Thursday, June 2, 2016

The Battle of Ridgeway

It was on this day in 1866 that republicans and monarchists clashed at the town of Ridgeway, Canada. On the whole, it was not a good day for the monarchists but it was not so bad as it seemed either. This engagement took place during what is known as the Fenian Raids, a series of attacks on Canada by Irish and Irish-American forces, most of them veterans of the Union army in the recently ended Civil War in America calling themselves the "Irish Republican Army" (they were the first to use the term). The Fenians, of course, had been around for some time, trying to unite Irish nationalists for a war of liberation from the British Empire, never with much success. When the American Civil War ended, many Irish republicans saw a golden opportunity. The USA was awash in militant republican sentiment because of the war, was very cross with Britain over the perception of British sympathy for the Confederates and the use of British-built ships by the Confederate Navy to raid Union shipping. There were also large numbers of Irish and Irish-American soldiers who had fought in the war, mostly on the Union side, and who were experienced, veteran soldiers with little to do after the war was over. The Fenians would give them something to do.

The Fenians hatched a plot to invade Canada from the United States. With anti-British sentiment at such a peak in America, they doubted U.S. authorities would try very hard to stop them on the southern side of the border. Their plan was to invade Canada and conquer some portion of it which they would then, essentially, hold for ransom as a way to force the British to grant independence to Ireland. One could hardly imagine a more hair-brained and far-fetched idea if you tried, yet, to give the Irish republicans their due credit, they did manage to make an effort at it and were rather persistent as a number of these Fenian raids were launched over a number of years though none were ever successful. The Fenian Brotherhood in New York City organized the campaign, recruiting volunteers for their Irish Republican Army and enlisting experienced officers to lead these men. The man they found who would lead the IRA into the Battle of Ridgeway was Brigadier General John O'Neill, a Union cavalry officer and Civil War veteran. Unfortunately for the Fenians, in America just as in Ireland, they were terrible at keeping secrets and the British were very good and finding out what they were up to.

British troops in Canada were put on the alert and the Canadian militia was called out to defend the country. On June 1, General O'Neill and his force of a little over a thousand Irish troops cross the Niagara River into southern Canada. Not everyone was optimistic about their chances for success though and a great many deserted before ever seeing action so that the force O'Neill ultimately led into battle had been reduced to between 6-700 men. Some additional Fenian men and supplies were stopped from crossing the river by U.S. naval forces and efforts to encourage the locals of Ridgeway to join their cause were unsuccessful (today Ridgeway is an unincorporated village of the 'Town of Fort Erie' in Ontario). After approaching the town of Ridgeway, O'Neill's men clashed with a group of 850 Canadian militiamen led by Lt. Colonel Alfred Booker of the 13th Battalion of Hamilton. More British troops were moving in to confront the invaders but, at Ridgeway, it would be Booker and his 850 men that O'Neill and his 6-700 would have to contend with. The Canadian troops were solid fellows but were militiamen and inexperienced. That would prove a critical shortcoming.

As the two forces met and battle ensued, the Crown forces seemed to be having the better time early on. They had their enemy outnumbered and were driving back the skirmishers that O'Neill had in advance of his main line. When the bulk of both sides got into the battle, each seemed to be doing pretty well. However, something went wrong on the Canadian side and historians to this day still debate what precisely that "something" was. In any event something caused confusion on the Canadian side and that confusion spread. General O'Neill spotted this moment of weakness and took advantage of it, ordering a bayonet charge. The Irish troops burst forward and the Canadian militia fell into a panic and retreated, leaving the field to the victorious Fenians.

The Canadians lost 9 killed and 37 wounded in the Battle of Ridgeway while the Fenians lost about 5 killed and 16 wounded. It was a tactical victory for the Irish republicans but not a decisive one. They still had superior British-Canadian forces closing in on them and General O'Neill could see that this invasion was not going to work. In the aftermath, he retreated, abandoning the ground his men had won and withdrawing back across the border to the United States where they were disarmed and taken into custody by the American authorities. In the end, none of the Fenian Raids ever amounted to very much but the Battle of Ridgeway does stand out as one of the few battlefield victories for the Irish republican cause. It should also serve as a lesson to those in other countries, like Canada, of the danger of showing sympathy for their type. I would also add, as I have mentioned before, that I have more respect for the Irish Republican Army of the Fenian Raids than I ever could for the more recent forces to have taken that title. I completely disagree with their overall purpose but I cannot but admire their audacity and, unlike the cowardly killers of the PIRA and their sort, the IRA that fought at Ridgeway were armed men, wearing uniforms, meeting other armed men in uniforms on the field of battle. They were not cowards who hid their faces, blending in with civilians, to make bomb attacks on innocent people. They may not have won, but they did not dishonor themselves by their methods either.

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