«Combat, Memory and Remembrance in Confederation Era Canada: The Hidden History of the Battle of Ridgeway, June 2, 1866 Peter Wronski (Peter Vronsky) ...»
In 1852, a collection of his articles was reprinted under his own name in a book entitled The Whistler at the Plough. From then on he would use the moniker as his signature by-line beneath his name. 35 In 1841, Somerville married sixteen year-old Emma Binks, a girl he knew since she was the age of nine, the daughter of a family in London that befriended him and which he had frequently visited with.36 They would have six children: a daughter and five sons, a seventh child, a premature girl dying a month after birth.37 Alexander Somerville, History of the British Legion and the War in Spain, London: James Pattie, 1839.
Waterston, p. 103 Waterston, p. 103 Clipping File (CF) – Biography: Alexander Somerville, Hamilton Public Library.
During the 1840s Somerville wrote on the plight of Irish farm tenants in A Cry From Ireland (1843). In 1847-48 he travelled extensively through Ireland as a correspondent for the Manchester Examiner and with an artist for the Illustrated London News he dispatched shockingly honest and compassionate accounts and illustrations of the suffering of Irish peasants at the height of the famine.38 His pamphlets, newspaper articles and books were often quoted in parliamentary debates by Peel, Russell and Palmerston. Moving constantly between London, Liverpool, Edinburgh and Dublin, he wrote on the potato blight, the freedom of the seas, on reciprocity, on trade guilds.
His collected articles published as books were bestsellers: On the Economy of Revolution, With Warning on Street Warfare (1843); Free Trade and the League: A Biographic History (1848); The O‘Connor Land Scheme Examined (1848). Somerville also wrote a series of popular fictional pseudo-biographies, Paul Swainston (1839), Jerry Queen the Toy Maker (1840) and Eliza Greenwood (1841), works which Somerville claimed influenced both Charles Dickens‘ use of pseudo-biographical device and William Thackery‘s ―novel without a hero.‖39 He was a consultant to visiting American bankers on British banking and worked as a press agent on Fleet Street, lobbying publications to publish articles favouring the repeal of the Corn Laws.
At the age of thirty-six, ill with fever and convinced he was dying, he wrote for his infant son James probably his best known work, The Autobiography of a Working Man (1848.) Somerville recovered but with the 1850s, things began to go wrong for him. When in 1852 Cobden became one of the founders of the Peace League opposed to Britain going to war with Russia, Somerville turned against his former patron and hero. Some of his writing became shrill with disillusion: Cobdenic Policy the Internal Enemy of England (1854); Working Man‘s Somerville, p. iv Waterston, p. 102-103 Witness Against London‘s Literary Infidels (1857); Biography of the League Leader (1857);
Bowring, Cobden and China (1857).
Cobden and his powerful allies struck back, sabotaging Somerville‘s career, blacklisting him from publication and driving him into financial ruin, despite his attempts at recovery by the frenetic writing of articles on trade unions, electromagnetism, witchcraft, and folk customs and by a brief return to Scotland to act as an editor in Edinburgh. In 1857 under the pressure of continued failure, Somerville had a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized in St.
Bartholomew‘s.40 Exhausted, bankrupt and defeated, Somerville now took his family to Canada for a new start, landing in Quebec with his wife and six children in August 1858. In Quebec there was a robust community of Scottish editors publishing anglophone newspapers and Somerville was welcomed by them and quickly able to find employment. But eleven months later disaster struck again: his wife Emma died of tuberculosis, leaving Somerville alone to care for their six children.
Leaving his younger children behind with room and board for their labour, Somerville slowly drifted west with his older sons, writing along the way newspaper articles and pamphlets on Canada, which because of his unfamiliarity with the country and its customs and politics did not always get a good reception. In 1860 he moved to Brockville, then to Perth and then Arnprior. The next year he moved on through Kingston to Windsor and Detroit, then back to Brantford, sending out along the way his ‗Whistler at the Plough‘ reports on those communities to papers in British Empire as far away as New Zealand.41 Waterston, pp. 103-105 Alexander Somerville, ―Travels in Canada West‖, The Southern Cross, March 22, 1861, p. 6 When the Canada Illustrated News was founded in Hamilton in 1862, Somerville landed a job as its editor. In Hamilton he wrote and published Canada, a Battle Ground: About a Kingdom in America (1862), an apocalyptic treatise on the Civil War era tensions between U.S.
