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«Combat, Memory and Remembrance in Confederation Era Canada: The Hidden History of the Battle of Ridgeway, June 2, 1866 Peter Wronski (Peter Vronsky) ...»

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Denison, Soldiering in Canada, p. 89 Denison, Soldiering in Canada, p. 108 Denison, Soldiering in Canada, pp. 108-109; Denison, The Fenian Raid, pp. 49-56 Like all the other historians—including Somerville whose book would be published in September—George T. Denison essentially accepted Dennis‘s version as contained in his official report. Denison questioned his judgement to undertake the Robb mission, unfairly characterizing the entire operation as originating with Dennis and overlooking the fact that it was Peacocke, who while not ordering Dennis to accompany it, had ordered a patrol boat to be deployed on the Niagara River. It was not simply Dennis‘s harebrained scheme as Denison and others portray it.

Otherwise Denison did not challenge in his history Dennis‘s account of what happened in Fort Erie.

Denison in his 1901 memoir claimed that after the publication of his book, Dennis never spoke to him again.29 If true, then that is an unlikely reason why. In his memoir George Denison makes no mention of what happened next: he was appointed to preside over the ―Court of Inquiry into the Circumstance of the Engagement at Fort Erie‖—the Dennis Inquiry! Its proceeding would be so secret that even in his 1901 memoir, Denison makes no mention of it, claiming instead that the publication of his book ruptured his relations with Dennis, rather than what he would subsequently do to him while presiding over the inquiry.

Autumn 1866: The Dennis Inquiry George Denison‘s fellow military judges would be Lt. Colonels James Shanly, 7th Battalion London and Silas Fairbanks, of the Oshawa Rifles (William Tempest‘s uncle.) This time it would be a more adversarial process than the Booker Inquiry was and its purpose was to determine whether ―Captain King and Captain McCallum or both of them, had any charges to Denison, Soldiering in Canada, p. 109 prefer against Lieutenant Colonel Dennis, in reference to his conduct as commanding officer at Fort Erie.‖30 King and McCallum were to prepare a list of charges, call witnesses and evidence while Dennis would defend with his own witnesses. Each could cross-examine witnesses. While a more balanced and adversarial procedure was adopted, not only were the proceedings closed to the press and public but the very existence of the inquiry does not appear to have been reported in the newspapers until it was long over.

The charges preferred by King and McCallum, here in simplified form, were:

–  –  –

Unlike the one-day Booker Inquiry, the Dennis Inquiry began on September 22 in Fort Erie and with several adjournments continued for six weeks until a verdict on the charges was delivered on November 8. Captain King was still too weak to be in court daily and after the first day was replaced at the prosecution table by Captain John Verner his co-founder of the Welland Battery. Verner and McCallum presented twenty-five witnesses and Dennis twenty-one Dennis Inquiry, p. 2 ―Charges‖ Dennis Inquiry, following p. 3 witnesses, on whose collective testimony my description in the chapter on the battle in Fort Erie is based.

As the inquiry was winding down in secrecy, Dennis‘s reputation again came under public sniping unexpectedly elsewhere. During one of the trials of the Fenian prisoners which had begun in autumn in Toronto, a prosecution witness claimed that he was the only one in Fort Erie who had not run away. The defence attorney cross-examined him

