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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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O‘Neill now sent 100 men under Colonel Hoy from the Seventh Buffalo Fenian Regiment further north to take control of the bridge over Black Creek.100 Here the Fenians dug into an elevated bank behind a river over which they had clear site of open fields in the direction Somerville, pp. 72-73 Peacocke, Report, p.1 O‘Neill Official Report, p. 38 of Chippawa—roughly in the vicinity today of Shagbark Lane at the intersection of Townline Road and Switch Roads near the bridge over the QEW highway. The position was topographically similar to the one they held at Frenchman‘s Creek except it was about two miles inland away from the Niagara River. This was the furthest north the Fenians would penetrate in force during the raid.

At around 6:00 P.M. Hoy spotted mounted scouts again approaching from the north, most likely civilian riders sent out by the Reeve of Chippawa.101 Again, they were turned away by several rounds of fire. The assumption was made that these were scouts from Crown forces approaching from Chippawa and the encounter was again reported to O‘Neill.

Now the sequence of the Fenian troop movement and its timing as well as that of the Canadians and the British becomes confused and controversial. A complex chain of events began to unfold which led to the disastrous result. The sequence of these events will be described in these pages, sometimes twice, in this chapter and in the next, like the layers of an onion revealing more detail and nuance as we descend into the proverbial fog of war that Ridgeway will become.

Peacocke‟s Plan In the late evening Robert Larmour and Major Thomas Patterson cautiously reconnoitred the railway line from Port Colborne to Fort Erie in a handcar. Along the way they saw columns of refugees on foot, horseback and in wagons streaming out of the countryside southward towards the shores of Lake Erie. But they saw no sign of Fenians.102 At around 10:00 P.M. they pulled into the railway yards to find them almost completely deserted except for the solitary figure of Peacocke Report, June 4, 1866 in MFRP Larmour [Part 1], pp. 125-126 Her Majesty‘s Collector of Customs, Richard Graham, who was making his way on foot up the tracks with a message for the commandant in Port Colborne. Graham told them that the Fenians had abandoned Fort Erie entirely and that around 6:00 P.M. he had visited their camp at Newbigging Farm on Frenchman‘s Creek where he found them reduced in number to not more than 400 men and in a disorganized and drunken state. Graham had prepared a written dispatch for the commander at Port Colborne.103 Graham believed that the Fenians were very vulnerable to an attack. Larmour and Patterson convinced Graham to return with them. They took him up onto the hand-car and immediately turned back towards Port Colborne where they arrived at about midnight.104 In his report Colonel Peacocke insists he continued to send out scouts throughout the evening and determined that the Fenian main force was positioned at ―Frenchman‘s Creek.‖ This is a misstatement. Considering the fact that his scouts could not get beyond Hoy‘s unit at Black Creek, it seems unlikely that could get beyond that point as far as Frenchman‘s Creek. Other officers involved in the operation would later report that Peacocke identified Black Creek, not Frenchman‘s Creek, as the intended target of the operation planned for the next morning.105 It must be remembered, that Peacocke only had a clipping of a postal map with no road or topographical details other than those related to postal routes and that he might be simply confusing Black Creek with Frenchman‘s Creek. [SEE REGION MAP] Dennis Inquiry, pp. 256-257. A dispatch from Graham is inserted into the pages of the inquiry and is marked as June 1, 10:00 P.M. – probably written by Graham in the Fort Erie railway yard shortly before he was picked up by Larmour in the hand-car. This accounts for the frequent citation of 10 P.M. as the time Graham and Dennis meet, but the meeting actually must have occurred after midnight. It is also possible that the telegraph link between the Fort Erie rail yard and Port Colborne had been repaired and that the message was telegraphed at 10:00 P.M. to Dennis.

Larmour [Part 1], p. 126 Booker Inquiry, p. 200; Akers Report June 7, 1866 in MFRP; see the excellent analysis of this issue in Reid, pp.


