«Combat, Memory and Remembrance in Confederation Era Canada: The Hidden History of the Battle of Ridgeway, June 2, 1866 Peter Wronski (Peter Vronsky) ...»
The Military Court of Inquiry: “Who sent Booker to fight? And that‟s it in a nutshell.” Seeing his name now completely besmirched in the pages of the press, Booker went to Ottawa where he lobbied for a military court of inquiry to clear his name. On June 16th the Hamilton Evening Times reported that ―In reply to earnest solicitations made by Lieut. Col. Booker, on his late visit to the Capital, intimation was received from the Government, that the movements of the troops in the late ‗campaign‘ before Fort Erie would be made the subject of an official investigation. Col. Booker, we understand, hopes to relieve himself of some proportions of the charges and condemnations that have been promiscuously heaped upon him.‖55 Gilbert McMicken the Canada West secret service chief was in Port Colborne on the day the Hamilton Evening Times ran that article and he must have read it as the paper was shipped and distributed daily to the troops stationed there.56 Perhaps spirits had been consumed before McMicken scrawled an extraordinarily long and rambling letter to John A. Macdonald that same day. It contained discourses on McMicken‘s mother, on prayer and English grammar, a report on the cost of damages to his home while billeting volunteers, as well as intelligence assessments and political and personal advice.
Indeed, if Booker was an incompetent coward then how did he come to command a brigade at the moment of Canada‘s need? Who had sent him to fight? For his own political security and future in the brewing scandal, Macdonald needed Booker‘s career and reputation saved and protected.
McMicken quickly changed his mind on both Booker and Dennis. Two days later on June 18th, McMicken travelled to Buffalo and spent two hours by Captain King‘s bedside where he was recuperating from the amputation of his leg. In a memo labelled both ―private and confidential‖—a rare double classification among the thousands of pages of secret service correspondence—McMicken wrote to Macdonald on June 23, ―I snatch a few moments to write you in this way my now conviction of the grossest incompetence displayed by Booker and Dennis in the late Erie and Ridgeway affair. The latter worse by far than the former.‖58 According to McMicken, Dennis ―exhibited the greatest poltroonery and cowardice... ran and hid himself leaving the poor Welland fellows to be murdered... Dennis turned up some day or two after with his whiskers shaved off. As to Booker he absolutely lost all presence of mind and it is true absolutely that he ran away.‖59 McMicken to Macdonald, June 16, 1866, MG26 A, Volume 237, p. 104146 [Reel C1663] LAC McMicken to Macdonald, June 23, 1866, MG26 A, Volume 237, p. 104189-104190 [Reel C1663] LAC McMicken to Macdonald, June 23, 1866 Thus three weeks after the battle and ten days before the first of the inquiries would begin, Macdonald had been informed by his secret service chief of the worst extent of the accusations and rumours and that they were true in McMicken‘s opinion. McMicken added that one of his men (Charles Clarke presumably) was witness to the whole affair and when examined will corroborate the accusations.
Three days later, explicit instructions from Adjutant General MacDougall were issued as to the mandate of the inquiry to be held. A military court of inquiry was akin to a preliminary hearing to examine evidence and determine whether a more formal court martial was called for.