–  –  –

Limitations of space again prevent a more thorough account of the courtroom thrust and parry that took place during the Dennis Inquiry, the highlight perhaps being when the presiding judge Denison was himself called upon as a witness by McCallum and Verner to testify about Dennis‘s condition upon his arrival in Peacocke‘s camp and on his statements in his recently published book. Dennis, however, managed to exclude most of Denison‘s testimony on the grounds it referred to matters relating to events after the engagement in question.33 In his cross-examinations, Dennis questioned the relationship between Captain McCallum and witnesses from the Dunnville Naval Brigade, some of whom were his relatives and many were in his employ. Brought to the surface also were accusations of intimidation by Captain King in Port Robinson of Major Wallace who was there gathering evidence on behalf of Dennis and the illegal arrest and detention of a witness from the Welland Canal Field Battery (Gunner Robert Thomas) who was on his way to testify on behalf of Dennis.34 Irish Canadian, November 9, 1866 Dennis Inquiry, pp. 164-168 Dennis Inquiry, pp. 286-288 In the end, the verdict, despite the evidence contained in the testimony, was predictably ―not guilty‖ on all counts, but the maverick Denison spoiled a perfect broth by dissenting from his two fellow-judges on two counts, in which he voted guilty: ―Count 2, recklessness in uselessly landing men and marching them along an exposed road, and posting them in a most dangerous position; and Count 3, neglect to give orders for a retreat, (with the exception of directing that no order to fire should be given.)‖35 But there was more. Denison had also wanted to abstain from voting on the most serious charge, Count 4, ―Disgrace in the face of the enemy in order to secure his personal safety and desertion of his command.‖ Denison wanted to abstain because ―the evidence is so conflicting‖ but in the end his abstention was struck out and withdrawn, there being no procedural provisions for abstentions; a not guilty vote to the count was entered. His original abstaining notation, however, survives in the archived transcripts.36 The text of the charges, the verdicts, Denison‘s dissent, (but not his attempted abstention on the charges of cowardice) followed by comments from Michel on Dennis‘s acquittal and condemnation of Wallace‘s intimidation and Thomas‘ arrest, were suddenly published in newspapers in December, with no or little comment.37 The 356-pages of transcripts, unlike those from the Booker Inquiry were not made public. The whole thing passed unnoticed by the press and quietly went away exactly how everybody hoped it would.





In the summer of 1867, Lachlan McCallum had been elected to Canada‘s first federal parliament and in November he made a futile attempt to have the transcripts of the Dennis Inquiry released to the public. The debate filled five Hansard-size pages with the Minister of Militia Cartier arguing, ―The evidence taken before that court referred to personal and private Dennis Inquiry, pp. 342-356 Dennis Inquiry, pp. 355-356 Globe, December 17, 1866 matters, which should not be made public without very grave reasons.‖ Macdonald declared, ―Col. Dennis was tried by a court, consisting of three officers and three gentlemen for Ontario, and they had acquitted him. Bringing down evidence now could do no good... it was inexpedient and against the interests of the volunteer and militia organization to grant this motion.‖38 The transcripts remained secret and eventually their very existence was forgotten by several generations of historians as was the battle they described. Fort Erie became a brief footnote—a place as Morton‘s history blurted, ―after scattering a few militia who had arrived in their absence, most of O‘Neill‘s men crossed to Buffalo to be interned.‖ John Stoughton Dennis‘s fate was diametrically opposite to that of poor Booker‘s. Three years later, a New York Times headline announced, ―Narrow Escape of Colonel Dennis‖ but it was not referring to Fort Erie.39 Dennis had been appointed as a surveyor of the Red River settlement in Manitoba. When rebellious Métis under Louis Riel obstructed his surveys, Dennis had himself named by the Governor-Lieutenant designate as his ―Lieutenant and a conservator of the peace;‖ authorized ―to raise, organise, arm, equip and provision a sufficient force... to attack, arrest, disarm or disperse‖ those in arms and ―to assault, fire upon, pull down or break into any fort, house, stronghold or other place in which the said armed men may be found.‖40 The ―Lieutenant and conservator of peace‖ began forming his own militia army. When the Métis threatened to surround it, Dennis ran off leaving his men behind. One of them recalled It came to pass one morning that Col. D. was not at breakfast and all inquiries brought only vague replies. There was a general uneasy feeling and suspense brooded over the place till next day at dinner time. Then Mr. Wm. Watt, the Hudson‘s Bay factor, read a letter from Col. Dennis telling him that he had gone House of Commons Debates, November 21, 1867, Ottawa: R. Duhamel, 1967. pp. 110-116 New York Times, December 28, 1869 Colin Read, ―The Red River Rebellion and J. S. Dennis, ―Lieutenant and Conservator of the Peace‖, Manitoba History, No. 3, 1982 (http://www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/mb_history/03/dennis_js.shtml retrieved Sept. 25, 2009.)

–  –  –

One of Dennis‘s captured men, a surveyor and Orangemen by the name of Thomas Scott was executed on Riel‘s watch, leading to Riel‘s eventual hanging in 1885 after a second rebellion.

Yet John Stoughton Dennis remained a consummate survivor, and not even this new disgrace could stop his career. In 1871 he was appointed Surveyor General of Dominion Lands in the west and in 1878 became the first deputy minister of Canada‘s Interior Department. In 1882 he was raised to British chivalry with a C.M.G., Companion of St. Michael and St.

