The Fenian Raids in 1866 and Confederation

28 10 2011


Toronto-based history blogger Laura Fraser has posted a description of a  recent talk that took place at Toronto’s Fort York historic site. The subject was the Fenian Raids of 1866. In the aftermath of the American Civil War, the Fenians, a radical Irish-American organisation, decided to attack the British colonies in North America as a tactic for securing the independence of Ireland. Their raids, which culminated in the Battle of Ridgeway in June 1866, were a spectacular failure.

Laura reports that:

Last night’s session featured Christopher Moore, author of 1867: How the Fathers Made a Deal (M & S) in conversation with David A. Wilson, University of Toronto professor and author of the biography Thomas D’Arcy McGee (McGill-Queen’s University Press, volume 1: 2008, volume 2: 2011) and Peter Vronsky, author of Ridgeway: The American Fenian Invasion and the 1866 Battle that Made Canada (Penguin, 2011), the newest volume in Allen Lane’s History of Canada series.

Laura reports that the three speakers discussed the impact that the Fenian Raids, which are often considered little more than a footnote in Canadian history, had on Confederation, Canada’s political leaders, and the formation of Canada’s identity. Vronsky emphasized that the Battle of Ridgeway loomed large in the social memory of Canadians until it was displaced by the much bloodier battles of the First World War.

It sounds like it was an excellent talk. I wish that I could have been there. I was struck by one thing in Laura’s report of the discussion:

 both Wilson and Vronsky agreed that the Fenian invasion Ridgeway happened too late to have any signficant effect on the Confederation process

I’m not certain that this is the case, actually. It seems to me that the Fenian threat to the Maine-New Brunswick border did have an impact on the outcome of the 1866 election in New Brunswick, which saw the election of a pro-Confederation government. One of the leaders of the Anti-Confederation movement was Timothy Warren Anglin, who happened to be an Irish Catholic. During this crucial election, which coincided with the Fenian threat, Anglin’s pro-Confederation opponents repeatedly raised the question of his loyalty to the Crown, which implied that he was a supporter of the Fenians, who wanted an Irish republic, and the Americans who dreamt of annexing New Brunswick to their republic. In the crucial by-election in riding of York in the fall of 1865, the pro-Confederates exploited anti-Catholic sentiment quite effectively by linking Anglin and the Anti-Confederation cause more generally to Catholicism and Fenianism.  In this locality, at least, Protestant voters responded well to their message that either one was a supporter of the Crown and Confederation or one was a supporter of Irish Republicanism and annexation to the USA. This absurd argument, which was unfair to Anglin, helped to carry the day, install a pro-Confederation government in New Brunswick, and kick-start the whole Confederation process. I would, therefore, question the assertion that the Fenians had no impact on Confederation. One could argue that without the Fenian threat, Confederation would not have taken place.

You can read more of Laura’s report  here.

If this talk has been podcast, please let me know.




2 responses

28 10 2011
Laura Fraser

Hi Andrew – thanks for the mention! I don’t believe the talk was podcasted. I think you’re quite right about New Brunswick, and Wilson particularly noted that as an exception to that argument. Thanks for detailing it so well here.

29 10 2011

It is important to see Ridgeway in the context of the Campobello fiasco earlier in the year when the O’Mahoney faction within the American Fenian movement sought to invade New Brunswick (decidedly unsuccessfully) and also recognise that Ridgeway was part of a three-pronged Fenian invasion plan in 1866. The Fenian invasions of 1870 and 1871 also seem to be neglected but suggest that, at least from the perspective of New York Fenians, there was widespread Fenian support in Canada. How far the Fenian invasions influenced the development of Confederation is contested but what the threat did between 1866 and 1871 (and in fact beyond…a British warship was sent to Vancouver in 1885 when a Fenian attack was anticipated). That Confederation was already underway before Ridgeway is certain but the threat from Fenians may well have hardened support for Confederation and certainly played an important role in making it more acceptable after 1867.

You may find my new book Famine, Fenians and Freedom 1840-1882 that will be published next week useful on this issue and on placing events in Canada in the broader context of Fenianism as a global anti-colonial movement.

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