The Citadel

We left clear blue skies behind when we departed Cape Breton and started our journey south. In Halifax, we had two days of rain, but during a break in the bad weather on Saturday, we drove downtown to visit the Citadel, the fort constructed by the British to protect the harbor at Halifax.

You might recall from my prior post regarding the Fortress of Louisbourg that after the English ceded Cape Breton Island back to the French in 1748 at the end of the War of Austrian Succession, the British forces retreated to Halifax where they built a town and fort. That original palisade fort was built on a hill overlooking the harbor and town; it was reconstructed, again of wood, around the time of the American Revolution, and, again in the 1790s at the onset of the French Revolution in Europe.

Throughout the Napoleonic Wars in Europe and the War of 1812 in America, Halifax was England’s naval headquarters and primary defensive position in the Americas. At the end of these wars, however, the British government decided it was time to better fortify its position by replacing the old wooden fort with the construction of a new, permanent stonework fortress. Construction of the new fort began in 1828 on the site of the original fort at the top of the hill overlooking the town of Halifax and its harbor. Like the Fortress at Louisbourg, it took 28 years to build the fortress at Halifax; completed in 1856, the Citadel was intended to deter assaults of the town and its docks and harbor by both land and sea.

We were able to go on the last tour of the day. Here’s a view of the Citadel from atop the wall, looking at the barracks building. In the foreground, the tripod was used to detach the cannons from their carriages. The thing on the lower left that looks like a BBQ was used to heat cannon balls so that they would ignite when striking enemy ships.

From the ramparts we could see the unique layout of the fort. From the air, the Citadel looks like a Star of David, but with several of the star points – like the one in the picture below – being completely severed from the main fortress. These star points are called “ravelins” and they are essentially mini-forts surrounding the main fortress, separated by what looks like a kind of dry moat.

In the distance, through the fog, we could see the city of Halifax. Looking inward into the main fortress again, take a look at the base of the mast, perched on the top of the fortress wall. It is rigged just like a ship’s mast.

I took this picture of one of the two masts that are erected on the top of the fort’s walls from down near that tripod in the first photo. The masts were used for signaling between military installations and for the benefit of the townspeople, providing commands and conveying information about approaching ships. Flags and signal lanterns would be raised, identifying the type, number, origin (including company name for commercial ships) and flag of any vessels sighted at sea by the shore battery.

Our tour guide, dressed in period uniform of the 78th Scottish Highlanders, took us through the inside of one of the ravelins, then out into the “moat” that separated the ravelins from the main fortress.

When construction first started on the Citadel in 1828, the British used “iron stone” which was relatively inexpensive since it was quarried locally. However, iron stone tends to absorb water which causes it to expand and contract, depending on the temperature, and that, in turn, caused the walls to bulge and collapse. You can see one of the bulges on the left in the photo below.

Because of this problem, the engineers that were building the Citadel petitioned the government in England for more money so that they could use granite to complete the fortress. The walls on the right, above, and in the distance at the gate are granite.

We walked down to the gate where our guide pointed out the slots in the wall, oriented to look straight down the “moat” so that infantry inside could get a good shot at any enemy that might be able to overcome the defenses of the ravelins.

Dale asked our tour guide if he could tell us about any of the battles or sieges that took place here at the Citadel. His response left us speechless:

He told us that the Citadel had never been attacked, but that troops at the Citadel had been mobilized for action in the 1860s when the Fenian Brotherhood invaded Canada from the United States.

WHAT?!? The Fenian Brotherhood? Who were they? What invasion? The U.S. invaded Canada?

It’s an amazing story, yet widely ignored in the recounting of history in the United States since it wasn’t one of our finer moments. After our tour, I spent about two hours combing the internet for information on the Fenian Brotherhood (official name: Irish Republican Brotherhood), which, it turns out, was the forerunner of the I.R.A., the Irish Republican Army, as well as Sinn Fein in Ireland.

The Fenian Brotherhood started in the 1850s as a movement in both Ireland and the United States to establish an Irish republic in Ireland, free of British rule. In the U.S., the Fenians didn’t get off to a great start, but then along came the Civil War from 1861 to 1865.

At the end of the Civil War, as the armies were disbanding, some of the leaders of the Fenian Brotherhood got the great idea – probably after downing a few too many pints at the local pub – of rounding up all the Irish-American Civil War vets and creating a Fenian Brotherhood Army to invade Canada. The thinking was that if the Fenians could capture Canada (which, at the time, was British), they could: 1) trade Canada to the British for Ireland; 2) invade Ireland from Canada and take it away from the British; or, 3) start another war between the U.S. and England and snatch Ireland away from England in the ensuing turmoil.

Really. I’m not kidding.

And though the whole thing sounds nuts today, the idea got enough traction that at one point the Fenians claimed they had amassed an army of 25,000 Civil War vets to their cause.

And, in 1866, they did invade Canada!

The invasion of Canada was supposed to have taken place at several points along the border, but the first attack was planned to be from Maine into New Brunswick at St. Andrews (where we went whale-watching when we first crossed over into Canada a little over a week ago) and Campobello Island. The British caught wind of the attack when members of the Fenian Brotherhood started showing up in number in Maine, so a militia was organized in Halifax and elsewhere to defend Canada.

The United States government also heard of the Fenian’s activities in Maine and sent a U.S. Army general and some troops to the area; these federal troops intercepted a ship from New York that was transporting the Fenian’s weapons to Maine and, without guns, the attack petered-out quickly and the Fenians disbursed, the Halifax militia relaxed, and the Maritime Provinces of Canada returned to normalcy.

But to the west, near Buffalo, New York, and Toronto, Canada, the invasion went forward. And since we’re heading to Buffalo in a couple weeks, I’ll look into what happened there and report in a later post.

But the whole episode with the Fenian Brotherhood was enough to motivate the British Canadians into action, now that they knew there was the possibility of invasion from the south. The year after the Fenian invasion, 1867, the then-provinces of British Canada (Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia), united into the semi-autonomous Canadian Confederation, the backbone of the governmental system that continued in Canada until Canada became completely independent of England in 1982!

And we would have never known this story if we hadn’t visited the Citadel.

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