Functions of the Toronto Police During the U.S. Civil War Era and the Fenian Threat
version pending publication in print and completion of doctoral
dissertation, University of Toronto 2009-2010 ]
is a shortened version of a previously larger website on the subject of the
military intelligence functions of the Toronto Police during the American
Civil War era and during the Fenian Threat on the eve of Canada
of the previously available material on this web page is temporarily
unavailable as it currently being revised into Terror and Border Security
in Canada West during the Civil War Era and the Fenian Threat, my
doctoral dissertation at the University of Toronto history department, as
well as into a book from Penguin tentatively entitled, 1866
Ridgeway: The Fenian Threat and the Battle That Made Canada and
for publication in 2010.
material removed from this website should become available again in the form
of a journal article some time in the next eighteen months following May
here for more information.
FENIAN CASUALTY AT
ECCLES HILL NEAR THE QUEBEC - VERMONT BORDER - 1870
This was the third Fenian raid into Canada since 1866
Functions of the Toronto Police During the American Civil War Era and the
In June 1866, the Province of Canada
(pre-Confederation Ontario and Quebec) was shaken by an event as cataclysmic to
its sense of security as 9/11 was recently to that of the United
States. A force of nine hundred well armed Irish American
nationalists, all sworn to the Fenian cause, attacked Canada across the
Niagara River near Buffalo at Fort Erie. Their
objective was to destabilize Britain’s rule in Ireland by sparking a
military crisis in Canada. Whether
the Fenian plan was entirely mad or perfectly plausible remains a question
still debated by historians today.
invasion across the Niagara River climaxed with the deaths of seven inexperienced
Canadian militia soldiers—boys actually—four were University of Toronto students called out by
church bells the previous morning to go and
die at a hamlet near Fort Erie called Ridgeway.
The volunteer soldiers, ordered in the heat of battle to form into a
densely packed square by a panicked command to stand ready for a cavalry
charge that would never come, made a perfect target for the expert volleys of
concentrated musket fire unleashed by the Fenian riflemen.
Many of the Fenians were recently
demobilized battle-hardened Civil War veterans who had purchased back from the US government their
war-issue weapons at post-war surplus prices.
So disciplined was the Fenian fire that the Canadians thought they had
come under fire from state-of-the-art Spencer seven-shot “repeater”
rifles. In reality the Fenians
were armed with an assortment of single-shot muzzle or breech-loaders. The subsequent retreat of the Canadians forces with their
dead and wounded from the Battle of Ridgeway
also] was a humiliating military
defeat on home ground, and was to be celebrated by Irish patriots as their
first victory over the British military since Fontenay in 1745 when an Irish
Brigade with the French Army routed the Coldstream Guards.
While it is generally believed that the invaders would have been
defeated by a reinforced and re-grouped Canadian counter-attack, in the end
the invasion had been broken by the US authorities’ subsequent interruption
of Fenian supply lines across the Niagara River and the arrests of Fenian
reinforcements attempting to cross the river into Canada.
OF THE BATTLE OF RIDGEWAY
In reality the sides never met in a line formation on an open field
did the all the Canadians wear red uniforms. The Queen's Own
wore green tunics while the Hamilton 13th Battalion was clad in the
tradition scarlet red. The Fenians wore an assortment of uniforms
ranging from US Civil War Union and Confederate tunics, green tunics
brass "IRA" buttons and civilian dress with green Fenian scarves.
attack, when it happened was a surprise, but it should not have been.
In the years prior to the invasion there had been a gathering fear in
Canada of a Fenian assault from the United States aided by a possible
insurrection of local Irish Catholic nationalists residing in Canada.
This was further compounded by a fear of the United States itself
brought to a crisis point by the unfolding Civil War in 1861-1865.
As there were mutterings from Union politicians about
“compensating” for the possible loss of territory to the Confederacy by
the seizure of territory from Canada, Britain began to urgently ship troops
to Canada. Blockade and high-sea
naval incidents raised the tension further as the Confederacy attempted to
develop lines of trade and relations with Britain.
