«Combat, Memory and Remembrance in Confederation Era Canada: The Hidden History of the Battle of Ridgeway, June 2, 1866 Peter Wronski (Peter Vronsky) ...»
The Canadians attempted to keep returning fire as they fell back further down Front Street but it was hopeless. The stand was over probably in a minute if not less. As the Fenians began to pour volley after volley into the Canadian ranks they came apart and scattered. Some Dennis Inquiry, p. 174; Denison, Fenian Raid, p. 62 Dennis Inquiry, p. 105; p. 109; p. 114; p. 145; p. 189 Dennis Inquiry, pp. 114-115; p. 174 Fergus Scholfield, Medical Board Report, November 9, 1866: FRSR, Volume 30, pp. 247-257, LAC Statement of Militia pensions and gratuities awarded, Receiver General‘s Department, Ottawa, February 1, 1967, FRSR, Volume 32, LAC men lead by Captain King with a revolver in hand ran back to the dock and took cover behind piles of lumber, railway ties and cordwood—others turned and ran for their lives down Front Street along the Niagara River and then inland away from the Fenians. Many of those who ran in this direction testified that they saw Dennis running some 40 yards ahead of them in the distance, holding his sword in his left hand by the scabbard.126 Near the dock, Captain King was hit in the leg just above the ankle.
The small clutch of Canadians on dock simply did not have enough time to reload when they were overrun by the advancing wave of Fenians. There were thousands of bayonet charges in the American Civil War but few bayonet wounds. The lethal range of the rifle ensured that bayonet charges had become purely a psychological tactic intended to ‗shock and awe‘ the enemy and turn them running long before any bayonets could touch; precisely as it happened at Ridgeway.129 As the wall of Fenians closed on them, one of the besieged Canadians thrust his Dennis Inquiry, p. 88; p. 114; p. 129; p. 150; p. 169 Dennis Inquiry, p. 153 McMicken to Macdonald, June 23, 1866, MG26 A, Volume 237, p. 104189-104190 [Reel C1663] LAC Griffith, pp. 144-145 bayonet deep into an advancing Fenian‘s chest just below his neck.130 This must have horrified everyone there. Few of even the most battle-hardened Fenians would have ever witnessed a bayonet wound—or even had much bayonet drill. Being struck by flying bullets was one thing—being impaled by cold edged-steel with human force behind it was something primitive and viscerally different. The battle must have gasped to a halt instantly at the sight of it. The Fenians quietly disarmed the Canadians who surrendered without any further fighting occurring on the dock.
Captain King in the meantime rolled himself along the dock and splashed over into the waters below. He clung beneath to the piles against the current in the hope of avoiding capture.
Cut through by the rays of the blazing June afternoon sun, the water off the dock must have been as crystal clear as it is today—the current would have pulled out through the water a visible crimson streak of blood draining from King‘s wound—he would have been easy to spot. The Fenians and some civilians fished him out taking him prisoner.131 Laid out on the dock, King asked someone to slash his left trouser leg open and to cut through his boot to the toe. This revealed a compound comminuted fracture two inches above his ankle. His foot limply flopped at the end of his leg just above the ankle, hanging by a bloodied slop of flesh where once there had been bone. King was now fading fast from loss of blood and began to slip into unconsciousness.132 A friend of King‘s somehow was at the scene in Fort Erie—retired Captain Whitney. He rushed over to Buffalo and secured the services of surgeon Dr. Julius F. Minor. Whitney and Dr.
