«Combat, Memory and Remembrance in Confederation Era Canada: The Hidden History of the Battle of Ridgeway, June 2, 1866 Peter Wronski (Peter Vronsky) ...»
Somerville, p. 34 According to another source, the Fenian route had been ―through the properties of George Shrigley, lot 6, con.8; R. Kirkpatrick, lot 5, con. 9; A. Anger, part of lot 5, Isaac Huffman, part of lot 4, John C. Kirkpatrick, lot 3, and J.N. Anger, half of lot 2, all in the 9th concession; John Anger, part of lot 2, con. 10; and John Teal, lot 1, con. 10.‖125 Whale‘s testimony suggests that the move onto Ridgeway had been in the Fenian plan at least two hours before Captain Akers was dispatched from Chippawa by Peacocke and perhaps days or even weeks before then. The Fenians arrived at Whale‘s house between 10 and 11 demanding he show them the road to Ridgeway; they already knew where they were going that early.
There is another clue to the possibility that indeed O‘Neill received intelligence at 8:00 P.M. and then communicated with Buffalo before making his decision to make his move two hours later at 10:00 P.M. General Sweeny in his report to the Fenian Brotherhood states that his representative in Buffalo Captain Hynes forwarded him a dispatch from O‘Neill dated 9:10 P.M.
stating, ―Our men isolated. Enemy marching in force from Toronto. What shall we do? When do you move?‖ According to Macdonald‘s own secret agent inside the Buffalo Fenian circle, O‘Neill reported that he had 1,000 men but only roughly 750 were fit for combat.126 Sweeny telegraphed Hynes to ―Reinforce O‘Neill at all hazards; if he cannot hold his position let him fall back; send him and his men to Malone as rapidly as possible by the Rome and Watertown roads.‖127 (At Malone, New York, the Fenians were mobilizing to cross the St.
Lawrence River into Cornwall and Montreal.) The U.S.S. Michigan was preventing any such reinforcement from taking place.
History of Welland County, Welland Tribune Printing House, 1887, p. 129 McLeod to Macdonald, June 6, 1866, MG26A, Volume 57, p. 23126, [Reel C1508] LAC Official Report of General T.W. Sweeny, Secretary of War, September 1866, Sweeny Papers.
Logically, the Fenians now took up their position at Black Creek in full force, uniting the units from Newbigging‘s farm with Hoy‘s Buffalo unit of 100 men and Donohue‘s small mounted unit. They held that position just in case Peacocke attempted an early morning assault there or perhaps deliberately to mislead and lure Peacock to assemble his forces to target that position, as he would indeed do in the end.
Peacocke‘s scouts would have reported the Fenian presence at Black Creek all through that night as he prepared to unify his forces at Stevensville for the late morning. Just before dawn when it became evident that Peacocke was not launching an early morning attack from Chippawa on the Fenian positions at Black Creek, they moved off now in full force of about 700 to 800 men towards Ridgeway in the south, to intercept what they believed or knew to be the weaker of the two columns—the one without artillery—the one moving up from Port Colborne under Booker‘s command.
It does not appear that O‘Neill left many men behind at Black Creek. Somehow the Fenians either knew that the troops from Port Colborne would disembark at Ridgeway or perhaps they expected the move to come from Stevensville as planned—north-west of Ridge Road— either way, the diagonal Ridge Road, flanking the top of Limestone Ridge as we shall see was the perfect ground to defend against an attack from either Ridgeway in the south or Stevensville in the north.
Denison would comment, ―This march at early day break was so skilfully and secretly effected that for many days after they left, their movements were a perfect mystery.‖128 He writes
They would be attacked by Booker‘s troops, precisely as Denison describes, on their right flank.
At about 5:00 A.M. O‘Neill arrived near Limestone Ridge at the farm house of Henry F. Angur [Anger; Anker] located on Ridge Road about a half mile north of Bertie Road, near Farm Road today. (Lot 4, 10th concession of Bertie.)130 Angur was a seventy-three year-old farmer of German origin suffering from gout and only able to move about on crutches. His family who had nearby farms had evacuated their livestock and left the day before but Angur refused to accompany them. A veteran of the War of 1812 and of the 1837-38 Rebellion-Hunter Patriot Raids, Angur told his family to leave without him as ―he had been in two wars and would risk a third.‖ Angur would later say that O‘Neill entered his house knowing him and his sons by name.
