«Combat, Memory and Remembrance in Confederation Era Canada: The Hidden History of the Battle of Ridgeway, June 2, 1866 Peter Wronski (Peter Vronsky) ...»
The forty-nine men of No. 5 Company, QOR who were armed with the state-of-the-art U.S.-made Spencer ‗repeating‘ rifles (nine short carbine versions and forty longer ―Army‖ models)101 did not have to concern themselves with this complex loading procedure. The Spencer fired seven self-contained brass cylinder cartridge bullets (similar to the modern bullet of today) which were inserted into a tubular magazine through the butt of the rifle while a lever below the trigger would advance a new bullet after every shot.
Clothing and arms records relating to militia units in Ontario and Quebec, Stores and Ammunition, RG9-I-C-8 Volume 18 Thompson, pp. 87-89; Beatty [ms], LAC, pp. 6-7 Memorandum to Lt. Col Durie, June 25, 1866; Clothing and arms records relating to militia units in Ontario and Quebec, RG9-I-C-8, Volume 18, LAC; McIntosh p. 3; McCallum, p. 25;
As both a breech-loader and a repeater, the Spencer Rifle was two generations ahead of the single-shot muzzle-loaders almost everybody else carried that day. It had a controversial recent history where its introduction into the U.S. Army required Abraham Lincoln‘s personal intervention in seeing that the sixty-six year old Chief of Ordinance Brigadier General James Ripley—nicknamed for his alleged intransigence to new technology ―Ripley Van Winkle‖—was fired after he opposed the introduction of repeating rifles. Bombarded with thousands of proposals for newly designed weapons and overstocked with hastily produced muzzle-loaders, Ripley had good reasons for demanding thorough testing of new weapons before considering their purchase for the army. There was also a doctrinal issue on repeaters, with Ripley belonging to a school of thought that repeating rifles encouraged troops to rapidly fire off their expensive metal cartridge ammunition, not only increasing cost of supplies but as well increasing costs of transporting more and heavier ammunition, as well as the adding weight that an average infantryman needed to carry into battle, in the short term, while in the long term, the habit of rapid fire degrading the marksmanship of the average American soldier.102 Spencers were first used in battle on June 4, 1863 by Colonel Thomas John Wilder‘s brigade near Liberty Tennessee. Wilder had bought a shipment at his own expense and deployed the rapid fire weapons against the Confederate First Kentucky Confederate Cavalry.
The rattled Confederates surrendered, commenting ―What kind of Hell-fired guns your men got?‖103 Soon the stories spread and Lincoln invited the weapon‘s designer, thirty-one year-old Connecticut-born Christopher Spencer to demonstrate the weapon for him in Washington personally. Lincoln and Spencer cheerfully blasted away with the rifle on a range at Treasury Park and Lincoln afterwards saw to it that Ripley was removed from his post.
Alexander Rose, American Rifle: A Biography, New York: Delacorte Press, 2008. pp. 129-131; pp. 147-150 Rose, p. 147 But Ripley had not been wrong—there was a glut of muzzle-loaders and ammunition and the repeater was not adopted as fast as Christopher Spencer had hoped. And as Ripley warned, there were problems with fire control. There was a learning curve during which soldiers had to be weaned–off their propensity to unleash ‗mad minute‘ rapid fire that quickly depleted their precious ammunition. A year later at Gettysburg where the casualty rates were twenty-percent, a highly disciplined veteran unit armed with repeaters, was reported to have fired an average of thirty-two carefully-aimed rounds per man over the course of the three-day battle.104 That was the kind of fire discipline required.
There was another problem with the Spencer. According to a report later by Captain Edwards, the officer who led the Spencer armed company at Ridgeway, the complex repeater mechanism had a serious defect. If it misfired or jammed, it could not be loaded manually as a single-shot weapon through its breech, because when open, the breech was blocked by its extractor mechanism for the fired cartridge. To clear a misfired or jammed round required that the user be intimately familiar with the Spencer‘s delicate spring loaded feeding system which had to be drawn out of its housing in the rifle butt. The problem was further compounded for the Canadians by the old surplus Civil War ammunition for the rifle purchased by the Militia Department. Rounds frequently fell short of their specified ranges or failed to fire at all. A Militia staff officer commented on Edwards‘ report, ―From personal observation, I know that the cartridges were hastily and carelessly made during the continuance of the American War.‖105 This weapon was suddenly thrust into the hands of the men for the first time in their lives on the ferry boat on their way to the front on the morning of June 1: ―most of them had never Rose, p. 140 Memorandum to Lt. Col Durie, June 25, 1866; Clothing and arms records relating to militia units in Ontario and Quebec, RG9-I-C-8, Volume 18, LAC Memorandum to Lt. Col Durie, seen one before.‖ 106 While they could now crank out seven shots in 10 seconds, five times the rate of the most skilled soldier armed with a muzzle-loader, what should have been an advantage became a disadvantage when they were issued only a scarce 28 rounds of ammunition (four packages of seven rounds.) Making matters worse, since they were armed with state-of-the-art rifles, Booker decided that No. 5 Company should head the advance guard of the column.
