«Combat, Memory and Remembrance in Confederation Era Canada: The Hidden History of the Battle of Ridgeway, June 2, 1866 Peter Wronski (Peter Vronsky) ...»
In some of the ways that the outbreak of the Civil War was for the United States five years earlier, Ridgeway was a midwife to Canadian institutional modernity. The Fenian invasion was a significant political, social and cultural event that mobilized some 22,000 volunteer soldiers and put on alert every village, town and city along the forests, fields, lakes and waterways of the Canadian-U.S. frontier in Upper and Lower Canada. The Fenians triggered a ‗national‘ security crisis—although Canada was not yet formally a nation. Civil rights were suspended under an emergency decree. It tested Canada‘s civil and military institutions; the viability of its infrastructure; capacity for impending autonomy; its tenor of loyalty, patriotism and the commitment to its traditions of personal liberty, justice and cultural pluralism— everything that would define Canada as the nation it became.
Yet despite these epic social and political dimensions, this battle is absent from the Confederation story and from Canada‘s founding traditions and from its current historical curriculum. Considering the battle‘s chronological proximity to Confederation, this absence is odd considering combat and conflict are the basic constants of national narrative since preBiblical historiography. Not to include it would call for an act of deliberate will to disassociate the national story from these very traditionally nationalistic events, a decision to in effect forfeit the battle as a potential vessel of national heroism and sacrifice so traditionally integral to so many national founding myths throughout history everywhere else. What made it so different in the case of Canada?
Nationhood and the Fenian Raid 1866 There is this one Confederation backstory lurking in the national birthing historiography, a story told then and still told now, yet rarely fully acknowledged, that the Fenian invasion of 1866 was a kind of ‗big bang‘ to Canada‘s gathering universe of nationhood. In 1999 the president of the Canadian Historical Association in his annual address described this notion as one of the ―established staples of Canadian historiography.‖4 If true, it should not be surprising considering British North America was undergoing a process of decolonization which is always predicated on nationalism to sustain it, whether friendly and collaborative as it was for Canada, or as adversarial as would be the norm for most other colonial peoples‘ historical experience. Nothing brings nation closer together than a struggle to defend itself against an external threat. The argument that the Fenian Raids were a tipping point at which colonial Canadians ceased being only British colonial subjects and began their transformation towards Canadian citizenship in an emerging new modern sovereign nation with its own identity that called to be defended and sacrificed for, is indeed a very old story in Canadian historiography. Here is how the young C.P.
Stacey, the future dean of twentieth century military historians, told it in 1931 Fenianism tended to engender among Canadians an attitude that gave practical significance to that platform phrase ―the new nationality.‖ No mere constitutional proposal could have aroused the feeling that was awakened by the threats... The menace imposed itself strongly upon the popular imagination, and in such a Gregory S Kealey, Presidential Address, ―The Empire Strikes Back: The Nineteenth-Century Origins of the Canadian Secret Service‖, Journal of the CHA, New Series, Vol. 10, 1999, pp. 3-19
Stacey was far from the first to make this claim. In 1866 the St. Catharines Constitutional in a list of seven things ―the Fenians have done‖ proclaimed the first four as
Indeed, the soldiers‘ marching songs in 1866 celebrated a Canada not yet formally born
as a nation:
C.P. Stacey, ―Fenianism and the Rise of National Feeling in Canada at the Time of Confederation‖, Canadian Historical Review, 12:3 (1931). pp. 238-261: p. 255 St. Catharines Constitutional, June 21, 1866. The remaining three were: ―5. They have been the means of bringing out an amount of good faith and efficient effort on the part of the United States authorities to prevent the invasion of a friendly country, which will raise that nation in the opinion not only of these colonies but of the civilized world; 6. They have placed the Irish in Canada in a very cruel position—forcing them either to rebel against the government under which they enjoy liberty, equality, peace and prosperity, or to fight against their own kin; 7. They have rendered themselves a nuisance to the United States as well as to Britain and Canada and have cast discredit on all aspirations after an Irish nationality.‖ John Hamilton Gray, Confederation; or, The Political and Parliamentary History of Canada from the Conference At Quebec, in October, 1864 to the Admission of British Columbia, in July, 1871, Toronto: Copp, Clark & Co.,
1872. p. 361
A year after Ridgeway, a prominent Orangeman veteran of the battle, Toronto school teacher Alexander Muir, composed what became celebrated as Anglophone Canada‘s unofficial national anthem—The Maple Leaf Forever, which declared
If simply by virtue of being the only battle of significance fought in the Confederation era,11 by being the solitary candidate in that era for what would qualify as ‗a testing‘ of a people‘s newly emerging ‗national feeling‘ in the way Stacey described it, Ridgeway should have been ―the battle that made Canada‖, or at least its Bunker Hill, with its subtext of national identity flowering in battlefield defeat tempered by resilient readiness to fight another day.
