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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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Dennis was a wealthy Ontario land surveyor whose family‘s military history put a lot of pressure on him to live-up to its reputation. His grandfather was a Loyalist from Philadelphia while his father served as a lake captain in the War of 1812. A graduate of Victoria College, Dennis was the lead surveyor of a number of Grand Trunk and Great Western railway routes. In 1851 he had been appointed to the board of examiners for provincial land surveyors. He served on a number of institutional boards including an institution for the deaf and blind in Hamilton and the Canadian Institute. A prominent socialite believing himself ―descended of martial ancestors‖ Dennis actively sought-out commissions and appointments in the volunteer militia.41 After serving in Denison‘s cavalry, John Dennis was made Lieutenant of his own cavalry troop in 1855, but failed to successfully raise and maintain it, according to George T. Denison‘s memoirs.42 The next year John Dennis took command of the volunteer Toronto Field Battery which he led for two years and managed to leverage that into an appointment as Lt. Colonel and brigade-major commanding the 5th Militia Military District, which included the City of Toronto, Peel and Ontario Counties along the lakeshore and northwards to the shores of Georgian Bay, Penetanguishene and Lake Simcoe regions.43 Dennis was distinguished most by his elaborate Dundreary-style whiskers that even by Victorian standards of facial hair were spectacularly bizarre—they grew out from huge ‗mutton chops‘ that that descended down to his upper chest just below his shoulders like two separate poodle-sized beards. He was described by George Denison as ―a very good office man in time Colin Frederick Read, John Stoughton Dennis, Dictionary of Canadian Biography Denison, Soldiering in Canada, p. 33 Regimental division records, Map Military District 5, RG9, I-C-8, Vol. 10 of peace, the exact type of man to be dear to the official heart, a good red tape courtier, but useless as a soldier. He was an ambitious man, carefully anxious not to let any opportunities pass him.‖44 As soon as the alarm was raised, Dennis immediately telegraphed MacDougall in Montreal asking to be put in command of the militia forces dispatched from Toronto.45 Despite the fact that Dennis had no experience leading infantry, and that the Queen‘s Own Rifles had been for months training and drilling under Major Gillmor, they were now much to their resentment put under the command of Dennis.46 George T. Denison later commented, ―His appointment created an unpleasant feeling, which had an indirect but evil influence on the campaign.‖47 Dennis‘s orders from General Napier were to proceed with the QOR by railway to Port Colborne on the mouth of the Welland Canal at Lake Erie and entrench there if necessary against any advancing Fenians. Dennis was told that Fenian strength was estimated at 1,500 and he was warned not to attack the Fenians before reinforcements and further orders arrived.48 Welland Canal Field Battery Port Colborne was defended by the Welland Canal Field Battery, under the command of Captain Dr. Richard Saunders King, a local physician.49 Three officers and fifty-nine men from the unit would report to duty by the end of the day.50 The battery was headquartered in Port Robinson and originally equipped with four 9-pounder Armstrong brass field guns and had been well Denison, Soldiering in Canada, p. 89 Denison, ibid.

Andrews, p. 167 Denison, Soldiering in Canada, p. 90 Captain Macdonald, p. 38 Captain Macdonald, p. 67 Reid, p.380 trained in their use by a British artillery bombardier, James McCracken.51 The guns had been divided equally between Port Colborne and Port Robinson twelve miles apart on the canal. But earlier in the year after failing to post guards at the wooden sheds where the artillery pieces were stored, British army Lt. Colonel Charles C. Villiers, ordered that the guns and their accoutrements be taken away from the battery. They were moved to Hamilton where they would be put under the guard of regular British troops. And there the guns remained.52 With the guns gone, Bombardier McCracken now drilled the men in infantry tactics throughout the winter of 1866.53 Half the men in the Welland Field Battery were armed with current standard issue long-Enfield rifles but the other half were issued Victoria carbines54—an obsolete British firearm with limited range designed in 1839.55 The surplus carbines ended up being supplied to Canadian volunteer militia during the Trent Affair in 1861. It was not going to be as easy to muster the Welland Battery as it had been with the Queen‘s Own Rifles in Toronto.

