«Combat, Memory and Remembrance in Confederation Era Canada: The Hidden History of the Battle of Ridgeway, June 2, 1866 Peter Wronski (Peter Vronsky) ...»
The only combat took place at Pigeon Hill on June 9 when Crown forces and artillery pulled up in front of approximately 200 Fenians still lingering in Canada. When the Fenians opened fire, a troop of cavalry—the Royal Guides ―Governor General Body Guard of Lower Canada‖—elite members of the Montreal Hunt Club—charged the barricades and smacked the Fenians with the flat of their swords, herding them across the border into the arms of the awaiting U.S. Army who seized and disarmed them.
In the days after the battle at Fort Erie, Dennis had been distinguished by an appointment as ‗brigade major‘ (chief of staff) to the Colonel Lowry, the British commander of forces on the Niagara frontier. Dennis was further mentioned in despatches by Lowry who wrote on June 18, that he had ―proved himself admirable in matter of detail and has been most active and useful to me here. He has special talent for the performance of staff duties and as there has been a force of about 3,000 volunteers on this Frontier, his capacity in that respect has been well tested.‖10 McMicken‘s confidential June 23 memo to Macdonald describing Dennis‘s ―poltroonery and cowardice‖ was filed away and not acted upon by Macdonald. On June 24-25, Dennis survived what must have been the most dangerous moment for his reputation. Newspapers in Canada published a series of official reports released by the government from commanders in the field during the operation. Included among them was Dennis‘s own account of how he drew up his ―little command‖ in Fort Erie and made a courageous stand with his men but outnumbered by the Fenians was forced to order them to retreat and concealed himself to avoid capture until he could fight another day.
Running near the end of the reports was a short statement from the Robb‘s Captain Lachlan McCallum. It had been written at Dennis‘s request and addressed to him. In it McCallum refrained from describing the ground combat and only reported on the movement of Lowry to MacDougall, June 18, 1866, United Canada Subject Files, Frontier Service Reports, RG9 IC8, Vol. 9.
LAC the Robb, referring to Dennis only once, ―On Saturday last, 2nd June between the hours of 2 and 4 p.m.11 after your departure, I retreated down the river under a galling fire...‖12 [my emphasis] The term ―after your departure‖ had not caught anybody‘s attention and when the reports ran without much comment in the newspapers on the events in Fort Erie, Dennis must have felt tremendously relieved that the press did not catch his scent of disgrace. McMicken and Macdonald, however, knew precisely how pointed that phrase was and its entire subtext as did all the men who were under Dennis‘s command that day.
Three days later, in military parlance, ―the stuff hit the fan.‖ Adjutant General of Militia Patrick L. MacDougall in Ottawa received a letter from Captain Lachlan McCallum. The Captain was outraged by what he had read in Dennis‘s published report. In his letter McCallum accused Dennis of ordering his men ashore ―against the judgments of all the Officers under his command‖ resulting in four brave men being ―cripples for life besides exposing the lives of all his command to no effect except the shooting of a few Fenians.‖ Furthermore, McCallum wrote, Dennis halted his command at a point where they were exposed to fire from both Fenian flanks, and despite having time to retreat to the Robb he recklessly did not. Dennis countermanded orders that McCallum had given to open fire on the enemy and then ―departed from his command before a gun was fired leaving us in that painful position...‖13 On July 4, the New York Times reprinted a story from the Detroit Advertiser, ―Heroism of an English Colonel‖ that alleged Dennis had stripped-off his uniform and hid naked in a hayloft McCallum errs in his time of the battle, which occurred closer to between 4 and 6 p.m.
McCallum, Official Report McCallum to McDougall, June 28, 1866: Adjutant General‘s Correspondence; Correspondence relating to complaints, courts martial and inquiries, RG9-I-C-8, Volume 7 LAC.
and nervously cut himself twice while shaving off his whiskers to disguise himself.14 Dennis must have felt the sharks circling him but the press in Canada did not bite on the story.
On July 17, Dennis sent Colonel William Smith Durie, the Assistant Adjutant-General of Militia in Canada West, an eight-page letter refuting McCallum‘s accusations with five appended witness statements from Fort Erie citizens attesting to Dennis‘s version of events.15 It apparently would have done the trick. On August 16, General Sir John Michel the commanderin-chief of British troops in Canada wrote MacDougall, he saw no reason for further investigation into Dennis‘s conduct and added ―I think that Cap. McCallum might be desired to be more careful in making charges such as these he had advanced.‖16 There must have been a collective sigh of relief that McCallum‘s allegations could now be put away quietly, especially since criticism of the government‘s performance during the Fenian crisis was dying down in the press. Nobody wanted to stir up any new revelations or scandals.
It was not going to be that easy. By then Artillery Captain Dr. Richard King had recovered from the amputation of his leg sufficiently well enough to depart Buffalo for his home in Port Robinson. Nothing would make for a better mid-Victorian summer picnic and festival in Welland County than to loudly and proudly welcome home a hero. On August 9 thousands of citizens and dignitaries flocked to King‘s homecoming on foot, in carriages, on horseback and by train. The Welland Railway ran special trains and charged half-price for the tickets. Flags and bunting were hung everywhere. So many communities wanted to participate along the canal that a route was organized for a flotilla of yachts that would take King down the system stopping at New York Times, July 4, 1866 Dennis to Durie, July 17, 1866: Adjutant General‘s Correspondence; Correspondence relating to complaints, courts martial and inquiries, RG9-I-C-8, Volume 7 LAC.