Ridgeway was all that once. In 1897, thirty-one years after the battle, when two hundred veterans of Ridgeway marched through Toronto to the Canadian Volunteers Monument near Captain John A. Macdonald, Troublous Times in Canada: The History of the Fenian Raids of 1866 and 1870, Toronto: [s.n.] 1910. p. 41 [hereinafter ―Captain Macdonald‖] Toronto Globe, March 28, 1923. Another version of the song had a chorus that went, ―Shout, shout, shout, ye loyal Britons‖ instead of ―Tramp, tramp, tramp, our boys are marching‖ contrasting an unabashed imperial version with the national Canadian one.
http://ve.torontopubliclibrary.ca/collected_works/performing_mapleleaf.html [accessed August 1, 2010] There were two other brief and bloodless encounters with Fenians at Campobello, New Brunswick in April 1866 and at Pigeon Hill in Missisquoi County, Quebec on June 9, 1866.
Queen‘s Park, fifty-thousand spectators lined the route, an extraordinary one quarter of the city‘s population. Escorted by two-thousand school children, the middle-aged veterans of ‘66 were showered in flower petals and bouquets by the gathered throngs. Another thirty-five thousand people assembled at the monument and decorated it in garlands and wreaths.12 Starting in 1890, a memorialisation of the Battle of Ridgeway was transformed into Canada‘s national military memorial day—‗Decoration Day‘—commemorated until 1931 in late May or early June.
Decoration Day became a commemoration in which not only were the veterans and the fallen of Ridgeway remembered at the anniversary of their battle, but they were joined as well by the remembrance of those fallen in the previous Northwest Rebellion of 1885 and the subsequent South African War (Boer War or Anglo-Boer War) and later the First World War as well.13 All this makes it the more puzzling why Ridgeway today is the battle that most Canadians have never heard of, one that many Canadian historians themselves are often challenged to identify or describe without looking it up.
Ridgeway Forgotten Since 1931, the fallen of Ridgeway have been demoted from Canada‘s national commemoration when it was moved from the May-June Decoration Day to November 11 Armistice Day and then renamed ‗Remembrance Day‘.14 The Veterans Affairs Canada website bluntly states today, ―Remembrance Day commemorates Canadians who died in service to Canada from the South African War to current missions.‖15 Ridgeway‘s status as a pre-Confederation battle, or the 1883 official date of the founding of Canada‘s ―permanent regular‖ Army, does not explain Globe, June 3, 1897 Maroney, Paul. ― ‗Lest we forget‘: War and meaning in English Canada, 1885-1914,‖ Journal of Canadian Studies. Vol. 32, No. 4; Winter 1997/1998; Globe, May 30, 1896.
http://www.vac-acc.gc.ca/general/sub.cfm?source=teach_resources/remdayfact; www.calendarupdates.com/info/holidays/canada/remembrance.aspx [retrieved October 10, 1866] http://www.vac-acc.gc.ca/remembers/sub.cfm?source=teach_resources/remdayfact [retrieved January 7, 2010] entirely why the casualties of 1866 are excluded from our official military memorial heritage today. Veterans Affairs Canada also excludes the military casualties of Red River Rebellion (1869-70), the Fenian Raids (1870-71), and the North-West Rebellion (1885), even though the units which sustained those casualties are still active today in the Canadian military as they were back then. This question partly encompasses the memory of Ridgeway in its orbit, as this thesis will demonstrate.
The last book about the battle was published in 1910 and its author, a Fenian raid veteran, Captain John A. Macdonald (no relation to the prime minister) was already complaining back then that Ridgeway and its significance had been forgotten by Canadians. What he said then applies equally today
Macdonald was not exaggerating. The remembrance of Ridgeway through Decoration Day was a relatively new phenomenon of which Macdonald‘s book was representative: a temporary restoration of a forgotten Ridgeway in 1890 that would eventually be forgotten once more by the 1930s. Except for that three decade window in which Macdonald was writing, Ridgeway had been then and is today lost to Canadian history, picked clean from its historiography like an uncomfortable scab. Within months of its occurrence the battle rapidly vanished from political discourse, public consciousness and from the national narrative as if it had never happened.
