«Combat, Memory and Remembrance in Confederation Era Canada: The Hidden History of the Battle of Ridgeway, June 2, 1866 Peter Wronski (Peter Vronsky) ...»
Despite the ten-to-one odds, the Canadians had killed nine Fenians and wounded fourteen in Fort Erie with none killed from their own ranks.156 The total Canadian losses were five wounded (not including the light bayonet wound suffered by Nelson Bush.) In addition to those Beatty [ms], p. 30 (the six men were, Gunners James H. Boyle, Isaac Dickerson, William H. Clarke, Charles Campbell, Isaac Pew and Sergeant-Major Richard Boyle.) Macdonald, p. 75 Beatty [ms], p. 31 Dennis, Fenian Raid, p. 61 Beatty, Fenian Raid 1866, p. 29 Macdonald, p. 75 Beatty, Fenian Raid 1866, p. 29 Captain Macdonald, p. 73 already described, Gunner John Bradley was shot in the leg during the opening volley on Front Street, the bullet shattering his right femur bone. Bradley was a twenty-eight year old carriage trimmer earning $11 a week. He was married and took care of a six-year old orphan niece and his own infant daughter recently born. Dr. Kempson amputated Bradley‘s leg above the knee the next day.157 Bradley received a lump sum payment of $50 and a pension of 30 cents a day plus $23 for medical fees.158 Gunner John Harbison was initially less severely wounded in the leg while crossing the railway track.159 Harbison‘s wound to the tibia however, became infected and remained so when he filed his compensation application in November. He was facing a possible amputation. A forty-two year-old bachelor supporting his seventy year widowed mother, Harbison earned a dollar a day as a labourer.
The Fenians were angry—especially at the cost to them of the stubborn and futile resistance by the Canadians in the Lewis House. Several threatened to shoot the prisoners but with the arrival of O‘Neill on the scene that notion was quickly squelched. The Fenians did submit the men to a tongue lashing, reserving the worst of their curses to those prisoners who by their brogue revealed themselves to be Irish.161 When the prisoners were marched into Front Street a huge cheer for the Fenians rose up from thousands of spectators on the American side of the Niagara River. They had watched the entire progress of the battle in Fort Erie while picnicking along the banks of the river.162 John Bradley, Medical Board Report, November 9, 1866: FRSR, Volume 30, pp. 259-270, LAC Statement of Militia pensions and gratuities awarded, Receiver General‘s Department, Ottawa, February 1, 1967, FRSR, Volume 32, LAC Beatty, Fenian Raid 1866, p. 28 John Harbison, Medical Board Report, November 9, 1866: FRSR, Volume 30, pp. 789-799, LAC Beatty [ms], p. 31 Beatty, Fenian Raid 1866, p. 30 Thirty-seven Canadians were captured by the Fenians, including some of the wounded men who were put in Dr. Kempsen‘s care or evacuated to Buffalo as Captain King was.163 The rest of the prisoners were marched south out of town towards the ruins of old Fort Erie. The Fenians shared a small ration of raw bacon and soda crackers with the prisoners—the first meal many had since the night before.164 On the way, the prisoners heard gunfire and had hoped that it was Peacocke‘s column arriving to rescue them.165 It was the Robb returning past Fort Erie on its way back to Port Colborne with fifty-seven suspect Fenian prisoners in her hold. Onboard was Captain McCallum, Lieutenant Robb, two men from the Naval Brigade and thirteen from the Welland Battery—the rest were missing, wounded or taken prisoner. As the Robb passed the Fenian army in Fort Erie, the two sides exchanged fire. Several shots smashed into the wheelhouse but nobody was hit. The Robb arrived in Port Colborne with its prisoners at 6:30 P.M.166 Lt. Colonel John Stoughton Dennis had been last seen running along Front Street about forty to fifty yards in front of his men. Shortly after that he vanished from sight. Upon reaching the northern outskirts of the town, Dennis came upon the Edwin Thomas house, the same house two other soldiers had previously hidden themselves in.167 George the owners son, saw Dennis go around the back of the house and hide in the hayloft of the stable behind it.168 Edwin Thomas was annoyed that his son admitted escaping soldiers into the house.