Up until their grandfathers‘ and fathers‘ generations of the War of 1812 and the Hunter Lodge-Patriot Raids of 1837-38, for approximately five centuries since gunpowder‘s arrival in Europe from China via the Silk Road and Islamic world, smoothbore muskets of various types were basically inefficient weapons with which it was difficult to hit anything beyond a hundred yards unless soldiers were massed tightly together firing a volley. Defending troops were drilled to fire coordinated massed volleys on command at close range rather than trained in independent aiming and fire control skills. Attacking troops on the other hand, were drilled to take the fire while advancing to within short range of the defenders, unleashing a volley into their ranks and then launching into a savage bayonet attack intended to shock and awe the enemy—or sometimes just clubbing their enemy caveman style with their discharged rifles.
By the mid-1850s modern armies had replaced the smoothbore musket with one that had a series of twisting grooves incised inside the barrel—rifling. These grooves would grip, spin and guide the bullet along the barrel with an increased range of four to five times that of the wobbly smoothbore ball. The increased range of the rifled musket had a profound effect on the average front line soldier. With the smoothbores, one only needed to survive a 100 yard dash through its optimum kill range; but the rifle doubled that range to 200 yards. The running speed of a human is finite. Two hundred yards was not twice one hundred—not when you are under Memorandum to Lt. Col Durie, June 25, 1866; McIntosh, p. 3; McCallum, p. 25;
fire. And the effective range of the rifle was now exponentially three-to-five times that of the smoothbore—500 yards—with maximum ranges approaching 1,200 yards.
Tactics were not easily adapted for the new lethal range of rifles. Men were still drilled to advance in close-order ranks—touching elbow to elbow to guide their formation—marching against massed concentrated rifle fire, bent forward as if advancing into a rain storm. Except now instead of having to survive a last 100 yard charge, they had to advance through some 500 yards of effective fire from modern rifled muskets—charging the last two hundred yards where the average hit-on-target rate was a lethal near 100 per cent.107 The best solution to the problem that the U.S. Army could come up in its new manuals was that troops should run faster, take bigger steps and ―should breathe as much as possible through the nose, keeping the mouth closed. Experience has proved that, by conforming to this principle, a man can pass over a much longer distance, and with less fatigue.‖108 Defenders now had an unprecedented advantage. They basically only had to stand their ground, sheltered behind constructed breastworks, bullet-screens, stone walls or other improvised fortifications, exposing themselves only briefly to fire at attackers before ducking down behind the wall to reload. The attackers, on the other hand, advancing along open ground usually carefully chosen by the defenders, had to stop to reload and had to do it standing or kneeling exposed to enemy fire. At Cold Harbor in Virginia in 1864, 10,000 men fell in twentytwo minutes attacking each other through massed rifle volleys. That, and blood-filthy surgical tools and unwashed reusable bandages is how the Civil War killed two per cent of the American population in a span of four years.
Greener, p. 633 W. J. Hardee, Rifle and Light Infantry Tactics for the Exercising and Maneuvering of Troops Vol. 1, Lesson IV.
Principle of the Double Quick Step, Paragraph 117, 1855.
The Fenians and their officers on Limestone Ridge were intimate with the catastrophic conditions of the Civil War battlefield—they were more than just veterans—they were survivors.
Unlike the untested Canadian boys frightened for their reputations, the Fenian veterans had seen what happens on the battlefield: they were more frightened for their life and limb than for their pride. That is why the first thing the Fenians seized upon landing in Canada were axes and saws, which they used to pull down fences and construct barricades. They built bullet-screens as a matter of a life-and-death disciplined routine. They did it on the first day at Frenchman‘s Creek and then at Black Creek and now this morning along Bertie Road cutting across Ridge Road, facing Booker‘s advancing column. Suffering from no illusions of glory and grandeur of battle the Fenians had no compunction to duck under fire.
