«Combat, Memory and Remembrance in Confederation Era Canada: The Hidden History of the Battle of Ridgeway, June 2, 1866 Peter Wronski (Peter Vronsky) ...»
1910. His book would be the last on the battle for more than a century to follow, adding nothing new but lamenting how Canadians ―of the present generation know very little of the Fenian troubles... and the great mass of the young Canadian boys and girls who are being educated in our Public Schools and Colleges are in total ignorance of the grave danger which cast dark shadows over this fair and prosperous Dominion in those stormy days.‖66 The Limestone Ridge that was restored to Canada‘s history was the one described by the newspapers and the Booker Inquiry in the summer of 1866—the imperfect and whitewashed history, while the stand in Fort Erie remained completely untold and forgotten to this day—at best treated as a postscript to Ridgeway.
Without exploring what actually happened in the battle, some historians subsequently took up the story of Ridgeway and the raids as key events in the Confederations of Canada as C.P Stacey did in the 1930s.67 For him the Fenian invasions and alarms that lasted seven years, left a powerful impression, ―the mark on the minds of Canadians was deep. It is impossible to measure with scientific exactitude the effect of the Fenian Troubles on the Confederation movement and the growth of Canadian nationalism....But they obviously did something....They helped to form and foster a national spirit.‖68 In 1942, George W. Brown wrote that despite the push from Britain for Canadians to confederate, it looked hopeless in early 1866 until the Fenians made their move. ―Canadians were aroused by the invasion of Canadian soil; and the problem of defence, which had seemed very remote, suddenly became very real. It is a curious fact in Canadian history that the Fenians unintentionally did a great service to the cause of Captain Macdonald, p.5 C.P. Stacey, ―Fenianism and the Rise of National Feeling in Canada at the Time of Confederation‖, Canadian Historical Review, 12:3 (1931). pp. 238-261 C.P. Stacey, ―Confederation: The Atmosphere of Crisis,‖ Profiles of a Province, Toronto: Ontario Historical Society, 1967. p. 73 Confederation.‖69 Donald Creighton argued anti-American nationalism in the Canadian colonies came to its peak during the Fenian crisis.70 Certainly the failed Fenian invasion in New Brunswick tipped its electorate in supporting confederation.
In the Ontario educational system during the Mowat years, there was some acknowledgement of Ridgeway in the scholastic curriculum. JA Sadlier‘s Outlines of Canadian History for the Dominion Catholic Series of texts and W.J Robertson Public School History of England and Canada first issued in 1891, both describe Ridgeway and even as late as 1921, The Ontario Public School History of Canada by George M. Wrong also describes Ridgeway, although it claims that the Fenians were defeated in the battle.71 These histories were in a minority, with most choosing not to cover Ridgeway to any great extent. In their histories of Canada, Frank Basil Tracy, George Bryce, O.D. Skelton and R.G. Trotter barely referred to the Fenian raids or the battle of Ridgeway.72 The Canadian history text used in Ontario‘s schools by the 1930s, hardly mentioned Ridgeway.73 And as Anthony D‘Angelo recently pointed out, current Canadian historiography has not changed in its silence on Ridgeway.74 McGraw-Hill Ryerson‘s text Colonies: Canada to 1867 referred to the Fenian crisis as a ―brief invasion‖ and make no mention of any Canadian casualties, while J.M.
Bumsted‘s two volume text The People of Canada mentions the Fenian national emergency only George W. Brown, Building the Canadian Nation, Toronto: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1942. pp. 317-318 Donald Creighton, The Road to Confederation, Toronto: MacMillan, 1964. p. 385 Mark McGowan to Peter Wronski, e-mail, February 3, 2010 See Frank Basil Tracy, The Tercentenary History of Canada, Vol. 3, New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1908, p. 925-927; George Bryce, A Short History of the Canadian People, Toronto: William Briggs, 1914; p. 424O.D. Skelton, The Canadian Dominion, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1919, p. 145; R.G.
