«Combat, Memory and Remembrance in Confederation Era Canada: The Hidden History of the Battle of Ridgeway, June 2, 1866 Peter Wronski (Peter Vronsky) ...»
The Globe acidly commented, ―Confession, we are told, is good for the soul... but confession to be salutary ought to be complete... The whole conspiracy must come out. Who, then was the man that ‗grievously misled‘ Mr. Somerville? Who is the ‗one corrupted source in Hamilton?‘ ‖94 Then in November 1870 Napier came to the defence of Booker, writing an open letter in the press in which he hoped some of the volunteer officers from 1866 will be decorated ―and I shall be very glad to see Colonel Booker‘s name amongst the recipients, as I never for one moment doubted his courage in the field, however, much I regretted he did not completely best the Fenians at Ridgeway... it is a well known fact that he left Port Colborne long before the hour named by Colonel Peacocke, and had it not been for the unfortunate alarm about cavalry he would have defeated them.‖95 Poor Booker must have been apoplectic.
Less than a year later Booker was dead. It had been all too much for him—he became ‗suddenly ill‘—sometimes a euphemism for suicide. He died of unspecified causes at the relatively young age of forty-seven on September 27, 1871. He was buried in Montreal with military honours.98 The irony of Alfred Booker‘s tragic fate is that he probably saved more men than he killed at Limestone Ridge. Having advanced that far in the fight, believing that they had been pushing the Fenians back and taking the field from them, the men were particularly bitter that Booker had bungled the last phase of what they were sure was going to be an imminent victory. But had Booker not lost control, had that retreat not happened, had they pushed on further, low in ammunition, advancing uphill, into the waiting center wing of the Fenian force, now Denison, Fenian Raid, p. 31 Globe, November 9, 1870 The Volunteer Review and Military and Naval Gazette, Vol. 5, No. 40 (Oct. 2, 1871) p.6-7 concentrated at twice the size they had been in the previous ninety minutes, sitting behind improvised cover on top of all their spare ammunition; what a massacre that may have been.
Booker‘s retreat was probably the best thing to have happened to the majority of the volunteers that day.
The historian‟s fate Booker‘s historian Alexander Somerville continued to struggle in his desperate attempts to escape destitution and ruin. Shortly after Confederation, under the sponsorship of D‘Arcy McGee he authored a guide for immigrants to Canada and began planning on returning to England as an immigration agent. But in the early hours of April 7, 1868 when McGee came home to his Sparks Street boarding house after a late night Parliamentary debate and was fumbling with the lock of his front door, an assassin stepped out from the dark behind him and shot him dead. A tailor, Patrick Whelan, either a Fenian or a sympathizer, was charged, convicted and hung for the murder under circumstances still debated by historians.99 When Somerville attempted to claim his payment for the work he had done for McGee, he was told that McGee had ―made no appropriation out of which the amount could be paid.‖ Despite Macdonald‘s endorsement, Somerville was not paid although a small pension was later granted to him in 1876 for his work.100 As his children grew up and became independent, Somerville now drifted alone between Hamilton, Montreal and Toronto, eking out a meagre income by writing articles on Canada for English newspapers and living in a shelter maintained by the St. Andrews Society in Montreal.
T. P. Slattery, Patrick James Whelan, DCB Sandison, p. 52 There Somerville undertook his last crusade: defending the reputation of and caring for the dying William Scott, a fellow-impoverished inmate of the shelter and the disputed nephew of the author Sir Walter Scott.101 In those years, Somerville desperately attempted to get a government post of some kind or sponsorship for a pamphlet but was unsuccessful except for a contract in 1877 to rewrite the Emigrant‘s Guide.102 In 1874 Somerville moved to Toronto, taking a room in the City Hotel on Front and Simcoe Streets. He listed himself in the Toronto Directory as ―writer in English, Welsh, Irish and Scottish Journals, books, magazines, cyclopedias.‖103 Most of his writings in this period however, were anonymous dispatches to newspapers. He found work as editor of Toronto‘s Anglican Church Herald contributing numerous articles to the paper. Then Somerville lost the job when the paper merged with a New York publication and moved its editorial offices to the U.S. entirely.104 By now Somerville was an enormous 300 pound hulk living in a single room in the City Hotel which he shared with a mouse he fed by hand. He sent out thousands of articles collecting minute penny royalties and carried on a stream of correspondence often attaching tiny clippings of his previous publications. His life became a daily war of attrition to accumulate sufficient income to pay for postage. Eventually his room, and even his bed, became so piled full of newspapers, manuscripts, clippings and letters that he turned to sleeping on the floor rolled up in a sheet or blanket. Just one small pile of paper, his memoirs, was estimated to consist of some 5,000 pages. In 1880 he could no longer afford to live in the City Hotel and moved into a dilapidated boarding house at 106 York Street, in the heart of what was then Toronto‘s red-light Sandison, pp. 52-53 Somerville to Macdonald, March 9/Feb 24, 1868, Deputy Minister Dockets, RG9 IIA1 Docket 299, LAC Toronto City Directory, 1875-1885 Waterston, pp. 110-111 district and skid row. Eventually he could not afford or perhaps abide living in the cramped room there and in 1883 he dragged five trunks full of his notebooks, manuscripts and papers into a woodshed adjoining the house. He would now live there summer and winter, despite the landlady‘s protests, for the next two years.105 On June 17, 1885, ill for some time, Somerville died in the woodshed to which he had retreated, vehemently refusing in his last days any attempt to have him moved indoors. He was buried on Friday, June 19 by the St. Andrew‘s Society on their grounds in the Necropolis in an unmarked grave, but still easily found today, beneath a twin-stemmed tree overlooking the Don River. There, the musket ball he took away in his arm in the sunlit Basque country at Oriamendi in 1837, finally came to rest in the cold and gloomy earth of Somerville‘s Canada and there it rests today in the roar of traffic from the nearby Don Valley parkway, louder than the sound of any battle or rebellious tumult Somerville had witnessed.
