«Combat, Memory and Remembrance in Confederation Era Canada: The Hidden History of the Battle of Ridgeway, June 2, 1866 Peter Wronski (Peter Vronsky) ...»
Without a doubt, Company No. 9 ―University Rifles‖ advanced the furthest of any Canadian unit that day, not so much as a result of their skill and great courage, which was remarkable for college boys fighting for the first time in their lives against a skilled veteran enemy, but because they lost contact with the rest of their brigade. The twenty-eight university students would find themselves taking the brunt of the Fenian attack and paying the price for it.
The University Rifles suffered the highest casualties of any unit on the field that day and theirs are among some of the most dramatic untold stories in Canadian history, military or otherwise.
This thesis argues that what occurred at Ridgeway is actually a fortuitous event for the boys who found themselves fighting there that day, although few would realize it. From everything we know about how Civil War-era battles were fought, it is clear that the Fenians were luring the Canadian troops forward into the rifle range of their main battle group that was well trained, well led, well armed, well supplied, well informed, well positioned and well dug in, while the Canadians were exactly in opposite circumstances: poorly trained, inexperienced, lost, short of ammunition, weakly led, badly positioned, and completely exposed on unfavourable terrain. Had Booker not bungled their advance, this thesis might have been describing a massacre of much larger proportions, perhaps so big that no amount of falsification could have covered it up and its political ramifications might had been far more extensive and damaging to Macdonald and his government; it might have produced an entirely different Canada.
On a strategic level, the complexities of the chain-of-events described in detail in Chapters 6 and 7, are impossible to review here in the scope of a summary conclusion. From the personal ambitions of Dennis and Booker, the errors in geography and lack of maps, Peacocke‘s stalled march to the obtuseness of Peacocke‘s emissary Captain Akers and the confusion in orders and telegrams, a complex web of circumstances contributed to the disaster. However, while the alteration or removal of any one of most of those events from the scenario would not have changed the overall result on the battlefield, had the time at which the battle began been postponed, it would have given an opportunity for the British and Canadians to unify their forces before attacking the Fenians, (if the Fenians would have remained on the field had the forces unified successfully.) Had only Peacocke responded explicitly to Booker‘s midnight telegram stating he was preparing his men to advance into Fort Erie, rather than relying on his emissary Akers to halt Booker‘s preparations upon his arrival two hours later, an entirely different scenario would have unfolded. In fact, Peacocke‘s assertion that he did not respond to Booker‘s telegram, ―No use answering that, Akers will set it all right when he arrives,‖ does not ring true.
Had Peacocke countermanded Booker at midnight, he would not have had his troops ready to go as early as 5:00 A.M. They were ready because in the two hours or so it took Akers to arrive between midnight and 2:00 A.M, Booker had been preparing and winding up his troops for what he thought was about to be an early morning advance into Fort Erie. It left the eager Booker running ahead of schedule by at least two hours and Peacocke was never able to catch up. From that moment on, Peacocke had lost command and control over Booker, their subsequent telegrams to each other reaching their destinations too late almost every time. Peacocke‘s last message for Booker to delay his departure pending his own late departure arrived a razor‘s edge five-minutes too late as a result—Booker had already left Port Colborne for Ridgeway. As Denison argued, ―This mistake of one hour led to his not receiving the message to delay, and therefore caused him to be really three hours too soon.‖ Booker and Peacocke disputed the timing of their telegrams to each other, and short of finding the actual copies of the telegrams, there is little hope of resolving who is at fault.
Perhaps a deeper search of British military archives on a regimental level might surface the original telegrams that could enlighten the sequence of their times of transmission and receipt.
However, for now, Peacocke‘s admission that he did not respond to Booker‘s telegram, tends to tilt the fault line in the direction of Peacocke in the context of causality. It was an odd break in military communication protocol and Peacocke‘s explanation of it is lame. It is entirely possible as hypothesized, that Peacocke perhaps fell asleep on the message or was negligent in some other way in his lack of response.
Peacocke‘s culpability extends as well to his decisions to hold his reinforcements on the train in Clifton the night before, to delay his march from Chippawa by an hour to serve them breakfast, his choice to follow the guides and proceed by the meandering river road, his decision to spend the afternoon camped at New Germany, his late 5:30 afternoon departure towards Fort Erie, and his decision to halt about three miles short of Fort Erie for the night, were later blamed for the Fenian escape and even the disaster at Limestone Ridge. Had Peacocke not delayed at Chippawa, had he not halted all afternoon at New Germany or had he even left there earlier than 5:30 P.M, he could have either aided Booker at best or at worst prevented the overnight Fenian escape back across the river towards Buffalo by arriving in Fort Erie before the dark of night.
This thesis offered the first unclassified account of the battle at Fort Erie which has been
entirely lost to history. Once revealed, what went wrong in that battle is easier to explain:
seventy-two militia men made a stand against eight hundred Fenians. They were unprepared for urban battle on a checkerboard built up street grid and were outmanoeuvred. Their commanding officer ran away. Remarkably no Canadians were killed while the Fenians suffered marginally more casualties at Fort Erie than they did on Limestone Ridge.
This thesis also offers an entirely different assessment of the enemy from that of the bulk of historiography that characterizes the Fenians as a drunken, farcical mob. On an operational and field level, the Fenians on the Niagara Frontier were more experienced, better led, armed and supplied, had better intelligence and were better prepared than the British and Canadian forces.
