«Combat, Memory and Remembrance in Confederation Era Canada: The Hidden History of the Battle of Ridgeway, June 2, 1866 Peter Wronski (Peter Vronsky) ...»
Somerville‟s Narrative of the Fenian Invasion Only Somerville‘s 128-page pamphlet-book now remained to be published. The text of his book had been partially printed on half sheets of eight pages which when folded together would produce the finished book. Some of the half sheets were left sequentially blank so that once the Inquiry released its reports and Denison published his awaited book, Somerville could insert at the last minute a response and additional information from Denison‘s work.77 The last ten pages consisted of recent corrections to the earlier printed pages.78 As Somerville now moved forward in August to complete his book, he discovered to his dismay that the committee of officers—in particular Skinner and Askin—had become a shadow editorial board over his manuscript and were insisting that Booker‘s disgrace become the central theme of the book—something that Somerville claims was never his intention.79 Denison, Fenian Raid, p. 43 Denison, Fenian Raid, p. 45 Somerville, Memorandum, p. 2 Somerville, pp. 118-128 Somerville, Memorandum, pp. 1-2 Obviously, the unsatisfactory conclusion of the Board of Inquiry was driving both the officers and their men to desperately get the final word in on the record. As the Hamilton Evening Times editorialized, ―The findings of the Court of Enquiry in Col. Booker‘s favour amounts to a verdict of ―guilty‖ against the Thirteenth Battalion...
Booker‘s resignation, of all and every official command over or connection with them, when Hamilton Evening Times, Hamilton, August 1, 1866 Globe, August 14, 1866 they see it in the Gazette. And it is not the resignation by him of one commission only, but of two, which is required to do away with all deceptive arrangements of the difficulty.‖82 On August 14 the Hamilton Evening Times announced correctly that Booker was closing his business in Hamilton and moving to Montreal. But the next day, at Booker‘s insistence it ran a retraction of the story. Fearing that Booker was remaining in Hamilton, this probably only redoubled the determination of the 13th Battalion to get their final word in on Booker‘s conduct.
The battle with Booker was still ongoing long after the Booker Inquiry had ended.
Somerville in the meantime was becoming frustrated with Skinner‘s and Askin‘s meddling in the text of his book. Skinner had lined up witnesses for Somerville to interview who alleged all sorts of misdeeds by Booker. Somerville found some completely unreliable and refused to include their allegations in the book. He was forced to travel to Skinner‘s home in Woodstock with the proofs of the most recent additions to the half-sheets and fight and argue with him line by line over the final text. Somerville managed to remove some of the assertions he felt were untrue or unreliable but in the editorial give-and-take with his patrons, he admitted that some objectionable statements remained in the book.83 When the 2,000 copies of Somerville‘s Narrative of the Fenian Invasion were finally published on September 26, Colonel Booker‘s disgrace was utter and complete. Booker was portrayed as a scheming, pompous, ambitious and incompetent social-climber who as he approached the field of battle became increasingly scared, nervous and confused, mistaking cows for Fenian cavalry and upon leading his men into slaughter, riding off in a frightened panic on his horse ahead of his dying men, finally in the end succumbing to a nervous breakdown. The choice representative line from Somerville‘s Narrative is found at the climax of the battle when Hamilton Evening Times, Hamilton, August 2, 1866 Somerville, Memorandum, p. 5 Booker orders the retreat. Somerville concludes, ―He seemed to have decided, so far as, in a condition of imbecility and nervous prostration, he could decide anything, to retreat from the field of action.‖84 Despite the meddling of Skinner and Askin in his book, Somerville kept his mouth shut when the book was published making no mention of their role in the financing of its printing or the dispute over its text. After his Cobden experience, no doubt Somerville wanted no repeat of the kind of treatment he had received in Britain. And of course, there was the question of his earnings which he could ill afford to lose.
“The whole conspiracy must come out”: the Somerville Memorandum For the next year and eight months the affair nagged at Somerville‘s pride and conscience until he could take it no longer. On April 14, 1868 he sent Booker a ―private and confidential‖ memorandum describing the role Skinner and other officers had in the publication of the book.
While full of complaints against Skinner, Somerville‘s letter offered only a marginal disavowal of a few specific things printed in his book.
Somerville began by declaring ―matter not approved by me was printed. Because an over-ruling animus among certain of the officers of the 13th (not all), hostile to Colonel Booker, and blind to fair play, constrained me to allow the matter of the last 60 pages of the Narrative to go forth as it did.‖85 From those pages, however, Somerville explicitly disavowed only two things: a story about Booker at the eve of the battle mistaking cows for Fenian horsemen, and Booker‘s comment on ―dismounting Skinner‖ from his horse. Those episodes Somerville said came from Captain Askin who acted in pure spite and should be regarded as unreliable.86 Somerville, p. 93 Somerville, Memorandum, p. 1 Somerville, Memorandum, pp. 5-6 Somerville then proceeded to describe in lurid detail all the ―libels‖ that he had not put into the book. Dissecting the evidence in each allegation, he insisted that he fought with Skinner to maintain the book‘s journalistic integrity. In his statement, Somerville mostly focused on describing how his book was financed and printed, and included affidavits from the printers. He
described his disputes with Skinner often over issues irrelevant to the veracity of the book:
royalties, printing runs, fees and other matters. Somerville complained that Skinner had accused him of obtaining confidential battalion telegrams surreptitiously, which he said Skinner had actually given him access to; of betraying confidences when revealing conversations between officers, to which Somerville says he was made unconditionally privy to by Skinner. Reading it today, Somerville‘s review of his sources in that context actually has the effect of adding additional credibility to some of the passages in his book where one was left wondering how could he know that, unless he saw the telegrams or was privy to conversations between the officers? Well apparently he did see them and was privy. As a prominent outsider with a reputation, Somerville gained the kind of confidence that a socially superior insider like George Denison writing his history could never have been able to illicit from his inferiors among the volunteer officer class—but the outsider Somerville always had an eye-level view of his subjects whatever their class—he was a chameleon of a social historian.