Captain Macdonald, p. 5
There are a myriad of reasons for this first immediate obscurity. Some are obvious:
Canada lost the Battle of Ridgeway—not only lost, but turned and ran. The two units that fought at Ridgeway are still active today in the Canadian Armed Forces as primary reserve militia units and continue to pay the price of their ancestors‘ retreat to this day. The Queen‘s Own Rifles Regiment of Toronto, are teased that the initials QOR really stand for ―Quickest Outta‘ Ridgeway‖ while the former 13th Battalion of Hamilton, today the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry Wentworth Regiment, are taunted as the ―Scarlet Runners‖ by rival units.17 It was not the kind of performance upon which national founding myths are built.
To whom they lost was significant as well. Defeat at the hands of the Celtic Fenians carried an extra measure of stinging shame in the context of centuries of British propaganda on question of Irish rebellion and nationalism which reached it heights during the Victorian-era obsession with race.18 Although these images were not as widely prevalent in Canadian editorial cartoons,19 Irish rebels in the nineteenth century were nonetheless frequently enough portrayed by the race-conscious Victorians, including those in Canada, as inferior, dark-skinned simian brutes, as ―European Negroes‖ who were inevitably Catholic.20 This transformation of the Irish See: F.L. Jones letter to Editor, ―Historical Ghost Laid At Last‖, Hamilton Spectator, June 4, 1954; James Elliot, ―Irish Victory on Canadian Soil‖, Hamilton Spectator, February 2, 2001. A contemporary reference to the appellation ―Scarlet Runners‖ can be found in a letter from Gilbert McMicken to John A. Macdonald, June 16, 1866: MG26 A Vol. 237, p. 104146 [Microfilm Reel C1663] LAC; In 1971-1973 I served as a trooper in the 3rd Light Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment—the Governor General‘s Horse Guard (GGHG) and witnessed the teasing during militia joint exercises, with many not understanding what was being referred to or having heard of Ridgeway itself.
L. Perry Curtis, Jr., Apes and Angels: The Irishman in Victorian Caricature, Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997; See also, Donald Power, ―The Paddy Image: The Stereotype of the Irishman in Cartoon and Illustration‖, in Robert O‘Driscoll & Lorna Reynolds, The Untold Story: The Irish in Canada, Volume 1, Toronto: Celtic Arts of Canada, 1988. pp. 37-58; Michael de Nie, The Eternal Paddy: Irish Identity and the British Press, 1798-1882, doctoral dissertation, University of Wisconsin - Madison: 2001; Kathleen M. Noonan, ―‗The Cruell Pressure of an Enraged, Barbarous People‘: Irish and English Identity in Seventeenth-century Policy and Propaganda‖, The Historical Journal, 41, I 1998. pp. 151-177 G. Bruce Retallack, ―Paddy, the Priest and the Habitant: Inflecting the Irish Cartoon Stereotype in Canada‖, The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, Vol. 28, no. 2 - Vol. 29, no. 1 (Fall,2002 - Spring, 2003), pp. 124-147 See for example: Doscen Gauust, The History of the Fenian Invasion of Canada, Hamilton, ON: Wm. Brown & Co., 1866.
rebel into a Celtic Frankenstein, as L. Perry Curtis termed it, had deep roots going back to the English conquest of Ireland, through to the traumas of the Reformation and later those of the Jacobite rebellion, and its culmination in the bloody uprising of the United Irishmen in 1798 and the agrarian violence, clan warfare, famine and evictions of the 19th century that followed. The Fenians were inevitably portrayed as a farcical, superstitious, brawling, whoring, drunken mob.
The Fenian officer leading the raid into Canada, John O‘Neill, is referred to by historians even today as ―General‖ (in quotes)21 as is Thomas Sweeny who planned the invasion, as ―Secretary of War‖ as if such Fenian ranks and designations were patently comic and ridiculous.22 For upright, square-jawed, Queen‘s Own ‗white‘ Anglo-Saxon Protestant John Bull warrior lads to take a beating of the kind they took at Ridgeway from the Irish-American republican Fenians was a shame which bit deeply and was best not spoken of once the dead were buried and the wounded hidden.