George.42 He died in July, 1885 active to the end, the ultimate moving-target-survivorsubscriber—a man, a colonel and a reputation.

Just as diametrically opposite as Dennis‘s fate was from Booker‘s, so was the fate of his historian from that of Alexander Somerville. Colonel George T. Denison III, the twenty-seven year-old savant commander of the Governor General‘s Horse Guard, Toronto attorney, alderman, Confederate secret service agent, twice presiding military judge, author of Canada: is she Prepared for War?, The National Defences and The Fenian Raid, would write and do a lot more in his long life. His biographer Carl Berger points out, ―Of all the public figures of his generation he alone left behind three volumes of autobiography.‖43 (Soldiering in Canada, (1901); The Struggle for Imperial Unity,(1909); Recollections of a Police Magistrate, (1920).) An account of P. G. Laurie‘s experiences during the rebellion by Mrs. J. H. Storer, nd, p. 12. MG3 B16-2;

Patrick Gammie Laurie Papers, Public Archives of Manitoba. Quoted in Read Read, John Stoughton Dennis, DCB Berger, p. 22 Between 1866 and 1925 George T. Denison when not visiting and corresponding with former Confederate generals, wrote Modern Cavalry: its Organization, Armament, and Employment in War (1868); unsuccessfully ran for Parliament and served as an immigration commissioner in England before returning to write, A History of Cavalry from the Earliest Time With Lessons for the Future (1877) which won a prestigious cash award (but not the prize as alleged) from Russia‘s Tsar Alexander II and is today still considered the definitive work on the history of cavalry.44 In 1868 in Ottawa, Denison fell into a circle of five other young men who felt disillusioned with Canadian politics and shared a fear and suspicion of the United States.

Growing in number they eventually became known as the ‗Twelve Apostles‘, a backstage lobby group which for a time considered forming itself as Canada‘s third party.45 Many of the Apostles went on to later back Denison when he became known as ―the watchdog‖ of the British Empire, leading the Canada First movement and becoming a principal in the Imperial Federation League and the British Empire League and a spokesman for the descendents of the United Empire Loyalists.46 In 1877 at the invitation of Ontario‘s Premier Oliver Mowat, he took the post of Toronto‘s Police Magistrate. In the next forty-four years as a criminal court judge, George Denison—―the Beak‖ as he was known—ran an assembly-line courtroom; it was not uncommon for him according to one source to dispose of 250 cases in a two-hour morning.47 A Toronto crime reporter wrote: ―I have known a man to stand up in the dock, enter a plea of guilty to a Berger, p. 18 Gagan, pp. 56-57 Knowles, DCB Robson Black, ―A Dollar and Costs,‖ Canada Monthly, Vol. 14, No. 4, August 1913 series of crimes, and be on his way to serve a five-year term at the penitentiary, all in six minutes.‖48 Denison published an autobiography in which he revealed his cavalryman‘s approach to the law while sitting on the bench: ―I never follow precedents unless they agree with my view‖49 and ―I depend upon an intuitive feeling as to a man‘s guilt or innocence and not to weighing and balancing the evidence. I depend upon this feeling in spite of evidence.‖50 As Denison explained, ―I never allow a point of law to be raised. This is a court of justice, not a court of law.‖51 One of his friends observed, ―He wears a helmet in court and sits with spurs on.‖52 An American journalist called Denison the ―[Teddy] Roosevelt of Canada.‖53 Roosevelt after having led his mounted infantry, the Rough Riders, in the legendary charge up San Juan Hill in the Spanish American war, praised Denison‘s book on cavalry as ―the best I have read on the subject.‖54 But unlike Teddy Roosevelt, Denison would never lead a charge up a San Juan Hill. While the ―Fighting Denisons‖ produced over a dozen officers (and even an admiral of the British navy) who fought their way through every conflict over the next ninety years from Red River and the Nile to Europe and Korea, George Denison ironically remained the odd savant of Canada‘s military whom nobody was comfortable with. While honoured by the Tsar of Russia, the one thing he wanted most, recognition at home and a permanent military command in Canada‘s army, eluded him. He was just too much of a maverick.



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