«Combat, Memory and Remembrance in Confederation Era Canada: The Hidden History of the Battle of Ridgeway, June 2, 1866 Peter Wronski (Peter Vronsky) ...»
Magistrate Peter Learn and his son rode out along Ridge Road to the Fenian lines, received some fire and turned back.73 But by the time they returned the brigade had already marched out of Ridgeway and was heading up the road. The Learns confirmed that the Fenians were just ahead of them, but Booker apparently chose to ignore their report as well. Booker would later claim, ―I made inquiries from the inhabitants as to their knowledge of the whereabouts of the enemy. The reports were contradictory and evidently unreliable.‖74 Thomas Kilvington, a private in No. 2 Company, 13th Battalion was convinced that Booker deliberately marched up upon the Fenians, ―I think he wanted to gain a little glory by Johnston, Narrative, p. 87 Johnston, Narrative, p. 84 Somerville, p. 80; McCallum, p. 27 Booker, Narrative, p. 8 defeating the Fenians by himself, so we started out on a two-mile march and bumped into them.‖75 Whether Booker without any maps simply erred in choosing the long indirect route to Stevensville via Ridge Road or whether he deliberately chose this route in the hope of destroying the Fenian forces with his brigade of Canadians without British help, remains one of the many unanswered questions about the disaster.
One source, argues that the Stevensville was not accessible directly from Ridgeway because of a mile long gap. The only way to pass through it was along a track through swampy ground. ―The Ridge Road was the normal route between Ridgeway and Stevensville. The actual route was north of Ridge Road, west on Bertie Road and north again on Stevensville Road (about a half mile west of Ridge Road).‖76 While it may be correct that there was no direct route between Ridgeway and Stevensville, maps from the period (assuming they are accurate) show that there was a road running from Stevensville as far as Garrison Road—which crossed Ridge Road before Bertie.77 Thus the shortest way to Stevensville from Ridgeway would be to turn left on Garrison Road, without continuing further north up Ridge Road to Bertie Road. [SEE REGION MAP] It is entirely conceivable that Booker deliberately set his column on the route knowing that the Fenians were waiting for him close by, for he did not send out any scouts in advance.
Booker marched his entire force in column formation right up to the Fenians, preceded only by a Hamilton Spectator, June 2, 1936 Brian Reid, letter to editor, The Reservist, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Fall 1989) See maps in Chewett, for example.
49-man company armed with Spencer rifles as an advance guard. One civilian witness who lived on Ridge Road later stated that the volunteers piled their greatcoats on the ground outside her cottage before firing had broken out.78 W.W. Wilson who was ten at the time, recalled that he and another boy were paid 25 cents each to pile knapsacks in the yard of Zachariah Teal‘s general store in Ridgeway, after Booker ordered those men who had them to divest themselves of them.79 It is highly unlikely that the troops would have been ordered to jettison their greatcoats and knapsacks by the side of the road if they thought they were marching directly to Stevensville.
Booker must have been anticipating going into battle before he was going to get to Stevensville and join with Colonel Peacocke‘s column. Booker was counting on a fight taking place at Ridgeway, where his troops following their presumed victory over the Fenians could have at leisure afterwards picked up their coats and knapsacks back in Ridgeway.
Before starting out, the brigade spent about an hour in Ridgeway, detraining, unloading their supplies and forming up for their march. Failing to find any villager willing to volunteer their horse and wagon in his service, Booker ordered the remaining ammunition to be put on the train and sent it back to Port Colborne, another fatal error.80 In the end the Queen‘s Own Rifles with the exception of No. 5 Company, went into battle with thirty-five rounds each, while the other units had sixty—the standard load for troops going into battle.81 Greenhous, p. 58 ―Original Account Tells of Fenian Invasion‖, Fort Erie Times Review, November 12, 1980, p. 13 Booker Inquiry, p. 202 [Booker, Narrative, p. 7]; Hamilton Herald, June 29, 1927; John A. Cooper, ―The Fenian Raid 1866‖, The Canadian Magazine, Vol. 10, no. 1 (Nov. 1897), p. 50; Larmour [Part 2], p. 228; Greenhous, p.
