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«Combat, Memory and Remembrance in Confederation Era Canada: The Hidden History of the Battle of Ridgeway, June 2, 1866 Peter Wronski (Peter Vronsky) ...»

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Combat, Memory and Remembrance in Confederation Era Canada:

The Hidden History of the Battle of Ridgeway, June 2, 1866

Peter Wronski

(Peter Vronsky)

A thesis submitted in conformity with the requirements

For the degree of Doctor of Philosophy

Department of History

University of Toronto

© Copyright by Peter Wronski (2011)

Peter Wronski (Peter Vronsky)

Ph.D. program, 2011

Department of History, University of Toronto


Combat, Memory and Remembrance in Confederation Era Canada: the hidden history of the Battle of Ridgeway, June 2, 1866.

On June 1, 1866, one thousand heavily-armed Irish-American Fenian insurgents invaded Upper Canada across the Niagara River from Buffalo, NY. The next day near the town of Ridgeway, 800 Fenians battled with 850 Canadian volunteer soldiers, including a small company of 28 University of Toronto students who ended up taking the brunt of the attack. The Battle of Ridgeway (or Lime Ridge or Limestone Ridge) ended with a disastrous rout of the Canadians who in their panicked retreat left their dead and wounded on the field. It was the last major incursion into Canada, the last battle in Ontario and the first modern one fought by Canadians, led in the field exclusively by Canadian officers, and significantly fought in Canada.

The Fenian Raid mobilized some 22,000 volunteer troops and resulted in the suspension of habeas corpus in the colonial Province of Canada by its Attorney General and Minister of Militia John A. Macdonald, but the battle which climaxed this crisis is only prominent by its obscurity in Canadian historiography. Almost everything known and cited about Ridgeway springs from the same sources—four books and pamphlets—three of them published in the summer of 1866 immediately after the event and the remaining one in 1910.

This dissertation argues that the history of the battle was distorted and falsified by these sources and by two military board of inquiries staged to explicitly cover up the extent of the ii disaster. This study investigates the relationship between the inquiries and the contemporary author-historians of two of the sources: Alexander Somerville, an investigative journalist in Hamilton, Ontario, a recent immigrant from Britain with a controversial history; and George T.

Denison III, a prominent young Toronto attorney, a commander of a troop of volunteer cavalry, a former Confederate secret service agent, author-commentator on Canada‘s military policy and presiding judge on both boardsof inquiry.

This study describes the process by which Ridgeway‘s history was hidden and falsified and its possible scope and significance in Canadian historiography. New archival and published sources are identified, assessed and assembled for a newly restored and authenticated micronarrative of the battle.

–  –  –

ARCAT Archives of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto CTA City of Toronto Archives DCB Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online (http://www.biographi.ca) DFUSCF Despatches from U.S. Consuls in Fort Erie Canada 1865-1906, Records of the Foreign Service Posts of the Department of State, 1788-1964, RG84; (National Archives Microfilm Publication T465, roll 1) National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD. (NARA) DFUSCT Despatches From U.S. Consuls in Toronto, Canada 1864-1906 United States Consular Records for Toronto; Records of the Foreign Service Posts of the Department of State, 1788-1964, RG84; (National Archives Microfilm Publication T491, roll 1) College Park, MD. (NARA) FEHM Fort Erie Historical Museum, Ridgeway.

Fenian Raid Service Records, Adjutant General‘s Office, United Canada, FRSR Pensions and Land Grants, RG9 IC5; Volumes 30-32. Compensation of Injuries, Wounds, etc, Received on Active Service Fenian Raids 1866-1868, Library and Archives of Canada (LAC) LAC Library and Archives of Canada LBCC Letter Books of the Chief Constable 1859-1921 RG9/Fond 38 Toronto Police Service, Series 90, City of Toronto Archives (CTA) MRFR Miscellaneous Records Relating to the Fenian Raids British Military and Naval Records "C" Series, Miscellaneous Records RG8-1, Volume 1672;

[Microfilm reels C-4299 to C-4300], LAC War Department Reports 1863 – 1872, Division of the Atlantic, Department of WDR the East, RG 393: Records of the U.S. Army Continental Commands, 1817 – 1940, Inventory Identifier 1428, National Archives Building, Washington D.C.

