«Combat, Memory and Remembrance in Confederation Era Canada: The Hidden History of the Battle of Ridgeway, June 2, 1866 Peter Wronski (Peter Vronsky) ...»
According to Dennis, neither the Welland Battery nor the Naval Brigade were sufficiently familiar with infantry drill and he ordered the Welland Battery drill instructor, Sergeant McCracken, the veteran British artillery bombardier to adapt artillery drill commands to that of infantry.86 McCracken asked Dennis to clarify what he meant, at which point Dennis snapped back, ―You will know what I mean by the orders I give you.‖87 Events now began to unfold in a matter of minutes—as one witness said, ―The whole thing happened very suddenly, quicker than what we could tell it.‖88 [sic] Several hundred Fenians suddenly appeared about 600 yards away in the distance on Front Street approaching from the south along the river road. Some of the troops on the dock could also see Fenians trickling in along the ridge of the hill above the town. The size of the Fenian army was Dennis Inquiry, p. 87 Dennis Statement, p. 4 Dennis Statement, pp. 5-6 Dennis Inquiry, p. 162 Dennis Inquiry, p.
As they came off the dock they crossed the tracks that paralleled the river bank and then immediately turned left into Front Street and began to advance towards the Fenians approaching on the road. The terrain and street grid of where the battle took place remains almost exactly the same today although none of the buildings have survived.
The men marched south about 50 yards up Front Street as far as a grove of weeping willow trees near the City Hotel, just short of Bertie Street, when Lieutenant Robb with his elevated view from the bridge of the tug observed a swell of Fenians rise up on the crest of the Dennis Inquiry, p. 125; p. 189;
Dennis Inquiry, p.174 Dennis Inquiry, p. 209 Beatty, Fenian Raid 1866, p. 30 Dennis Inquiry, p. 136 Dennis Inquiry, p. 49; p. 112; p. 312 hill above the town to the west of them. Robb shouted out a warning to Captain McCallum on the shore, ―Old man they are flanking you.‖ ―I know that‖ McCallum replied waving his hand. 95 Several roads that lead over and down the hill towards Front Street began filling up with Fenians as well. With Front Street screened from the hill behind it by a line of storefronts, Dennis could not see what was happening above him unless he stepped into one of the roads that led down from the hill—Bertie Road was just in front of him, about 15 yards more. Dennis had been focused on the Fenians advancing at him along Front Street. They were about 400 yards away when suddenly more Fenians poured into Front Street from side streets in front of him at closer ranges. [SEE FORT ERIE MAP] Just before they came to the intersection of Front and Bertie Street the column was ordered to halt near the City Hotel and the small grove of willow trees. Dennis Sullivan, one of the privates from the Canadian Rifles stationed on look-out in Fort Erie who was captured and paroled by the Fenians the previous day, now accompanied the troops in the street. He ―took the liberty‖ he testified, to warn Dennis that the Fenians above them were outflanking them. Dennis at first paid no heed. When Sullivan warned him a second time, Dennis asked, ―what is the best to do?‖96 Sullivan replied, ―flank them before we should be flanked.‖ Dennis now ordered the men to counter-march back in the opposite direction about one hundred yards north along Front, past the Robb still docked at the wharf, towards Murray Street and the stores and workshops that stood on its corner.97 Rather than remaining behind the screen of buildings between the Fenians on the hill and his men on Front Street, Dennis now stupidly Dennis Inquiry, p. 20; pp. 50-51; p. 52; pp. 80-81; p. 113; p. 170 Dennis Inquiry, p. 250 Dennis Inquiry, p. 8; p. 22; p. 39; p. 50; p. 70; p. 80; p. 156 marched his men into the open intersection of Murray Street, exposing them to the enemy on two flanks simultaneously: to the force coming down from the hill and to the one advancing along Front Street.
