«Combat, Memory and Remembrance in Confederation Era Canada: The Hidden History of the Battle of Ridgeway, June 2, 1866 Peter Wronski (Peter Vronsky) ...»
Lt. Colonel Dennis in the meantime had been pursuing a plan of action of his own. Earlier in the evening at about 10:30 P.M., while he was still in command at Port Colborne before Booker‘s arrival, he had learned that the steam ferry the International would not be coming— that it had been sent into harbour on the Buffalo side, to keep it from being seized by the Fenian raiders.12 The ever resourceful Dennis then telegraphed Captain Lachlan McCallum in Dunnville, the owner of the steam tug the W.T. Robb, reputed to be the fastest on the great lakes, and asked U.S. General George McClellan was an example of a ―big war science‖ general—a top-of-the-class graduate of West Point, a military engineer and surveyor, inventor of the McClellan saddle still used today by mounted military and police and a railway company president, prior to being appointed by Lincoln in 1861 as commander of the Army of the Potomac and General in Chief of the U.S. Army.
Dennis, Report June 4, 1866 in MFRP him to bring the vessel to Port Colborne.13 The crusty Scot mariner-merchant McCallum who had written Macdonald in 1865 with his fantasy of converting the Robb into a war-tug carrying marines, responded to Dennis‘ telegram with enthusiasm.14 He mobilized his Dunnville Naval Brigade company of marines—mostly his employees and family relations—and steamed out for Port Colborne.
Dennis intended to load on the Robb the gunners from the Welland Field Battery, who without their brass artillery pieces still locked up in Hamilton by the British were functioning as infantry, although half of them were armed with the obsolete Victoria carbines only suitable for close-order defence of their artillery placements but not for conventional field combat. Dennis was, however, determined to complete his task to organize the mission as had been intended for the International. But now there would be a twist. Having seen no Fenians on his own forays and received fresh intelligence that they were camped at Frenchman‘s Creek in a drunken state, Dennis was convinced that the way into Fort Erie was open and he was biting at the bit to advance when unexpectedly Booker arrived on the scene at 11:00 P.M. and took command by virtue of his seniority.
It was very awkward—two Lieutenant-Colonels, one only marginally senior by a technicality. Dennis now decided to put as much distance as he could between himself and his rival by taking personal command of the force going aboard the Robb. Here he would be the only ranking officer in undisputed command. While Dennis waited for the vessel to arrive he persuaded Booker to adopt his plan of action of advancing the brigade into Fort Erie by railway and flushing out the enemy while Dennis would trap the retreating Fenians by chasing them down in the Robb and deploying the Welland gunners and marines along the banks of the Dennis Inquiry, p. 343; Docker, p.14 McCallum to Macdonald, April 6, 1865, Adjutant General Letters Received 1865, RG9 IC1, Vol. 220, file 932, LAC. (See Chapter 2) Niagara River. It was not a bad plan; had only the Fenians been retreating. Shortly after that Captain Akers, R.E. arrived.
2:00 – 3:00 A.M.
If there is a key to what goes wrong on Limestone Ridge then the first clue to it lurks in the sixty minutes between 2:00 and 3:00 AM, June 2, when Booker, Dennis, and Akers, advised by Robert Graham, Charles Clarke15 and Robert Larmour,16 made an extraordinary decision to change their British commander‘s plan on their own initiative.
Akers arrived in Port Colborne as scheduled at approximately 1:30 A.M. to discover that Booker had taken command and that the troops appeared to be loaded upon a train ready to advance to Fort Erie.17 Akers relayed to Booker and Dennis the orders from Peacocke: they were not to advance into Fort Erie on their own. They were to instead join with Peacocke‘s British regulars and other Canadian militia units at Stevensville. From there they would make a joint attack on the Fenians believed to be at Black Creek. The Robb and its soldiers, by Peacocke‘s orders, were to be deployed as planned along the Niagara River to prevent the Fenians from escaping back into the USA and to act as a floating messenger between Booker and Peacocke if necessary.