George did not tell his father about Dennis hiding in the stable. The house had been searched Beatty, Fenian Raid 1866, pp. 31-31 Reaveley, p. 72 Beatty [ms], p. 31 McCallum, Report, [frame 862], MRFR Dennis Inquiry, p. 317 Dennis Inquiry, p. 321 twice by the Fenians but not thoroughly—none of the soldiers hiding on the premises were found despite what Dennis had alleged in his report. Earlier in the day before the battle, Edwin Thomas had asked Dr. Kempson on the dock to introduce him to the commanding officer and he invited Dennis to visit his home. Now as Thomas was preparing to sit down to dinner his wife suddenly announced that Lt. Colonel Dennis was going ―to dine‖ with them.‖169 Thomas found Dennis sitting at the dinner table in civilian clothing. At the Court of Inquiry Thomas was not asked about the subject of dinner conversation that evening.
At about 2:00 A.M., Thomas escorted Dennis through the dark night across what he believed were Fenian lines and then directed him towards Colonel Peacocke‘s forces on Bertie Road.170 Dennis was disguised in a workman‘s jacket, a red woollen scarf wrapped around his neck and a rough cloth cap. To complete his disguise, Dennis shaved-off his luxurious Dundreary side-whiskers. He arrived at Peacocke‘s position about an hour later where he encountered George T. Denison inspecting his cavalry troop.171 At about 2:30 A.M. the prisoners in the ruins of Fort Erie were suddenly awakened and marched back into town to the wharfs. There the assembled Fenian army (between 700 and 800 insurgents) was boarding a waiting barge towed by a steam tug.172 O‘Neill told the Canadian prisoners they were free to go. He bade them goodbye, said he hoped that they would treat their Fenian prisoners as well as they had been treated, and with a gunshot salute, the barge was towed off towards Buffalo.173 As it floated into the middle of the Niagara River, the U.S. gunboat Harrison darted in and intercepted it. It was shortly joined by the USS Michigan. The Fenians Dennis Inquiry, p. 331 Dennis Inquiry, p. 329 Denison, Soldiering in Canada, p. 101 H.W. Hemans to Lord Monck, telegram June 3, 1866, in [s.n.] Correspondence Relating to the Fenian Invasion and Rebellion of the Southern States, Ottawa: 1869. p. 142; also Colonel Lowry, Report, 4 June 1866, Miscellaneous Records Relating to the Fenian Raids, British Military and Naval Records "C" Series, RG8-1, Volume 1672; (LAC Microfilm reel C-4300, frame. 282) MFRP at LAC Beatty [ms], p. 32 were all arrested including O‘Neill. The barge full of Fenians was tied to the Michigan, becoming a floating prison camp for the next two days.
Many of the Canadian prisoners released by the Fenian left town on foot immediately, heading off towards their homes, before Denison‘s cavalry rode into Fort Erie at 6:00 A.M. in advance of Peacocke‘s column. They had missed the Fenians by several hours. The Fenian Raid on the Niagara Frontier was over.174 Beatty [ms], pp. 31-32 Chapter 9: Booker‟s Run and „The Whistler at the Plough‟ June-July, 1866
The first quote is the entire treatment of the Battle of Ridgeway in the fourth edition of the standard 338-page A Military History of Canada by a preeminent Canadian military historian, Desmond Morton, the grandson of William Otter who as the QOR adjutant fought at Ridgeway.2 The second quote is from, War and Peacekeeping by another preeminent military Desmond Morton, A Military History of Canada [Fourth Edition] Toronto: McLelland & Steawart, 1999. p. 89 historian, Jack Granatstein.3 It is not a cliché to say any one of these historians alone has forgotten more Canadian military history than I will ever know, and in their essence their accounts are not far from true. It is their uncharacteristically cavalier trivialization of the details and nuances of Ridgeway and Fort Erie, even in as compact accounts as theirs, that is unsettling considering their specialist fields as military historians. The details are just so wrong that they render their descriptions fictional. One cannot hold Morton or Granatstein to blame—they literally had no authentic history to refer to. In his account Granatstein yielded to the ubiquitous Captain Macdonald while Morton cited Senior‘s The Last Invasion, who cited Macdonald, Denison and Chewett. That historians of such calibre could be laid so low so easily is why this dissertation was written. How Ridgeway‘s history was obscured and unmade into this misshapen and ephemeral historiography useless to even Canada‘s acknowledged masters of military history, is the subject of the remaining chapters of this study.