(NARA) NA/PRO National Archives, UK, former Public Records Office NARA National Archives and Records Administration

–  –  –

In the early morning hours of June 1, 1866, approximately 1,000 Irish-American Fenian insurgents invaded Canada from Buffalo, N.Y. across the Niagara River. They occupied the town of Fort Erie and after seizing horses and supplies and posting pickets, the main Fenian force began heading inland threatening the Welland Canal system ten miles away. The next morning on Limestone Ridge near the village of Ridgeway, 841 militia volunteers from Toronto, Hamilton and York and Caledonia counties, fought with an approximately equal number of Fenians. After a two-hour battle, the Fenians forced the Canadians to retreat back towards the Welland Canal. Aware that British and Canadian reinforcements were in the vicinity, the Fenians did not pursue the retreating volunteers but instead wheeled back to the town of Fort Erie just across the river from the safety of their base in Buffalo and U.S. territory.

Arriving in force at Fort Erie in the afternoon, the Fenians found the town now held by a small 71-man detachment of local Canadian marines* and artillery gunners armed only with rifles, dropped off on the shore by a high-speed steam tug. The vessel contained some 50 Fenian prisoners captured earlier that day by the unit. Outnumbered ten-to-one, the Canadians made a stand against a massive wave of attacking Fenians descending down upon them from the town‘s hillside while the boat that brought them there cast-off without them. A vicious house-to-house battle unfolded in the town‘s streets, storefronts, yards, railway tracks and riverside wharfs in which several Canadians were severely wounded while thirty-seven were taken prisoner by the Fenians. Among the few who managed to escape was the commanding officer of the detachment.

* Although Canada had and has no formal ‗marines‘, the ship borne company of infantry trained with its vessel to deploy from it to shore and was formally called a ―Naval Brigade.‖ Early the next morning on June 3, the Fenians finding their supplies and relief cut off by U.S. Navy gunboats on the Niagara River decided to withdraw from Canada. Releasing their prisoners, the Fenians attempted to cross back into Buffalo but were intercepted by the gunboats and taken prisoner, ending the Fenian raid into Canada West (as Upper Canada was formally called then.) Thus while the Canadians were defeated on the battlefield, the raid itself was a failure, the Fenians retiring before they could be destroyed by numerically superior combined British and Canadian infantry reinforced by cavalry and artillery assembling nearby.

The battle at Limestone Ridge in the morning and the battle of Fort Erie that afternoon, sometimes collectively referred to as the Battle of Ridgeway, were the last battles fought in Ontario against a foreign invader. They were also Canada‘s first modern battles and the first battles fought exclusively by Canadians and led in the field by Canadian officers. Except for one British liaison officer, a captain from the Royal Engineers, no British military personnel fought in the battle. On June 2, 1866, Ridgeway became the melancholy baptism of the modern Canadian army where it suffered its first nine battlefield deaths: its first officer, sergeant, corporal and six privates killed in action or shortly afterwards succumbing to their wounds.1 Another six (two in Lower Canada) would die from disease within the next few weeks, while forty-one men sustained battlefield wounds, many of them serious disabling injuries as a result of particularly lethal ammunition today outlawed on the battlefield. Typical of nineteenth century warfare, another 31 shortly afterwards contracted disease. By the end of that summer the casualties in both Upper and Lower Canada as a result of the Fenian raid would be nearly doubled by disease contracted by the troops while on frontier duty, contributing to a final sum quietly calculated by the government in 1868 of 31 dead and 103 wounded, injured or sick, a toll The regular permanent Canadian Army was formally established in 1883, while its militia regiment, which sustained the casualties, has been continuously in service since 1860 as an active component of the Canadian Armed Forces primary reserves.

far higher than was originally admitted by the government in the months following the battle or subsequently reported or acknowledged by any historians since.2 The Canadian soldiers were really mostly teenage boys and young men, some as young as fifteen years old—farm boys, shopkeepers, apprentices, schoolteachers, store clerks and two rifle companies of University of Toronto student volunteers hastily called out the day before to face Fenian insurgents bent on driving the British out of Ireland by striking into Canada. The Fenians who assembled from all corners of the United States as far as Tennessee and Louisiana were almost all battle-hardened recently demobilized Civil War veterans. They carried weapons with which they had intimate familiarity after fighting in dozens of apocalyptic battles in a war that had killed 620,000 Americans—two per cent of the population—more casualties than in all the wars combined that the U.S. fought before and since the Civil War.

