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«Combat, Memory and Remembrance in Confederation Era Canada: The Hidden History of the Battle of Ridgeway, June 2, 1866 Peter Wronski (Peter Vronsky) ...»

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Nor does the Battle of Ridgeway distinguish itself in general military historiography where the prominence of a battle often has to do with its tactical or strategic novelty or its butcher‘s bill. There was brutally nothing novel about how Ridgeway was fought and its casualties were comparatively light. By 1900 the Canadian casualty rates from the Boer War easily overshadowed those of Ridgeway and those of the subsequent two World Wars guaranteed Ridgeway‘s status as an insignificant minor battle even in the context of our modestly short military history. Despite the fact that the Fenian raids of 1866 garnered a Victoria Cross, 23 the See for example, Desmond Morton, A Military History of Canada, [Fourth Edition] Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1999. p. 89 and J.L. Granatstein and David J. Bercuson, War and Peacekeeping, Toronto: Key Porter Books, 1991. p. 10 Jack Morgan, Through American and Irish Wars: The Life and Times of General Thomas W. Sweeny, 1820-1892, Dublin-Portland, OR: Irish Academic Press, 2006. p. 145 On June 9, 1866 in Danville, Quebec, Private Timothy O‘Hea of the Prince Consort‘s Own Rifle Brigade entered a burning train car loaded with a ton of gunpowder and extinguished the flames. The car was attached to several passenger cars containing 800 German immigrants and had halted near a platform crowded with civilians at the town‘s railway station. O‘Hea was credited with saving the town, civilians and his fellow soldiers from destruction.

only one ever earned on Canadian soil, the raids are represented today by only a single display cabinet in the enormous new Canadian War Museum.

Further diminishing Ridgeway‘s status as a significant battle is its technical definition in 1866 as a ―skirmish‖ which today is a term we associate with something minor and less than a battle. Whether Ridgeway was a ―skirmish‖ or an ―action‖ or a ―battle‖ was an issue debated nine days later in the pages of Hamilton‘s The Evening Times. The writer concluded that ‗battle‘ was ―in apropos‖ as ―no line fire was opened from either side.‖24 Skirmishing meant free ranging early combat by independently firing riflemen acting as ―skirmishers,‖ often as a prelude to a battle between lined ranks facing each other in traditional command-controlled massed musket fire. By that nineteenth century definition, the Battle of the Bulge and Stalingrad are therefore ―skirmishes‖ as is virtually every battle of the twentieth century.

The other part of the problem is that the battle at Ridgeway did not resolve the Fenian threat—the 1866 raids were followed by the assassination of D‘Arcy McGee in Ottawa in 1868 at the hands of a suspected Fenian sympathizer, the Parliamentary dynamite panics and subsequent new raids by Fenians that continued to plague Canada into the 1870s, further highlighting the futility of the events in 1866. They never passed into history because it took so long for them to pass from politics.

Further compounding the post-Confederation obscurity of Ridgeway is the relationship of the battle to an ongoing subject of current Canadian military historiography: the ‗militia myth.‘ As described by Stephen Harris, this is a historical delusion, ―that Canada had few enemies, that See: Elizabeth Reid, The Singular Journey of O‘Hea‘s Cross: A Unique Victoria Cross, Yale, BC: Leamcon Press, 2005.

The Evening Times, June 11, 1866 the militia of part time citizen soldiers perceived to have won the War of 1812 was sufficient defence, and that, in the worst case, the Dominion could always rely upon the British army.‖25 In his very recent study Militia Myths: Ideas of the Canadian Citizen Soldier 1896-1921, James Wood observes that for three decades after Confederation, despite its nationhood Canada‘s militia retained its mentality as an auxiliary to the British Army, despite the fact that the British military had departed in 1871. According to Wood

–  –  –

In his study Wood does not exactly explain why it required in those three decades a ―slightly longer memory‖ to recall the Niagara frontier of the 1860s. He does start out, however, noting that, ―In 1862, the levée en masse and the idea of the nation in arms guided the hand of John A. Macdonald when as minister of militia he drafted and redrafted the defence policies of the Province of Canada.‖27 But then from a ‗nation in arms banding together for common defence‘, Wood argues, there is a sudden collapse into nearly three decades of indifference to defence issues so dark and deep that he cannot begin his study of the post-Confederation militia anywhere earlier than 1896!

