«Combat, Memory and Remembrance in Confederation Era Canada: The Hidden History of the Battle of Ridgeway, June 2, 1866 Peter Wronski (Peter Vronsky) ...»
The battle on Limestone Ridge is reported at first as going well for the Canadians, with the volunteers advancing on the field and driving the Fenians back but suddenly something goes wrong. The canonical story of what that was is that the Canadian commander, Alfred Booker mistakenly came to believe that the Fenians were about to launch a cavalry charge and formed his men into a square in the middle of a road, the conventional tactical formation to defend against cavalry. There was no cavalry but much Fenian infantry instead, and in their square formation the volunteers became a dense and exposed target for enemy rifle fire. Once Booker realized his mistake, he attempted to redeploy his falling men but in heat of battle and confusion when the Fenians unleashed another volley followed by a bayonet charge, the Canadians wavered, panicked and ran.
The full story was more complex. There was a question taken up in the press at the time as to why Booker was engaging the Fenians in the first place, without having first joined with a column of British and other Canadian troops headed his way. There was the issue of whether the Canadians were ambushed or whether the ambitious Booker deliberately set out to attack the Fenians before linking up with the British. It has not been adequately explained why the British appeared to sit and wait while the Canadians nearby alone fought the Fenians on Limestone Ridge and then three hours later again at Fort Erie. There is the mystery of how the Fenians that morning chose for their field of battle terrain as perfect as Limestone Ridge. Why did a U.S.
Navy gunboat, alerted to the gathering Fenian forces in Buffalo, remain sitting idle as insurgents poured across the Niagara River all morning long? Was the U.S. government secretly sanctioning the Fenian incursion into Canada for its own annexationist goals?
A very complex narrative of ill-timed telegrams, misinterpreted orders, bad intelligence and the ambitions of several Canadian rival officers to take on the Fenians without the British remained a murky one in all the books and articles written on the Fenian raids. Further obscuring the question of what went wrong were hints that something else other than the forming of the square triggered the panic, along with reports of incompetence, nervous breakdowns and cowardice among the senior Canadian officers in the field. Sharing in the overall blame for systemic incompetence and military unpreparedness was United Province of Canada‘s Minister of Militia, John A. Macdonald.
George T. Denison III, a young Toronto attorney who commanded a troop of volunteer cavalry near Ridgeway but did not fight in the battle itself, was later the presiding judge on the two military boards of inquiry (and the one who dissented in the Dennis Inquiry verdict.) In August 1866, in between the two inquiries, Denison published a book on the raid and the battle.
In it he wrote, ―The chapter on the Battle of Ridgeway gave me more trouble than all the others united. The accounts were so conflicting that I almost gave up in despair.‖36 As for the issue of how and why Ridgeway faded from the national narrative, no historian has asked that question. Only one hinted at it thirty five years afterward in 1901, Denison again, commenting in his memoirs on the period following the battle, ―The striking feature to me was the falsification of history that was taking place all around me.‖37 The Battle of Ridgeway is actually two battles, Limestone Ridge in the morning and Fort Erie in the afternoon. Several hours after Ridgeway, a second battle took place as the victorious Fenians returned to Fort Erie. That battle—Canada‘s first modern urban battle—is even more obscure. All we have been told about it was that a small unit of about seventy Canadian soldiers deployed from a tugboat into the town and made a stand against nearly 800 advancing Fenians, while the boat that brought them there cast off leaving them behind to their fate. The commander of the troops there, Lt. Colonel Dennis, stumbled into British lines twelve hours after the battle, disguised in raggedy civilian clothing, his whiskers shaved off, with no knowledge of what happened to his men or their fate. The battle had actually been exceedingly savage, with several bayonet-inflicted casualties, an extraordinary rarity in combat by that time. Despite their overwhelming numeric force, more Fenians might have been killed at Fort Erie than at Ridgeway, while several Canadians were gravely wounded, their legs amputated the next day while others were taken prisoner by the Fenians. What happened in Fort Erie was kept completely secret and has never been described in detail anywhere—a battle fought in Canada completely obscured from history. This thesis will endeavour to undo that.