Canada Illustrated News was moved by its new owners to Toronto, Somerville chose to remain in Hamilton, where he was frequently freelancing now for The Spectator and the Hamilton Evening Times. By then his younger children had joined him there but the family continued to struggle in abject poverty. Somerville wrote Isaac Buchanan on January 1, 1864, pleading for cast-off clothing for his elder sons, which apparently Buchanan sent him.42 Despite his poverty, Somerville cut an impressive figure, tall, boisterous and portly with long hair just touching his shoulders and a silk hat. In the streets and parlours of Hamilton he was above all reputed to be the ―last soldier to be flogged in the British army.‖43 Somerville often wrote about military matters and as former soldiers do, he drifted into friendships and associations with soldiers in Hamilton, occasionally writing in The Spectator and the Hamilton Evening Times about the activities of the 13th Battalion. Somerville became a kind of fixture at 13th Battalion parades, balls and exercises and became personally acquainted with many of its officers and men. When the Fenian invasion began, Somerville like hundreds of fellow journalists tied to telegraph line sales of newspaper stories, rushed to the scene to cover it. That is how he ended up on the train to Port Colborne riding through the wake of Booker‘s bizarre behaviour.
The Disgracing of Alfred Booker: “the observed of all observers.” Somerville to Buchanan, January 1, 1864 [Buchanan Papers, frame 04404-04408] courtesy of Elaine Brown Somerville photographs 1871 and 1884 in Sandison, p. 51; [n. pag.] As Somerville neared Port Colborne, reports of Booker‘s misdeeds, offenses and bungling accumulated with every station they stopped at. When he arrived at the garrison that evening, he was swamped by both men and officers of the 13th, who stinging from the shame of having been left behind earlier that morning, rushed to the familiar Somerville and denounced Booker as an incompetent and a coward who had galloped away on his horse when the tide of battle turned.
On Monday June 4, the Hamilton Evening Times reprinted a short story by another reporter from the Toronto Leader, blaming both Booker and the 13th for the disaster
The foot soldiers‘ grapevine was already abuzz with a new moniker for the 13th: ‗The Scarlet Runners.‘ (On June 16, McMicken will report the nickname in a letter to Macdonald.)45 Somerville‘s story of Booker‘s bumbling and disgrace appeared in the Wednesday June 6 edition of the Spectator and included quotes from some of the soldiers such as
Somerville quoted an unnamed officer saying, ―It was not alone his misconduct in misdirecting the Battalions under his command in action, or his wretched poltroonery in deserting his command, but this morning when the 13th, in common with the Queen‘s Rifles and other Volunteer forces at Port Colborne, were ordered out to march towards Ridgeway and Fort Hamilton Evening Times, Hamilton, June 4, 1866 McMicken to Macdonald, June 16, 1866, MG26 A, Volume 237, p. 104146 [Reel C1663] LAC Erie, Booker reported the Battalion demoralized and unfit for duty. The only demoralization of the Battalion was in himself.‖ A soldier pleaded in Somerville‘s report, ―You cannot shield him from the contempt and indignation of the Toronto‘s Queen‘s Rifles, and the 13th of Hamilton, whom he sent on to be slaughtered, threw into confusion by bugle calls which only an imbecile could have ordered, and then basely deserted.‖ Somerville was attuned to the enormous ramifications of the accusations against a prominent figure like Alfred Booker and the impact publishing them would have. He was acutely self-aware of his role as a journalist and of an underlying professional code of ethics. He prefaced his article stating that ―If the reputation of only this gentleman was in the issue, his faults might be glossed over, and his mistakes of Saturday attributed to the other officers and three hundred men of the battalion who nobly did their duty. This would be in journalism, a crime; to society an unpardonable offence. The other course is to write the truth, even though the reputation of a citizen volunteer officer, hitherto esteemed as without reproach, should be irretrievably blasted.