Tag Archives: Ridgeway

Watercolors of the Battle of Ridgeway

Of eyewitness accounts of the 1866 Fenian Invasion into Canada and Battle of Ridgeway, there are a series of watercolors painted by Alexander von Erichsen, a little known painter and allegedly a Civil War artist.

He followed the Fenians from Buffalo to Canada and provided documentary eyewitness accounts of the events from the planning stages of the Invasion to trials of the Fenian prisoners months later in through his watercolor sketches.

The vast number of plates done by this artist is truly incredible, there are over twenty three known, which document the Battle of Ridgeway, before and after. Never had there been such documentation on one battle even by pictorial newspaper artists during the Civil War.  Most of these have appeared in various books about the Fenian Raids. Several of these painting are owned by the Fort Erie Historical Museum (Mr & Mrs C Jewell Collection) and some are on display there as well.

For research purposes, one can get a good idea of what von Erichsen witnessed through his watercolors. The first thing that stands out is there are a lot of frock coats, some blue, most likely Federal uniforms, some gray (maybe green in the B&W) but certainly a lot of civilian wear, including hats worn by the Fenians. The artist shows a lot of light colored frock coats, with lapels and civilian hats as well, which documents not a lot of uniforms, only bits and pieces of them, were worn by the Irishmen.

Von Ericksen depicts the battle from both the Fenian side as well as the Canadian side as an eyewitness. It’s unclear if the artist was able to travel between the lines and to date I have not found any research which states an artist accompanied the Fenians or was seen during the Raid. Some accounts call the artist a Fenian sympathizer but viewing all these paintings, one does have to wonder how the artist moved freely between both forces, unless the artist depicted some of the scenes from his own imagination or other first hand accounts.

Tracking down and identifying this artist has also been problematic.

Civilians are mentioned during the raid, some who joined in on the Raid or mistaken for Fenians then detained, so the ability to move between the lines would be highly unlikely and if so, a person would have needed a military pass especially by the British after the action took place.

Here are some of the paintings.

Two books which highlight the Alexander von Erichsen watercolors of the Battle of Ridgeway are: First Hand Accounts of the Fenian Raid and Battle of Ridgeway, by Jane Davies and Jude Scott and The Year of The Fenian by David Owen, which is also a self guided tour of the landscape of the Fenian Invasion of the Niagara Peninsula in 1866, both are sold through the Fort Erie Historical Museum in Fort Erie, Ontario, Canada,

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How Fenian Regiments Were Numbered

There has been a mystery about how the Fenian Brotherhood came up with their numbering for their military regiments and it’s overall organization. We know about the 7th Regiment, Irish Republican Army out of Buffalo NY, who gained their fame during the June 1866 Battle of Ridgeway. But what happened to Regiments 1 through 6? Where were these other Fenian Regiments located?

On Jan 21, 1867, President Roberts gave a special order which designated regiments into regions/states within the United States, which would encompass the sequential numbering of military regiments The Irish Republican Army. The number of regiments would go up to 21 and there were separate companies within each regiment.

While many of the lower numbered regiments did actually exist and can be found in newspaper articles drilling or mentioned on parade, the higher numbers, many out West, most likely never existed and was more wishful thinking by the Fenian command and on paper only.

The Fenian regiments did have number designations at Fenian Raid at the Battle of Ridgeway in June 1866. These unit designations were loosely based on regions. The 7th Buffalo, aka 7th I.R.A. Regiment, continued to retain their number, however by early 1867, the other Veteran I.R.A. regiments which saw action in Canada were redesignated:

The 13th Tennessee, originally commanded by General John O’Neill, was renumber to the 18th Tennessee after these orders.

The 17th Kentucky, the Louisville Company which had blue army jackets and green facing on the cuffs were lead by Colonel George Owen Starr, became the 13th Kentucky.

The 18th Ohio, led by Lt Col John Grace and known as the Fenian “Cleveland Rangers” which doned green caps and green overshirts at Ridgeway, was changed to the 12th Ohio based on the location of their region.

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“Important Orders” of President Roberts and General Spear on the Organization of the Irish American Army – The Evening Telegraph (Philadelphia, PA) Feb 12, 1867

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This map shows the Fenian Brotherhood Regiments organized throughout the United States.

Battle of Ridgeway sketch from the Illustrated Buffalo Express

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The Battle of Ridgeway, as depicted on this front page drawing in The Illustrated Buffalo Express from May 31, 1891. The entire article was about the Fenian Raids which was being highlighted a quarter of a century before for the anniversity .

While this copy is not the clearest and attempts to find a better copy has been difficult, one can still make out the action, some figures, swords and rifles in the air and flags, one to the top left has the Irish Harp and two to the right are supposed to represent the British Flags/Canadian flag which would have been the Union Jack on the canton with a red background. The fighting also appears to be hand to hand, which never happened.

The sketch was made at the time of this publication in 1891 by an in house artist for this Illustrated edition. 

Frontier in Flames – The Canadian children’s version of the Fenian Invasion of the Niagara Peninsula

The 1866 Fenian Raids are not as well known in the United States, despite having occurred by Irish American Civil War veterans on the US Border. It has been forgotten on our history books while our neighbors to the north, it is much better known for these Raids helped shape the Canadian Confederation in 1867 and changed the course of history as Great Britain gave up their stake to British North America.

11A children’s book: Frontier in Flames: The Fenian Invasion of Niagara Peninsula by James M Basset and illustrations by Les Callan, written in 1965 and published in Toronto. It centers around a Canadian boy befriending a young Fenian invader with the storyline set around the Raids. There are some interesting drawings, considering there is a lot of artist license to the facts, like the uniforms of the Fenians, but overall an entertaining book for children with some historic perspective.

While the Fenian Raids are overlooked in the United States, they continue to be a part of Canada’s rich history. Here are a few pages from the book.

A Fenian Veteran of 1866 tells his story of the Raid into Canada

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.

Colonel Timothy O'Leary
Fenian Veteran Col Timothy O’Leary later in his life.

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.

Fenian Irish army of Liberation 1866 CoMH
Fenians Irish Army of Liberation, 1866 as they appeared at Ridgeway. From Company of Military Historians 2016, Artist Christoph Mueller.

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.FL June 23, 1866

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.

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Water color painted by Alexander Von Erichsen which appeared in First Hand Accounts of the 1866 Fenian Raid and Battle of Ridgeway, June Davis, Jude Scott, Fort Erie Museum Services. 2016.

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

captured flagSketch appeared in Harper’s Weekly June 23, 1866 edition

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.

Colonel Lowry, Montreal, QC, 1862

Colonel Thomas Lowry, of Her Majesty’s 47th Regiment QC, 1862 as he appeared as a Lt Col.

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.Canadian Magazine Ridgeway photos Nov 1897_Page_6

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

June 23 1866 Harpers Weekly
Fenians arrested while recrossing into the US by the USS Michigan and onboard a scow. – Frank Leslie, June 23, 1866

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.

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Colonel John O’Neill, was given overall command of the Canada West Wing Raid at the last moment when another General failed to appear so he was elevated to General of the Fenian Army. and took overall command. O’Neill would later go on to become President of the Fenian Brotherhood and lead several other unsuccessful raids into Canada. Note the Fenian Sunburst Shoulder Boards representing his rank of General.

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.

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