George T. Denison, The Fenian Raid On Fort Erie; With an Account of the Battle of Ridgeway, June, 1866, Toronto: Rollo & Adam, 1866. p. iv George T. Denison, Soldiering in Canada, Toronto: George L. Morang & Co., 1901. p. 117 Today we really still know very little about both the battles or the details of what occurred there. This thesis argues that Ridgeway is not only forgotten in Canada‘s historiography, but never held a legitimate place in it in the first place, because its history was from the beginning falsified, obscured and suppressed in a sometimes systematic process that began within two hours of the battle‘s conclusion. These acts of falsification were particularly egregious because several powerful rival factions conspired against each other, to alter the history of the battle for their own opposing goals and purposes, each of the factions spiriting away the history of the battle into different directions suited to their own objectives. The conspiracy was not a broad one against Canadian public knowledge and memory, but a focused one between rival elite factions; the result, however, would be the same: erasure of historic memory. These factions included the Canadian colonial-provincial government led by John A.
Macdonald, who in addition to being Minister of Militia was also Canada West‘s attorney general, and whose future leadership of the government of a newly founded Dominion of Canada could have been jeopardized by the debacle at Ridgeway; included were the two wealthy and influential commanding officers at Limestone Ridge and at Fort Erie, Lt. Colonels Booker and Dennis, whose reputations and careers were at stake as much as Macdonald‘s; in opposition to them were the rival factions of equally wealthy and influential subordinate officers, whose reputations were also at stake and could only be cleared by demonstrating the incompetence and the cowardice of their immediate superiors in the field and of the government which organized and administrated the volunteer force in which these arguably incompetent officers held their commands.
Adding to the deception was a popular groundswell from the rank-and-file volunteers who fought there and whose collective honour and reputation in the wake of the retreat and defeat were at stake as well. It was vital for them to demonstrate that they performed bravely in the face of the enemy but were led and mismanaged into retreat and defeat by their superiors but which superiors sometimes was irrelevant. Their testimony at the inquiries and their statements to the press contributed to the diametrically conflicting views emerging about what occurred on the battlefield and who was really to blame, if anyone at all.
These varied forces sometimes worked together and sometimes in opposition, pulling, pushing, tearing and distorting the history of Ridgeway beyond the grasp of historians in the century and a half since the battle. The primary vehicles of this deception were the two military boards of inquiry and the several books and pamphlets reporting on the battle published that summer along with Macdonald‘s 1910 book with its appendix—nearly the sum total of the contemporary and near-contemporary bibliography on Ridgeway.
The Non-Existent Historiographical Bibliography A closer look at this bibliography reveals just how tenuous a hold we actually have on the history of Ridgeway. One of the pamphlets, The History of the Fenian Invasion of Canada, written under the pseudonym of Doscen Gauust is a 32-page satiric anti-Fenian diatribe published in Hamilton in August 1866, replete with illustrations of simian Irish insurgents.38 While a fascinating contemporary cultural and sociological artefact of the Fenian raids, it is of little worth as a reliable source of historical information on the battle and the raid.
The second item, a 95-page The Fenian Raid at Fort Erie published in the summer of 1866 by W.C. Chewett & Co in Toronto, primarily consists of reprints of previously published press reports from unspecified Canadian newspapers (mostly the Globe and the Toronto Leader) and a few U.S. press sources. It also features some sermons delivered at the funeral of several of Doscen Gauust, The History of the Fenian Invasion of Canada, Hamilton, ON: Wm. Brown & Co., 1866.
the soldiers killed at Ridgeway and a little background information on some of the fallen volunteers. It is of mixed accuracy depending upon which newspaper reports it is reproducing and itself contains no critical analysis of the battle other than what might have appeared in the press sources it reprinted.39 This then leaves us with only two contemporary published sources.