Making matters worse, Confederate guerrillas launched a raid from
Canadian territory into Vermont and escaped back to the safety of Canada. The fear of invasion by US forces was dramatically palpable
in the wake of all those incidents.
city of Toronto lay in the immediate vicinity of the US border directly in
the path of a possible invasion. Buffalo
was the most likely site for the mustering of US forces for a ground attack
into southern Ontario—and in 1866 it would serve precisely that function
for the Fenians. Wagons, boats,
food, weapons, supplies, and billeting for thousands of Fenians arriving in
waves from as far as Tennessee were all concentrated at Buffalo and supported
by the city’s native population of Irish Catholics.
the 1860s Toronto also had a large Irish Catholic population of its own with a
substantial faction of vocal nationalist activists, Fenian supporters, and
even secret card-carrying Fenians, all calling for the independence of
Ireland. Long-standing local
Irish Catholic and Protestant sectarian tensions in Toronto were caught up in
this growing threat of a Fenian invasion.
In Toronto, the Fenians penetrated the executive of the militant but
well-connected and legal Hibernian Benevolent Society, the Irish Catholic
response to the Protestant Orange Order.
The question was, how many Irish Canadians would take up arms in aid
of the Fenian invasion if it came? That
issue fell squarely into the jurisdiction of the Toronto Police under Chief
Constable William S. Prince.
Chief of Police played an active, and sometimes leading role in assessing and
confronting the gathering threat of the Fenians over the years prior to the
invasion, not only inside the city of Toronto, but also in areas as near or
distant as Buffalo, Detroit, Chicago and New York City.
The reach of the Toronto Police intelligence gathering efforts
extended beyond the perimeters of the city.
This paper describes how Chief Prince collected intelligence reports
from contacts, spies and informants on weapons purchases in Buffalo, on
Fenian meetings in Detroit and Chicago, and even on the leisure activities of
Irish servant girls in New York City.
|The Green Above the Red
Engraver: McNevin, John, active ca.
Peter Winkworth Collection of Canadiana at the
National Archives of Canada [graphic material, cartographic
the Toronto Police reached far and wide in its attempt to assess the Fenian
threat and recruit agents, it was also prepared to respond militarily to the
kind of mass threats it gathered intelligence about. This paper explores the military functions of the Toronto
Police parallel to its intelligence gathering function. The article looks at the diplomatic, political and peacekeeping
functions of the Chief of Police in those times and how he directed police
power from that office during times of crisis.
have so far overlooked the military intelligence functions of the Toronto
Police. Many historians
currently claim that the police directly progressed from a bumbling corrupt
parish-like constabulary of the first half of the 19th century to
a reformed “agency of social and class control” in the second half of the
century. According to this
historiography, before becoming “crime fighters” in the 20th
century, the reformed Toronto Police was primarily occupied with prosecuting
drunks and prostitutes, and later, breaking industrial strikes.
Gene Homel, for example, portrays the late 19th century Toronto Police
as focusing almost all its efforts on the suppression of the more unruly aspects of popular
working class culture: prohibiting bonfires, restraining weekend revels,
preventing ballgames in the street, banning firecrackers, and curbing the
activities of ‘mischievous urchins’ who sought to soil the crinoline
dresses of respectable ladies on national holidays.
Similarly Nicholas Rogers writes:
the early force had served as an intermittent check on lawlessness and was
constrained by its size, by its links with the community and by the
easy-going, indulgent attitude of the authorities, the mid-century police
were called on to discipline in new ways.
It became a coercive agency of moral reform, the task force for the
new respectability. To be sure,
the dominant forces in Victorian Toronto could not always agree on the form
police reform should take. But
they were always unanimous about the force’s function as a vanguard of
‘improvement,’ active in the campaign against ruffianism, drunkenness,
historian of the Toronto Police, Helen Boritch, echoes Rogers, “In Canada,
as elsewhere, the preeminent focus of urban police forces centered on
regulation of working-class recreations, morality and lifestyles which
violated conventional middle-class notions of respectability and urban
Boritch however, takes it a step further.