Its conduct was less formal than a full court martial and could be as adversarial as authorities chose to make it. The purpose according to MacDougall‘s instructions to the judges was to give Booker ―the opportunity of disproving the unfavourable imputations which have been cast upon him in the public prints. You will therefore be pleased to take all evidence which may be produced before the Court by Col. Booker and you will also endeavour to produce all the evidence which may tend to elucidate the truth. The opinion of the Court of Enquiry must of course be based on and sustained by such evidence only as is embodied in the written proceedings.‖60 [my emphasis] In other words, they are to make sure nothing discreditable to Booker slipped into the written record. (Into the ―Q & A‖ as it would be termed today.) As the Hamilton Evening Times later complained, the examination of witnesses ―was conducted with a caution even exceeding the usual red-tape formality of government enquiries. The replies of such witnesses were rigorously restricted to direct bearing upon the questions carefully framed and propounded by the MacDougall to Denison, Ottawa, June 26, 1866: United Canada Subject Files, Courts Martial, Courts of Inquiry 1856-1866, RG9-IC8, Volume 6. LAC Court, and causal departures from the strict letter were neither permitted or taken down in the reports.‖61 The wrinkle in this otherwise perfect scenario of a conspiracy to whitewash the events at Limestone Ridge, was the Frontier detective Charles Clarke. Despite McMicken‘s conviction that Clarke would corroborate the accusations, on the same day that MacDougall issued his instructions, Booker telegraphed McMicken asking him to ensure that Clarke was available to testify at the Inquiry as, ―The evidence of C. Clarke, a Detective officer on your staff, who was present is very important for me.‖62 When the time came, Clarke testified that Booker remained on the field and several times bravely attempted to rally his men when the retreat began and that he witnessed nothing that resembled Booker galloping away in fright from the field.63 There are two interpretations to this question. The first is that McMicken‘s letter to Macdonald is a warning that either Clarke is to be kept away as a witness at the Inquiry or must be prevailed upon to alter his testimony before being allowed to testify before it—a conspiratorially extreme scenario and unlikely. The second and more likely scenario is that McMicken never discussed the issue with Clarke before he wrote his June 23 letter to Macdonald, and based on his other sources was so persuaded by them that he mistakenly assumed Clarke would corroborate them. Considering how McMicken had been wrong on almost everything else in relation to the Fenian invasion, this is the more plausible explanation for what appeared to be Clarke‘s about face.
This also exculpates John A. Macdonald to a degree from an accusation that he cynically proceeded to whitewash both Booker and Dennis‘s reputations in full knowledge of what actually might have occurred. That presumption would rest on the premise that Macdonald Hamilton Evening Times, Hamilton, July 28, 1866 Booker to McMicken, June 26, 1866, MG26 A, Volume 237, p. 104197-104198 [Reel C1663] LAC Booker Inquiry, pp. 211-212 actually believed in the veracity of McMicken‘s June 23 report. Again, considering McMicken‘s dismal recent track record in his intelligence assessments there is no reason why Macdonald would blindly believe anything McMicken had to say. ―Cynically‖ however is the operative term—cynically or not, a whitewash is was what happened next.
When on July 3 the Court of Inquiry into ―the circumstances connected with the late engagement at Lime Ridge‖ convened in the Royal Hotel on James Street in Hamilton it only sat for one day and was closed to the public and the press. To the outrage of the officers and men of the 13th, it was even closed to them, unless they were called as witnesses—and the only person authorized to call witnesses, was Colonel Alfred Booker—the only one to argue and present evidence. It was a one-sided process: there would be no cross-examination except by the three officers sitting on the board and only if they cared to do so and they rarely did.64 How the recently promoted twenty-six year-old Lt. Colonel George T. Denison was selected to preside over the board of inquiry is not entirely clear. Denison was an attorney, which certainly qualified him for the job. Both Denison and one of his fellow board members, Lt. Colonel G. K. Chisholm, Commanding Officer the Oakville Rifle Company had just been mentioned by British army Colonel Lowry, the commander of forces on the Niagara frontier, in his despatches to Canada‘s Adjutant General of Militia, British army Colonel Patrick L.
MacDougall.65 The third member of the court was Lt. Colonel James Shanly, commander 7th Battalion London.66 As much as the press was dissatisfied with the closed proceedings it generally decided to wait until the Court of Inquiry published its report before lashing out. In the meantime, the Evening Times, July 3, 1866; Denison to unknown, Toronto, June 2, 1866: United Canada Subject Files, Courts Martial, Courts of Inquiry 1856-1866, RG9-IC8, Volume 6. LAC Lowry to MacDougall, June 18, 1866, United Canada Subject Files, Frontier Service Reports, RG9 IC8, Vol. 9.