57; Cruickshank, p. 33 [Reid argues that Booker carried ammunition with him on the wagon into the battle, but bases this claim on a single remark in the testimony by Rev. Inglis that he rode to the battle in an ―ammunition waggon‖ (Booker Inquiry, p. 239)] Booker Inquiry, p. 218; p. 223; p. 229 Sergeant John Stoneman, the Quarter-Master eventually did procure a wagon but the ammunition had already left with the train. The wagon would trail the marching column transporting a few scarce medical supplies (but no litters) and the two ministers David Inglis and Nathaniel Burwash.82 The Queen‘s Own Rifles had a surgeon and assistant-surgeon appointed to the regiment a week before the battle: Dr. James Thorburn and Dr. Samuel P. May, respectively.83 The 13th Battalion was accompanied by their surgeon, Dr. Isaac Ryall who carried a small medical bag with his father‘s surgical tools.84 There were also some unspecified numbers of soldiers detailed as medical orderlies but overall, there are no details available on the extent of medical support or supplies.85 It was only approaching 7:00 A.M. but it was clearly going to be a hot day. If anything stands out in the stream of recollections from the soldiers who fought at Ridgeway is how hot it was that day and how thirsty they all were, especially those who had eaten the salted herring.
The Quarter-Master Stoneman recalled, ―The day promised to become a scorcher. The soldiers wearing their great coats rolled, and in heavy scarlet tunics, made particularly for cold weather, panted and perspired and thirsted too. The heavy black shakoes were warm and uncomfortable.‖86 (A shako is a felt-leather-and-cardboard lined ‗toy soldier‘-like helmet.) Stoneman suggested that those men who had water bottles or canteens fill them from the pumps at the station, but was overruled. The officers did not want the men breaking ranks— over 800 men had to be mustered into columns in marching order along a narrow road and there Booker Inquiry, p. 239 Captain Macdonald, p. 64; List of Medical Officers of Volunteer Militia, September 26, 1866; Adjutant General‘s Office, Letters Sent 1847-1868, RG9 I-C-1, Vol. 290. LAC Booker Inquiry, p. 205 Booker Inquiry, p. 221 Hamilton Herald, June 29, 1927 was no time for each to go off for water. Stoneman then suggested that the men at least toss their heavy wool winter tunics into the wagon. He was overruled again for the same reasons: no time.87 Thomas Kilvington recalled, ―We had no supper or dinner the day before. And they wouldn‘t let us drink out of the streams, so we had no water. Anyway, we had no water bottles, and we had no medical supplies.‖88 Dr. N. Brewster, the village physician in Ridgeway, like many Canadians, had served three years in the U.S. Army during the Civil War, upon learning that some of the troops had not eaten since the day before, rallied some of the townspeople to bring some food to the soldiers.
Dr. Brewster would indignantly recall in 1911, ―I never learned who was in fault, but surely someone blundered, that men were sent into battle without food in this part of the country.‖89 As eight-hundred men lined up into ranks along the road in columns of four, Booker mounted the horse Skinner had lent him. Now with everyone formed up, steady and quiet, all their attention focused on him, Booker uttered his first battle command: ―With ball cartridge—load!‖90 Over half of the troops were teen-age boys under the age of twenty, some as young as fifteen.91 Hearing this order as it resonated down the column was vividly remembered by many as their seminal moment of comprehension and dread.92 With the loading of live ammunition the seriousness of the thing upon which they were embarking was driven home for many for the first time—that gut-deep realization that today they might go into actual combat.
Hamilton Herald, June 29, 1927 Hamilton Spectator, June 2, 1936 N. Brewster, ―Recollections of the Fenian Raid‖ in Welland County Historical Society Papers and Records, Vol.
2, Welland Canada: 1926.
Booker Inquiry, pp. 202-203; Somerville, p. 79 Booker Inquiry, p. 224 Somerville, p. 79; George A. Mackenzie, Hamilton Spectator, Nov 27, 1926;
Half of them had never even practiced firing with blank cartridges, let alone with live ammunition, yet they would now be expected to perform the highly complex and precise procedure of loading their weapons, and soon they would have to do it while under enemy fire.93 The Canadians carried a British 1853 pattern.577 calibre long-Enfield rifled muzzleloading percussion musket, weighing 9 lbs 3 oz with the bayonet or 8 lbs 14 ¼ oz without.94 They loaded their weapon in seventeen precisely drilled stages, using paper cartridges that contained 65 grains of gunpowder and a huge thumb-tip sized 535 grain (about an ounce).577 calibre lead bullet (or ―ball‖ as it was still called.) Biting open the gunpowder end of the paper cartridge, (being toothless exempted one from military service) they carefully emptied the powder down the muzzle of their rifles, followed by the paper and then the bullet or sometimes the bullet simply still wrapped in the greased paper. They next drew a ramrod from its housing beneath the barrel of their rifle and holding it gingerly between their thumb and forefinger they carefully but firmly tamped down the paper and bullet on top of the powder charge. Then they would load a mercury-fulminate firing cap into a nipple beneath the hammer of the rifle lock.95 The long-Enfield rifle was 4 feet 7 inches in length—approximately chest high to a soldier of average height in that period. It could not be reloaded on the move—one had to stand still. Nor could it be easily reloaded while lying down for cover; one had to stand up or kneel at an awkward angle to pour the powder down its muzzle, often exposing oneself to enemy fire unless safely positioned behind cover.