Stephen J. Harris, Canadian Brass: The Making of a Profession Army 1860-1939, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988. p. 6 James Wood, Militia Myths: Ideas of the Canadian Citizen Soldier 1896-1921, Vancouver-Toronto: University of British Columbia Press, 2010. p. 4 Wood, p. 12 Wood associates a revival of a dormant popular and political interest in the militia with the Venezuela Crisis of 1895-96 which suddenly threatened Anglo-American relations, and therefore threatened Canada once again with invasion from the U.S.28 That and ―the opening of the Laurier era was a time when Canada‘s potential seemed unlimited, but it was also a time when a growing minority of Canadians began to take a more active interest in the military development of their young country.‖29 Wood concludes, ―While these visions of a ‗Canadian army‘ remained centred on the militia—and thus firmly grounded in the citizen soldier traditions that mythmakers traced to the War of 1812 and the early days of New France—the mood of the times seemed to require an army as a symbol of national status.‖30 This presence of a deeply seated militia myth going back to New France and the War of 1812 is never satisfactorily resolved with its sudden temporary eclipse in the three decades following Confederation. Wood defers instead to a struggle between the ‗militia lobby‘ of M.P.s who held commissions in the militia, into which he also includes ―all MPs who actively supported the Active Militia and opposed the development of a standing army in Canada‖ as described in Stephen Harris‘ Canadian Brass: The Making of a Professional Army 1860-1939 and Desmond Morton‘s Ministers and Generals: Politics and the Canadian Militia.31 As the British prepared to withdraw their garrisons from Canada in 1871, Morton maintained, ―Canadian public opinion refused to become upset by the prospect of the British withdrawal.





Post-Confederation self-confidence and a short attention span for military concerns combined to Wood, p.39 Wood, p. 2 Wood, p. 24

Wood, p. 7; Desmond Morton, Ministers and Generals: Politics and the Canadian Militia 1868-1904, Toronto:

University of Toronto Press, 1970.

encourage peace of mind.‖32 Wood‘s reference to a required ―slightly longer memory‖ and Morton‘s ―short attention span for military concerns‖ all disconcertingly hint to some kind of memory hole in Canadian post-Confederation popular consciousness into which the Battle of Ridgeway tumbled to be so suddenly disconnected from this centuries-old militia myth. The nagging question is why was it restored in 1890 only to be forgotten again by 1930? This thesis attempts to explore the fringes of that question.

The problem is that while contributing to its obscurity, none of the above described, even if all combined together, is sufficient to prevent a battle as trivial and as bungled as Ridgeway from being appropriated and retold for the purposes of national myth; had it been, it would not have been for the first time in history including that of Canada‘s.33 Did the Fathers of Confederation and all the newspapers, sermon and soap-box orators, pamphleteers and letter writers of the time conspire together to insure that Canada‘s emergence into nationhood was to be explicitly unheroic and divested of drama and struggle; that Canadians would be defined by a carefully cultivated austere mariposa of mostly nice and quaintly dull-as-parliament history by choice? The scope of such a conspiracy does not make sense. Yet something made Ridgeway universally untouchable and unworkable in our history.

In the twenty-five years immediately following the battle, there was little mention and no commemoration of Ridgeway34 until the men who fought there collectively succeeded in lobbying for recognition and triggered a period of formal memorialisation beginning in 1890 and culminating with the federal and provincial governments finally grudgingly extending ten years Morton, Minister and Generals, p. 11 We can begin with Reverend John Strachan‘s claim in 1840 that the Canadian militia defended Upper Canada against the U.S. in the War of 1812 without British help. See Wood, p 12 citing, C.P. Stacey, ―The War of 1812 in Canadian History,‖ in Morris Zaslow (ed), The Defended Border: Upper Canada and the War of 1812; A Collection of Writings, Toronto: Macmillan, 1964, pp. 333-34 Maroney, Paul. ―‗Lest we forget‘: War and meaning in English Canada, 1885-1914,‖ Journal of Canadian Studies. Vol. 32, No. 4; Winter 1997/1998 later in 1900 some token of recognition to the men who fought there in the form of medals and land grants.35 That they had to lobby, is a clue to the mystery that this thesis explores.

