«Combat, Memory and Remembrance in Confederation Era Canada: The Hidden History of the Battle of Ridgeway, June 2, 1866 Peter Wronski (Peter Vronsky) ...»
Dennis ordered the Robb to put in at the main wharf near the centre of the town of Fort Erie. A street grid of about twenty-five city blocks of stores, hotels, taverns, boarding houses, workshops, warehouses, customs and port offices, civic buildings, churches and homes, rose upwards from the river on a steep slope towards a crest about 250 yards away before levelling out into farm fields and orchards to the west. Between the river‘s edge, its wharfs and the town‘s river view line of buildings, Front Street (Niagara Boulevard today) ran along the shore until it came to the mouth at Lake Erie on the southern end and the old fort beyond. Front Street was also paralleled by the tracks of the Great Western railway running from Clifton and Chippawa and a rival of the Grand Trunk‘s B&LH line. The Great Western tracks although technically connected to the Grand Trunk system, offered no actual working connection at Fort Erie between the two rivals‘ systems. There on the south end of town, Front Street turned away inland west and climbed uphill merging with Garrison Road leading to Ridgeway. [SEE FORT ERIE MAP] At about 9:00 A.M. Dennis disembarked the Welland Field Battery and the Dunnville Naval Brigade and took possession of the town. After arresting suspicious individuals in the town and leaving a garrison behind, Dennis sent two columns of volunteers north along the shore while he took another unit in the Robb paralleling the shore along the Niagara River.
According to Dennis the prisoners reported that the Fenians had fought a battle and had been ―utterly dispersed.‖ Dennis had glimpsed Colonel Peacocke‘s column pass by and turn inland near Black Creek at about 11:00 A.M. and he had no reason to disbelieve the reports of the Fenian defeat.48 Akers confirmed this in his testimony, stating, ―My general impression from what I had seen and heard on shore was that the Fenians were disheartened and would get away as soon as they could... The report at Black Creek was to the effect that the Fenians had been thrashed, so much so that the men of the artillery began cheering.‖49 A fatal assumption was made for a second time over the last twelve hours that the Fenians had no fight left in them and would now be easy prey.
It was now approximately between 3:00 and 4:00 P.M. when Dennis decided to return to Fort Erie and billet his men there for the night.50 Sometime between 4:00 and 5:00 the Robb steamed back into Fort Erie with approximately 30 to 40 prisoners in their hold.51 Dennis had sufficient time during the day to take down the names and particulars of twenty prisoners, whose names he inscribed later in the margin of his report.52 The Stand in Fort Erie Once the Robb tied to the Niagara River Railway wharf at Fort Erie, the troops were formed up on the dock and Dr. P. Tertius Kempson, MD, the village reeve, began writing out billet tickets and handing them out to the men.53 The prisoners were disembarked from the Robb and taken to the join the other prisoners held in the schoolhouse with the intention of transporting them to the Welland gaol.54 Dennis and Akers in the meantime went into a store facing the dock to find Dennis, Report, [frame 856], MRFR Dennis Inquiry, pp. 223-224 Dennis Inquiry, p. 136 Akers Report; Dennis, Report give the time as 5:30 but that is probably too late.
Dennis, Report, [frame 857], MRFR Dennis Inquiry, p. 143 Dennis, Report, [frames 856-857], MRFR paper on which to compose telegrams to various authorities.55 (Apparently Booker was not the only officer reporting for duty that day without paper on which to write orders and dispatches.) Akers was going to take their messages to the telegraph station in the B&LH railway terminal at the south end of Fort Erie past Garrison Road. Dennis was still composing his telegrams on the counter of the store when suddenly Akers, as was evidently his habit, inexplicably rode off in a buggy towards the railway station before Dennis could hand his messages to him.56 At about this time Lewis Palmer, a former Captain in the British army in his seventies, a veteran of the War of 1812 and the 1837 Rebellion, was smoking in the door of his house near Garrison Road about two miles outside of Fort Erie when he suddenly observed in the distance the glistening in the sun of rifles and bayonets in the road to the west.57 Palmer at first assumed that these were Canadian or British troops advancing into Fort Erie but as they came closer into view he realized they were Fenians. He quickly mounted his horse and galloped off into town to give warning.58 Numerous people were now streaming into Fort Erie with warnings that the Fenians were approaching. Captain King was standing on Front Street when Clara Kempson, the Reeve‘s twenty-five year-old wife came running down in a fright informing him that a rider had just wildly galloped up to her house and collapsed in exhaustion with his horse unable to go further.
