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When Irish-Americans Attacked Canada—With the White House's Blessing

March 14, 2019 in History

By Christopher Klein

It was one of the most audacious acts of the Irish-American members of the Fenian Brotherhood.

In the spring of 1866, a band of Irish-Americans who fought on both sides of the , that had been built in British ports. In addition, many Americans hoped Canada would become the next territory to be absorbed by the United States as it fulfilled its expansionist Manifest Destiny. The U.S. govern­ment sold surplus weapons to the Irish militants, and Johnson met personally with their leaders, reportedly giving them his implicit backing. The Irishmen were free to establish their own state in exile—complete with their own president, constitution, currency and capital in the heart of New York City.

READ MORE: How Stereotypes of the Irish Evolved from Criminals to Cops

First forays across the border were victorious.

Summoned to the battlefront in late May 1866, O’Neill left behind his wife, two-month old son and business worth $50,000 in Nashville to attack Canada. When the invasion’s commanders failed to show in Buffalo, New York, O’Neill was given the reins to the 800-man attack force, which called itself the Irish Republican Army.

In the early morning hours of June 1, 1866, O’Neill fulfilled a lifelong dream by leading his men across the Niagara River and the international border. “The governing passion of my life apart from my duty to my God is to be at the head of an Irish Army battling against England for Ireland’s rights,” he declared. “For this I live, and for this if necessary I am willing to die.”

O’Neill proved to be a talented commander and tactician when he confronted a combined British and Canadian force the following day outside the village of Ridgeway, 20 miles south of Niagara Falls. Although outnumbered, the grizzled army of Civil War veterans used its experience to rout a makeshift defense force that included farm boys and University of Toronto students who had never once fired a gun. O’Neill followed that up with another triumph in a guerilla fight through the streets of Fort Erie.

It marked the first Irish military victory over forces from the British Empire since 1745.

READ MORE: 7 Times the U.S.-Canada Border Wasn’t So Peaceful

A cartoon illustrating a Canadian kicking a representative of the Irish Fenian movement out of Canada and back to America where President Grant is waiting.

Failures followed.

The attack made front-page news across the country, and Irish-Americans …read more


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