He stated he was surprised to see that O‘Neill knew his sons‘ names and the names of everyone in the area, where they resided and how many horses they had. The Fenians made the Henry Angur house their headquarters for the battle that would take place several hours later several hundred yards further to the south. 131 While the Fenians seemed to have had reconnoitred the ground well ahead, possessed county level road maps and had intelligence on the residents of the region down to the number of Denison, The Fenian Raid p. 62 Somerville, p. 34 Somerville, pp. 34-35 sons and horses they had, Peacocke, Booker, and Dennis were bumbling about with dime-store postal maps and possessed no knowledge of their own home ground, let alone that of the Fenian positions.
But the Fenians had not been moving entirely unobserved. The Fort Erie smuggler and Civil War veteran Sam Johnston had been steadily tracking the Fenian movements along their western flank all day long. As night fell, Johnston now under the cover of darkness began stalking the Fenians, getting close enough to sometimes hear their voices. As Johnston tracked the Fenians into the morning hours, he stopped off at Buck‘s Corners to get his rusty revolver oiled. At one point several Fenian horsemen spotted Johnston and gave chase but his horse managed to outrun them—few of the Fenians were able to find saddles for the horses they had seized and were riding bareback.
Johnston discovered that the Fenians were taking a line of march south along Ridge Road towards the small town of Ridgeway. It was now nearing 6:00 A.M. and daylight. Taking a parallel road that led directly into Ridgeway, Johnston spurred his horse forward. He galloped into Ridgeway just as the train with Booker‘s brigade from Port Colborne was pulling into the station. Johnston had no idea that their commander believed the Fenians were as far as eight miles away at Frenchman‘s Creek. But just the same, he was determined to warn them of the proximity of the approaching Fenians on Ridge Road just outside of the town. As the troops poured off the train onto the platform, he began impatiently riding up and down their ranks attempting to seek out their commanding officer.132 Johnston, Narrative, p. 84 Chapter 6: The Seed to Disaster, Night, June 1-2, 1866 As the Fenians were moving through the dark from Frenchman‘s Creek to Black Creek and then after resting, back down through the cedar swamp towards Ridge Road, the Canadian volunteers and their officers were busy in Port Colborne on the Welland Canal. Shortly after midnight Lieutenant-Colonel John Stoughton Dennis and Lieutenant-Colonel Alfred Booker debriefed Her Majesty‘s Collector of Customs, Richard Graham, the senior crown official in Fort Erie who had been brought in on a railroad handcart by Robert Larmour. Graham reported that the Fenians were camped at Frenchman‘s Creek and that they were under-strength and vulnerable in a drunken state.
Dennis argued for the immediate advance of the brigade into Fort Erie. Booker might have reminded him that the original order Dennis had received was to proceed to Port Colborne and hold there until further orders, and that this order was now binding on himself as the new commander. British army Colonel George T. Peacocke, the overall commander of the Niagara campaign, had telegraphed Port Colborne at 12:00 midnight that he was sending Captain Charles Akers, Royal Engineers (R.E.), to brief and advise them on his plan of action, but that message would not be delivered to Booker until forty-five minutes later.1 In the meantime Graham was persuading Dennis and Booker that that Peacocke ―was endeavouring to keep the volunteers back in order that the regulars should have all the credit of capturing the Fenians.‖2 Booker must have relented under the pressure from Dennis and Graham. Not knowing yet that Akers had been sent to brief him on Peacocke‘s plan, Booker now sent a message to Peacocke at 12:30 A.M.: ―Erie is open. I have given orders to attack.‖3 Booker Inquiry, p. 200 Somerville, p. 67; Denison, Fenian Raid, p. 25 Peacocke to Napier, June 7, 1866, Frame 829, MFRP Booker then ordered the sleeping troops to be awakened and the train loaded for an advance towards Fort Erie.4 Fifteen minutes later at 12:45 he would have received Peacocke‘s telegram, but it would not have changed his preparation of the train, only its eventual destination.
Five minutes later, at around 12:50 A.M. Frontier Constabulary secret service agent Charles Clarke arrived from his mission. He too had been in the Fenian camp, having been sent there in the afternoon by Dennis. He confirmed its position on Frenchman‘s Creek and Graham‘s estimate of approximately 450 Fenians at most, but warned that they were to be reinforced by an additional 200 more at 3:00 A.M.5 Since Clarke would have left the Fenian camp at around 10:00 P.M. already knowing that 200 additional Fenians were to reinforce O‘Neill, it suggests that by then O‘Neill had already set his marching orders and a plan for a rare night-time junction between his main force and his 200 man advance guard at Black Creek.
