farcical drunken Irish mob. Their plan is dismissed as sheer folly, their mission head-in-the cloud Celtic ‗exile-culture‘ romantic dreaming. Military historian James Wood recently commented

–  –  –

Ironically for my purposes, Wood is referring in the above quote to the Canadian citizen volunteer militia, and not the Fenians, but this thesis will demonstrate that when it comes to the Battle of Ridgeway, his observation will apply equally to both sides.

Wood, p. 11 Chapter 4: The Fenian Landing in Fort Erie Morning, June 1, 1866 On Thursday night of May 31/June 1, the Fenian forces assembling in Buffalo over the previous days gathered sufficient critical mass to embark across the Niagara River on their wing of the planned invasion of Canada. Their embarkation site was at Lower Black Rock, a riverfront industrial suburb on the mouth of the Erie Canal, approximately three miles north of Buffalo downriver. Here industrial works, blast furnaces, flour mills, grain elevators, breweries and wharfs were strung along a mill race on the American side of the river immediately north of Squaw Island.1 This was one of the narrower segments of the Niagara River in the Buffalo-Fort Erie sector of the U.S.-Canada border: approximately 800-1000 yards wide.

Two days earlier, Fenians working at the Pratt‘s Iron Furnace at Lower Black Rock (at the foot of Hertel Avenue in Buffalo today) chartered two steam tugs and four canal barges to ostensibly transport employees on a picnic to Falconwood, a resort and nature preserve on Grand Island. These vessels were delivered by their owner to Pratt‘s private dock which the Fenians overran on the night of the invasion. 2 The main landing zone for the Fenians was directly across the river from Pratt‘s dock on the Canadian side at the Lower Ferry Docks at Bowen Road, about a mile and a half north of the village of Fort Erie.3 (The docks were also locally called ―Freebury‘s Wharf‖, ―Shingle Dock‖ or ―Lanigan‘s Dock.‖)4 The invasion unfolded in three waves. At about midnight, the first wave consisting of an advance party led by O‘Neill‘s second-in-command Colonel George Owen Starr from Louisville, a former Union Army officer from 2nd U.S. Kentucky Cavalry crossed over, secured the landing

Buffalo City Map 1, Erie County 1866 Atlas, Stone and Stewart, 1866. Retrieved from:

http://www.historicmapworks.com/Map/U.S./38348/Buffalo+City+1/ Somerville, pp. 15-16 ―Map Illustrating the Fenian Raid‖ in, [s.n.] The Fenian Raid at Fort Erie, Toronto: W.C. Chewett & Co., 1866.

p. 97 C.M. Sinclair, ―The Fenian Raid of 1866‖, Toronto Globe, May 31, 1902.

area and charged into Fort Erie in an attempt to seize the ferry docks and railway yards there. It consisted of a hundred men from the Seventeenth Fenian Regiment of Kentucky, reinforced by two companies from Indiana: a total of approximately 244 men in total.5 On their way into Fort Erie the advance party attempted to seize tools and horses, which slowed their advance.6 A group of young men from the country who were spear-fishing on the riverbank by torch light had spotted Starr‘s unit crossing the river. They immediately rode off into the village hammering on their wagon boxes and raising the alarm at every house they passed along the road. Soon columns of villagers filled the road driving their horses and livestock out of town away from the advancing Fenians. The reports of Fenian forces gathering in Buffalo had been drifting back to Fort Erie for days and few locals were caught unprepared that night.7 While the U.S. Attorney‘s May 31 order restricted all river traffic from Buffalo to Canada to inspection during the day and completely prohibited all outbound traffic at night, inbound traffic from Canada was not embargoed.8 Many of the villagers crossed over by ferry and by smaller boats to the American side and sought safety in Buffalo.9 Those unable to escape sought refuge in the home of Freeman Blake, the U.S. Consul in Fort Erie.10 Others drove their horses, wagons and cattle west out of town, along a well developed grid of county concession roads heading inland away from the leading edge of the Fenian advance from the river.

E. A. Cruickshank, ―The Fenian Raid of 1866‖,Welland County Historical Society Papers and Records, Vol 2, Welland Canada: 1926. p. 21; Beatty, Fenian Raid 1866, pp. 13-14; George Wells, ―The Fenian Raid in Willoughby‖, Welland County Historical Society Papers and Records, Vol 2, Welland Canada: 1926. p. 57; see also: Freeman N. Blake, U.S. Consul Fort Erie to William Seward, Secretary of State, June 20, 1866, printed enclosure of Detective Armstrong to Colonel Lowry, June 7, 1866: Despatches From U.S. Consuls in Fort Erie Canada 1865-1906, Records of the Foreign Service Posts of the Department of State, 1788-1964, RG84; (National Archives Microfilm Publication T465, roll 1) National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD. [Hereinafter ―DFUSCF‖] ; Somerville, p. 16;

Somerville, p. 17; see also Thomas M. Molesworth, testimony, Queen v. Robert Lynch, DFUSCT roll 1 E.A. Cruikshank, ―The Fenian Raid of 1866‖, Welland County Historical Society Papers and Records, Vol 2, Welland Canada: 1926. p. 24 W.C. Chewett, The Fenian Raid at Fort Erie, Toronto: [s.n.], 1866. p. 30 Somerville, p. 29 Blake to Seward, June 20, 1866: DFUSCF roll 1.



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