Booker and Dennis immediately disputed the orders, insisting to Akers that their intelligence was more current than Peacocke‘s. According to the two Lt. Colonels, the Fenians were at Frenchman‘s Creek near Fort Erie, not at Black Creek near Stevensville. Fort Erie was open and they should take control of the town at once and proceed to attack the Fenians at Frenchman‘s Creek. Peacocke‘s plan should be jettisoned.
Charles Clarke, report, MG26 A, Volume 237 [Reel C1663], p. 103940, LAC Larmour [Part 1], p. 126 Dennis Inquiry, p. 216 Captain Akers now took the initiative. Although only a captain he had an informal voice of authority by virtue of being first, a British army officer, and second, a military engineer; and finally, he had been dispatched there by Peacocke as his emissary. But the problem with nineteenth century military engineers, according to former Sandhurst lecturer Paddy Griffith, ―was that although they represented only one specialized branch in the art of war they were permitted to posture and parade as experts in the whole. They knew only too well that they were the most highly educated members of the officer corps, and they jealously guarded their status as spokesmen on any issue of strategy or military organization.‖18
Already a disconcerting one-hour discrepancy is evident in the two above reports as to the time that Akers claims Booker was to be in Fort Erie (8:00 A.M.)21 and the time Booker thought he had to be there (7:00 A.M.).22 At 3:00 A.M. Captain Akers telegraphed the proposed change of plan to Peacocke. Then suddenly without waiting for a reply, Akers decided to join Dennis on the Robb. What was never satisfactorily explained is why Akers did not remain with Booker to assist him as a staff officer.
As a brigade commander, Booker had to manage a large unit in a complex movement with almost no staff. All the other officers at the scene had direct command responsibilities in their battalions and could not be (or would not be) spared for duty on a brigade level. In this whole history, the only explanation ever offered by Akers for abandoning Booker for his adventure with Dennis, was that he, Akers, ―had no command or position with the voluntary force at Port Colborne.‖23 Booker, Narrative, [undated], Courts Martial, Courts of Inquiry, 1856-1866, RG9 IC8, Volume 6, pp. 4-5. LAC There is a one hour discrepancy in the intended entry time into Fort Erie between Akers (8:00 A.M.) and Booker (7:00 A.M.).
Akers, Report, June 7, 1866 in MFRP Booker, Narrative, pp. 4-5 Dennis Inquiry, p. 219 There was a fail-safe, however, in the plan the Canadian officers cooked up: Booker was not to adopt the new plan unless Peacocke approved the proposed changes. Otherwise Booker was to march to Stevensville as originally ordered. That changed nothing of the Robb‘s mission—either way they were headed for the Niagara River shoreline.
What Booker, Dennis and Akers had done, appears to be an extraordinary act of insubordination by three junior officers who unilaterally amended their commander‘s plan and initiated its execution without his approval. Observers at the time noted this unusual breach of military protocol. One journalist would remark, ―Whether the three had an overflow of courage at Colborne before the hour of trial, or were only in their normal condition of heroes, held back and impatient of restraint, may never be known.‖24 George T. Denison would also question this unusual breach in his history
Somerville, p. 68 Denison, Fenian Raid, pp. 26-28; quoted extensively in Somerville, pp. 68-70 Peacocke was understandably surprised and angered when he read Akers‘s telegram reporting the proposed changes to his plans. Peacocke unequivocally telegraphed back at 3:50 A.M., ―I have received your message of 3:00 A.M. I do not approve of it. Follow original plan.
Acknowledge this.‖26 He received a prompt reply from Booker thirty minutes later at 4:20 A.M.:
―Despatch received of 3.50 AM. I will march on Stevensville as required.‖27 Coincidentally, around this same decisive moment as Booker‘s destination is finalized by the above exchange of telegrams, the Fenian commander O‘Neill suddenly was inspired to begin his cross-country forced-march from near Black Creek back south-west through a cedar swamp precisely towards Ridge Road and Limestone Ridge. There he will take his position on remarkably favourable ground to defend against anyone marching up from Ridgeway. It was as if O‘Neill knew before Booker did, that Booker would be advancing up Ridge Road. O‘Neill could not have chosen a better ground had he had a spy in or near Peacocke‘s headquarters in Chippawa—or somebody on the telegraph network passing down messages between Peacocke and Booker—perhaps even telegraphically. Either that, or a magical war fairy had alighted on O‘Neill‘s shoulder and inspired him to suddenly up at 3:00 A.M. and dash headlong to Limestone Ridge so desperately fast that he was forced to dump wagonloads of precious spare ammunition and rifles into the river along the way.
