«Combat, Memory and Remembrance in Confederation Era Canada: The Hidden History of the Battle of Ridgeway, June 2, 1866 Peter Wronski (Peter Vronsky) ...»
This often spoken of ‗fog of war‘ was not only a typical problem for combatants, but is a vexatious problem for historians attempting to piece together an overview of the battle—it is as if the Battle of Ridgeway unfolded in four different places in four different time zones—very little comes together coherently when comparing recollections and testimony from the different sectors. As one of the battle‘s historians, George T. Denison would later write, ―The chapter on the Battle of Ridgeway gave me more trouble than all the others united. The accounts were so conflicting that I almost gave up in despair.‖38 Another writer lamented, ―The Q.O. companies interchanged and relieved each other, or without being in each case, relieved, fell back, making a column of reserve. The order in which this was done cannot be distinctly traced, as few of the Q.O. officers or men, agree in giving the same statement.‖39 On the glacis to the right of the road below the ridge, the Queen‘s Own Rifles were running out of ammunition. As cries for ―more ammunition‖ began to be heard, Gillmor asked Booker to relieve the QOR.40 Every participant‘s sense of time was distorted. Alexander Muir testified before the Board of Inquiry that forty-five minutes had passed since the fighting had begun when the Denison, Fenian Raid, p. iv Somerville, p. 85 Chewett, p. 44; Booker Inquiry, p. 203; p.
Anker] ‗brick house‘ and barn on the south-east corner of Bertie and Ridgeway Road.48 Jim was one of sons of Henry Angur, whose house stood further north up Ridge Road, where O‘Neill made his headquarters. QOR No. 6 Company had cleared the Angur apple orchard and broke into the grounds of the Jim Angur farm and took shelter behind his barn. To their right about 50 yards to the north were the Fenian barricades strung out along Bertie Road to the east of the Angur farm. As the right wing of the 13th Battalion, Companies No. 1, 2 and 3, under Major Skinner now advanced into the orchard, the Fenians fired volley after volley into the apple trees.
The QOR No. 6 Company, huddling behind the Angur barn found itself trapped in the crossfire between the 13th behind them and the Fenians in front.49 It was a punishingly hot and brutal going. This was before the introduction of ‗smokeless‘ powder and the men would be engulfed in clouds of blinding sticky ‗black powder‘ gun smoke, their faces stained black and blue.50 Taking the fierce recoil round after round, the men‘s arms and shoulders would have been bruised a deep purple, their uniforms soaked in sweat and caked with dark powder residue.51 Three companies of the 13th (No. 1, 2, and 3) relieving the QOR, slowly advanced through the apple orchard between them and the Fenian barricade on Bertie Road.52 Blown loose Greenhow, p. 62 Referred to in histories often as the Albert Athoe farm and house, for the property‘s later owner.
Booker Inquiry, p. 238; p. 227 Smokeless powder (pyrocellulose)—Poudre B. was developed by the French only in 1884.
Griffith, p. 84 Booker Inquiry, p. 226 from the blossoming apple trees by incoming Fenian rounds, soft white petals rained down on the men beneath.53 George A. Mackenzie of the 13th Battalion, who had stood by waiting to be deployed as the critically wounded McEachren had been carried by him, recalled, ―When we had reached an orchard we were ordered to lie down. It was not pleasant to hear the bullets clipping the leaves from the apple boughs above us.‖54 Andrew McIntosh remembered, ―The firing soon became general; it is not a pleasant sound to hear the bullets whistling around you, but you get used to it. About the coolest thing I saw that day was one of our men sit up on his knees light a match and then light his pipe and go on with his firing.‖55 Lieutenant Percy Gore Routh, a twenty-five year old corresponding clerk in the Ken Brown Co. store in Hamilton, led No. 4 Company of the 13th Battalion. His unit followed in support behind the three companies advancing into the orchard. Routh had a twenty-seven year old wife and earned $750 a year. He and his brother together supported his fifty-six year old widowed mother.56 The chaplain Burwash described Routh as, ―a rarely handsome young man with a musical voice and a winsome face, his scarlet uniform fitting like a glove on his lithe and elegant form. In appearance he seemed better fitted for a gay festival than for the trying work which lay just before him.‖57 Routh ardently lead his men forward into the Fenian volleys. His superior officers would later remark on his ―gallant and soldierly demeanour.‖58 Seventeen-year old George Mackenzie under Routh‘s command was less impressed. Some sixty-years later, he would recall, ―As we advanced through the fields the officer in command of the company, Lieut. Percy Routh, Mackenzie, Hamilton Spectator, Nov. 27, 1926; Hamilton Herald, June 29, 1927.
Mackenzie, Hamilton Spectator, Nov. 27, 1926 McIntosh, p. 3 Percy Routh, Compensation Application, November 2, 1866: FRSR, Volume 30, pp. 175-176; LAC Burwash Collection, Box 28, file 630, chapter x, p. 12, UCAVC Percy Routh, Compensation Application, p. 177 manifested a keen enjoyment at the prospect of getting into the fight. At one time he fairly leaped into the air with an exclamation of delight. I did not share his enthusiasm. Poor Routh!