Booker Inquiry, p. 242 E.G.B. Reynolds, Early Enfield Arms: The Muzzle Loaders, Windsor, Berkshire: Profile Publications Ltd., 1972.
p. 29; ―Old English Rifles‖, The Engineer, 20 August 1886, London. [Retrieved June 22, 2009 from http://www.researchpress.co.uk/firearms/history/oldenglish02.htm] See: Secretary of War, Drill and Rifle Instruction for the Corps of Rifle Volunteers, London: 1859. Pp. 21-28;
William Joseph Hardee, Rifle and Light Infantry Tactics, Volume 2, Lesson 2, paragraph 152-168, Philadelphia:
J.B. Lippencott & Co. 1861; Berkley Lewis, Small Arms and Ammunition in the U.S. Service, Washington D.C.:
Smithsonian Institute, 1956. [1968 edition] p. 85 A few exceptionally cool and super-skilled infantrymen were capable of cycling through this procedure as quickly as five times a minute—a shot and reload every 12 seconds.96 Most however were considerably clumsier and slower. Three shots a minute was considered optimum.
A single missed stage or a break in the seventeen-step procedural order could result in catastrophe. In the heat of battle soldiers have been reported over-loading their rifle with several bullets, or forgetting to remove the ramrod from the barrel before firing it, a mistake so frequent that all combat veterans of the Civil War were familiar with the strange ‗whizzing‘ sound of a fired ramrod in flight. Once without a ramrod, the weapon could not be reloaded.
Rifles often failed to fire: the average misfire rate for the percussion caps was sometimes as high as 25 per cent, misloading accounted for another 9 per cent of failures. And then there were accidents. For example, after repeated rounds of fire, the barrel would get so hot that powder would flash as it was poured down the muzzle, rendering the rifle unusable until it cooled.97 Very few of the Canadian volunteers had actually practiced with live rounds and some not even with blank rounds. After the battle, a military board of inquiry concluded: ―a large proportion of the force had been for a very short time accustomed to bear arms; that a somewhat less proportion had not even been exercised with blank cartridge, and that practice with ball cartridge was by very many of the rank and file of that force to be entered upon for the first time in their lives on that day.‖98 Paradoxically in the Canadian Volunteer Militia under British tutelage, the poorer a unit‘s performance during inspection, the lower was its allotment of blank and ball ammunition to Carl L. Davis, Arming the Union: Small Arms in the Union Army, Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1973.
p. 135 Griffith, pp. 84-86 Booker Inquiry, p. 242 practice with. ―Requisition For Ammunition For Practice and Exercise‖ forms from 1865 are rife with written comments from British army inspectors like: ―Inefficient in drill, recommend half the issue of the ammunition required by the company; Efficiency uncertain, no further allowance recommended at present; Recommend half the amount of ammunition required by this company: company very backward in drill; This company had improved very much lately in my opinion: 3 kegs of ball and the full allowance of blank should be issued at once.‖99 Many of these forms were signed by British army Lt. Colonel Charles C. Villiers, the same who ordered that the Welland Field Battery‘s guns and accoutrements be taken away and moved to Hamilton.100 It should be noted however, that the use of live ammunition in training—in the form of ―target practice‖ was a notion alien to warfare of that period. Military doctrine of the era still called for coordinated massing of collective fire at close range as opposed to selective individual marksmanship at long range. Blank rounds were used in drilling the troops to quickly load and fire their weapons on command, and occasionally ‗ball‘ cartridges were used to give them the full experience of live fire. Individual ―target practice‖ was a low priority.