«Combat, Memory and Remembrance in Confederation Era Canada: The Hidden History of the Battle of Ridgeway, June 2, 1866 Peter Wronski (Peter Vronsky) ...»
In 2004 on a five-year graduate fellowship at the University of Toronto‘s history department I set out to write a comprehensive history of the Toronto Police and its relationship to the city and its citizens from its founding in 1834 to its amalgamation into Metro in 1958. I did not get very far beyond the 1860s when I began reading, in the Toronto Police archives, orders for infantry training for the constables, reports on fears of secret Fenian plots in the city and lists of ‗prisoners of war‘ taken in June 1866 on the Niagara frontier. The role of the Toronto police in these events was not described or accounted for in the published historiography of the Toronto police and its periodization from village parish watch in 1834 to its emergence as a reformed and professionalized ‗agent of social control‘ in the 1870s.59 Its history in the 1860s bled over Nicholas Rogers, ―Serving Toronto The Good: The Development of the City Police Force 1834-1880‖ in Victor Russell (ed), Forging a Consensus: Historical Essays on Toronto, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984;
Gregory Kealey, ―Orangemen and the Corporation‖, in Victor L Russell; James Edmund Jones, Pioneer Crimes and
Punishments in Toronto and the Home District, Toronto: 1924; Boritch, Helen., The Making of Toronto the Good:
The Organization of Policing and Production of Arrests, 1859 – 1959, unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Toronto, 1985; Cooper, H. S., ―The Evolution of Canadian Police‖, in McGrath, William T. and Mitchell, Michael P., (eds), The Police Function in Canada, Toronto: Methuen Publications, 1981; Homel, Gene Howard Homel, ―Sliders and Backsliders: Toronto's Sunday Tobogganing Controversy of 1912‖, Urban History Review, Vol. X, No.
2, 1981; Gene Howard Homel, ―Denison's Law: Criminal Justice and the Police Court in Toronto, 1877-1921,‖ Ontario History, Vol LXXXIII; Paul Craven, ―Law and Ideology: The Toronto Police Court 1850-80,‖ in D.H.
Flaherty (ed), Essays in the History of Canadian Law, Volume 2, Toronto: Osgoode Society-UofT Press, 1981.
slightly from the reforms of the police in 1858-59 up to 1861 but then fell off into some kind of ‗dark age‘ until the 1870s.60 Like many Canadians, I had only vaguely heard of the Fenian crisis and the invasion in June 1866 and like most I never connected it to the temporal proximity of Confederation—I had not been taught to. Nor had I connected the Confederation process to the American Civil War raging south of the border, other than to the notion that our constitution was carefully drafted and debated in a way to precisely avoid the sovereignist dilemmas that led to the catastrophic war in the United States.
Similarly our popular military heritage seemed to leap from the War of 1812, skipping lightly over the ‗minor‘ 1837 Rebellion/1838 Hunter Lodge-Patriot Raids before landing firmly at the South African War and the World Wars of the twentieth century, Korea and beyond.
There was a hefty eighty-eight-year gap in Canada‘s military narrative, suggesting nothing of any significance other than domestic militia reforms, the departure of the British and the founding of the permanent army in 1883 occurred between 1812 and South Africa in 1900. The deeper I began to inquire into what exactly happened at Ridgeway, the more I realized that despite the immense scale of the events during the Fenian raid, the battle that climaxed them had no history other than a few scant and sketchy sources. There was rarely more than a paragraph or two, if anything, in most standard Canadian histories. There were no photographs of the action or the aftermath or the battlefield despite photography‘s prevalence by 1866 and the vicinity of large urban centres on both sides of the border with photo studios. The lack of available historiography was disproportionate to the scale of obsession and immensity of the threat as represented in the Toronto Police correspondence that I was encountering from that period. This led me on a search for new previously unused sources on the Fenian Crisis and the elusive battle.
Peter Vronsky, ―Note On Toronto Police Historiography‖, www.petervronsky.org/thesis-references In Chapter 4-8, I present a restored authenticated battle narrative—a micro-history—of what took place on June 2, 1866. The micro-history is introduced by a study in Chapters 1-3 of what led up to Ridgeway and contributed to the debacle that occurred, and followed by Chapters 9-12 which describe how and why its history was distorted, suppressed and falsified, only to be restored in 1890 to be forgotten again by the 1930s. Finally, the impact this process had on the battle‘s place and significance to Canadian historiography is assessed.
In conclusion, that the battles at Limestone Ridge and Fort Erie took place in Canada, a mere year before Confederation, such a seminal turning point in our history, and that we not only know just so little about them, but barely even know of them at all, is typically a symptom of our great national cultural malaise: ―What is wrong with Canadian history?‖ This thesis endeavours to answer that question in the case of the Battle of Ridgeway.