It was not long before a Fenian bullet passed through one of his lungs.‖59 Routh had been first dinged lightly at his hip by a spent bullet. He laughed it off, shouting out so all his men could hear, ―I will not run. I will die first.‖60 As Fenian rounds rained down on them, his men dropped to the ground for cover. Routh raised himself high standing in front of his huddled men. Fearlessly he turned his back to the Fenians—almost taunting them to test his invincibility—and facing his own men began calling on them to go forward into action. A Minie ball smashed into his back just below his left shoulder blade, tore downward through his left lung and heart muscle and exited about an inch below his left nipple leaving a gaping, ragged hole in his chest.61 A nearby farmhouse had been commandeered to shelter the wounded and Routh was roughly carried into the house and laid out on the floor on a blanket. A plaster was applied to seal-off the sucking air and blood bubbling through his open chest wound. Nobody believed Routh would live through that. Abandoned for dead, Routh lay in the farmhouse in his bloodsoaked uniform for thirty hours before he was found.62 The Hamilton Evening Times reported his death in its late night edition later that day and four days later the Globe was still reporting him as dead.63 Routh survived his wound but was disabled for the rest of his life. He would receive from the Canadian government a one-time payment of $1,300 ($34,710 in today‘s currency) and a pension of $400 ($10,680) a year.64 Mackenzie would recall, ―For many weeks Mackenzie, Hamilton Spectator, Nov. 27, 1926 Captain Macdonald, p. 57 Percy Routh, Compensation Application, November 2, 1866: FRSR Percy Routh, Compensation Application, pp. 184-188 Hamilton Evening Times, June 2, 1866; Globe, June 4, 1866 Percy Routh, Compensation Application, p. 174 he lay between life and death. He pulled through, but I doubt if he ever completely recovered his health. He died a comparatively young man.‖65 The three companies of the 13th finally broke out of the orchard and advanced upon the Fenian barricades skirting the south side of Bertie Road. The Fenians chose not to make a stand and abandoned the field works withdrawing about 150 yards north across Bertie Road and took cover in another orchard further upslope. There they formed a new skirmishing line between the advancing Canadians and the Fenian main battle group still waiting even further to the north.66 Skinner deployed Company No. 1 (Captain Grant, Lieutenant Gibson, Ensign Mackenzie) to hold the abandoned barricades along Bertie Road to his right. He deployed No. 3 Company (Lt. Ferguson, Ensign Armstrong) on the left side of Ridge Road, advancing them approximately 50 yards beyond the north-west corner of Bertie Road.67 The Fenians now began firing volleys from their new positions onto the Angur farmstead.
At the centre, Skinner with No. 2 Company (Captain Watson and Lt. Sewell) took control of grounds around the brick Angur house overlooking the south-east corner of Bertie and Ridge Road. With Fenian rounds pelting down on them, the men of No. 2 Company crashed through the garden gates and one of the soldiers forced the padlock on the back door of the house.68 The company took cover inside the brick house, firing from out its front doorway and windows at the Fenians in the orchard about 150 yards away across Bertie Road.69 Here Skinner and No. 2 Company dug in and held the crossroads waiting for the rest of the companies to advance behind them in support.70 Mackenzie, Hamilton Spectator, Nov. 27, 1926 O‘Neill, Official Report, p. 39 Somerville, p. 85; Booker Inquiry, p. 226 Somerville, p. 86 Booker Inquiry, p. 228; Somerville, p. 86 The house still stands at this writing in 2009 on the corner of Bertie and Ridgeway Road, its north brick wall still bearing golf-ball-size craters (spang) from Minie ball hits.
O‘Neill himself offered only a barebones recollection of the battle so far. He simply reported, ―The skirmishing was kept up over half an hour, when perceiving the enemy flanking me on both sides, and not being able to draw out his centre which was partially protected by thick timber, I fell back a few hundred yards and formed a new line.‖71 So far the Canadians were performing outstandingly, driving the Fenians back and according to O‘Neill, flanking him on both sides. O‘Neill also says he could not draw the centre out—in other words, the centre of the Canadian attack was lagging behind the left and right wings which were now threatening to outflank the Fenians. O‘Neill drew his men back north of Bertie Road and formed new lines—much closer now to his main force which was only another 200 yards further north of the new line.
At the Canadian centre on Ridge Road, 150 yards south of the Bertie crossroad and the brick house, was Lt. Colonel Booker and his colour party, along with Major Gillmor, from where they were managing the battle. Clustered around them were Queen‘s Own Rifle companies who had retired to the column from the field after being relieved or having run out of ammunition.
The company of Caledonia Rifles were also there still held in reserve.
Further back of them were the last three redcoat companies of the 13th Battalion held in reserve (Companies 4, 5 and 6) still waiting for the order to deploy. [SEE BATTLE MAP 2] Finally these last reserves of the 13th received the order to advance and extend into battle.
As these three companies deployed, many witnesses recall hearing the QOR men at the centre cheering at what they thought was the arrival of the British army to relieve them.72 This cheering O‘Neill, Official Report, p. 39 Booker Inquiry, p. 203; p. 204; p. 210; p. 211; p. 236; p. 238; Arthur James Moody Tenny Diary, 2 June 1866, Jacqueline Thoms to Ridgeway Battle Museum, fax, July 27, 1999, FEHM broke-out at approximately 9:30 A.M. and marks in the recollections of many as the point at which suddenly and inexplicably things began to go catastrophically wrong.
9:30 A.M.: Disaster To understand how it all went wrong at the centre that O‘Neill could not ―draw out‖ we need to pause and look away from it and turn to the two Canadian flanks that O‘Neill was concerned were overtaking him on his left and right.73 On the far left (west or O‘Neill‘s far right flank), QOR No. 8 Trinity College Company and the York Rifles arrived half way through the last field south of Bertie Road without taking any heavy fire.74 The Fenian skirmishers wheeled back to the east, crossed Ridge Road north of Bertie Road and rejoined their main battle group near O‘Neill‘s headquarters.