Some of Somerville‘s memorandum would be humorous had its subject not been so tragic for Booker. After describing how he hated the pamphlet published in his name, Somerville wrote, ―It is known to Adjutant General MacDougall, to whom I gave one, as to every newspaper editor who had them from my hand in Montreal, that I desired them not to accept all that was said of Col. Booker as exact truths or as if given on my own authority.‖87 Somerville, Memorandum, p. 7 What Somerville really wanted, he said, was to ―stand absolved before the country of having, as the historian of the ‗Fenian Invasion of Canada, 1866,‘ intentionally and unnecessarily injured the reputation of Colonel Booker.‖88 Frustratingly, Somerville insisted that nobody, not even the most severe of Booker‘s accusers, had charged him with cowardice—only with mere ―nervous excitability. Other inferences may have been drawn from the different published accounts.‖89 Perhaps most frustrating of all, was Somerville‘s salutation to Booker, ―Dear Sir, I commit this Memorandum to your care. You have my permission to do with it what you think best, except to publish it without my knowledge.‖90 Booker handed out the letter privately (and probably had it typeset in the small-print form in which it resides in Archives Canada) giving a copy to George Denison who wrote in 1901, long after it would do Booker any good, ―Some years after, Somerville, in a fit of remorse, not long before he died, wrote a letter to Lieut.-Colonel Booker expressing his regret, and confessing that he had been hired by a clique of Booker‘s enemies to write it, but that many of the most spiteful paragraphs were inserted by his employers without his consent and without justification.
Lieut-Colonel Booker let me have a copy of this letter, which I still have.‖91 Denison, ever the attorney, was just so careful in his choice of words to characterize Somerville‘s memorandum—―expressing his regret... that many of the most spiteful paragraphs were inserted... without his consent and justification.‖ Nothing about untruth, only about the needless malice towards Booker; that was what gnawed at Somerville. His apology, as Denison Somerville, Memorandum, p. 1 Somerville, Memorandum, p. 8 Somerville, Memorandum, p. 1 Denison, Soldiering in Canada, pp. 117-118 so accurately summed up, was carefully focused on as to how the story had been told, and not the questions of its veracity.
Somerville‘s book was the coup de grace to Alfred Booker‘s crumbling reputation—and in the Victorian era amongst those of Booker‘s class, reputation was all one had. Nobody was really satisfied in the end by the outcome; no one was redeemed in any meaningful way, not Booker, not the men of the 13th. Further talk of the battle faded and eventually stopped entirely as the summer began to draw towards the last weeks of August, but still there would be no end to Booker‘s disgrace. On August 25th, MacDougall reviewed on horseback the men of the Queen‘s Own Rifles and after making a laudatory speech to them, he was cheered by the men. The Grand River Sachem gleefully reported, ―Colonel MacDougall rode the horse Col. Booker had at Lime ridge, and it was noticed that at the first cheer he bolted off with the Adjutant-General.‖92 Late in the fall of 1866, sixteen-year old George Mackenzie, whose arm had been shattered at his elbow and who as a boy played with Booker‘s son and recalled the Colonel‘s puppet shows, and was dressed-down by Booker on the morning of the muster for daring to ask him if he had time to get breakfast, ran into his former commanding officer in downtown Hamilton. Mackenzie recalled, ―I was convalescent and able to go about with my arm in a sling, walking one day on James Street I saw Colonel Booker sitting by himself in the portico of the Royal hotel. The last time he had spoken to me he had administered a sharp rebuke. Now he came forward eagerly and shook me warmly by the hand. He was greatly changed. As I remember, he looked shrunken and ill. His habitual smartness of appearance had gone. His dress looked negligent, even slovenly. His deep humiliation had bitten into his soul and he was a broken man.‖93 Grand River Sachem, September 5, 1866 George A. Mackenzie, Hamilton Spectator, Nov 27, 1926 Shortly afterwards Alfred Booker closed his business and moved to Montreal never to return to Hamilton again. In 1870 a monument was to be dedicated near Queens Park to the fallen at Ridgeway. A letter from Somerville was printed in the Montreal Gazette, repeating some of the allegations he had made in his memorandum without naming the guilty parties. In it Somerville stated that he had been ―grievously mislead‖ by ―one corrupted source in Hamilton‖ and that he regretted anything he had done to contribute to the damage to Booker‘s reputation and that he hoped that Booker will be invited to attend the dedication ceremony.