The Canadian boys on the other hand had come from a generation that had not seen combat, rebellion at home or border raiding from the U.S. since 1838—nearly thirty years earlier—and no major invasion of Canadian territory since the War of 1812—a conflict their grandfathers had fought in. Strapped by the cost-saving policies of the colonial provincial government of United Canada, many had not even been given an opportunity to practice firing any live rounds from the rifles issued to them the day before.

The youths were almost entirely parade-ground drilled and led by upper-crust socialclimbing gentlemen part-time officers—wealthy merchants, attorneys, professors, landlords, civil servants, politicians and entrepreneurs who saw their militia service partly as a route for social advancement and prestige, partly as a function of their class to lead the ―lower orders‖ forward in Statement of Militia pensions and gratuities awarded, Receiver General‘s Department, Ottawa, February 1, 1867;

List of Pensions, Gratuities and Amounts for Medical Services, Department of Militia and Defence June 21, 1868:

Compensation of Injuries, Wounds, etc, Received on Active Service Fenian Raids 1866-1868, Fenian Raid Service Records, Adjutant General‘s Office, United Canada, Pensions and Land Grants, RG9 IC5; Volumes 30-32. LAC [hereafter ―FRSR‖ ] their duty to Queen and Empire. When on that Saturday morning of June 2 they unexpectedly collided with approximately eight hundred Irish insurgents waiting for them at Limestone Ridge, a single advancing company of twenty-eight University of Toronto student volunteers took the brunt of the Fenian counter-attack.

The result was inevitable. Two Canadian militia battalions, the dark-green uniformed 2nd Battalion ―Queen‘s Own Rifles‖ (QOR) of Toronto and the traditionally redcoat clad 13th Battalion of Hamilton, reinforced by two rural companies from Caledonia in Haldimand county and York in Essex, were hit hard by fierce experienced Fenian rifle fire and when the Irish insurgents fixed bayonets and charged, the Canadians in their panicked retreat left their dead and wounded in the field. It was the first celebrated Irish victory over the forces of the British Empire since the Battle of Fontenoy when in 1745 the exile Irish brigade –‗The Wild Geese‘—in the service of the French king charged the Duke of Cumberland‘s elite Coldstream Guards and scattered them like pigeons.3 The Battle of Ridgeway (or Lime Ridge or Limestone Ridge as it is also called) took place less than a year before Confederation finally brought together several British North American colonies into the nation of Canada on July 1, 1867. Not only was Ridgeway Ontario‘s last battle and Canada‘s first modern one, but it also tested for the first time the mettle of modern Canada‘s ability to defend itself, by itself, in the wake of colonial military budget belt-tightening by Britain.

Sometimes because of Ridgeway‘s proximity to Fort Erie and the Niagara region, the battle is confused with the battles of the War of 1812 which included a large battle at Fort Erie.

By 1866 there was no fort other than the remnants of the 1812 ruins. By then ―Fort Erie‖ was a Hereward Senior points out, the celebrants forgot about the Battle of Castle Bar in 1798 in Ireland, when 2,000 Irish rebels and French allies routed 6,000 British troops. See: Last Invasion of Canada: The Fenian Raids, 1866Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1991. p. 59 booming industrial-workshop railroad-ferry border town, officially named Waterloo, situated near the ruins of the fort just across the river from the huge industrial city of Buffalo, New York.

Ridgeway of course, occurred a generation after the War of 1812—in a very modern world of telegraph, steam power and railways, mass print newspapers, wire services, photography, investigative journalism, public opinion and parliamentary democracy—all things that were undreamt of in colonial Canada of 1812; or 1838, the last time Canada had been invaded before Ridgeway. It was the first industrial-era modern battle fought by Canada, significantly fought in Canada.

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