The men were scattered throughout small villages and farms over a twenty-mile radius of the countryside and some were at work on ships in the Great Lakes.

Back in Port Colborne meanwhile, the LH& B railway superintendent Robert Larmour had sent out an employee on horseback to scout the tracks running to Fort Erie along a parallel public road. The horse was provided by a citizen in Port Colborne but only after Larmour guaranteed its price should it be captured by the Fenians. The rider (Robert Cran) returned reporting that Sauerwein‘s Bridge had been set on fire and that the Fenians were foraging in the countryside for Beatty [ms], LAC, p. 6 John H. Thompson, Jubilee History of Thorold Township and Town From the Time of the Red Man to the Present, Thorold: Thorold and Beaverdams Historical Society, 1891. pp. 87-89; Beatty [ms], LAC, pp. 6-7 Beatty [ms], LAC,, p. 7 Dennis Inquiry, p. 182





Hew Strachan, From Waterloo to Balaclava: Tactics, Technology, and the British Army 1815-1854, Cambridge:

Cambridge University Press, 1985. p. 85 horses but did not appear to be moving toward Port Colborne.56 The information was telegraphed to General Napier in Toronto, who received it at 12:45 P.M.57 Lt. Colonel Dennis arrived at Port Colborne fifteen minutes later at about 1:00 P.M.

After meeting with Larmour he decided that there was no need to entrench at Port Colborne—the Fenians did not appear to be advancing towards the town. Dennis dispatched local scouts in an attempt to reconnoitre the Fenian positions. Some men from the Welland Field Battery, who had reported for duty, were now assigned to escort the railway workers sent to repair Sauerwein‘s Bridge and clear the wreckage of the train that had derailed earlier that morning during the desperate escape from Fort Erie.58 They remained out on the site until it was cleared at midnight.59 Dennis also had at his disposition Frontier Constabulary undercover agent and Toronto Police Sergeant Charles Clarke, a British Army veteran in India and at Kandahar during the First Afghani War. Dennis ordered him to infiltrate the Fenian positions in Fort Erie and to remain with them collecting information until 10:00 P.M.60 Clarke would successfully penetrate the Fenian camp at Frenchmen‘s Creek.

Being the earliest to arrive in Port Colborne, the men of the first detachment of QOR were lucky to find billets in the hotels and houses and lunch and later dinner.61 Thus the infamous charge that the troops at Ridgeway had not been fed at all since the morning of their departure in Toronto other than salted red herring and crackers served them early morning of June 2 and that they had no decent place or time to sleep prior to the battle, is not entirely accurate—the 356 men of the first group of QOR to leave Toronto, at least received lunch and Larmour [Part 1], p. 124 Telegram to Dakers at Toronto, June 1, 1866, MRFR, Reel C-4300, p. 278 LAC Larmour [Part 1], p. 124 Thompson, p. 89 Dennis to McMicken, telegram, June 1, 1866, MG26 A, Volume 237, p. 103871 [Reel C1663] LAC McIntosh, p. 2 dinner and slept in the early evening of June 1. Unfortunately, the same could not be said of the units arriving later that day into Port Colborne or of the Welland Battery who returned from their escort of the railway workers only at midnight.

Lieutenant Colonel Alfred Booker and the Hamilton 13th Infantry Battalion Towards the late evening of May 31 when the intentions of the Fenians at Buffalo became obvious, the Hamilton volunteer 13th Infantry Battalion had been put on alert. A sergeant from the unit began calling on the homes of its men ordering them to report to the drill shed on James Street at 6:00 A.M. the next morning.62 Private George Alan Mackenzie, seventeen years old, a student in Toronto‘s Trinity College, was typical of the Hamilton 13th Battalion troops.63 Of the 250 men who reported for duty that day, 150 were under the age of twenty, and only 180 had previously fired any live ammunition.64 Mackenzie‘s father, the Rector of Christ‘s Church gave his under-aged son consent to enlist with the volunteers a year earlier when he was only sixteen.

Mackenzie later recalled that when he joined with some other boys of his own age

–  –  –

The mustering of the 13th Battalion that morning was being announced by the booming of a cannon fired at the drill shed on James Street. Mackenzie heard the first report of the cannon but drifted off back to sleep. It was only after the second cannon blast that Mackenzie awoke Somerville, p. 50 Proceedings of a board of medical officers to inquire into the nature of a disability of Private George A.