That is why they prevailed. The Fenians had a highly effective intelligence service and covert operations arm, as their choice of Limestone Ridge as the battleground and their sabotage of the U.S.S. Michigan attest to. There was nothing farcical about the O‘Neill‘s foray into Canada, and in fact, through a cooler historical prism, it is the Canadian and British response that borders on farce.
As for the Fenian plan for Canada‘s conquest, had they been able to carry out their plan of duplicating at several other strategic points what they were able to do at Buffalo, their objective in the short term of seizing and holding Canadian territory might have been achievable.
Five thousand Fenians assembled at Buffalo and had the Fenians been able to mass the same forces at their other chosen points, and they had the capacity for it, the Fenian invasion would have been of an entirely different scope and might have been temporarily successful if the U.S.
had hung back from intervening, as unlikely as that scenario might be.
The question of the Fenian invasion at Fort Erie as an intelligence failure is a complex one. This thesis argues that while it certainly fits the typically traditional model of ―conditioned intelligence failure‖ in the wake of the previous two alerts, there is evidence that the military command had been calling for a rationalized strategy predicated on getting the Fenians to reveal their attack points by allowing them to actually enter Canadian territory before deploying troops against them. In the context of that strategy, the absence of troops on the Niagara frontier even as late as May 31 becomes understandable.
This thesis brings a number of other issues forth beyond the confines of what happened in this battle. Foremost it aspires to restore the battle to its rightful place in Canadian military historiography as Canada‘s first modern battle and last fought against a major invading force.
The question of modernity is an important one in the general historiography of Canada, but the impact modernity had on combat and its military has never been described nor was the kind of testing of Canadian institutional modernity Ridgeway represented acknowledged. As argued in the introduction, in its own small way, Ridgeway did for Canada what the Civil War did for the United States. This thesis intimately described that process, particularly in the context of ‗future lag‘—an asynchronicity between pre-modern and modern—the muzzle loader vs. the Spencer rifle; medical science vs. the Minie ball; command and control vs. the telegraph and railroad;
state power vs. public opinion and the press—all these things were tested and sometimes redefined by the Fenian Crisis of 1866 and the battle that it climaxed with.
Secondly, because of the controversies and the inquiries held so quickly after the battle, this thesis argued that there exists no reliable, authentic account of the battle and that everything we know about it is based on a contemporary historiography which surrendered to the arbitration of the military boards of inquiry. The Booker Inquiry became the final authoritative source on the Battle of Ridgeway, cemented to the historiography by Macdonald‘s 1910 book and its reprinting of the transcripts, while the complete suppression of the transcripts of the Dennis Inquiry entirely obscured the Battle of Fort Erie. This thesis offers a first authenticated history of the two battles based on all the collective evidence available, including the testimony in the two inquiries.
Finally, this thesis explores some fundamental questions in post-Confederation historiography by describing the process through which the history of the Battle of Ridgeway was falsified and the Battle of Fort Erie was entirely obscured. Why this occurred in the months immediately following the events, considering the debacle that Ridgeway was is of little surprise;
how it was done and what impact this falsification of Canadian history had on the understanding of our past and the nature of our national character is a more salient issue.
This thesis proceeded to describe how virtually the entire historiography of this battle was falsified and described a subsequent sudden renaissance in 1890 of the commemoration of the Battle of Ridgeway to the point that it became Canada‘s national military memorial day— Decoration Day—commemorated in late May or early June until 1931, coinciding in proximity with the battle‘s date and in which by 1931 not only were the fallen of Ridgeway memorialized, but as well those of the South African War and the Great War. Yet, when the national memorial was moved from Decoration Day to Armistice Day on November 11 and renamed Remembrance Day, the casualties of Ridgeway were abandoned again and deemed superfluous to those of the South African War, Great War and all the other subsequent wars in which Canadians fought and died. Something clearly made the historiography of the Battle of Ridgeway useless and unworkable once the living participants of the battle had died—the historical relevance of that battle died with them. This thesis argued that this was a result of the absence of any authentic history of the battle and proposed that a fundamentally deeper dynamic than merely political and career embarrassment in 1866 sustained and buttressed the rewriting and suppression of Ridgeway‘s authentic history.
The Battle of Ridgeway and its immediate erasure, later restoration and subsequent passing from our history, this thesis suggests, is the Rosetta stone to the measure of the depth and longevity of the Reform vs. Tory polarity in Canadian political culture and in the postConfederation interpretation of it constitutional relationship between the federal state in Ottawa and the provinces. It calls to be further investigated thoroughly.
A revision of Ridgeway‘s historiography called for a search for new sources on the Fenian Crisis and the elusive battle that climaxed it. In the Library and Archives of Canada (LAC) in Ottawa, I found a series of files containing accounts recorded in the military medical board compensation applications of soldiers wounded at Ridgeway and their physicians‘ reports which had never been referred to by historians. Also found in Ottawa, was the hand written transcript of the suppressed Military Court of Inquiry into the battle at Fort Erie which survived to tell its story of what happened to the men who made their stand there. LAC also has microfilmed copies of British army correspondence on the Fenian Raids, including the original reports written by the Canadian and British officers involved and some of the battle-time telegrams, which for some inexplicable reason historians have overlooked. The papers of the Militia Department that administrated the volunteers and the Justice Department that prosecuted the captured Fenians and oversaw compensation payments to civilians were invaluable. In the files of the Dominion Deputy Minister of Militia was found the confidential memorandum by Alexander Somerville on the text inserted into his book which he disputed. The ubiquitous John A. Macdonald papers and their McMicken‘s secret service fonds are so huge that they inevitably yielded something new especially when correlated with new sources from the U.S.