He had told her a huge force of Fenians had defeated the Volunteers at Ridgeway and was now approaching the town from Garrison Road. Captain King dismissed the report as a rumour, Dennis Inquiry, pp. 306-307 Dennis, Statement, October 27, 1866, p. 1, Dennis Inquiry following p. 345 [hereinafter Dennis, Statement];
Dennis Inquiry, p. 306 Cruickshank, p. 39 Dennis Inquiry, p. 297 saying to her ―stuff woman, I don‘t believe it.‖59 Clara ran off towards the dock to find her husband.
There were many civilians thronged among the troops on the dock. One of them, Edwin Thomas a Fort Erie resident, later testified, ―I met the Reeve‘s wife in a fright running down towards the wharf. She hailed me and told me the Fenians had whipped the British and were coming to burn and plunder the village. I told her straight it was a false rumour, that if they had whipped the British they would not be likely to be falling back on Fort Erie.‖60 On his way to the railway station Akers had also heard from a panicked passerby that there had been a battle in the morning and that the Canadian volunteers had been ―driven out.‖ Akers also did not believe the report. He arrived at the railway terminal in his buggy and went in to see if he could establish a telegraphic link with Peacocke, when he heard that troops were coming down Garrison Road.
Akers cautiously climbed up a ladder along the side of the railway station to get a better look. When he looked out he saw in the distance a huge swaggering army with horses and wagons advancing down Garrison Road towards them. At first he thought it was British artillery but as the force drew nearer Akers began to make out their varied uniforms and realized with alarm that he was looking at a massive Fenian force of nearly 800 men barrelling towards the town. Akers claimed that he quickly jumped into his buggy and began riding back towards Fort Erie to give warning but advancing Fenian skirmishers poured across Garrison Road in front of him and cut him off from the town. Akers now turned around and escaped by taking his buggy to Port Colborne on a road skirting Lake Erie. He arrived there at about seven in the evening.61 Dennis Inquiry, p. 309 Dennis Inquiry, p. 333 Dennis Inquiry, p. 224-225 Lewis Palmer in the meantime rode into town and straight down to the dock where he found Captain King and told him that the Fenians were on Garrison Road and were about fifteen minutes away from rolling into the town.62 King asked how many were there. Palmer replied there were four or five hundred as near as he could judge.63 Shortly afterwards another man arrived in a buggy carrying the same warning and then a third horseman galloped in—the estimates varied between four hundred fifty to eight hundred Fenians but all were precise in that the enemy was advancing from Garrison Road and would be there in less than ten to fifteen minutes.64 King was by now convinced of the veracity of the reports and unable to find Dennis, he ordered that the prisoners captured earlier in the morning be quickly taken from the schoolhouse where they were being held and be put aboard the Robb on ―the double.‖65
several civilians to withdraw his men to the Robb and escape or risk being ―cut to pieces‖66 or ―all shot down.‖67 Reeve Kempson urged the troops to defend the town, saying, ―I would show a little resistance.‖ The retired Captain Palmer argued it would be no use to resist with so few men a force as large as the one hurtling down towards them.68 Still unable to find Dennis anywhere, King ordered the troops to get back aboard the Robb.69 Dennis Inquiry, p. 6; p. 25; p. 42; p. 65; p. 212 Dennis Inquiry, p. 299 Dennis Inquiry, p. 6 Dennis Inquiry, p. 6; p. 65; p. 212 Dennis Inquiry, p. 65 Dennis Inquiry, p. 189 Dennis Inquiry, p. 298 Dennis Inquiry, p. 7 Sylvester Graham, a resident of Fort Erie had in the meantime encountered Dennis in the street and told him that a rider had come into town warning of the approaching Fenians.70 Dennis asked Graham to show him where the Fenians were advancing from and the two men went up Bertie Road westward towards the crest of the hill that arched its way through the town north to south. From the road Graham pointed out to Dennis a barn on the horizon of the far south end of the hill crest near where Garrison Road was, about a half mile away. Dennis did not say whether he brought the telescope or field glasses he had aboard the Robb with him when he disembarked and went into town; very likely he did not as he was not expecting to engage the Fenians any time soon. In his final statement to the Court of Inquiry five months later, Dennis nonetheless claimed
In this statement of October 27 made in the final days of the Court of Inquiry into what happened at Fort Erie, Dennis was desperately attempting to exculpate himself after days of damning testimony—and it contradicted other earlier statements Dennis had made as to where he first saw the Fenian force. It is only one of the many contradictions that would emerge in the inquiry challenging the veracity of his original June 4 report shortly after the battle.