Minor with a pass from the U.S. Army returned to Fort Erie in a small skiff and found King barely clinging to life. After securing permission from the Fenians to evacuate King they laid Denison, Fenian Raid, p. 61 Dennis Inquiry, p. 175 Dennis Inquiry, p. 268 him out on the bottom of the boat and crossed back to Buffalo. King‘s leg was amputated below the knee the next day. Both Captain King and the Canadian government commended Dr. Minor on his bravery to aid King in the face of popular pro-Fenian sentiments in Buffalo. Minor was compensated $748 in surgeon‘s fees and expenses, including $100 for performing the amputation.133 Dr. King who claimed a loss of an income of $2000 to $3000 a year as a physician and surgeon, received a lump sum payment of $1,029.30 and a pension for life of $400 a year.134 The remaining Canadians now ran along Front Street and the railway tracks that flanked it and into the yards and gardens of the town, firing as best they could at the pursuing Fenians behind them. Thirty-two year old Gunner Robert Jordan Thomas, managed to get into the fields near a railway water tank at the northern outskirts of town. There he managed to fire his rifle for the first time at a Fenian closing in on him. A returning Fenian round tore the shoulder strap from Thomas‘ uniform. Thomas reloaded and fired again at the Fenian who was now only some seventy yards away. Thomas could not tell if he hit him but when the smoke cleared the Fenian was gone. Thomas reloaded and now turned towards a group of Fenians flanking him on higher ground. He fired in their direction. Before he could reload, Thomas was shot through the thigh.
Luckily the bullet passed through his flesh. Thomas now ran through the front garden gate of the last house on the outskirts of town owned by Edwin Thomas (no relation.) The wounded Thomas was taken into the house by the owner‘s son, nineteen-year old George Truscott and he and his rifle were hidden. Thomas lay still in the attic, his wound undressed for the time being, hoping that the Fenians would not find him.135 Thomas had a Saunders King, Medical Board Report, November 8, 1866: FRSR, Volume 30, pp. 231-245, LAC Statement of Militia pensions and gratuities awarded, Receiver General‘s Department, Ottawa, February 1, 1967, FRSR, Volume 32, LAC Dennis Inquiry, pp. 276-277 twenty-four year-old wife, three children, a twenty-five year old dependant sister and a seventyyear old mother. He owned 500 acres of land which he had mortgaged for $300. He could not estimate his yearly income for the Military Medical Board later assessing his injuries but stated ―by my labor and exertions I have supported my family.‖ Thomas would receive 3 months disability for his thigh wound—$84 plus $30 for his medical bills.136 Thomas was not the first soldier to seek shelter in the house. A minute or two before him, George had let another escaping soldier come into the house. Gunner John Greybiel came rushing through the door without his rifle and in a highly frightened state. He tore straight up the stairs to the second floor. There he found several civilians closeted in a room trying to stay out of the line of fire. The frightened Greybiel asked them to exchange an overcoat with him, which they were reluctant to do. George suggested that he hide in the wardrobe but Greybiel refused, saying the Fenians would find him there for sure. Greybiel now wandered into the hallway and stripped off his uniform leaving it on the floor. He then made his way to an empty bedroom and climbed into bed and pulled up the covers over himself. George picked up his crumpled uniform from the floor and hid it. After about fifteen minutes, the owner, Edwin Thomas appeared.
Edwin was annoyed by the presence of escaping soldiers in his house and told Greybiel he must leave because the Fenians would shortly search the house.137 Greybiel was forced to climb out of bed and get dressed. He left the house by the back door, escaping across the fields towards Peacocke‘s lines which he safely reached that night.138 Not all the Canadians escaped that easily. The men trapped on the dock surrendered quickly as the massive force of Fenians overran them and took them prisoner. But further in town, the Canadians engaged the Fenians in fierce house-to-house fighting, firing from behind Rbt. Jordan Thomas, Medical Board Report, November 8, 1866: FRSR, Volume 30, pp. 817-831, LAC Dennis Inquiry, p. 331 Dennis Inquiry, pp. 315-317; p. 327; p. 330 street corners and telegraph poles, over garden fences and woodpiles, through doorways and windows, crashing through front doors and out the back, yard by yard, block by block through the town.139 It was Canada‘s first and hopefully last modern urban battle at home.
Eventually a small group with Lieutenant Nimmo found themselves near the two-storey wood frame ―Lewis House‖ attached to the village post office on the north end of Front Street (between Lavinia and Catherine Streets today.) Seeing other men piling into the house, Nimmo followed. It was not a good idea—the woefully thin wood frame and clapboard walls were no defence against rifle bullets—especially at close range. Captain McCallum who was running down Front Street at that moment, paused and shouted, ―Nimmo, for God‘s sake keep out of that house or you will all be murdered.‖ Nimmo called back, ―I [will] hold the house. I might as well be killed there as anywhere else.‖ Before continuing down the road, McCallum urged Nimmo one more time, ―come out and get the boys out.‖140 They did not listen.