Peacocke now formulated a plan to join with the forces from Port Colborne at Stevensville, eight miles south of Chippawa and about three miles by road south-west of the Fenian advance guard at Black Creek. He selected the leisurely hours of between10 and 11 A.M the next morning for the rendezvous. Peacocke stated he chose this late hour as he was expecting reinforcements from Toronto and St. Catharines (47th, the 10th Royals and 19th Volunteer Battalion) to arrive in Chippawa at 4:30 A.M. and estimated he would not be ready to leave for Stevensville until 6:00 A.M. The question left begging an answer is why did Peacocke leave these reinforcements sitting on the train at Clifton all night instead of bringing them into Chippawa earlier? Peacocke expected the brigade at Port Colborne to leave at approximately the same time, 6:00 A.M., for the rendezvous at Stevensville later that morning, but did not specify the route they were to take.106 Booker steals Dennis‟s Command Peacocke had earlier that evening upon his arrival in Chippawa, ordered Booker and the 13th Battalion to advance by train from Dunnville to Port Colborne.107 Booker in his statement to the Inquiry reports that he was having dinner in Dunnville when the telegram arrived from Peacocke ordering him to Port Colborne and that ―a few minutes sufficed to see all on the cars (which had been retained at Dunnville for orders) en route for our destination, which we reached at about 11 o'clock p.m.‖108 As Dunnville is twenty-two miles away from Port Colborne and it took ―a few minutes‖ to board the troops, and if in the worst case scenario the 13th Battalion took ninety minutes to make this short move, it means that Booker received his orders at around 9:00 to Peacocke Report, June 4, 1866 in MFRP Peacocke Report, June 4, 1866 in MFRP Booker Inquiry, p. 200 10:00 P.M. and that Peacocke formulated the details of his Stevensville plan some time shortly afterwards based on the recent intelligence he was receiving.

At around midnight, Peacocke then sent the following telegram to Port Colborne:

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At the same time Peacocke dispatched Captain Charles Akers of the Royal Engineers to explain his plan and its objectives in detail to ―the officer commanding at Port Colborne.‖110 This is a very pregnant phrase, because somewhere between 11:00 P.M. and midnight, once Booker arrived at Port Colborne, as the senior ranking militia officer in the area he immediately relieved Dennis of his command. Combining the various units that had arrived and were still arriving at Port Colborne, (13th Battalion Hamilton, 2nd Battalion QOR Toronto, Caledonia and York Rifle Companies, and the Welland Canal Field Battery) Booker was now commanding a brigade—a formation calling for a General‘s rank. On the train from Hamilton Booker was reputed to have been bragging to his fellow officers that he outranked every Lieutenant Colonel in the region and that within days he would be in command of a force of 3,000 men. One of the officers later remarked, ―He talked as if he were competent to command fifty thousand men.‖111 This change of command was undertaken by Booker on his own initiative, as Akers reported that when he left at midnight for Port Colborne he was instructed to carry his orders to Colonel Dennis but upon his arrival two hours later, he discovered that Booker was now in command.112 Booker Inquiry, p. 200 Peacocke Report, June 4, 1866 in MFRP Somerville, p. 94 Akers Report June 7, 1866 in MFRP All this now delighted the Queen‘s Own Rifles, who with Dennis gone, returned under the direct command of their own Major Gillmor. It sent Dennis searching for a command of his own, away from Booker—a search also ending in disaster.

Before Booker and Dennis could go their separate ambitious ways, Larmour arrived From Fort Erie with the Customs Collector Graham, reporting that the Fenians were at Frenchman‘s Creek, were drunk and disorganized and so few in number that according to Dennis later ―even two hundred good men could capture them all easily.‖113 Graham had actually written in his dispatch, ―400 good men will gobble them up before day.‖114 According to another witness of the meeting between Dennis and Graham in the Port Colborne Customs house shortly after midnight

–  –  –

Peacocke believed that the Fenian force was inland at Black Creek, eight miles northwest of Fort Erie, while Dennis and Booker believed they were a mere two-and-a-half miles outside of Fort Erie at Frenchman‘s Creek near the shore of the Niagara River.

–  –  –

The Fenian Movement to Limestone Ridge Dennis to Durie, June 17, 1866, Remarks on Captain McCallum‘s Charges Against Him, Adjutant General‘s Correspondence; Correspondence relating to complaints, courts martial and inquiries, RG9-I-C-8, Volume 7, LAC.