Dennis Inquiry, p. 306 Dennis Statement, October 27, 1866, p. 2, [in Dennis Inquiry appended at p. 345 hereinafter ―Dennis Statement‖]
Already a half mile separates where Dennis says he first saw the Fenians in his June report (coming down the street along the river) from where he says he saw them in his October statement (standing on the hill near the barn half a mile away.) Dennis continues in his June report
The majority of the testimony at the inquiry suggested something else entirely different had transpired.
The Dennis Inquiry Testimony: “You will know what I mean by the orders I give you.” While Dennis was away preparing a telegraph in one of the stores in town, Captains King and McCallum were in command on the docks as reports of the imminent Fenian approach arrived one after another.73 It is unclear who ordered the prisoners to be transferred from the schoolhouse to the Robb—Dennis claimed it was him but witnesses state it was King who gave the order.74 King immediately ordered the troops to be embarked safely back aboard the Robb.75 Some of the troops were visibly frightened having been told that hundreds of Fenians were advancing upon them—they were certainly outnumbered by at least ten to one.76 Private Samuel Cormick nervously asked Captain McCallum, ―Are the Fenians coming?‖ McCallum replied, ―They say so.‖77 The men were relieved to be back safely aboard the tug out of the advancing Fenians‘ reach. Shortly afterwards, Dennis arrived on the dock and discovered that the men had boarded Dennis, Report, [frames 856-860], MRFR Dennis Inquiry, p. 109 Dennis Inquiry, pp. 6-7; p. 65 Dennis Inquiry, p. 65; p. 108 Dennis Inquiry, p. 37 Dennis Inquiry, p. 80 the vessel without his orders. To their horror, Dennis now ordered King to disembark the Welland Battery back on the dock and McCallum to likewise disembark all the men he could spare from his Naval Brigade.78 King and McCallum argued with Dennis that it would be wiser to remain on board, cast off into stream and assess the size of the approaching Fenian force. If manageable they could then land the troops again to deal with the enemy, if not, they could remain safely off shore blocking the Fenians from escaping over the river until Peacocke‘s forces arrived.79 Dennis angrily stamped his foot and reminded King and McCallum that he was in command.80 He dismissed their objections, declaring that they came here to face the Fenians and that the force headed towards them was in retreat and probably being pursued by Peacocke‘s column close behind. They should check the Fenian retreat long enough for Peacocke to catch and overrun them.81 King had no alternative but to order his reluctant men to come off the Robb and fall in on the dock, saying to them, ―It is hard boys but we will do our duty.‖82 Dennis ordered that Captain McCallum disembark as many of his Naval Brigade as possible leaving behind only a skeleton crew sufficient to man the Robb and guard the prisoners.
Many of the marines began to protest but McCallum urged them on saying that if any harm came to the Welland Battery, the men of the Naval Brigade would be branded cowards if they remained aboard the Robb.83 Grudgingly the marines now joined the Welland Battery forming up on the dock. McCallum attempted to keep as many of his men as possible safely aboard the ship. He posted two men to guard the cabin door, but Dennis countermanded the order, saying Dennis Inquiry, p. 65; p. 108; p. 124; p. 134; p. 139; p. 140 Dennis Inquiry, p. 62; pp. 111-112; p. 117; p. 141 Dennis Inquiry, p. 65; p. 112; p. 116 Dennis Inquiry, p. 199 Dennis Inquiry, p. 7, p. 22, p. 65; p. 110; p. 122; p. 134; p. 183 Dennis Inquiry, p. 112 one man was sufficient and had the other join the rest of the company on the dock.84 Captain McCallum joined his men on shore as well, leaving Lieutenant Robb in command of the vessel.
In his final statement to the Court of Inquiry, Dennis insisted that none of this happened
During the Inquiry Dennis attempted to elicit testimony in support of his assertion that the men ―cheerfully‖ followed his command and that neither King nor McCallum objected to his plan to make a stand in Fort Erie.