In discussing the Toronto Procession Riots of 1875, she asserts that
the disorders “made police authorities aware of the force’s inadequacies
in suppressing collective disorder. As
a result, an important consequence of the riots was the inception of
intensive weekly training sessions in ‘street skirmish drills.’”
argues the exact opposite. The
Procession Riots of 1875 were memorialized in Toronto Police literature
precisely for their success in suppressing the last of the violent mass
clashes between Protestant and Catholic extremists in Toronto without
resorting to the tremendous force available to the police.
In the Toronto Police ethos, these riots represent a disciplined
withholding of a formidable firepower by the police—firepower that by 1875
it had already long possessed and was well trained to use.
The relationship between force and collective disorder had been
addressed in Toronto Police training fifteen years earlier and tightly
incorporated into its training and esprit de corps.
The Procession Riots for the Toronto Police were a symbol of its
success in overcoming the mobs with professional restraint and not at all
representative of “the
force’s inadequacies in suppressing collective disorder,” as Boritch
suggests. A Toronto
Police departmental history recalls:
were fired by the mob with startling frequency, while stones and other
missiles fell among the Police and processionists like hail.
Many were seriously injured; and although fully armed not a single man
so far forgot himself as to return the fire, but throughout all behaved with
remarkable coolness and with a degree of forbearance that was certainly very
“class control” model of police history forces a link with a supposed
arming and militarization of the police with a response to the rise of
widespread labour activism in Toronto in the 1870s.
As Boritch attests, “Police expansion, organizational innovations
and technological advances in policing during the late nineteenth century
were predominately a result of the
increasing role of the police in strikebreaking activities.”
problem here is that the history of the Toronto Police in the decade
immediately following it reform in 1859 is a ‘dark age’ for its
historians. This is a critical period that falls between the pre-industrial
brawling drunken frontier Toronto under a “parish watch” police and the
Victorian ‘Toronto the Good’ of the latter part of the century under a
professional constabulary deployed for moral reform.
This article argues that after the reform in 1859, the former
parish-like Toronto Police were doing much more than just curbing
‘mischievous urchins’ seeking to soil crinoline dresses of respectable
ladies. The 1860s unfolded long
before the moral reformers pressed Toronto Police constables into their roles
as “urban missionaries.” This
was an era more dangerous and militant then current historians of the Toronto
Police acknowledge. This article
endeavors to describe precisely the threats confronted by the Toronto Police
in those times, how they were perceived, assessed and responded to, and what
role Chief Prince played in setting police objectives, priorities and
training. The security and
intelligence function of the Toronto Police and its early military training
to deal with mass disorder are for the first time described here, as are some
of the diplomatic peacekeeping functions undertaken by the Chief.
article concludes that the threat in Prince’s estimation at the beginning of
the disorders of the 1860s was not the Hibernians, Fenians, or even the Irish
Catholics. Prince estimated the
more pressing threat to come from entirely opposite quarters—those parallel
to the police—the local Volunteer Militia—significantly in a time when
the United States was becoming mired in a bloody Civil War of it own.
While that perception would be a source of political strife with
Toronto City Council for Prince, it will also be the key, at least during one
crisis, to a successful diplomatic defusing of a situation dangerously close
to exploding in violence in Toronto.
It has been said that the Fenian
raids into Canada are one of the points where Irish, American and Canadian
Indeed there is a historical synchronicity to the 1858 St. Patrick’s
Day killing in Toronto of a Catholic by the name Matthew Sheedy and to the
founding on the same day in Dublin of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the
American branch of which would become known as the Fenians... [further
material withheld pending publication]
version pending publication]
the remainder of this article is temporarily unavailable as it currently
being incorporated into my forthcoming doctoral dissertation at the
University of Toronto, Terror and Border Security in Canada West during
the Civil War Era and the Fenian Threat, as well in a book from Penguin tentatively
entitled, 1866 Ridgeway: The
Fenian Threat and the Battle That Made Canada and scheduled
for publication in 2009.
currently withdrawn material should become available again in the form of a
journal article some time in the next eighteen months following May 2007.
Visit here for updates on availability and publication schedule.
here for more information.