O‘Neill would hold his men there standing-by until 3:00 A.M. before finalizing the direction of the march for his unified force.
As crucial as it is to understanding what went wrong, the precise timing to the minute of the subsequent exchange of telegrams between Booker and Peacocke is difficult to ascertain. We do not know the distance that written messages were carried by hand from headquarters to an available telegraph circuit and vice versa. There is no evidence that on June 1 or 2nd the Volunteers or the British army were laying cables for field telegraph—both Peacocke and Booker were relying on splicing into existing networks at best.6 McCallum, p. 26 Charles Clarke, telegram, June 2, 1866, p. 103878; Charles Clarke to McMicken, report, June 5, 1866, MG26 A, Volume 237 [Reel C1663], p. 103940, LAC Larmour [Part 2], p. 228 on splicing into telegraph lines.
Nor can we account for how soon the recipients turned their attention to telegraphed messages handed to them and how long they took to draft a response. Write-to-read times for telegrams between Booker and Peacocke on June 2 seem to range widely between 30 minutes at best, about 45 on average, and 90 minutes to two and four hours at worst, despite the fact that so far, in their movements they clung to the railroad tracks and their parallel telegraph lines. 7 In his official report Peacocke writes, ―About two o‘clock I received a telegram from Col Booker, despatched before he was joined by Captain Akers informing me that he had given orders to attack the enemy at Fort Erie.‖ 8 Peacocke later commented, ―I was astonished at Col.
Booker‘s undertaking to form a plan, but as I saw from the hour mentioned that the message was sent long before Captain Akers could have reached him, I made the remark ‗No use answering that, Akers will set it all right when he arrives.‘‖9 Although traditionally less so in the British army than the French and American ones, military engineers like Akers were considered the educated elite of the military services in the nineteenth century.10 (In the USA for example, its national military academy West Point, was an engineering school.) When not constructing fortifications, bridges, fieldworks, or designing machines of war, engineers were often called upon to step in as adjutants, intelligence and staff officers. They were the problem solvers, wise sages of the military arts in the modern industrial The worst case scenario, if it is to be believed, was a crucial telegram from Peacocke received in Port Colborne at 5:20 A.M. but not delivered to Booker until 9:00 A.M. (see further below) Peacocke Report, June 4, 1866, Frame 812, MFRP; Chewett, p. 79 and Somerville, p. 63 also report 2 A.M.;
At Canada Archives, there is a conveniently printed version of officers‘ official reports but with typographical errors, (MG 29 E 74 File No. 2, Colonel Dennis, Adjutant-General‘s Office: Official Reports, June 21, 1866) which unfortunately Brian Reid based his study upon [see Reid, p. 409 n. 55 (Reid also errs citing ―E 73‖ as the source— E74 is correct.) ] Peacocke is sometimes reported receiving the telegram at ―10 P.M.‖—a typographical error in MG29 E74 as Booker had not arrived in Port Colborne until 11 P.M. and original copies Peacocke Report indicate ―2 A.M.‖) Peacocke to Napier, June 7, 1866, Frame 829, MFRP Griffith, p. 124 world of ―big war sciences.‖11 But even so, it was a strange oversight by Peacocke not to have sent a telegram explicitly countermanding Booker‘s orders to his men to advance. Day-to-day routine protocols of military communication call for redundant confirmation-negation; Peacocke should have responded to Booker‘s message. He had no guarantee that Akers was going to arrive at Booker‘s headquarters in time to stop the advance into Fort Erie.
The ninety minute lag between the time Booker sent his message and when Peacocke claims he received it is suspiciously long. Perhaps Peacocke succumbed to a half hour of much needed sleep as he waited for reinforcements, nothing further to be done until their arrival. He might have dozed off before reading the message or without responding to it or forgotten about it after he awoke. In any regards, whatever the motive, not sending an explicit message countermanding Booker‘s preparation to advance into Fort Erie would be ostensibly a minor mistake but infinitely fatal, triggering a chain-reaction that concluded with debacle on the battlefield later that day.