As the volunteers fell into the intersection they saw ranks of Fenians forming up on the road above them about 300 yards away.98 The volunteers were deployed across the intersection in an L-shaped formation at right angles to each other: the Welland Field Battery across Murray Street in two sections facing uphill to the west and the Dunnville Naval Brigade on their left, across Front Street facing south.99 In all this time the troops had not heard Dennis give any commands—the orders to march, wheel, turn, counter-march were all barked out by Sergeant McCracken for the Welland Battery and by Captain McCallum for the Naval Brigade. Dennis, however, up to this time had been giving commands to King, McCracken and McCallum but probably out of earshot of most of the troops noisily marching on the road.100 Now as they came to a halt in their position at the street corners of Murray and Front, a silence fell over the scene. There they stood: 5 officers and 68 men, a third of them armed with obsolete smoothbore muskets, surrounded on two sides by a formidable force of nearly 800 battle-hardened Fenian insurgents, flush in their victory over the ‗redcoats‘ that morning at Ridgeway. Several sources report that the Fenians waved a white handkerchief inviting the tiny party of Canadians to surrender.101 There is no mention of it in the inquiry testimony.
The Fenians on the hill edged forward, advancing slowly down Murray Street towards the small band of soldiers. It must have been a frightening sight, an army of Fenians, rifles and bayonets gleaming, their sunburst flag borne above them, its dark green appearing black against Dennis Inquiry, p. 8 Dennis Inquiry, p. 15; p. 78; p. 87; p. 156; p. 188 Dennis Inquiry, p. 8 Albert W. Reavley, ―Personal Experience in the Fenian Raid‖, Welland County Historical Society Papers and Records, Vol 2, Welland Canada: 1926. p. 70; Owen, p. 81 the bright afternoon sky. Gunner William Clarke who had only joined the battery the day before, would later recall in a letter to a fellow gunner, ―Do you remember the muzzles of those guns pointed at us by the enemy as he came down the hill, and do you remember the black flag that was fluttering in the air, my, but it was fierce.‖102 Almost at the same time the Fenians on the other flank began to close in along Front Street. The volunteers found themselves in a pincer.
Facing the Fenians rolling down on them, the Canadians anxiously waited for the order to open fire. But none came.103 Sergeant McCracken later testified, ―I turned around watching to see if orders were given and I saw Lt. Col Dennis standing between the left flank of the Battery and the Naval Brigade. I thought according to his manner that he appeared to be very much confused. I then spoke to Capt King, and asked him, if we were to stand there and be shot down without receiving any word of command.‖104 When the Fenians came within 150 yards, Captain McCallum gave the order to fire, but it was immediately countermanded by Dennis, ―not yet Captain, not yet.‖105 McCallum now angrily turned to Lt. Colonel John Stoughton Dennis and growled, ―Are you going to let the men be shot down like Stoughton bottles?‖106 The phrase referred to ―Stoughton‘s Great Cordial Elixir‖ from pre-Revolutionary times, which was shipped to North America in heavy, stoneware bottles that were reused for storing liquids or filled with sand and used as doorstops or heated as foot warmers. To ―stand like a Stoughton bottle‖ came to mean to sit or stand around silently and apathetically.107 Beatty [ms], p. 23; Beatty, Fenian Raid 1866, p. 27 Dennis Inquiry, p. 8; p. 159 Dennis Inquiry, p. 9 Dennis Inquiry, p. 81; p. 88; p. 132 Dennis Inquiry, p. 88; p. 91 http://www.vintage-vocabulary.com/bottle.html [retrieved on August 11, 2009] Dennis did not have time to reply. A woman suddenly appeared in the street between the Fenians and the ranks of soldiers lined up. Gunner Patrick Roach shouted to her to get out of the way or she would be shot.108 She quickly scurried by around the corner, behind the men, and ran north along Front Street away from the gathered combatants. Then a single shot was fired from the Fenians formed up on the hill above them. It whizzed over the men‘s heads and thudded into the road behind them.109 Now men suddenly heard Captain McCallum shout out, ―Where the hell are you going?‖110 Roach testified that at that moment he saw Dennis running away at a lope in a stooped position along the sidewalk of Front Street towards the north not far behind the escaping woman.111 Numerous men and officers testified to seeing Dennis immediately after the first shot was fired, running from them, stooped low, loping away down the sidewalk and along a fence, although not all were sure who McCallum was shouting at.112 Dennis in his final statement to the Court of Inquiry insisted that McCallum was yelling at his own poorly drilled men when he shouted, ―Where the hell are you going?‖ Dennis attempted to claim in his initial report and his final statement that it was he who gave the orders to fire and that he remained at the intersection with the men for the time being.113 The preponderance of the testimony given, placed him running away after the first shot.