Dennis Inquiry, Letter from Graham to ―Commandant at Port Colborne‖ inserted at p. 257 Dennis Inquiry, William A. Rooth testimony, p. 256 What remains shrouded in mystery even today is precisely when O‘Neill decided to make his move down Ridge Road towards the town of Ridgeway. The timing is significant for many reasons. According to O‘Neill‘s Official Report

–  –  –

Many dismiss the 8:00 P.M. claim as being too early. Peacocke did not even arrive in Chippawa until 8:00 P.M., had not formed any idea of the Fenian positions, nor had he formulated any plan of attack that early. But O‘Neill might have easily surmised that two columns were going to move towards him from Chippawa and Port Colborne if spies were reporting to him the movement of troops towards those two towns earlier in the day. One look at the railway system made that a logical strategy. What is tantalizing, however, is O‘Neill‘s mention of a third direction of attack ―from the lake side.‖ While at Clifton, Peacocke had telegraphed Dennis at 5:00 P.M. to tell him he was requesting the British Consul in Buffalo to dispatch the International ferry to Port Colborne and that Dennis was to place troops aboard it to flank the Fenians from the shores of the Niagara River between Fort Erie and Chippawa.117 That information somehow got to O‘Neill by 8:00 P.M.

After Peacocke arrived at Chippawa, scouts were sought out to reconnoitre the Fenian positions. A man volunteered to ride down and spy out the Fenian lines if he was provided with a horse. George T. Denison later wrote

–  –  –

The Fenians clearly had a network of spies working on their behalf but to what extent and scope remains most likely forever an unanswered question.

According to O‘Neill, he broke camp at 10 P.M. and moved north towards Black Creek to meet the forces that were going to advance from Chippawa. This would be about the time Peacocke was ordering Booker to move up from Dunnville to Port Colborne. But then at midnight O‘Neill reports he suddenly ―changed direction and moved on the Limestone Ridge road leading towards Ridgeway—halting a few hours on the way to rest the men: this for the purpose of meeting the column advancing from Port Colborne. My object was to get between the two columns, and, if possible defeat one of them before the other could come to its assistance.‖119 O‘Neill was following classic military doctrine: a smaller force can always

defeat a larger one by concentrating all of its strength on a smaller part of its enemy:

‗destruction in detail.‘ Since Peacocke did not dispatch Captain Akers to Port Colborne with his orders until midnight, it would mean that either O‘Neill knew of the plan before the brigade at Port Colborne did, or he out-guessed them all. Most historians assume that O‘Neill is mistaken or exaggerating the early timing of his movements in his Official Report. All acknowledge, however, that somehow O‘Neill must have learned of the enemy‘s intentions sooner or later. Reid suggests O‘Neill is exaggerating in his reports to deliberately disguise ―the presence of a Fenian intelligence network, including someone who was intercepting the defender‘s telegraph communications.‖120 Cruickshank has O‘Neill bouncing between Miller‘s Creek (half way Denison, Fenian Raid [ms] p. 20 O‘Neill, Official Report, p. 39 Reid, p. 153 between Black and Frenchman‘s Creeks) and Black Creek, receiving sporadic reports and making his decision only at 3:00 A.M. to rouse his men and quickly march towards Ridgeway.121 (Which still begets the question, even as late as 3:00 A.M., how did O‘Neill know to proceed to Ridgeway?) George Denison was most impressed with the Fenian choice of positions. Of their ground at Black Creek, he says, ―Their position here was admirable–how they happened to discover it so soon is extraordinary and tends to show that they must have had the ground reconnoitred and the position of their camp chosen before they came over.‖122 There is some compelling testimony from the Fenian trials that seems to bolster the veracity of O‘Neill‘s Official Report and the effectiveness of his intelligence sources. George Whale testified that he lived just south of Townline Road on the Niagara River about three miles north of Newbigging Farm. Between 10 and 11 P.M. a force of what he estimated to be 500 to 600 Fenians appeared at his door, demanding that he show them the road to Ridgeway.

According to Whale, the Fenians forced him to act as a guide. He testified that they turned onto Townline Road inland ―1 ½ miles from the River‖ and then stopped and camped there all night, which puts them at Black Creek. 123 According to a local journalist, the Fenians camped ―on Lot 16, 8th concession of Bertie, the property of Louis Krafft.‖124 Shortly before sunrise—around 3:00 A.M.—they awoke and Whale led them towards Ridge Road south cross-country through a cedar swamp. The Fenians were forced to abandon their ammunition wagons as they got mired in the swamp. Any ammunition they could not carry, they threw into the creek. At around 6:00 A.M. the Fenians finally let Whale return home.

Cruickshank, p. 29 Denison, The Fenian Raid, p. 60 George Whale, testimony, Judge Wilson‘s Notes in Queen v. John Quin, DFUSCT.

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