‘Voices of Lambton’s Past’: How the Fenian raids stimulated military enthusiasm in Lambton County

Feature, Lambton County History — By on February 24, 2012 at 1:00 am


Where in Lambton were two military drill sheds combined to create a community centre? More on that later.

First, developing and settling the land for a new country has always provided opportunities for conflict. Such was the case when Canada West or as we now know it, South-western Ontario, was settled during the 1800’s.

Many of Lambton’s early settlers had a military background, having served in European wars and some in the Revolutionary War in the U.S. prior to making new homes here in Canada. On the rolls of Butler’s Rangers of 1776-83 are found many names which appear in later years in the records of Kent and Lambton militias, indicating unbroken service to the British flag.

During the early years in Lambton, there was a standing Militia, which included all able-bodied men. The Militia was usually undrilled, unarmed and without uniforms, with a requirement to report for muster and to sign the roll on a given date each year.

In 1855, a report of a commission to consider the question of defence was made to “His Excellency Sir Edmund Walker Head, Baronet, Governor-General of British North America and Captain General and Governor in Chief in and over the Provinces of Canada, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and the Island of Prince Edward and Vice Admiral of the same”. That is quite some title.

The report recommended the establishment of one Company of Foot, 50 strong, at Fort Sarnia. This would be difficult since there never was a Fort Sarnia, although a small military unit occupied the Methodist Church for a short time during the 1837-38 rebellion and there was a small building designated as Fort Lynx at the entrance to the tunnel in 1917-18. The report of 1855 also showed that at that time, there was a combined male population in Essex, Kent and Lambton Counties and Chatham Town of 9,312 between 18 and 40 of which 5,346 were bachelors.

A muster roll of the Port Sarnia Company Reserve Militia of about 1854 listed 71 names ranging in age from 18 to 53. (28 unmarried, 42 married, 1 widowed)

It was not until 1866 that a permanent military unit was formed here in Lambton County. At the time of the threat of Fenian raids, from 1866 to 1870, the military spirit in The Canadas was greatly stimulated. It was during this exciting time that the first Lambton Battalion was organized, based on a nucleus of several existing independent militia organizations.

Before that, several companies of soldiers from other parts of Upper Canada were dispatched to the border communities to defend against the Fenians. Sarnia was one of those border communities.

Let’s listen in to W. R. Hodgins, who was here during those years a member of the South Huron company raised by Capt. D. Stanley and led by Capt. John Franks. He told the following story in 1926.


Fenian Raids

“I remember, it was just about sixty years ago when our town of Sarnia welcomed a gallant company of soldiers from South Huron, which embarked from London for the border here to stop any inroads from the Fenians. The Fenians, however, failed to show up at Sarnia, and after several months patrol duty in the tunnel city, the company was moved to Fort Erie, where the attackers had made an appearance.

“But I liked it here so much that I moved my wife and family here soon after the scare was over.

“When we first got here, there was no place to put us so we were taken to Point Edward. After about a month we were moved into Sarnia and were billeted in one of the hotels.

“Those were exciting times and I even got me a Queens medal for service down here on the border. The Fenians were supposed to be everywhere and everybody thought their homes were surrounded by the Raiders almost every night.

“Whether or not they were scared of us or perhaps were never really there, we never did figure that one out. But while it lasted, we enjoyed ourselves and were well treated down here. There was only one time that I remember that there was ever any shots fired. Let me tell you about that time.

“All of the companies here were usually split up into sections of about five or six men each, usually with a corporal. Some of these small groups would be on duty along the river to make sure no Fenians crossed over. Some of them would be in town guarding the businesses and there were always some sections detached at what to the nearby farms to make sure that the Fenians would not sneak across the river and circle behind us.

“I was out on duty with one of these sections station near a farm out in Plympton. It was a dark and cloudy night, almost no moon when one of the men in my section that he heard some noises in the field off to the south of the farm. As we all quietly listened, he said he heard the noise again. Then he whispered to me ‘There’s someone out there. I can see his shadow as he is moving.’

“Now I couldn’t see any shadow but he continued to insist that there was someone out there. Then he stood up, brought his musket to his shoulder, shouted a warning and then fired. Although we lay there quietly for more than half an hour, we never heard another sound or saw another figure moving in the shadows.

“We waited a couple of hours quietly, vigilant. Then, as the sun came up, my fellow soldier, whose name I won’t mention, ventured carefully out into the field, his musket ready. I followed about ten paces behind, my weapon also ready.

“Was he ever surprised when he found out that he had shot the farmer’s favorite cow. I never did find out if the cow was Irish and might be supportive of the Fenian cause.

“And that was probably the most exciting thing that happened to me while I served with the South Huron Company on duty here in Sarnia during the Fenian crisis.

“It was in March that we got here and we are here until sometime in July of that year. But we never saw hide nor hair of any Fenians. In July we was moved down to Fort Erie where Fenians had showed up and killed seven of the Canadian defenders. By the time we got there, however, they had disappeared and we never did see any of them.

“So I guess I got my medal for fighting Fenians even though I never saw any. The only casualty I ever saw was that one dead Holstein.”

HISTORICAL NOTES from the author: 

With the formation of the Lambton Battalion in 1866, drill sheds were needed to house the companies in Watford and Warwick. At some time following the Fenian scare, the drill shed in Warwick was dismantled and added to the drill shed in Watford. The new building, after that known in Watford as the Crystal Palace, was used for many years as a community centre.

More about the Lambton Regiment next week.

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