In June of 1889, Timothy O’Leary was headed from Philadelphia to Montana where a reporter grabbed him to convey his story about his participation in the Fenian Raid and the Battle of Ridgeway in June 1-2, 1866.
O’Leary had served in the American Civil War, coming from his hometown in Queenstown, Co Cork, Ireland in 1862 to fight with the 69th New York, having read the newspaper accounts of this famed Irish Irish Brigade under General T.F. Meagher. Unfortunately, the brigade was not accepting enlistments, undeterred he joined Co E, 15th U.S. Regulars as a private. He participated at the Battles of Stone River, Chickamauga, where he received a gunshot wound to the breast, Missionary Ridge and Kennesaw Mountain, where he was shot through the foot. He later attainted the rank of lieutenant.
O’Leary was active with the Fenian Brotherhood, Roberts/Sweeney Wing and on June 1-2, 1866, O’Leary served as a major with the Fenian Brotherhood, Irish Republican Army, acting as John O’Neill’s adjutant, participating in the actions at Fort Erie and Ridgeway
He continued to be a military organizer for the Fenian Brotherhood, holding the position of Adjutant General with headquarters in New York and later was a colonel under O’Neill in the failed 1870 Fenian Raid into Frelighsburg, QC, Canada.
Here is the account of Fenian Veteran, Colonel Timothy O’Leary’ in his own words about the action of the Fenians at Fort Erie and Ridgeway:
“The Battle of Ridgeway – How Canada would have been Captured if the Men had been there – The Fenian Invasion of ‘66
A full account of the battle of Ridgeway has never been published. Fragmentary newspaper accounts of the first step in the Fenian invasion of Canada have appeared from time to time, but no connected story of how the Queen’s Own were beaten by Col O’Neill’s intrepid 500 had yet been put in type.
One of the more prominent actors in that raid in 1866 is Colonel Timothy O’Leary, who until recently was Post Office Inspector in Philadelphia. Colonel O’Leary a few days ago, just before his departure for Montana, where he will hereafter make his home, gave a reporter of the press a detailed account of that famous event.
Before giving Colonel O’Leary’s recital, a brief explanation of the objects of the Fenian uprising should be given for the benefit of the younger generation. The main purpose of the movement was to take possession of Canada and use it as the base of operations against England, and create a government there that would issue letters of marque and send out privateers to sweep the English commerce off the seas. The natural result would have been to annex Canada to the United States. The time for such movement was most propitious.
The Civil War had just closed, and the soldiers who had fought on either side in the rebellion by thousands, were eager to enter on such a movement. Not only soldiers, but hundreds of officers were waiting for the striking of the first blow to enroll themselves under the green banner of Erin and capture Canada.
The Dominion of the provinces had not formed then, and the French and Irish living north of the lakes were on the point of revolt and were largely depended on in the scheme. General Sweeney, of New York, was Commander in chief. During the spring of 1866, the greatest activity was displayed in the Irish American circles all over the country. There were military organizations in every State and Territory of the Union, and it was believed that on a few days notice an army of 150,000 men could be mustered at any given point.
Let Colonel O’Leary here begin his story. “the orders, said the Colonel, “were sent out for us to move about the middle of May 1866. We were to meet at Buffalo, and from that point our division was to invade Canada. Other divisions were to cross from the United States further to the East and cut off any military forces that might be sent up the St Lawrence to attack us.
The bulk of our party came from the central portions of the Union. There were companies from Chattanooga, Nashville, and Memphis, Tenn, from Louisville, Ky, from Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Cleveland. The Tennessee men were mobilized at Louisville and proceeded from there to St Louis and on to Cleveland. At Cleveland, we picked up the Cincinnati company, and then in special trains hurried on to Buffalo.
There was no secrecy about the movement. Everybody knew the mission we were on, and we received a continuous ovation. We carried the Irish flag and the Fenian cause was cheered again and again. Our men were fully armed with muskets that had for the most part been purchased from the United States Government, and they were well drilled, hardy fellows. Nearly all of them had seen between two and three years of service.