Trotter, Canadian Federation, Toronto: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1924, p. 316 W. Stewart Wallace, A First Book of Canadian History, Toronto: MacMillan, 1928 Anthony D‘Angelo, The 1866 Fenian Raid on Canada West: A Study of Colonial Perceptions and Reactions Towards the Fenians in the Confederation Era, M.A. dissertation, Kingston: Queen‘s University, 2009. p. 9 twice in nearly one thousand pages of Canadian history.75 From the texts which were used at University of Toronto for Canadian undergraduate history when I was a teaching assistant there in 2003-2006, Destinies, mentions the Fenian raids only once, makes no mention of any casualties at Ridgeway and refers students to an Australian website for further information on the Fenian raids of Canada, while the other text, Readings in Canadian History makes no mention of the Fenian raids at all.76 In general, Ridgeway and the Fenian Crisis remain absent from our national story and historiography to the point that few Canadians today have ever heard of it.
“It was a hot day and I was thirsty.” In the end, the memory of Ridgeway dissipated in a process of natural ruin where the uncelebrated comes to be forgotten and insignificant as the participants pass on. With only the falsified findings of the inquiries and newspaper polemics but no actual foundation of authentic historical discourse to sustain it, the memory of Ridgeway became meaningless and mute—an overgrown ruin whose purpose is forgotten—like one of those rusting military roadside wrecks whose once living crew is now nameless and its fate unknown.
In 1903 the commemoration coverage in the Globe was reduced once again to a small paragraph and by 1907 the event had been moved to the privacy of the cemeteries where the fallen had been buried—it was no longer the mass public event it had been in the 1890s and gradually had become gradually disconnected from June 2 and moved closer to Victoria Day in May. In 1899 the Northwest veterans had objected to observing Decoration Day on the June 2 anniversary of Ridgeway and broke away establishing their own date on May 13, but their J.M. Bumsted, The Peoples of Canada: A Post-Confederation History, p. 12; The Peoples of Canada: A PreConfederation History, Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1992, p. 334 R. Douglas Francis, Richard Jones, Donald Smith, Origins: Canadian History to Confederation,[5th edition] Toronto: Thomson-Nelson, 2004. pp. 469-470; p. 476; R. Douglas Francis, Donald Smith, Readings in Canadian History,[6th edition] Toronto: Thomson-Nelson, 2002 ceremony in Toronto was still held at the Ridgeway Volunteers monument.77 With the new casualties of the South African War to commemorate, in June 1903 a joint Decoration Day was observed for the first time and in the future held either in the last week of May or the first in June.78 By the early 1910s, Decoration Day faded as did its mention in the newspapers. The Great War 1914-1918 sadly resurrected Decoration Day as a national memorial day. In 1916, in the midst of the war, on the fiftieth anniversary of Ridgeway the cornerstone for a monument was laid at a five-acre site on the Garrison Road side of the battlefield, approximately where the schoolhouse stood and where the ridge began its rise towards the north. Today it is a National Historic battlefield site administrated by Parks Canada with a cairn that marks the spot. One of the surviving cabins which was used during the battle as a field hospital was relocated to the site.
Further down the road in the town of Ridgeway is a battlefield museum and Fort Erie‘s historical archives. The battlefield itself, east of Ridge Road between Garrison and Bertie, until very recently had remained untouched, although the orchards and wheat fields have long disappeared, but it is now facing extinction under creeping housing developments that threaten to wipe it off the face of the earth forever.
On June 1, 1930 eight surviving Ridgeway veterans in their eighties marched in St. Catharines in the last Decoration Day parade as passing aircraft scattered red poppy flowers over them like the soft petals of the apple blossoms that had rained down on both the living and the dead in the orchards at Limestone Ridge sixty-four year earlier.79 After that the men appeared no more.