‖46 Somerville was likewise absolutely conscious of journalistic method in its most modern sense, later stating he had ―been careful in research, in collecting and collating evidence. And no inducement under heaven would lead me to write what I do not believe to be true.‖47 Despite the appearance of a similar accusation in the Leader on Sunday quoted above and the risk of being ‗scooped‘ by other journalists, Somerville did not dispatch his story to The Spectator until Tuesday which then published it on Wednesday.48 It was Booker‘s decision to return to Port Colborne on Monday night and attempt to retake command of the 13th that must The Spectator, Hamilton, June 6, 1866 Somerville, p. vi Somerville, Memorandum, April 14, 1868, Deputy Minister of Militia, RG9 IIA1, File 501, p. 3 LAC have spurred the old crusading social reformer soldier in Somerville to take pen in hand in defence of the rank-and-file of the battalion against what he saw as a gross act of humiliation perpetrated at the hands of a socially privileged incompetent pompously protecting his reputation while ordinary men died because of his errors. As Somerville stated in his history of Ridgeway, ―My life has been a battle, and my battle has been the rights of man.‖49 After his sudden return to Hamilton on Sunday evening, Booker had awakened Monday morning in the curtained Victorian calm hush of his home and family no doubt as if from a nightmare. He must have read the newspaper reports that morning on the fortuitous conclusion of events and regretted his rash decision. He bathed, shaved, breakfasted, put on a clean uniform, and got back on the train that afternoon and arrived at his battalion HQ in Port Colborne Monday evening.
On Tuesday, June 5, Hamilton Evening Times carried a short report from Somerville in Port Colborne reporting Booker‘s return the night before
Once in Port Colborne, Booker telegraphed his immediate field superior, Colonel Lowry commander of forces on the Niagara Frontier, ―I am waiting for orders.‖ Colonel Villiers who by then had replaced Captain Akers as the brigade commander at Port Colborne, asked Lowry for instructions. Lowry replied to Villiers, ―What does Booker mean?‖51 Booker lobbied hard to be reinstated in his command of the 13th. Lowry referred the matter to Major General Napier, senior commander in Canada West headquartered in Toronto.
Somerville, p. iv Hamilton Evening Times, Hamilton, June 5, 1866 Somerville, p. 118-119 Napier urged the officers of the 13th in Port Colborne to acquiesce in writing to Booker‘s reinstatement. The response from most of them was to threaten to resign immediately if Booker was reappointed. Left stripped of his field commands, Booker was sent home in disgrace but for the time being he retained his appointment as the overall commander of militia in the Hamilton district.
In the ensuing weeks, Somerville‘s reports were picked up by other newspapers and a noisy debate began to snowball as to whom to blame for the disaster at Ridgeway. Peacocke received his fair share of blame for failing to arrive on time to aid Booker, while some papers came to the defence of Booker. The issues of timing and orders and miscommunication between the commanders in the field, all described in the previous chapters, were discussed by the media in excruciating detail.52 But the ―best story‖, the one that sold the most papers, was the one of Booker‘s ―imbecility‖ and cowardice and it just kept getting bigger and bigger with every day.
Somerville himself always claimed that he never accused Booker of cowardice—only of emotional instability and incompetence. Somerville wrote, ―I do not attribute Colonel Booker‘s incapacity to cowardice, but to an unbalanced judgement, nervous temperament, and nonacquaintance with any military elements, except those suitable to a holiday parade. Were every day a Queen‘s birthday, the Colonel might have continued to be what he was, and what he delighted to be, the observed of all observers.‖53 By June 12, the New York Times was commenting on Somerville‘s reports, and the story began to pick up momentum when the Globe reprinted the report on its front page, included this passage See for example, Evening Times, ―Conduct of Colonel Booker Before the Enemy‖, June 6, 1866; ―Field Equipments: Booker, Evening Times, June 13, 1866; St. Catharines Constitutional, ―Booker‘s Defense‖,June 14, 1866; Daily Telegraph, June 26, 1866 Hamilton Evening Times, June 7, 1866