At Buffalo, we met the company that had been raised there. We expected more men at Buffalo, because we had understood that companies were coming from all parts of the Union, but when we drew up in line we found that we barely had 500 men. Yet every man was a soldier and not one knew what fame was. Some of the men dressed entirely in green, some of them wore Federal overcoats, and some of them Confederate uniforms. Some of these uniforms had been faced with green, and altogether the effect was odd and striking.
There was surprise when at Buffalo we found but 500 men, but there was no consternation. We felt sure that re-enforcements would steadily follow us. Our orders were to invade Canada on June 1, as we did it. We crossed the Niagara River at Black Rock in the morning and took possession of Fort Erie. We also captured several trains of cars. We camped about three miles from the fort, and waited all that day for reinforcements. Our orders were to move that night to the Welland Canal, about fifteen or twenty miles distant, I think, and destroy the locks so as to prevent the English gunboats from coming up the St Lawrence.
We waited until nightfall, but the re-enforcements did not come. Then we took up our line of march to destroy the locks. We marched all night and on the morning of June 2, as we were moving toward the village of Ridgeway, our scouting party brought word to us that the Canadian troops had entered the town by trains the night before, and were preparing to receive us. We immediately sent out skirmishers, formed line of battle, and prepared to receive them.
Three To One Against Us. The village of Ridgeway, as I remember it, was about two miles away from our position. It was a little town of some four or five hundred people. When we were informed of the presence of the Canadians, they had advanced beyond the town and had formed a line along the edge of some timber. We were in lower ground a few hundred yards in front of them, and to the right was a steep limestone ridge. In our rear was more high ground and timber. There were at least 1,700 Canadians to our 500 men. These consisted of the regiment known as the Queen’s Own of Toronto, commanded by Colonel Booker, the second Hamilton Regiment and two companies of the Sixteenth Regiment. The Canadian advanced rapidly down the hill on us, and we slowly retreated. They threw out a party of about 300 flankers to attack us on the left and this force us against the base of the limestone ridge that I have just spoken of. Colonel O’Neill, who was to command our men, and who had been a Tennessee cavalry officer on the Union side and assisted in the capture of Morgan, the raider, gave the word to slowly fall back. This we did, firing as we did so, with the Canadians pressing us closely until we reached the higher and timbered ground in our rear. Then our positions were reversed. The Canadians were in what was practically a valley and we were above them. Here we made our final stand, while I, with seventy men and twenty horsemen as a flanking party, fell off to the left and in the advance. We waited behind a Virginia rail Fenian in a low growth of timber to intercept the 300 Canadian flankers. When they were almost on us we tore over the fence and horse and foot fiercely attacked them. Our onslaught was so sudden and unexpected that the Canadians were taken by surprise. They fled as fast as they could and passed the word to the main body of troops.
Fenian Re-Enforcements Coming
Instantly the entire Canadian command fell back, the Queen’s Own retreating more rapidly than anyone else. Then we charged, firing as we ran, and in three minutes had them running for dear life up the road toward Ridgeway. I had the advantage with my seventy men of being far in the advance of our party, and my being far in advance of our party, and my seventy men kept 1,700 Canadians moving probably faster than they
ey ever moved before. We could see the officers making occasional efforts to rally them, but they were without avail, because we loaded as we ran and kept up the galling fire. The Canadians threw away everything that could impede their flight – arms, clothing, colors and accoutrements. We took up the colors of the Queen’s Own lying dust trailed by the roadside.
This retreat and pursuit took place through a beautiful farming country, the valley being cut up into fields and dotted with farm houses. At one of the houses we came to found an old man and his wife and little girl. I was afraid they would be hit and sent them to the cellar. Then we charged around the house and captured quite a number of Canadian soldiers hiding there.
All this time there had been very lively musket firing, and at the railroad in the town of Ridgeway, a determined effort was made to rally the fugitives. But we chased them out of that, and as we reached a little eminence beyond the town we could see these fellows scattering for dear life for miles on every side. Just beyond Ridgeway we came to a farmhouse, but there was not a soul about. The table was spread for breakfast, the food was cooked and a tea kettle was singing on the stove. We ate that breakfast ourselves, and while we were doing so noticed that all the photographs about the house were those of colored people. It was evidently the house of colored refugees who had escaped from the South during or prior to the war and had found a haven beyond the Canadian border.
