«Combat, Memory and Remembrance in Confederation Era Canada: The Hidden History of the Battle of Ridgeway, June 2, 1866 Peter Wronski (Peter Vronsky) ...»
In Chippawa Denison reported to Lt. Colonel John Hillyard Cameron from Peacocke‘s staff, in command of the town. Cameron told Denison that Peacocke had halted for the night at New Germany and suggested that Denison wait until the cool of the evening before riding out to join him. Denison now at his leisure spent two hours re-shoeing some thirty horses. It was probably after 4:00 P.M. when Denison received word that Peacocke had begun mustering his men to move out of New Germany towards Fort Erie. Now galloping hard down Sodom Road past streams of refugees, Denison took his cavalry to New Germany, arriving there he says at 5:30 P.M. as Peacocke was departing.23 It took Peacocke nearly an hour and a half to rouse his tired foot-sore bivouacked men who had expected to spend the night, to now pack up what they needed and leave what they did not, reassemble in the heat of the road, reform into columns and begin the march towards Fort Erie.
According to Denison they had covered a distance of approximately nine miles in two or three hours when it began to get dusk.24 At that point they were marching east along Bowen Road towards the Niagara River and were inland approximately three miles from Fort Erie when they came upon a portion of the road where woods came up to the edges on both sides— potentially a dangerous point for an ambush. On the road ahead of them they spotted a party of men who they thought might be Fenians. As the cavalry rode forward, the men melted away into Denison, Soldiering in Canada, pp. 93-94 Denison, Fenian Raid, p. 52 Denison, Soldiering in Canada, p. 94 the woods. The horsemen followed them into the forest about 150 yards, but at dusk it was significantly darker in the bush and unable to see and getting caught up in the branches, the cavalry turned back. With darkness descending upon them, Peacocke now decided to halt the column in their current formation and pass the night there with the men sleeping on their arms in the road before advancing further.25 Peacocke‘s decisions to hold his reinforcements on the train in Clifton the night before, to delay his march from Chippawa by an hour to serve them breakfast, his choice to follow the guides and proceed by the meandering river road, his decision to spend the afternoon camped at New Germany, his late 5:30 afternoon departure towards Fort Erie, and now his decision to halt about three miles short of Fort Erie, were later blamed for the Fenian escape and even the disaster at Limestone Ridge. Had Peacocke not delayed at Chippawa, had he not halted all afternoon at New Germany or had he even left earlier than 5:30 P.M., it was argued, he could have aided Booker and prevented the overnight Fenian escape back across the river towards Buffalo by arriving in Fort Erie before the dark of night.26 As a British Army officer, Peacocke afterwards was beyond the reproach of Canadian authorities or the reach of local journalists—his official reports do not broach the issue and if his march that day was questioned by his superiors in the British Army, no record of it had apparently survived in the archives.
As the men bedded down in the road for the night, wild rumours began to trickle into the camp. The news of the defeat and retreat of Booker‘s column at Ridgeway was true enough, but now they began to hear reports that the men of the Welland Canal Field Battery and Dunnville Naval Brigade, who had departed Port Colborne in the morning aboard the Robb, had been Denison, Soldiering in Canada, pp. 95-96 Somerville, pp. 75-76; Chewett, pp. 61-62 massacred in Fort Erie that afternoon with only four survivors remaining. According to the rumours, 2,000 more Fenians had crossed into Canada from Buffalo.27 It was after 3:00 A.M. Sunday morning of June 3 as Denison was inspecting the encampment when he suddenly heard somebody approach him in the dark from behind and ask, ―Is that you George?‖ Denison wrote in his memoir, ―I stopped, and a man came up whom I could not recognize. He was dressed in the common clothes of a labouring man, and had a close fitting old cloth cap pulled down over his head, a red woollen scarf around his neck, a large pair of heavy moustaches and a wild, hunted look about the eyes. He shook hands with me and said: ‗Do you not know me?‘ I knew there was something familiar, but I could not place him.‖28 Denison finally recognized him by his voice realizing that the dishevelled man standing before him had shaved off his luxurious mutton chop Dundreary side-whiskers—it was Lt. Colonel John Stoughton Dennis—the commander of the Robb expedition.