Another key question in resolving what went wrong that day is: what exactly did Booker understand his orders to be? According to his signed eighteen-page formal statement or ―narrative‖ submitted to the inquiry, Booker had jotted down the plans as explained to him by Akers prior to his departure Booker, Narrative, p. 6 Peacocke to Napier, June 7, 1866, Frame 829, MFRP
Booker repeatedly underscores two crucial points on the next page of his statement, highlighted by penned lines of ‗x‘s, ―Move no later than 5.30 – 5 if bread be ready‖ xxx ―Disembark at Ridgeway and march to Stevensville at 9 to 9.30 A.M.‖ xxxx xxxx It is there that Booker began his account of the battle itself, ―The bread ration having been secured the train left Port Colborne soon after 5 A.M. en route for Stevensville....‖29 The condemnation of Booker opened with three things: his time of departure; his choice of Ridgeway as the destination; and his choice of Ridge Road as the route to Stevensville. Booker for his part, insisted that he was acting only under Peacocke‘s explicit orders as explained to him by Captain Akers. In a June 7 report Akers partly sustained Bookers assertions. Akers, although confusing the location of ‗Black Creek‘ with ‗Frenchman‘s Creek‘ in his report, stated
As soon as he read it, Colonel Peacocke objected to Akers‘ version of the events. According to Peacocke Booker, Narrative, p. 5 Booker, Narrative, p. 6 Frenchman‘s Creek is three miles from Erie and Black Creek is seven miles from Chippawa and two from Stevensville.
Akers, Official Report, Frame 838, MFRP
George Denison in his history, argued the three officers awed by the apparent currency of their own intelligence reports, assumed Peacocke would approve their new plan and therefore did not pay attention to the details of the original plan and were unable to later recall it accurately. 34 Short of finding a lost letter or diary in an attic, the one hour discrepancy between Peacocke and Akers as to the timing of the intended junction at Stevensville shows no promise of being ever resolved. It will have all magnitude of ramifications. It even creeps into a discrepancy between Akers and Booker—with Akers claiming in his report that by their new plan, Booker was to enter Fort Erie at 8:00; while Booker claims in his narrative it was 7:00. 35 Peacocke to Napier, June 7, 1866, Frame 827-830, MFRP Dennison Inquiry, pp. 216-217 Denison, Fenian Raid, p. 28 See n.12; Booker, Narrative, pp. 4-5; Akers, Report, June 7, 1866 in MFRP Shortly before 4:00 A.M. the W.T. Robb glided into port and the men of the Welland Battery scrambled onto the tug‘s deck. None of the men in the battery had breakfast. 36 The Robb expedition embarked shortly after 4:00 AM with Dennis and Ackers aboard as the sky began to lighten with the coming dawn. It steamed through dissipating mist along glassy calm morning waters of Lake Erie towards the mouth of the Niagara River and their destiny.37 We leave the men on the Robb behind for now, while we track Booker‘s column into battle for the rest of the morning through this chapter and the next.
About fifteen minutes after the Robb left, Booker received the telegram from Peacocke ordering him to abide by his original orders and proceed to Stevensville: ―I have received your message of 3:00 A.M. I do not approve of it. Follow original plan. Acknowledge this.‖38 Booker immediately replied, ―Despatch received of 3.50 AM. I will march on Stevensville as required.‖39 Booker informed his officers that Ridgeway was now the final destination for the train— from there they will march on foot to Stevensville and join with Peacocke. Once again, despite the significance of the precise hour at which the forces were to join together at Stevensville, no testimony was elicited by Booker from Gillmor or Skinner as to the timetable of the operation revealed to them by him.