The third item is a 74-page book, published in July by George T. Denison III, The Fenian Raid at Fort Erie and an Account of the Battle of Ridgeway.40 Denison‘s book certainly comes closest to demonstrating some degree of a historian‘s methodology, but Denison can hardly be considered an objective historian. Denison writes that he began taking notes and conducting interviews from the first day of the crisis with the intention of writing a history. Commanding a volunteer troop of cavalry, Denison was frustrated in his attempts to be deployed on the first day of the crisis and ended up arriving late the next day. He was on a ferry as the Battle of Ridgeway was being fought. Later that afternoon Denison joined with a column of British regulars and militia missing the action in Fort Erie a few miles away by twelve hours. Afterwards Denison would serve as the presiding officer of the Booker Inquiry, after which he wrote and published his history of the battle, and then went on to preside over the Dennis Inquiry in the autumn. Yet, paradoxically on certain important issues, Denison‘s book contradicts the findings of the Booker Inquiry over which he had just finished presiding as he sat down to write his history. Despite his continued involvement in the political and procedural fallout from Ridgeway (and his role as a agent for the former Confederate secret service) his book is probably the closest thing we have to an authentic attempt at producing an objective military history of the battle and the circumstances behind it. Except for Somerville below, that is as good as it will get.
[sn.] The Fenian Raid at Fort Erie, Toronto: W.C. Chewett & Co., 1866.
George T. Denison, Fenian Raid On Fort Erie; With an Account of the Battle of Ridgeway, June, 1866, Toronto:
Rollo & Adam, 1866.
The fourth and final item published that summer is a 128-page pamphlet written by a Hamilton journalist, Alexander Somerville, Narrative of the Fenian Invasion of Canada, published in September 1866.41 The Scottish-born Somerville, a relatively recent and unhappy immigrant from England, was a crusading journalist, editor and pamphleteer with a long and controversial history back home, described further below, that eventually drove him into exile to Canada in the late 1850s. In the mid-1860s he found himself living in Hamilton where he freelanced for the Hamilton Evening Times and The Spectator. In June 1866, he covered the debacle at Ridgeway and the story of Booker‘s disgrace in it. Somerville‘s reports which differed substantially from most press coverage at the time were picked up from wire services by other newspapers throughout Canada and the USA and were probably one of the key factors behind Macdonald‘s decision to stage a military board of inquiry to clear Booker of accusations levelled against him. Booker had been accused by his fellow-officers and rank-and-file troops of ambition in the face of incompetence, mental instability and cowardice, and it threatened to became an issue how such an individual rose to senior field command on Macdonald‘s watch as Premier and militia minister.
When the board of inquiry after barring the complaining officers from testifying, then delivered an unsatisfactory response to their charges, a clique of wealthy Hamilton volunteer officers who had a long standing feud with Booker dating to before Ridgeway and who had come together to finance Somerville‘s book, now proceeded to insert defamatory text into the manuscript on the eve of its publication. Some of this text Somerville would adamantly object to and several years later disavow in a confidential memorandum, which was successfully locating in the process of researching for this dissertation.42 Alexander Somerville, Narrative of the Fenian Invasion of Canada, Hamilton, ON: Joseph Lyght, 1866.
Alexander Somerville, Memorandum, April 14, 1868, Deputy Minister of Militia, RG9 IIA1, File 501 While Somerville‘s account of what went wrong on Limestone Ridge is hair-raising and stands uniquely apart from all the other sources on the battle, it can hardly be considered an objective history either (if there is such a thing.) It was journalism, and a crusading investigative species of it at that. Somerville‘s account is so different from the other near-synoptic sources, that most historians unable to resolve such a dramatic difference simply dismissed the whole of Somerville‘s eccentric Narrative and rarely refer to it, throwing the proverbial baby out with the water. I argue that Somerville‘s account of the combat and terrain at Limestone Ridge is probably the most perceptive and authentic, based on his first-hand interviews within days of the battle of the men who fought there. His history is imbued with the perspective of his own extensive combat experience as a British mercenary in the Spanish civil war in the 1830s.