Fort Erie Pass is a Fragile relic from the Fenian Raids of 1866

After the Battle of Ridgeway and Fort Erie, the Fenian forces fled across the Niagra River without the expected reinforcements. They were quickly arrested by the USS Michigan’s captain and crew in the name of the United States Authorites for violating the Neutrality Agreement between the US and Britian.

The Canadian Military restored law and order back to the region and issued military passes for any border crossings. This pass was drawn up quickly and issued after the Fenian Raid in Ontario at Fort Erie to Wm H Cunnington on June 5th, 1866. It was to be presented to the Captain of the Steam Ferry Boat Wm Thomson to allow Cunnington to pass over to Buffalo, NY with the proper permission.

The ferry Wm Thomson plied the Niagra River from Fort Erie, Canada West to Buffalo, NY daily for years making that crossing several times a day.

Canadian Military Pass issued at Fort Erie on June 5, 1966 to Philadelphia Inquiry reporter William H Cunnington allowing him to board the ferry boat Wm Thomson to cross back over to Buffulo, NY. (JMMadden Collection)

William H Cunnington, a native of England, lived in Philadelphia at the time and was a very well known reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, and had worked for other local newspapers in his 30+ year career.

He gained fame during the Civil War for his timely and accurate reports while attached to the Army of the Potomac in the field and later with General Sherman in Atlanta. Cunnington also wrote at length of his eyewitness accounts of the Lincoln Conspirator trials and their executions.

View of the USS Michigan holding the Fenians captive. They were arrested for violating the Neutrality Agreement between the US and Briotian. The fenians spent some time on a barge until the US authorities could figure out what to do with them. The Fenian prisoners were all released but their officers were held and eventually released after paying a fine. – Harpers Weekly June 23, 1866
The Fenians capture a Canadian Regimental Flag and celebrate, as depicted in
Harper’s Weekly June 23, 1866 Edition

On June 5th, 1866, Cunnington’s eyewitness accounts were featured in the Philadelphia Inquirer and detailed his visits to the Fenian prisoners in United States’ custody on the Steamer USS Michigan. He reports of seeing the colors of the captured Queen’s Own Regiment on board as well as Colonel Lowry of the Forty Seventh Regulars visiting the USS Michigan requesting the flag be returned. The captured Fenian General John O’Neill refused to surrender these colors and only would do so to a United States officer and not a British one, as he was in their custody. (This account has been brought into question as the QOR did not bring their colors to Ridgeway, nor other Canadian units, and this account may be simply Fenian propaganda for the readers back in the United States.)

Lieut.-Col. R. W. Lowry, of Her Majesty’s 47th Regiment

Cunnington later reports about the circumstances surrounding this pass:

“Special Dispatches to the Inquirer” – All Quiet

BUFFALO, N.Y. June 5 – All is quiet on the Niagara. Your correspondent has just returned from a visit to Fort Erie and adjacent country on the Canadian shore, and has enjoyed the novelty of mixing freely with the British officers and soldiers, and under the protection, for the nonce, of the British flag. How I succeeded in landing in Her Majesty’s dominion, a strict guard being kept all along the Canadian shore, and no person being permitted to land without a proper pass, which is difficult to get, and your correspondent had not, and how I was detained as a suspicious character by the British officials, and subsequently permitted to run at large and return to Buffalo shall appear in my next*. Suffice it to say, I visited the British Camp, obtained news The Inquirer’s readers hunger for, and departed. There is no immediate indication of a resumption of hostilities, by the Fenians, in this locality. Philadelphia Inquirer June 6, 1866

A view of the abandoned Fort Erie in June 1866 – Harper’s Weekly, June 23, 1866

Cunnington never reports the details of obtaining the pass as he had promised in a previous column. Likely being born in England and having a British accent may have helped. Later, in his next follow up column, he instead describes from his place in Buffalo seeing the shore across the river lined with red coats, but nothing on how he obtained his pass.

Whatever the reason, he likely had to go through a hassle to obtain the pass, feared of being a suspected Fenian spy or even trapped in Canada without a way to report back to his newspaper while working on a deadline.

Cunnington could have easlily overlooked this follow up story about his pass because of other all the other news with the arrested Fenians in Buffalo as well as the developing Fenian military movements in Vermont and Malone, NY. It could have even been dropped by the Philadelphia Inquirer’s editor for space.

Either way, this simple piece of paper is a pass written during the Fenian Raids at Fort Erie. It is a fragile relic from the time that had lasted and now it has a better back story with the reporter citing it in his article during the Fenian Raids.

View of Fort Eire from across the Niagra River from Buffalo, NY. William Cunnington likely has a very similar view when he wrote down seeing red coats on the other shore.

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