After the First World War, Decoration Day remained Canada‘s national memorial day for all veterans until the November 11 Armistice Day was transformed into Remembrance Day by Globe, April 8, 1899 Maroney, ―‗Lest we forget‘‖ Globe, June 2, 1930 an act of Parliament in 1931, while Thanksgiving Day was permanently moved back a month to October.80 The Ridgeway veterans were excluded from the new Remembrance Day—the honour was to be extended only as far back as to those who fought in the South African War. The embarrassing wars we fought at home were to be forgotten. The federal Veterans Affairs Canada website bluntly states today, ―Remembrance Day commemorates Canadians who died in service to Canada from the South African War to current missions. It is held every November 11.‖81 On November 9, 1936 the Hamilton Spectator noted that ―the last but one‖ of the remaining Fenian Raid veterans from the 13th Battalion, Thomas Kilvington, had died. Allan Land, ninety-two years old was the only one left standing of the ‗boys‘ from Hamilton.82 When Globe & Mail columnist Frank Jones was a boy growing up in Toronto in the early 1930s, he met an old man who had fought at Ridgeway with the Queen‘s Own Rifles as an eighteenyear old. In his boyish curiosity and enthusiasm, Jones pestered the man to tell him about the battle he had fought in, but the old soldier would always fall silent and shake his head refusing to say anything. No matter how much Jones asked, he never said a word about it until one day he showed Jones his Fenian Raid medal and said only a single sentence, the only one thing he would ever say about fighting at Limestone Ridge. ―It was a hot day and I was thirsty.‖ Jones did not understand the old soldier‘s stubborn tight-lipped reticence until years later when it was made crystal clear to him one day in 1943 on a hilltop in Italy.83 http://www.vac-acc.gc.ca/general/sub.cfm?source=teach_resources/remdayfact; www.calendarupdates.com/info/holidays/canada/remembrance.aspx [retrieved October 10, 1866] Wood argues that the militia lobbied in the 1890s to move Thanksgiving Day to October for the Canadian holiday in the hopes of enjoying better weather and larger audiences for its Church parade. Wood, p. 30 http://www.vac-acc.gc.ca/remembers/sub.cfm?source=teach_resources/remdayfact [retrieved January 7, 2010] Hamilton Spectator, November 9, 1936 Frank Jones, ―Was Invaded at Fort Erie by the Fenians‖, The Globe and Mail, November 10, 1956, p. 25 Chapter 12: Conclusion Firstly, this study has determined that the number of Canadians killed in the Fenian raids was three times the 9 claimed on the plaque of the Volunteers Monument and by historians today.
The actual death toll was 31 when including deaths resulting from disease as military casualty statistics normally do. These additional twenty-two deaths of men from various scattered units in communities beyond Toronto and Hamilton are invisible to our history and have never appeared anywhere in the public record. The final toll of wounded and sick is likewise higher than the initially claimed 72; it was 103 wounded and sick including a female civilian shot by accident.
The definitive final answer to the key question as to what went wrong on Limestone Ridge, what caused the panicked rout is lost to us in the proverbial fog of war. The assembly, however, of the collective evidence in this study indicates that most likely the retreat was first triggered in the rear lines, and not on the front line of combat, by the arrival of the redcoat 13th Battalion reserves, which were mistaken by the volunteers in the centre for British regulars coming to their relief. The cheer emitted by the troops at the centre and their turn and rush towards the rear to clear the way for what they thought were British regulars, appeared to the arriving 13th relief as a retreat. They joined it resulting in the collapse of the entire rear without the front lines in combat even aware of what was occurring. This is an ironic scenario, as it means that the collapse occurred entirely behind the lines of combat and not at the front where the volunteers were actually the most engaged with and exposed to the Fenian enemy. That the rear turned and collapsed into retreat while the front fought on, is perhaps the unhappily distinguishing character of Ridgeway that is necessary for the battle to have some relevant place in general military historiography. However, to say this was the singular cause of the disaster would be too much. This thesis described a complex sequencing and stacking of events and errors both on tactical and strategic levels, each on their own sometimes insignificant, but taken together, collectively contributed to the debacle that Ridgeway became.
On the tactical level, a key error, again, occurred in the middle, not on the front line of battle, when Booker formed his men into a square to defend against non-existent cavalry, not only exposing his men to Fenian fire, but crowding and confusing the deployment of his men in a narrow road confined by fences. From that point on, Booker‘s every command to regain control of the formations, only further contributed to the chaos and confusion. All this was occurring behind the advanced combat lines on the left and right flanks of the middle, which O‘Neill reported he had difficulty in drawing out. The confusion, the calls of cavalry, were all reported by the Canadian front lines in combat as occurring behind them, not around them.
The precise sequence of the three events—the forming of the square, the arrival of the relief, and the Fenian bayonet charge—is unclear. The bayonet charge appears to dislodge the middle center and not the advanced left and right flanks. There is very little testimony from the advanced units as to their response to the bayonet charge—and it is possible it was directed only at the centre, which again, O‘Neill described as having difficulty in drawing out. That would make sense as well, as the centre with its road was more conducive to a bayonet charge than the fields with their orchards, fences and the abandoned Fenian barricades across which the Fenians would have had to counter-attack. It appears that the Fenian charge was in a column advancing down the road. That leaves a mystery unsolved: when did the advanced left and right flanks, fall into the retreat?