This thesis argues that the primary reason Ridgeway is forgotten and misunderstood is because no authentic history of the battle had ever existed in the first place—it had been falsified, hidden and suppressed in a process that began within the first hours of the battle‘s conclusion—and when the motives for that falsification dissipated with time decades later, there was nothing left to sustain its memory other than the brief lives of the men who fought in it— thus the revival of the 1890s and then its subsequent decline with the veterans‘ mortality. After its revival, Ridgeway gradually faded into the maw of the casualties of the Boer War and then the First World War, and with the mortality of its own veterans, without whose memory in the absence of a history the battle was gradually forgotten to the point that when in 1931 Canada‘s memorial day was moved from May-June to its current November date, Ridgeway‘s casualties and veterans were superfluous and forgotten and not included in the remembrance. Once they were gone, so was our memory of Ridgeway.

For a century and a half historians were left with a falsified, hollow and senseless narrative that left more questions unanswered than explained, and no historians at this writing, save the few exceptions that I will describe below, attempted to resolve the lingering questions of what exactly happened at Ridgeway to make that event so inimical to our national memory.

This study proposes that a process of falsification transpired in the immediate months after the battle during the summer and autumn of 1866, when the disasters on Limestone Ridge and at Fort Erie became the subjects of two government inquiries typically obscuring history rather than ascertaining it. The ‗Booker Inquiry‘—a one-day military board of inquiry into the conduct of the commanding officer at Ridgeway, Lt. Colonel Alfred Booker, a wealthy Hamilton Captain Macdonald, p. 185 auctioneer—was a concerted whitewash. Booker, the very subject of the inquiry, was the only one permitted to call witnesses. After the press objected to how the Booker Inquiry was conducted, the subsequent ‗Dennis Inquiry‘ into the conduct of Lt. Colonel John Stoughton Dennis, a prominent Toronto surveyor in command of the detachment that landed at Fort Erie, was more adversarial and objective in its procedures. As a result, the testimony and evidence gathered by the inquiry was entirely classified and suppressed, and remains unpublished to this day. Only a final brief verdict and a statement absolving Dennis of any wrong doing, was released to the public with a discreetly appended minority dissenting opinion from one of the judges on the three-man military board.

If the historiography of the Battle of Ridgeway is not simply non-existent in the context of authenticity, then at the very least it is deeply flawed, substantially falsified and extraordinarily barren. After several ‗quickie histories‘ and the two reports of the government inquiries were published in the three months following the battle, no further full-length accounts or studies of it would emerge again until Captain Macdonald‘s 1910 book forty-four years later, which as its crowning achievement merely re-published the public transcripts of the 1866 Booker Inquiry in its appendix. Macdonald‘s book added little or nothing new to our knowledge of the battle and since its publication in 1910, no further monograph-length studies have emerged over the century between his book and the submission of this dissertation.

While the history of the Battle of Ridgeway remains relatively obscure, the Fenian invasion of Canada itself has been very extensively written about in the last sixty years since William D‘Arcy published the masterly The Fenian Movement in the United States 1858-1886 (1949). Following that, W.S. Neidhardt, The Fenian Brotherhood in South Western Ontario (1967), an unpublished master‘s dissertation, and his book Fenianism in North America (1975) and Hereward Senior, Fenians and Canada (1978), all covered the political ramifications of the Fenian raids. In 1991 Senior tackled the military aspects in The Last Invasion of Canada: The Fenian Raids 1866-1870, considered to be the definitive military history of the last incursions into Canada, but only on a strategic level. Senior dedicated a chapter to the battle on Limestone Ridge—the high tide mark of the Fenian military attempts against Canada—but he did not question its narrative. In every one of those seminal histories, and in all others that followed, the culminating act of the Fenian crisis—the Battle of Ridgeway—remained shrouded and obscure.

D‘Arcy, Senior, Neidhardt; none made any attempt to reconsider or add anything new to the history of the battle. They primarily referred to Macdonald‘s 1910 book and to the report of the official whitewash inquiry reprinted in his book as the last word on the battle and whose conclusions they were entirely satisfied with.



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