Dennis was in a frightfully disordered state. George Denison recalled, ―I shall never forget how it startled me; I knew he had gone away in command of the Queen‘s Own. I knew they had been defeated with heavy loss, but we had only heard wild rumours, and seeing the commanding officer coming into camp disguised, with his whiskers shaved off and looking altogether most wretched, the thought flashed through my mind as to what had become of all my comrades and friends who had been under his command.‖29 When Denison asked what happened, Dennis replied that he had landed his men in Fort Erie in the afternoon. He said, ―I heard the Fenians were coming and I formed up to meet them.
Suddenly a large force of Fenians appeared on our flank on the hill and fired upon us. The Denison, Soldiering in Canada, p. 100 Denison, Soldiering in Canada, p. 101; See also Dennis Inquiry, pp. 164-168 Denison, Soldiering in Canada, p. 101 volunteers behaved badly; they fired one volley and then broke and ran. I ran down the river and into a house and back into a stable and hid in the hay in the loft for some hours. I was not discovered, and when I got an opportunity I disguised myself as you see and came across through the woods till I came upon the pickets of your force.‖30 George Denison was most disturbed that Dennis ―could not give me any information whatever as to what had happened to his men.‖31 What happened to Dennis and his men was more complex a story than the one he had blurted out upon his arrival at Peacocke‘s camp. The records of the Military Court of Inquiry into the Battle of Fort Erie, held several months after the battle, would be suppressed by the Canadian government, not even members of Parliament allowed access to the transcripts of the testimony.32 Unlike the Booker inquiry, the hand written transcripts remain unpublished to this day available only in the Canadian Archives.33 Although at some point in the subsequent century they became available to historians, most were unaware of their existence and never referred to them.34 What follows is the first account of what happened in Fort Erie on the afternoon of June 2, based on the preponderance of the testimony in the 350 page transcript of the inquiry.
Denison, Soldiering in Canada, p. 101 Denison, Soldiering in Canada, p. 102 House of Commons Debates, November 21, 1867, Ottawa: R. Duhamel, 1967. pp. 110-116 Proceedings of the Court of Inquiry Upon the Circumstances of the Engagement at Fort Erie on the 2 nd of June 1866, Adjutant General‘s Correspondence; Correspondence relating to complaints, courts martial and inquiries, RG9-I-C-8, Volume 7 LAC. (Dennis Inquiry) Brian A. Reid was the first historian to refer to the transcripts in his 2000 study of the Battle of Ridgeway but focused on Limestone Ridge he did not look into their contents in any detail or describe the battle at Fort Erie.
The Mission of the W.T. Robb After leaving Port Colborne near dawn on the morning of June 2, the tugboat W. T. Robb steamed along Lake Erie towards Buffalo through empty dead calm waters with not another sail or smoke column visible on the horizon.35 The high-speed 128-foot, 180-tonne steam-powered vessel was manned by 19 men and 3 officers (Captain Lachlan McCallum, Lieutenant Walter T.
Robb, and Second Lieutenant Angus Macdonald) of the Dunnville Naval Brigade armed with Enfield rifles.36 At Port Colborne they had taken aboard Lt. Colonel Dennis and Captain Charles Akers, Royal Engineers, along with the men of Welland Canal Field Battery, consisting of 51 gunners and N.C.O.s, British Royal Artillery bombardier Sergeant James McCracken and 3 officers (Captain Richard Saunders King M.D., Lieutenants Adam K. Scholfield and Charles Nimmo [Nemmo]). The Welland gunners with their field artillery still locked up by the British in Hamilton were half armed with standard issue long-Enfield rifles but the other half carried the obsolete smooth-bore Victoria carbine37 designed in 1839 and last modified in 1843.38 Its 26inch smoothbore.733 calibre barrel weighed a hefty 7 pounds 9 ounces but was intended to be a cavalry carbine. Its short barrel, however, resulted in unbearable recoil, flash and flame that frightened even the most hardened war-horse. It had an unacceptable effective range of 300 yards at best. After the British army tested the Victoria carbine by having sixty men fire three volleys at a target 6 feet by 2 feet 100 yards away and only 18 from the 180 (10%) shots hit the target, they suspended further issue of the weapon in 1853.39 The surplus carbines ended up Beatty Ms., p. 21 Dennis Inquiry, p. 343; Docker, p.14 Dennis Inquiry, p. 182 Hew Strachan, p. 85 Strachan, pp. 85-86 being supplied to Canadian volunteer militia during the