McCallum, several of his men and some gunners ran along the shoreline closely pursued by the Fenians. Eventually they were overtaken by their pursuers. McCallum drew his revolver and squeezed off three shots at the oncoming Fenians, but missed with every shot.141 The Fenians shouted ―get the bloody officer.‖ One of them fired back two shots at McCallum with his handgun from about ten feet away. He also missed.142 Before he could take a third shot, William Calback, a marine in McCallum‘s company and a veteran of the Civil War, lunged forward thrusting his bayonet through the Fenian‘s throat, pinning him to a fence post. Even the salty-tongued McCallum was shocked by the sight. He later recalled that Calback muttered Dennis Inquiry, p. 90 Dennis Inquiry, p. 144 Senator‘s War Tug, [circa 1890s], photocopy of unidentified undated newspaper clipping originally from an Ontario Archives scrapbook: ―Edwin Hilder – Ridgeway Battlefield Museum‖ File, FEHM Captain Macdonald, p. 75 ―Pretty hot here, cap!‖ as he freed his bayonet releasing the pinned Fenian in his dying spasms.
McCallum later explained, ―Kilback [sic] had been through the American War.‖143 The pursuing Fenians backed off, while the Robb which had been flanking McCallum‘s escape along the river bank, lowered a boat to shore and brought McCallum and his party of escaping men safely back aboard.144 Other retreating soldiers continued running through the back roads and fields, some eventually reaching Colonel Peacocke‘s column after dark while others simply walked all night home to Dunnville and Port Robinson leaving the chaos behind them. The Fenians did not pursue them far beyond the town limits.
About fourteen men and two officers—Lieutenants Nimmo and Macdonald found themselves trapped and surrounded in the Lewis house by the Fenians.145 They fired at the Fenians through the doorway and from the windows of the second floor of the house. When a Fenian attempted to force his way through the narrow doorway, he was killed with a bayonet thrust.146 Bayonet wounds were extraordinarily rare by the mid-19th century and that three Fenians were bayoneted, two to death, is indicative of just how desperate and savage the close order fighting was. On the Canadian side, Nelson Bush, a mariner from the Naval Brigade also received a bayonet wound to the chest but not so grave as to prevent him from being on duty the next morning.147 Eventually the door was bolted shut, trapping several soldiers on the outside attempting to gain entry. They were quickly captured by the Fenians.148 Gunner Stephen Beatty had blindly followed another soldier into the house and ran up the stairs to the second floor. He found Senator‘s War Tug Captain Macdonald, p. 75 Dennis Inquiry, p. 147 Dennis, Fenian Raid, p. 61 Captain Macdonald, p. 72; p. 76 Beatty, Fenian Raid 1866, p. 28 himself in a smoke-filled room with Lieutenant Macdonald and six other men firing down at the Fenians through the window.149 More men were firing out from the other rooms.
Outside the Fenians took cover behind woodpiles, fences and neighbouring buildings and began savagely peppering the house at close range from all possible sides.150 The bullets pierced the clapboard siding like cardboard sending glass and chips of wood flying through the house.
The rooms filled with clouds of plaster dust so thick that those inside could not see each other.151 George Denison who inspected the house the next day, reported, ―The walls were perfectly riddled, one small room having some 32 bullet holes through it...‖152 Remarkably nobody was hit.
The Fenians smashed in the window frames on the ground floor, the breaking glass making what Beatty described as ―a hideous sound.‖153 The Fenians now threatened to set the building on fire if the Canadians did not immediately surrender.154 With the men running out of ammunition, Lieutenant Macdonald decided it was futile to resist further. He handed his white pocket handkerchief to Private Abraham Thewlis and ordered him to go out into the yard and offer their surrender to the Fenians.155 The prisoners were now herded out of the house by the Fenians.