[Michel] to MacDougal, August 16, 1866, Adjutant General‘s Correspondence; Correspondence relating to complaints, courts martial and inquiries, RG9-I-C-8, Volume 7 LAC various points for people to view him on the deck. He was surrounded by a military guard of honour while a brass band played ―Home Again.‖ A gun battery fired a salute as he passed.17 Prepared for once to write a ‗good news‘ story on a hero‘s homecoming, instead of the usual litany of incompetence that had dominated the news in Canada since the invasion in the beginning of June, newspaper reporters poured into the towns. Along the way at the various stops, dignitaries, civil officials, MPPs, and even Toronto‘s mayor Francis Medcalf assembled to greet Captain King. Everywhere King went there stood huge arches across the span of which was written, ―Welcome to our brave captain.‖ 18 As the yacht arrived at its final destination of Port Robinson, King was borne off the deck to a waiting carriage in which sat MPP T.C. Street. From the carriage King was to review and address his brave men of the Welland Field Artillery Battery assembled in their ranks before him. One version of what happened next, according to the Globe, was that King said
Without naming Dennis, the Globe reported only a single discordant note, ―Dr. King complained bitterly of the management of the commander... He said they could have done better than they did but for the way in which they were commanded.‖20 The other version was contained in a less circumspect report from a different newspaper, a clipping of which was attached to a letter Durie received from Dennis four days later complaining, ―Capt. King is there stated to have applied the following language to me – ‗We Globe, August 11, 1866 Globe, August 11, 1866 Globe, August 11, 1866 Globe, August 11, 1866 were commanded by a coward. I allude to Colonel Dennis who is a coward and a paltry one‘ and again, further on, ‗What did that coward, that poltrooney scoundrel Dennis say... etc.‘‖21 Dennis now demanded a Court of Inquiry just like Booker‘s and that Captain King be ordered to retract his comments or be charged with conduct unbecoming an officer for making such remarks in public about a superior officer while addressing a military force. In the wake of the cries of ‗whitewash‘ in the press earlier in August following the publication of the findings of the Booker Inquiry, this new development was not at all welcomed. There was no way that Dennis could now be given a similar cleansing that had been offered Booker. Durie forwarded the letter to MacDougall in Ottawa, noting on it ―that an error of judgement which maybe be attributed to Lt. Col Dennis – is one thing – cowardice – another.‖22 Durie was convinced that ―Capt. King was not warranted in making use of the language alluded to from all the information I can learn. Beg to suggest that Captain King be called upon to substantiate or at once withdraw and apologize for the... language.‖23 ‗Beg‘ was a good choice of words—the chances of Durie and MacDougall dragging the one-legged hero Captain King before a court-martial for his choice of language without raising a stink in the press were slim to none. MacDougall‘s letter to Captain King was no doubt diplomatic and full of hope and suggestion that perhaps the press had exaggerated King‘s remarks and that the captain might be predisposed to assure everyone that as upset as he was with losing his leg, surely he did not go as far as accusing Lt. Colonel Dennis of cowardice.
Perhaps he misspoke in the excitement of his return home at Port Robinson, and the press was exaggerating the extent of his remarks.
Dennis to Durie, August 15, 1866: Adjutant General‘s Correspondence; Correspondence relating to complaints, courts martial and inquiries, RG9-I-C-8, Volume 7, LAC Dennis to Durie, August 15, 1866 Dennis to Durie, August 15, 1866 Captain King‘s defiant response to MacDougall‘s letter dashed all such hopes
Michel was clearly frustrated. There must have been a marshalling of opinion as to how to silence King, including a proposal to court-martial him. On September 6 on the back of King‘s reply Michel penned
Everything humanly and bureaucratically possible to avoid another Court of Inquiry into yet another officer‘s command was being done.
King to MacDougall, August 22, 1866, Adjutant General‘s Correspondence; Correspondence relating to complaints, courts martial and inquiries, RG9-I-C-8, Volume 7, LAC King to MacDougall, August 22, 1866 Dennis in the meantime had gotten wind that Denison was to publish in August his history of the Fenian invasion. He invited Denison to visit him in his Toronto offices to discuss the contents of his upcoming book. Dennis and Denison had a long history. Denison had known Dennis since childhood—Dennis was his senior by nineteen years. Dennis had been a junior officer in Denison‘s father‘s cavalry troop and artillery, where according to Denison he did not distinguish himself. He would later describe Dennis as ―useless as a soldier. He was an ambitious man, carefully anxious not to let any opportunities pass him.‖26 While serving under Peacocke, Denison upon hearing from him of how Dennis and Akers took off on their own mission, impetuously burst out that they both should be arrested.
According to Denison, Peacocke replied, ―Dennis is not a soldier and did not know any better, and he is a volunteer officer and it would look as if I was trying to make a scapegoat of him to save myself.‖27 Denison felt that as a result of Peacocke‘s discretion, the British officer had now himself become a scapegoat for the Fenian escape from Fort Erie.
Now Dennis begged Denison to defend his reputation in his upcoming book. Dennis reminded him that they were old friends and brother volunteer officers and should stand by one another. Denison claims he replied that he must ―write an honest, true book or not write one at all.‖ According to Denison‘s 1901 memoir, he was later visited by an unnamed emissary who likewise urged him to defend Dennis‘s conduct at Fort Erie. Denison in his memoir, framed the dilemma as a question of defending Peacocke‘s reputation, rather than necessarily condemning that of Dennis and indeed his history includes a chapter defending Peacocke.28 By the time Denison‘s The Fenian Raid on Fort Erie was published in August, it was only mildly critical of Dennis compared to the accusations coming from McCallum and King.