LAC Booker Inquiry, p. 197 Hamilton Evening Times, despite Somerville‘s protests, stopped publishing further reports of Booker‘s alleged misconduct. The social crusader in Somerville flickered to life once more; he began selling his own printed broadsheets in the streets of Hamilton without waiting for the final report of the Inquiry.67 Three days after the battle, Somerville had secured a book deal with Thomas and Richard White the proprietors of The Spectator to publish a history of the Fenian raid and the battle. It was scheduled to be rushed into print at the end of June, but now as the misdeeds of Booker became a major part of the story, Somerville wanted to wait until the inquiry had been held and its report released before completing and publishing his book. The publishers were not happy with the idea as they were banking on a ‗quickie‘ book intended to cash in on the public‘s interest, which by mid-summer was beginning to show signs of tiring with the whole Fenian affair.68 The officers of the 13th Battalion who saw in Somerville their champion and had been giving him access to their men, meetings, battalion correspondence and telegrams, offered to guarantee the cost of the book‘s printing, if Somerville would delay its completion and release until after the inquiry published their findings. Lt. Colonel Skinner, Captain Askin and Lieutenant Gibson would form a committee to oversee the payment of the advance to the printer and to coordinate the book‘s completion and release. To his infinite regret, Somerville agreed.69 On July 26, Macdonald stood before the legislature and announced that he had reviewed the Inquiry‘s report and that it concluded Booker had acted ―in a most soldierly and praiseworthy manner.‖70 On August 3 newspapers began printing the inquiry‘s findings and the full text of its Hamilton Evening Times, Hamilton, July 6, 1866 Somerville, Memorandum, p. 6 Somerville, Memorandum, pp. 1-8 Hamilton Evening Times, Hamilton, July 27, 1866 carefully orchestrated proceedings which exonerated Booker of all charges. The Court declared that while Booker made an understandable mistake when forming the square, otherwise ―There is not the slightest foundation for the unfavourable imputations cast upon him in the public prints, and most improperly circulated through that channel... at no period of that day could want of personal coolness be imputed to Lieut. Col. Booker.‖ In its most outrageous lie, the report concluded, ―The Court lastly finds that the whole of the wounded and sick were brought with the retreating column and that it reached Port Colborne...‖71 Some of the witness testimony about Booker‘s precise location in battle and his actions during the retreat had been doctored, according to Somerville, ―The Court made several answers into one; thereby placing Booker where he was not.‖72 The reaction to the report from the press was predictable: ―thoroughly whitewashed‖; 73 ―made no effort to ascertain the truth.‖74 From late July through August, three books on the Battle of Ridgeway would be published: the anonymous Doscen Gauust‘s rambling often satirical History of the Fenian Invasion of Canada complete with its illustrations of drunken simian Fenians; Chewett Company‘s collection of previously published press reports from the Globe and The Leader entitled The Fenian Raid at Fort Erie and George T. Denison‘s The Fenian Raid on Fort Erie with an Account of the Battle of Ridgeway.
Denison‘s book was the only one from the three that could be considered a work of research history, despite his obviously too-close-for-comfort role in the events. Denison of course concurred with the findings of the Court of Inquiry that he presided over, but as we saw in a previous chapter, not with all the testimony submitted there—particularly on the issue of when Booker Inquiry, pp. 241-246 Somerville, p. 97 Hamilton Evening Times, July 27, 1866 The Spectator, Hamilton, August 9, 1866 Booker actually received Peacocke‘s telegram ordering him to delay his departure for Ridgeway.
Denison in his history has Booker receiving the order at 7:30 A.M. and not as Booker insisted at 9:30 A.M., thus putting Booker at fault.75 Otherwise, his history reflected the conclusions of the inquiry he presided over and was kind to Booker. Denison described the retreat as, ―a large body of red coats and green, fighting gallantly, slowly and sullenly retired, covering the retreat, and holding the Fenians at bay.‖76 Much of Denison‘s focus was on defending the conduct and reputation of Colonel Peacocke. In any regard, in his book Denison made no reference to the Inquiry, submitting his manuscript for publication perhaps before he had any authority to refer directly to the Inquiry transcripts and its report.