John O’Neill fulfilled his boyhood dream as he marshaled an 800-man army to the war front in the final hours of May 1866. The Celtic blood of the Irish-born soldiers coursed just a little quicker as they embarked on an expedition they hoped would ultimately result in the eviction of the British from their homeland after 700 years of foreign occupation. “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,” O’Neill declared. “For this I live, and for this if necessary I am willing to die.”
In the spring of 1866, a band of Irish-Americans who fought on both sides of the Civil War united to undertake one of the most fantastical missions in military history: invade the British province of Canada, seize the territory and ransom it back to the British for Ireland’s independence.
While the United States and its northern neighbor currently share the longest peaceful international border in the world, that wasn’t always the case. During America’s first century, the U.S. and Canada were uneasy neighbours. Armed conflicts erupted periodically along the boundary line, which was a no-man’s land frequented by counterfeiters and smugglers. American anger toward Canada surged during the Civil War when it became a haven for draft dodgers, escaped prisoners of war and Confederate agents who plotted hostile covert operations—including raids on border towns, the firebombing of New York City and the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.
To the Irish-American members of the Fenian Brotherhood, which sought to end 700 years of colonial rule by England in Ireland, Canada was a natural target. Why? Because it was the nearest parcel of the British Empire to the U.S.
Like many Fenians, John O’Neill could never forgive the British for the horrors he had witnessed as a boy coming of age during An Gorta Mór. After Ireland had endured seven centuries of attempts by its occupying neighbour to exterminate its culture, many Irish saw the lackluster British response to their catastrophic potato crop failure in 1845 as nothing less than an endeavor to eradicate them altogether.
Radicalised by the An Gorta Mór and his grandfather’s tales of 17th-century ancestors who dared to take up arms against the Crown, the teenaged O’Neill joined hundreds of thousands of Irishmen fleeing to the United States. When the Civil War broke out, he joined the Union Army, sustained serious injuries during the siege of Knoxville and had a horse shot out from under him during the Peninsular Campaign.
That conflict, however, served as a training ground for the real war he wished to wage—a revolution to overthrow British rule in Ireland.
The simple logic of attacking the British just over the American border—rather than an ocean away in Ireland—seduced O’Neill to join the Fenian Brotherhood. “Canada is a province of Great Britain; the English flag floats over it and English soldiers protect it,” he wrote. “Wherever the English flag and English soldiers are found, Irishmen have a right to attack.”
Summoned to the battlefront in late May 1866, O’Neill left behind his wife, 2-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 1 June 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.
Source | History