Trent Crisis. The expedition was thus made up of total of approximately 71 men and eight officers.40 The Robb expedition has often been portrayed as a hare-brained scheme devised by Dennis in the wake of being relieved by Booker, but in fact the plan had been initiated by Peacocke the previous day long before Booker arrived on the scene.41 When Peacocke sent his telegram at midnight that he was sending Captain Akers to Port Colborne, he also reconfirmed his original order that an armed party be sent around to the river flank if a vessel could be found.42 Dennis was relentless in his efficiency to organize the river patrol, arranging for the Robb to come when he learned that the International which Peacocke had requested earlier in the day was not coming. What was hare-brained however, was his decision to take personal command of the mission. Peacocke later stated that Dennis ‗should never‘ have gone aboard, but reserved most of his condemnation for Akers
Dennis‘s plan to use the steam-powered tug to intercept the Fenians at the river‘s edge was sound in the context of current military doctrine on mobility; it was as sound as Booker‘s grasp of the railroad. Unfortunately both Booker‘s and Dennis‘s thinking was driven by
Beatty, Fenian Raid 1866, p.20: lists a total of 79 men and officers by name. There are rampant variations:
Dennis Inquiry, p. 7: Sgt. McCracken testified ―54 men‖ in the Welland Battery; Beatty Ms., p. 20: 52 gunners and 18 marines; Brian Reid, p. 381: claims Naval Brigade, 43 men + 3 officers; Welland Battery, 59 men + 3 officers; + Dennis and Akers: a total of 102 men and 8 officers; Captain Macdonald, p. 43: three officers and 59 gunners and three officers and 43 marines, ―total strength of the combatant forces 108 of all ranks.‖ Dennis Inquiry, [sn] 2nd Charge: ―landing recklessly five officers and 68 men of the Welland Canal Field Battery and Dunnville Naval
Brigade from the steamer Robb...‖ Dennis Inquiry, pp. 60-61: Naval Brigade lands 24 men‖; Chewett, p. 88:
Captain McCallum reports, 2 Naval Brigade and 13 Welland Battery remained aboard the Robb. There might be a discrepancy between the number of the Naval Brigade and that of the Robb‘s crew, who might or might not have been included in the various counts.
Dennis, Report June 4, 1866 in MFRP; Peacocke to Napier, June 6, 1866, [Frame 822], MFRP Booker Inquiry, p. 200 Peacocke to Napier, June 5, 1866, Frame 826, MFRP unbridled ambition and determination to take advantage of this rare military opportunity to cap their business and social achievements with an act of command prowess on the battlefield— knighthoods were made of this.
When the Robb steamed past Buffalo it was daylight and they saw huge crowds gathered along the American shore observing the action unfolding on the Canadian side like some great spectacle. The troops were ordered to conceal themselves below deck so as not to alarm U.S.
authorities and not to tip off the Fenians that the tug had armed men aboard.44 As they slipped into the Niagara River steaming by the village of Fort Erie at around 6:00 A.M. it appeared to be deserted.45 After they passed the village, the Robb was pulled to by the U.S. Navy gunship USS Michigan near Black Rock. While ascertaining the Robb‘s mission, the Michigan‘s captain Commander Bryson informed Dennis that the Fenians had left Newbigging‘s farm on Frenchman‘s Creek in the middle of the night.46 The Robb continued north down the Niagara River, past the former Fenian encampment at Frenchman‘s Creek steaming as far as Black Creek and saw no sign of the enemy. Docking near Black Creek they learned that the Fenians had moved westwards towards Ridge Road.
Dennis now sent a message to Peacocke informing him of this and turned the Robb back up the river to the B&LH railroad terminal in Fort Erie where he was to meet Booker‘s arriving brigade according to the last plan they made.47 Booker of course, was not coming.
It was now around 8:00 or 8:30 A.M. If the wind had been blowing in the right direction or if the sound had been reflected against a low cloud cover, a distant faded rattle of gunfire from Limestone Ridge seven miles away might have possibly been heard by the men of the Robb. But Beatty Ms., p. 21; Dennis Inquiry, p. 46 Dennis Inquiry, p. 5 (Several witnesses claim the Robb arrived at Fort Erie at 5:00 A.M. but considering that it was over twenty miles by water, it is unlikely that the Robb arrived that early.) Dennis, Report Dennis, Report on this hot sunny clear windless day, they heard nothing and Dennis assumed that as per their recent plan, Booker must have marched to Stevensville not having received approval from Peacocke for their proposed new plan of action. Dennis was now on his own.