«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 Akers‘ report, ―The garrison was in the greatest state of confusion... No arrangements had been made for obtaining either provisions or ammunition, for securing the post from attack, or further offensive operations. I rendered what assistance I could to Colonel Booker, who appeared quite overcome with fatigue and anxiety. He begged me to undertake all necessary arrangements, and later in the evening requested me to take the command out of his hands. Finding this was also the wish of the other Volunteer officers of superior rank to myself, I telegraphed for instructions, and was desired... to take the command.‖11 When they emerged from the telegraph office late that night, Booker had been relieved of command not only of the brigade at Port Colborne as he had requested, but of his own 13th Battalion as well. Captain Akers was now acting brigade commander, while Major Skinner would take command of the 13th Battalion. Booker would later claim that this was all a misunderstanding—that he had only requested to be relieved of the brigade and placed under a British officer while still retaining his own command of the 13th Battalion.12 Before leaving the telegraph office and collapsing into much needed sleep, Booker is said to have done the one thing that would bury him and his reputation forever under an avalanche of bitter accusations.
As the 5:00 A.M. departure time approached, unit by unit they boarded the freight cars:
22nd Battalion Oxford Rifles, the 7th Battalion ―Prince Arthur‘s Own‖ from London, two companies of St. Catherine‘s Home Guard and the exhausted and bloodied Queen‘s Own Rifles and the York and Caledonia companies, who must have been by now in a deep state of déjà vu as they went through the same motions they did the morning before.16 When the train lurched forward from the Port Colborne station, the 13th Battalion to their shock were ordered to remain The Canadian Independent, Vol. 13, No. 1 (July 1866) p. 61 Gray to Napier, June 19, 1866, p. 11 Booker, Narrative, p. 15 behind. As the rest of the brigade went off to finish the fight, the 13th were told they were to guard the town. Some of the men broke down and began to weep in the pained shame of it.17 Booker might have been forgiven for his ambition, for his bungling on the battlefield, even for his embarrassing nervous breakdown in the wake of the retreat, but for having reported the men demoralized and unfit for duty, for that humiliation he would not be forgiven. The irony is, while Booker was guilty of many of the accusations described it is unclear whether he singled out the 13th as unfit. In his account submitted to the Court of Inquiry a month later, Booker claimed
Akers typically in his own report left nothing that would enlighten us as to why he chose the 13th Battalion to remain in Port Colborne and except for Booker‘s one report, none of the telegrams sent from Port Colborne that evening have surfaced.
Booker‟s Run Later that Sunday morning a Welland Railway train was waiting at the platform to transfer and load the wounded evacuated from Ridgeway and forward them to the improvised hospital in St.
Catharines. The loading was supervised by the railway‘s general manager, Captain McGrath, himself in command of a railway infantry company. In his history Somerville insisted that McGrath told him in an interview and in a subsequent letter that Alfred Booker suddenly ―Gross Insult to the 13th Battalion‖, letter to the editor, Hamilton Evening Times, June 6, 1866, Hamilton,;
―Another Letter from Rev. Mr. Inglis, letter to the editor, June 6, 1866, Hamilton Spectator.
Booker, Narrative, p. 15 appeared on the platform that morning carrying his cloak, belt and sword slung over his shoulder. Upon seeing McGrath, Booker began to nag him incoherently about the train‘s departure time. Booker told McGrath he urgently needed to get to St. Catharines from where he hoped to catch a connection home to Hamilton and wanted the train to leave ―special.‖ McGrath told Booker they must wait until the wounded and sick are loaded aboard the train. Booker inexplicably shouted out, ―Hold my cloak! What shall we do? We are attacked, hold my cloak.‖ ―I cannot hold your cloak, sir, I have other business to attend to, some of these men about the platform can hold it,‖ McGrath responded.
―Take my sword, hold my sword,‖ Booker continued.
―Really, Sir, I have no time to hold your sword, I am busy.‖19 Booker eventually boarded the train, but his continued odd behaviour was noted at several railway stations as Booker‘s train journeyed home towards Hamilton.
That same Sunday morning, the fifty-five year old free-lance journalist for The Spectator and The Hamilton Times, Alexander Somerville, boarded a train leaving Hamilton with hospital supplies bound for St. Catharines and then continuing on to Port Colborne with provisions for the garrison there. Just ten minutes west of Grimsby at 2:00 P.M. Booker‘s and Somerville‘s trains passed each other.20 When Somerville‘s train stopped at Grimsby he was surprised to learn from platform workers that Booker had just been there ten minutes earlier on his way to Hamilton.
The only conclusion Somerville could make at first was that Booker was on his way to Hamilton to organize relief and provisions for his battalion.21 Somerville, p. 111 The Spectator, Hamilton, June 6, 1866 Somerville, p. vii The further Somerville travelled down the railway line towards Port Colborne, the more ―whispers of something wrong about Colonel Booker passed at the different halting places.‖22 That was how Somerville first came into the story of Colonel Booker‘s disgrace and how most of the history of the battle of Limestone Ridge will come to be written and passed down to us.
