The American Civil War and Fenian Raids: Ontario During the American Civil War Era - Page Banner

The Union, the Confederacy and Foreign Relations


Building the Grand Trunk Railway Bridge, Kingston Mills, 1856
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Building the Grand Trunk Railway Bridge,
Kingston Mills, 1856
Thomas Burrowes
Watercolour
Reference Code: C 1-0-0-0-76
Archives of Ontario, I0002195

Ontario, then Canada West, experienced a period of peace and prosperity during the 1850s and early 1860s, although war was not far away. The Reciprocity Treaty [free trade] with the United States and the demand for agricultural production arising from Great Britain’s war with Russia (the Crimean War, 1854-1856) raised incomes in the Canadas.

Although technically at war with Russia as part of the British Empire, Canada West’s direct involvement in that conflict was limited. Relations with the United States were greatly improved over earlier periods and the Reciprocity Treaty signed in 1854 ensured a regular market for Canadian produce.

The Civil War in the United States between the 11 states that formed the Confederacy and the Federal government had a direct impact on the people of Canada West. The demand for agricultural production increased as the American government purchased supplies to feed the northern armies. Although it was illegal under the Foreign Enlistment Act, Canadians looking for excitement or adventure had the opportunity of joining the federal or confederate army (depending on their sympathies). Estimates vary but it is thought that up to 100,000 men from British North America served during the American Civil War, most in the Union Army.

Bertie Township assessment roll
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Bertie Township assessment roll
Reference Code: F 1537-3-0-7
Archives of Ontario

This image of a page from the 1864 Bertie Township assessment roll indicates that this municipal record was also used as a militia roll. The border town of Fort Erie is in Bertie Township.

Wartime also brought tensions along the borders between the United States and Canada. An incident in 1861 between an American naval vessel and a British mail ship brought the two countries close to war.

Although the dispute was settled more or less amicably, it brought military preparations along the border. Attempts were made by the authorities in Canada to make the militia more efficient and to improve their training.

As the war progressed other strains appeared. Confederate agents and escaped prisoners of war made their way to Toronto and Montreal and engaged in plots to attack the Federal authority from the north.This prompted demands for tighter security along the American side of the border, including the cancelling of the Reciprocity Treaty and the institution of passport controls on the border.

After a group of Confederates raided the border town of St. Albans, Vermont in 1864, the Canadian government set up the Frontier Police to ensure there was no recurrence. By the time the American war ended, relations between Canada and the United States were at a low point.

The Fenian Brotherhood


Fenian Raid Ribbon, 1866
Fenian Raid Ribbon, 1866
Henry Bull Wallis fonds
Reference Code: F 923
Archives of Ontario

The Fenian Brotherhood started in Ireland to promote armed rebellion against British rule there and quickly spread to the United States where it met with sympathy from state and federal politicians. As the rebellion in Ireland failed to develop, the American wing began to see British North America as a potential object of attack.

The Frontier Police force in Canada was soon re-organized to deal with this new threat and began collecting information on both sides of the border relating to the activities of the Fenians.

In the town of Welland a Committee of Safety was formed to scout the surrounding territory, searching for Fenian incursions against the Welland Canal.

Despite dreams of large scale invasions, the Fenians never mounted more than small border raids, the largest being at Fort Erie in June of 1866. One thousand men crossed the Niagara River and moved inland until they ran into a body of militia. After a short skirmish at Ridgeway the militia retreated. Within a day, news of approaching militia and British regulars convinced the invaders to retreat over the border again.

Although small in scale, the invasion and resulting rumours had a major impact. Reports of other border crossings poured into the Canadian government.

There were other raids against New Brunswick and the Eastern Townships of Quebec, but little fighting.

As a veteran of the Fenian Raids, Henry Bull Wallis of Richmond Hill, Ontario received this ribbon for service in the militia at the Battle of Ridgeway, near Fort Erie, in 1866 and the Canadian General Service medal below, issued in 1899, for service defending against another Fenian Raid in 1870.

Canadian General Service Medal, 1899 (reverse)
Canadian General Service Medal,1899 (front)
Henry Bull Wallis fonds
Reference Code: F 923
Archives of Ontario
I0029417
Canadian General Service Medal,1899 (front)
Canadian General Service Medal, 1899 (reverse)
Henry Bull Wallis fonds
Reference Code: F 923
Archives of Ontario
I0029416
Location Certificate, 1905


Long after the raids and border disturbances ended, the government sought to reward the men who had served on the militia.

The location certificate shown here, from the Archives of Ontario Poster Collection (C 233), is for a grant of land in 1905 to Charles Bonnycastle, a volunteer in the Canadian militia during the Fenian Raids. The immediate rationale for the land grant program was to recognize the soldiers who had recently fought in the Boer War in South Africa. The contributions of Fenian Raid veterans were also recognized and included in this land grant program. See also a description of the Fenian and South African land grant records in Series RG 1-99.

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Location Certificate, 1905
Archives of Ontario Poster Collection
Reference Code: C 233-1-3-2159
Archives of Ontario

Sources:


Robin Winks. Canada and the United States: The Civil War Years. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s Press, 1998.