As Dennis ran off and the Fenian formation in the road above them continued to grow in size, one of the men commented it would be a better place to be aboard the tug at which point Captain Dennis Inquiry, p. 101 Dennis Inquiry, p. 9; p. 57; p. 97; p. 275; p. 314 Dennis Inquiry, p. 9; p. 51; p. 66; p. 106; p. 186 Dennis Inquiry, p. 101 Dennis Inquiry, p. 20; p. 28; p. 34; p. 42; p. 66; p. 82; p. 101; p. 106; p. 114; p. 118; p. 129; p. 150; p. 164 Dennis, Report, [frame 857-858]; Dennis Statement, pp. 6-8 King drew his revolver and threatened to shoot any man who broke ranks.114 A second shot was fired by the Fenians which was immediately followed by a heavy volley. Then the Fenian army lurched forward and charged at them. Captains King and McCallum gave the order for ―independent firing‖ or ―everyman for himself‖ telling the men to ―do the best you can.‖ 115 King shouted, ―Fire. Give it to them boys!‖116 The Canadians fired a return volley.
As the charging Fenians were now at about 100 yards away it is unlikely that the Canadians had much time to reload their weapons and fire a second volley while standing exposed in the intersection. A few of the more skilled riflemen managed to fire a second shot.117 The rest were lucky to even get enough time to reload. Without any orders given them, the Canadians withdrew in relatively ordered ranks from the Murray Street intersection and pulled back around the corner about 20 yards further north down Front Street, putting the buildings lining the street between themselves and the Fenians on the hill.118 It still left them exposed, however, to the Fenians advancing from the south along Front Street. As one civilian witness replied when asked if the Canadians fell back in an orderly manner, ―Yes, they were in good order—a good mark to shoot at.‖119 Some of the men still managed to fire a second shot, reload and fire a third at what must have been a dense wall of hundreds of Fenians advancing at them.120 Yet the density of the Fenian ranks made it also easy to hit—three Fenians were shot down here by the retreating Dennis Inquiry, p. 68; p. 76; p. 100; p. 130; p. 186 Dennis Inquiry, p. 10; p. 23; p. 52; p. 67; p. 132; p. 145; p. 150; p. 163 Dennis Inquiry, p. 150 Dennis Inquiry, p. 71 Dennis Inquiry, p. 116; p. 131; p. 137; p. 142; pp. 145-146; p. 164; p. 175; Beatty [ms], p. 30 Dennis Inquiry, p. 175 Dennis Inquiry, p. 10; p. 34; p. 52; p. 142 Canadians, one of them a mounted officer, Captain Michael Bailey of Buffalo who was shot through the chest although he survived his wounds.121 It was now too late to return to the Robb which had been a mere forty or fifty yards away from them. As soon as the Fenians opened fire and advanced down Front Street taking up positions closer to the Robb than the Canadians held, the tug cast off and backed out stern first into the river as they had been previously ordered to do so.122 The remaining men aboard the ship opened fire from the deck onto the Fenians in the hope of slowing their advance.123 It was of little help.
Gunner Fergus Scholfield, a twenty-two year-old butcher employed by his uncle was first among the Canadians to be hit. A Minie ball struck him in the left leg below the knee, shattering his bone into minute fragments. The next day Schofield‘s leg would be amputated by Dr.
Kempson three inches below the knee, rendering him unemployable in his trade.124 He would be granted a lump payment of $50 and an annual pension for life of $73 (.20 cents a day) and $60 in medical expenses—the cost of a leg. This included 75 half-grain doses of morphine at ($6), applications of ulmus cortex (elm bark) ($1.00) and quinine (60 cents).125 The preponderance of leg wounds at Limestone Ridge and Fort Erie has to do with a habit of combatants at the time to routinely aim low at leg height to compensate for the upward recoil of the rifle.