Evening June 2: Port Colborne While John Stoughton Dennis had been pursuing his mission along the shore of the Niagara River and the Fenians were marching back to Fort Erie, Lt. Colonel Alfred Booker‘s column had limped back from Ridgeway into Port Colborne at approximately 3:00 P.M. on Saturday. It had taken Larmour two train trips to bring the broken red and green battalions back in. Booker and Major Gillmor, the commanding officer of the Queen‘s Own Rifles, came in on the second train.
The first thing Booker did on his return was to go to the customs house, find pen, ink and paper and then sit down to compose his report.4 In it he made many of the claims described in the previous chapters. Booker then asked Gillmor to review his report. Asked a month later J.L. Granatstein and David J. Bercuson, War and Peacekeeping, Toronto: Key Porter Books, 1991. p. 10 Booker, Narrative, p. 14 before the Court of Inquiry if he concurred with the report, Gillmor stated, ―Yes, the general tenor of the report was correct and I assented to it.‖5 As to what precisely went wrong, Booker‘s explanation was
Booker added a postscript to his report, ―PS: We are destitute of provisions here. If I had only one gun of artillery I feel sure the result would have been different.‖ When all the official reports were published in the newspapers on June 25, Booker‘s postscript inexplicably was omitted from them. 7 Booker‟s Breakdown That evening Booker was still in command of the Port Colborne garrison, of his brigade and of the other battalions and companies arriving as reinforcements, rushed there in the wake of the news of the battle. But nobody could get in to see him. Booker was apparently descending into some kind of nervous breakdown. This is really no great surprise. Booker was a nervous little auctioneer not a soldier. He had never commanded a brigade—not even in exercises or on parade. His military service had been a game of social status, ambition and career—brass bands, parades and evening balls. In a Canada that had not seen combat since 1838, military service was rose-tinted with soldier-boy naiveté. The dead; the snap and zip of fire, shattered bones and Booker Inquiry, p. 210 Booker, Official Report, Frame 848 See Globe, Evening Times, June 25, 1866. The postscript is included in the Fenian Aggression Papers, published by the government.
blood, smoke, heat and cries; he had conceived none of it in his adventurous mid-Victorian imagination. That he broke down comes as no surprise.
Some, however, took the stress of combat better than others. Major Gillmor had remained cool in the eye of the battle while leading his battalion. When writing his report, Gillmor exhibited a bloodied humility and prefaced his conclusions with the comment, ―As I had never seen a shot fired before in action, my opinion can be taken for what it is worth...‖8 The pompous Booker on the other hand, who of all the officers had the most responsibility weighing on him and his reputation, took it worse. He was rapidly coming apart that evening as the magnitude of the disaster began to dawn on him.
Major George Gray with the 22nd Battalion Oxford Rifles arrived in Port Colborne at 6:00 P.M. as part of several reinforcements rushed to the region. Despite being in command, Booker was nowhere to be seen. Gray reported the frontline garrison ―in a state of confusion.‖9 There were no provisions, no billets, no blankets and most important, no orders. To his dismay Gray discovered that the railway line in the direction of Ridgeway and Fort Erie was dangerously unprotected. He deployed his troops to patrol the tracks while another officer went off to find Booker. Gray reported that after considerable delay the officer ―returned and stated that he had seen Col. Booker—that he could get nothing satisfactory from him.‖10 At around 7:00 P.M. Captain Charles Akers rolled into Port Colborne at the reins of his commandeered carriage. He had managed to escape the Fenian attack at Fort Erie by minutes.
Akers‘ sudden arrival now began to unravel Booker completely. Booker threw himself at Akers begging him for help. Akers quickly took Booker in hand and began putting the garrison in order. For the next few hours Akers and Booker were closeted together in the telegraph office Gillmor to Napier, June 6, 1866, p. 2 Gray to Napier, June 19, 1866, p. 5: United Canada Subject Files, Frontier Service Reports, RG9 IC8, Vol. 9. LAC Gray to Napier, June 19, 1866, p. 6 composing reams of telegrams to their field commanders and superiors in Toronto and Chippawa.