The Whistler at the Plough: “a life of vicissitudes.” Alexander Somerville was born in Scotland in 1811 during the last years of the Napoleonic Wars, the eleventh child, the eighth to survive, of a landless agricultural labourer.23 When he died seventy-four years later in a woodshed behind a ramshackle slum boarding house on York
Street in Toronto, the New York Times published an eighty-five line obituary column headlined:
― ‗The Whistler at the Plough‘: Death of Alexander Somerville after a life of vicissitudes.‖24 The Toronto Globe in its even longer obituary ―Close of a Checkered and Eventful Career‖ noted that among Somerville‘s ancestors was ―a reputed witch.‖25 Thesis length restrictions prevent a full description of the deprivation which shaped Somerville as a youth or the enormity of the social catastrophe of the great depression which followed the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 in which Somerville was raised. He was, however, taught to read and write and sent to school at the late age of eight before embarking on what promised to be an endless cycle of casual labour as a ploughboy, cowherd, sawyer, drainer, quarry-man, harbour construction worker and nursery gardener. Working frequently in Edinburgh during the late 1820s, he became a diligent reader of as many of that city‘s The Spectator, Hamilton, June 6, 1866 Elizabeth Waterston, ―Alexander Somerville: Whistler at the Plough‖, International Review of Scottish Studies, Vol. 12 (1982), p. 100 New York Times, June 20, 1885 Globe, June 18, 1885 newspapers as he could lay his hands upon. During this period Somerville witnessed heavy Reform Act rioting and developed a more than casual interest in the reform politics of the time.26 In winter of 1831, facing desperate unemployment again, the twenty-year old, now politically opinionated Somerville enlisted in the 2nd Royal North British Dragoons—the ―Scots Greys.‖27 During the days of the continued troubles over the Reform Act, his unit was put on alert and dispatched to the industrial city of Birmingham in case of further rioting. Somerville, himself an opponent of radical reform, wrote a letter to the editor of the Birmingham Weekly Dispatch urging moderation among Reformers and claiming that there were many among the soldiers in his regiment who were moderate pro-Reform. He assured readers that, ―The Scots Grey would not fire on a peaceful gathering.‖28 Somerville‘s officers wanted to know who these soldiers were who ―would not fire‖ and when he declined to comply, he was convicted on trumped-up charges of insubordination for refusing when ordered to mount a wild horse. The sentence to be immediately carried out was typical of the British army in 1832—two hundred lashes from a cat o‘nine tails. After one hundred lashes, the commanding officer halted the flogging on account of Somerville‘s youth.
Somerville‘s punishment became a national cause célèbre when the Reformers got hold of the story making it a symbol of everything that was wrong with the old Tory order and why reform was so desperately needed.29 The case was debated in Parliament as nationwide petitions poured in for the young soldier‘s release from further military service.30 Somerville‘s commanding officer was officially reprimanded by the King‘s authority and although not entirely Alexander Somerville, The Autobiography of a Working Man, Manchester: Ainsworth, 1848.
W. M. Sandison, ―Alexander Somerville,‖ The Border Magazine, Vol. 18, No. 207, March, 1913. pp. 49-55 Waterston, p. 101 The Spirit of Toryism Exemplified in the Brutal Conduct Exhibited Towards Alexander Sommerville [sic] of the Scots Greys, Glasgow: Muir, Gowans & Co., 1832 Hansard, HC Debates, 08 August 1832 Vol 14 cc1241-2 [http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1832/aug/08/case-of-alexander-somerville[14/09/2009]] abolished, military flogging was significantly reduced and regulated afterwards while Somerville gained the reputation, albeit inaccurate, as ‗the last soldier to be flogged in the British army.‘31 Subscriptions from sympathizers brought Somerville a sum sufficient, with money still left over, to buy his way out of the British army after only nine-months of service.
After a brief visit home to Scotland where he had hoped to woo an early love of his life, the rejected and broken-hearted Somerville came to London where he proceeded to lose all his money. Next he fell into a radical revolutionary plot to kidnap the King and Queen and Prime Minister Viscount Melbourne and immediately denounced the conspirators, becoming briefly one of those spies that the English would come to detest so vehemently.32 Now not only was Somerville broke, but his life was in danger at home, and in 1835 Somerville enlisted in the mercenary British Auxiliary Legion fighting in a brutal civil war in Spain. The British government tacitly approved the Legion which backed Queen Isabella II in a dynastic war against the Carlist rebels and their Basque allies. It was a horrifically dirty little war in the way that Spanish civil wars tend to be. A quarter of the 10,000 men of the Legion died from disease or combat. The Carlists took no prisoners—any British Legionnaires captured were slowly tortured to death. Six months after arriving, Somerville was only one of 250 survivors of his original 800-man unit of Highlanders. 33 Somerville was promoted to the rank of color-sergeant and was wounded twice, once heavily when shot in the arm on March 16, 1837 in the storming of Oriamendi fortress near San Sebastián in the heart of Spain‘s Basque country. The ball remained lodged in his arm for the rest of his life and would be buried with him. Somerville was commended for his leadership and Hew Strachan, The Reform of the British Army, 1830-54, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984. pp.
80-82; Sandison., p. 50 Waterston, p. 102; Sandison., p. 54 Edward M. Brett, The British Auxiliary Legion in the First Carlist War, Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2005.
bravery and upon recovering from his wound, he mustered out in 1837 with two years unspent mercenary‘s pay in pocket and returned to Glasgow where he comfortably wrote an account of his adventures in Spain. His first book, History of the Spanish Legion was successfully published in 1839 and launched Somerville‘s career as a writer, pamphleteer, activist, and journalist.34 By the late 1830s the Chartist movement began to take the forefront in reform politics in Britain. Somerville emerged as a moderating voice, urging the Chartists to ratchet down their radical stance in his Dissuasive Warning to the People on Street Warfare (1839). He became a supporter of Richard Cobden‘s Anti-Corn-Law League, championing him as the rational economic reform alternative to Chartist radicalism. When Cobden was returned as an MP from Greater Manchester to Parliament in 1841, Somerville became his agricultural advisor.
Somerville was a prolific commentator on political issues, often writing for working class readers under the pseudonym ―One Who Whistles at the Plough‖ on the subject of the ―bread tax‖, the protectionist Corn Law that enriched the landed proprietors but kept farm hands hungry.