Victory in Retreat
We found two hotels in Ridgeway, where we captured a number of prisoners and destroyed all the liquor so our men could not get it. From some of the prisoners we learned that Colonel Lowrie, of the Forty seventh Regulars was coming up the river nearly 2,000 strong with two squadrons of cavalry and a battery of artillery. With less than 500 men – for a number of our boys had been killed – all of whom were tired out, we did not think it wise to meet such a force. So orders were given to fall back in Fort Erie, where we were sure we would find reinforcements. We didn’t find reinforcements at Fort Erie, but we found a big surprise. The fort was occupied by the Canadians. They had sent a tug around from Fort Colbourne with two companies of artillery acting as infantry. These soldiers had captured a number of our men whom we had left in charge and were ready to give us a warm reception. They gave us a warm reception, too. We found them entrenched in a number of houses, but we stormed them and finally captured every man except a few who escaped on the tug. We took our prisoners to the fort and kept them there, and all that night we lay expecting reinforcements.
Where can the rest of the boys be? Was a question that was asked a thousand times that night. We knew that Colonel Lowrie was only a few miles away, and we expected warm work in the morning. I went down along the river to see if there were any boats in which we could get away, but only found some small boats. In order to hold the men I cut the boats adrift so that we would all stand together should the worst come to the worst. But while I was down along the river I heard a voice calling out on the water. It was as dark as pitch, but I knew that voice. It belonged to Colonel Hines, on General Sweeney’s staff – now Ex-Congressman Hines of Chicago. He had been sent over to Buffalo to see us. I called to him and he came ashore. I explained to him the situation and asked him where the expected reinforcements were. He said they had not reached Buffalo yet. We both agreed that the best thing to do was to get the invading army out of Canada as quick as possible.
He hurried across the river to Buffalo, and between 1 and 2 o’clock on the morning of June 3 came back with a tug and a scow. We marched out of Fort Erie, having released our prisoners, and the men got on the scow. While Colonel O’Neill and myself got on the tug. We took with us the battle-flags, guns and other relics of the fight that we had captured.
Just as we were nearing the United States shore a tug ran up to us and fired a shot across our bows. We paid no attention to that, but she fired another shot and demanded our surrender to the United States. Then she ran in between us and the shore and we had to give in. She proved to be the tender of the United States man-of-war Michigan. Colonel O’Neill and myself were taken on board the Michigan and the scow was taken alongside
and made fast with a hawser. There we lay in the river until daylight and the first thing we saw at peep of day was Colonel Lowrie and his regulars marching into Fort Erie. After a while Colonel Lowrie came over to the Michigan in a tug and demanded our surrender to England. This of course, was refused, but all the arms, colors and other relics we had captured were returned. We lay on the river two days, then were taken to Buffalo, where we were taken to jail. We had to give our word to General Barry that we would not attempt to escape, and Colonel O’Neill and myself were in the presence of an immense crowd to the jail, escorted by three companies of United States Artillery. All the soldiers sympathized with us. At least half a dozen said to us, ‘If you want to get away there will be no trouble about that, just go!’ At the jail we were visited by ex-president Grover Cleveland, who was our counsel. The charge against us was violating the neutrality laws, but the charge was only made against O’Neill and myself. The other men were allowed to go.
We only spent one night in the jail, but that was a jolly night. Scores of the best people of
Buffalo came to see us, and we held quite a reception in the corridor. Our meals were sent in from the Taft House, and many cases of wine were sent to us. A rule was made that everybody had to sing a song, tell a story, or be locked up. No one was locked up, and we certainly made a night of it. Next day we gave $20,000 nail to appear for trial at Canandaigua. When the case was called it was nolle prosequied by order of the President, and that was the end of it. – The Inter Ocean (Chicago) June 23, 1889.