The five trunks of his manuscripts, papers, notebooks and final memoir were not in the woodshed with him when he died—he had given them earlier to somebody for safekeeping but never revealed to whom. In those papers were his reporter‘s notebooks containing interviews with the men of the 13th Battalion before and after the battle of Ridgeway. A search for these notebooks uncovered the futile searches of those before me, the last in 1962 by John Stuart Mill‘s biographer, Yale University‘s Joseph Hamburger. He had managed to track down a descendent of Somerville‘s in Brooklyn, NY, who informed him that his papers were turned over to the Canadian government for safekeeping after his death. Hamburger‘s inquiries to Archives Canada yielded nothing, as did mine, except for a few letters which Somerville sent to various Canadian officials and a copy of the memorandum he had given Booker. One of Somerville‘s
descendents, his great-great-great-granddaughter, kindly shared the Hamburger correspondence with me and other materials she had collected on her ancestor.106 Somerville‘s account had been rejected by most historians, not because of his subsequent disavowal which no historian other than Denison and myself had apparently seen, but because simply it was so jarringly different and challenging to everything else written on Ridgeway. It was so obscure and so controversial that it was easy to simply disregard it—as I, for example, easily disregarded entirely Doucet Gaust‘s tongue-in-cheek pamphlet as a historical source, referring to it only as an artefact of its times. Somerville‘s book was rarely cited and sometimes did not even appear in bibliographies.
Yet his account is rich in authentic detail, for Somerville walked the grounds of the battlefield still seeing the paths trampled through crops by the combatants during the fight, he visited Ridgeway and Fort Erie several times, interviewed numerous people and was personally acquainted with the officers and men of the 13th Battalion. By virtue of who Somerville was he wrote the kind of history that would not be written in Canada until the next century—―history from below‖—his account teems with the voices of privates, farmers and townspeople— something that is entirely absent from Denison‘s aristocratic history, which typically focused on the men who led. Somerville also brought a two-year combat veteran‘s eye to his history that nobody else did, imparting extraordinary insight into a dimension of warfare that only those who had experienced a lot of it could. By virtue of his long war service in Spain, Somerville saw what even the men who fought at Limestone Ridge could not in their brief, and for some, their only exposure to combat.
The question of whether to include Somerville‘s controversial book as a source or not, was much more easily resolved than I thought it would be. My working method became simply Joseph Hamburger to Mrs. Harvey Ackley, January 30, 1963, courtesy of Elaine Brown at email@example.com driven by the singular task of either confirming or disproving the claims printed in his book and discovering new ones that were not. Ultimately I chose to disregard most of what Somerville reported of Booker, unless verified independently by other sources or unless Somerville underscored his own sources for the particular passages in question. As for anything else in his narrative beyond the subject of Booker, not confirmed nor contradicted by other sources, in the final analysis, case by case, I let my graduate school pretence to being a trained historian, tempered by my twenty-five years experience as a journalist and news cameraman observing history with my own eyes, from Détente to 9/11, from New York, London and Rome to South Africa, Moscow and Chechnya, to guide me as to when at the end of the day to believe Somerville, or not.
Chapter 10: The Dennis Inquiry and the Fenian Raid Aftermath 1866 Approximately 10,000 Fenians had answered the call and arrived on the border with Quebec and Ontario that June. Some 5,000 alone were mustered in the Buffalo area facing 3,000 British regulars, artillery and Canadian militia in Chippawa and Fort Erie.1 The U.S. intervened as they had promised the British they would. The Fenians were quickly arrested, their leaders hauled into court charged with violation of the Neutrality Act and then just as quickly released and sent home away from the border. The U.S. Army deployed troops along the border and did its best to intercept and disarm Fenians approaching Canadian territory. After taking their parole and dispersing them, the U.S. War Department organized and paid for their railway transports home.2 In the first three days of the Fenian invasion, some 22,000 volunteers reported for duty throughout Canada West and Canada East to fight the ―Finnegans‖ as they were popularly called.3 Some volunteers reported from as far as New Orleans and a group of fifty-six Canadians who abandoned their jobs in Chicago and arrived in Toronto on June 5th were met at the railway station by the mayor and aldermen, cheering crowds and two companies of infantry as a guard of honour. The ―Chicago Volunteers‖ were celebrated from one end of the province to the other.4 It was an entirely different invasion in Lower Canada, one that its historian Hereward Senior described as being ―over before it began.‖5 The Fenian Right (East) Wing of the Irish Republican Army6 under West Point graduate Fenian General Samuel B. Spears (―General Whiskey‖) invaded just east of Lake Champlain from Vermont into Missisquoi County, Quebec Senior, Last Invasion, p. 101 Lists of Fenian names and destinations can be found in Reports 1863 – 1872, War Department, Division of the Atlantic, Department of the East, RG 393: Records of the U.S. Army Continental Commands, 1817 – 1940, Inventory Identifier 1428, National Archives Building, Washington D.C.
Senior, Last Invasion, p. 97 Chewett, pp. 36-37;
Senior, Last Invasion of Canada, p.111 Captain Macdonald, p. 110 on June 7, but was hampered not only by the U.S. Army, but also by the same lack of troops and supplies that O‘Neill had experienced. As a result, Spears was forced to withdraw from Canadian territory.