The amateur officers leading the Canadians had a theoretical understanding of the dimensions of the new deadly technological nature of the industrial-era battlefield. The British had experienced the rifled barrel in Crimea in the 1850s and observed its effects in the recent Civil War. But that was nowhere near the same as having been there. And as far as the inexperienced volunteer rank-and-file went, few had even an inkling of what the rifle really did when put to use in battle, but they were about to find out.
At around 7:00 A.M, as if on parade, the 13th Battalion unfurled its regimental colours—two flags borne by Ensigns Armstrong and Baker. Somerville, an experienced former English mercenary who had fought in Spain, later sneered, ―The Q.O. [Queen‘s Own Rifles] had no flag.
And here, I repeat, that commanders of experience will not take flags into a wooded country upon a desultory campaign of bush fighting.‖109 With a bugle call, Booker‘s column with the colour party in the centre, began its march up Ridge Road ostensibly headed to Stevensville but actually marching straight towards the waiting Fenians.110 Many of the villagers from Ridgeway followed the troops along the road like a parade.111 From the Ridgeway railway station the column had approximately 1.4 miles to march north-east up the diagonal Ridge Road to the intersection of Garrison Road.112 At this intersection, if Booker wanted to take the shortest route to Stevensville from Ridgeway, he would have turned west (left) onto Garrison Road, marched a little over a half mile, and then turned north (right) on the Stevensville Road to go straight into Stevensville about 3 miles away.
The longer Booker clung to Ridge Road, the further it took him away from Stevensville on a north-east diagonal back towards Fort Erie and closer to the waiting Fenians.
The battle would unfold in the fields, orchards and woods flanking both sides of Ridge Road between Garrison Road on the south and Bertie Road to the north. (Bertie Road was then known as ―the concession road‖ or ―Split Rock Road.‖) The first lines of Fenian skirmishers, operating independently or in small teams, were positioned inside the fence that ran along Garrison Road. Here on this south end of the battlefield, on both sides of Ridge Road there were open cultivated fields intersected by rail-fences delineating property lines. A second larger and better formed line of Fenians were waiting in the north half of the fields, behind more fences and several small apple tree orchards and groves of maple trees. The land gently sloped upwards Somerville, p. 121 Booker Inquiry, p.205, 221, 225.
Larmour [Part 2], Canadian Magazine, Vol. 10, no. 3 (Jan. 1898)p. 228 Most sources for some reason claim ―about two miles‖ and a one hour march.
towards the north—the Canadians would have to fight uphill. On the north end of the ground, along Bertie Street, east of Ridge Road, the Fenians disassembled rail-fences and constructed improvised slanting bullet screens.* The Fenians very likely also sent mounted scouts down the road to track the advancing column of Canadians. [SEE LIMESTONE RIDGE TERRAIN MAP] The sloping northerly rise of the terrain would have already given the Fenians a distinct high-ground advantage over the Canadians pushing their way up from the south, but the presence of the forested Limestone Ridge to the east of the road made the battlefield especially ideal for the Fenian defenders. The ridge, a gently sloping elevation almost indiscernible to the naked eye, ran parallel with the Canadians about 150 to 200 yards to the right of their column advancing up Ridge Road. Fenian troops took positions on top of this ridge as well. It transformed Ridge Road and its eastern fields into a low-laying glacis—a crescent-shaped boxed-in killing-ground criss-crossed by rail fences and exposed to downward crossfire from the north and from the ridgeline on the east.113 The 200 men of the Eighteenth Regiment ―Fenian Cleveland Rangers‖ from Ohio under Lieutenant Colonel John Grace, a twenty-eight year old former Captain during the Civil War in the 34th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, took up positions behind the hastily constructed field works on the eastern flank of the battlefield along Bertie Street, while the 100 men from the Seventh Regiment of under John Hoy, took up positions in the open field on the western side of Ridge Road on the left flank of the Canadians. In the centre, approximately 200 to 300 yards up the * It is unclear if the Fenians built barricades along Bertie west of Ridge Road—there might have been a natural line of trees or a hill-lock screening the approach.