Mackenzie, FRSR, Volume 30, pp. 218-229 Booker Inquiry, p. 226 George A. Mackenzie, ―What I Saw of the Fenian Raid‖, The Hamilton Spectator, November 27, 1926. Fenian Raids Scrapbook, Hamilton Public Library.

and immediately made his way down to the drill shed. Like most of the men that morning, he had not had breakfast. The commanding officer of the 13th Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Alfred Booker, in his statement entered into evidence before the military board of inquiry into the disaster at Ridgeway, claimed

–  –  –

Only about twenty per cent of the men in the 13th had knapsacks. Booker‘s address to the men prior to beginning their march, acknowledged this. He said, ―Men of the Thirteenth, you are once more called out for duty. You will now, as you did before, follow me. You have no knapsacks, but I can promise that if you do not behave yourselves before the enemy as soldiers do, you will get plenty of ‗knapsack drill.‘‖68 This threat of punishment of being drilled while wearing weighted knapsacks, would later strike an ironic chord with many of the men—not only because of their commander‘s obvious knowledge of their lack of proper equipment and failure in doing anything about it, but because while on frontier duty previously for a period of five months at Windsor, they were led by another officer and there was not one instant of any men requiring punishment. Booker‘s ―follow me‖ would stick in their craws.

Booker Inquiry, p. 199 Mackenzie Somerville, p. 50 The forty-two year-old Alfred Booker Jr. Esq. had been born in Nottingham, England, in 1824, one of eight children of a Baptist clergyman, Alfred Booker. As Baptists, the family were virtually outcasts in English Anglican high society and immigrated to Canada in search of better fortune. After a year in Montreal, the Booker family arrived in Hamilton in 1843 where the father established a church on Park Street and became one of the founding members of the Baptist Church in Canada. Alfred Booker Sr. was killed in a railway accident on the Desjardins Canal Bridge in 1857.69 The son, Alfred Jr., had by 1850 established a thriving auction house on James Street selling real-estate, horses, dry goods and inventories of bankrupt merchants. By the 1850s being a Baptist in Canada had less of a stigma and Booker became a wealthy member of Hamilton‘s elites, founding a Masonic lodge (St. John‘s). He was a member of the St. George Society and his father‘s Hamilton Regular Baptist Church. Another way of forging upwardly mobile social connections was voluntary military service and Booker sought out a commission as an ensign in the Wentworth militia in 1851 and went on to finance his own artillery battery, personally paying for the casting of its guns (of dubious quality beyond firing ceremonial blanks) in the Hamilton locomotive works of the Great Western Railway.70 In 1855 Booker was promoted to Captain and to Major in 1857. In 1858 he was assigned in command of all volunteer militia forces in Hamilton and was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. During the American Civil War Booker served as a liaison officer with British forces deployed in the region.71 In 1862 the 13th Battalion (today the Hamilton Light Infantry Regiment) was assembled from local independent companies and placed under the command of Isaac Buchanan but in 1865 he resigned after clashing with a group of insubordinate officers led by the battalion‘s popular Richard E. Ruggle, Alfred Booker [Senior], Dictionary of Canadian Biography Greenhous, p. 8 George Mainer, Alfred Booker, Dictionary of Canadian Biography second-in-command, Major James Atchison Skinner. In a parting shot at them, Buchanan insured that Booker, while remaining in overall command of the Hamilton militia district, also took personal command of the 13th Battalion, rather than Major Skinner.72 Buchanan acted out of spite. Earlier he had written, ―Booker...deserves credit, and no one has borne more testimony to this than me, but as to there ever being a great military organization under him, the thing is absurd.‖73 The bad blood left behind by the conflict between Buchanan and Skinner would end tragically for Booker at Ridgeway. It would also have an enormous impact on how the history of Ridgeway would be later be written.

In principle Booker was no more-no less competent or experienced than any other Canadian militia officer—few had opportunity to see combat since the Hunter Lodge Patriot border raids of 1838. Booker was certainly qualified to command a battalion, having completed a series of training exercises and holding a Militia Certificate First Grade.



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