Chapter 2: The Origins of the Canadian Volunteer Army When C.P. Stacey said that the American Revolution and Civil War were some of Canada‘s greatest historical events, he was bemoaning just how little our historiography made its connection to events unfolding south of the border. In his Canada and the British Army written at Princeton in 1935, Stacey declared, ―To consider the history of Canada apart from that of the United States of America is not possible, though Canadian writers have sometimes bent to the task with laudable determination.‖1 J.M. S. Careless, for example, in writing his definitive history of the Province of United Canada and the growth of its institutions, ends his history at 1857, suggesting that the remaining decade of history gets pre-empted by that of the Confederation debates.2 This question is sometimes much more thoroughly covered by the rare American scholars of Canada3 or our so-called ‗amateur‘ historian journalists at whom many of our academics hiss and sneer.4 Throughout the Civil War period Canada‘s territorial insecurity was focused on its border with the United States—the venue of the subsequent Fenian incursion in 1866. From the Trent crisis in 1861 to the St. Alban‘s Raid in 1864, the fear of invasion by the United States was palpable and real, and much of the Canadian military and intelligence machine deployed against the Fenians in 1865-1866 had been originally founded to combat the United States Army.
C[harles]. P. Stacey, Canada and the British Army, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1963. p. 117
J.M.S. Careless, The Union of the Canadas: The Growth of Canadian Institutions, 1841-1857, Toronto:
McClelland and Stewart, 1967.
For example: Helen G. Macdonald, Canadian Public Opinion on the American Civil War, New York: Columbia University Press, 1926; Robin W. Winks, Canada and the United States: The Civil War Years, Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 1960 [ only to be published in Canada in its fourth edition, Montreal-Kingston: McGill-Queen‘s University Press, 1998]; Oscar A. Kinchen, Confederate Operations in Canada and the North, North Quincy, Mass;
Christopher Publishing House, 1970; Dennis K. Wilson, Justice Under Pressure: The Saint Albans Raid and Its Aftermath, New York: University Press of America, 1992.
For recent examples of the best: Adam Mayers, Dixie & The Dominion: Canada, the Confederacy and the War for the Union, Toronto: Dundurn Group, 2003; Claire Hoy, Canadians in the Civil War, Toronto: McArthur & Co, 2004; Peter Edwards, Delusion: The True Story of Victorian Superspy Henri Le Caron, Toronto: Key Porter Books, The Making of the New Militia, 1855 The genesis of the Canadian army—and perhaps arguably of Confederation of Canada itself— was in Britain‘s reluctance by the mid-1850s to maintain extensive troop deployments in Canada.
When Upper and Lower Canada were established in 1791, Britain possessed only twenty-two colonies—by 1845 she had forty-five.5 The problem was not so much keeping troops in these territories but the enormous cost of relieving them and redeploying them in emergencies. When in 1846 the Whigs came to power in Britain they began a concerted effort to reduce British troop deployment in British North America, expecting that colonists would undertake their own defence with a minimum of British help. The Crimean War in 1854 forced the issue as British troop strength in British North America was substantially denuded. After the Crimean War, British deployment levels in Canada were partially restored but then in May 1857 the great Indian Mutiny broke out, and again there was a drain on the British army. This was followed by a crisis in Europe in 1859 as hostilities between France and Austria arose. Clearly this shuffling of British troops in and out of distant Canada could not go on—the Canadians had to defend themselves.
Under Canada‘s early colonial militia laws all able-bodied men between the ages of eighteen and sixty were liable for military service with the exception of clergy and Quakers.
Males were enrolled in militia companies and were required in times of peace to report for an annual muster. Other than that there was no drill or training. Officers were appointed for their social standing and prominence rather than for their military knowledge or experience. Known by the quaint term ―sedentary militia‖ these units could not take the field except in a local emergency or a military threat to Canada. As long as it operated with a robust deployment of Stacey, Canada and the British Army, p. 55 British troops behind it, this militia system proved to be sufficient for the War of 1812, the 1837 Rebellions and the Hunter Lodge-Patriot Raids from the U.S. in 1838. While there was some tinkering with Canada‘s militia structure during the Oregon Crisis in 1845 as Britain and the U.S.
faced a possible war over where the border lay between Oregon and what would become British Columbia, Canada‘s defence system basically remained the same until the Crimean War began to drain British troops away in 1854.6 The Militia Act of 1855 introduced a string of reforms that would eventually lead to the establishment of the current dual Canadian military system of a fulltime permanent regular army first established in 1883 backed by a trained volunteer militia force, today called the ‗Primary Reserve.‘7 The 1855 act provided for the creation in the Province of Canada of a 5,000 man ‗active‘ militia; its volunteer infantry would undergo ten days of paid training and its artillery twenty days. Backing this 5,000 man trained force would be an unpaid reserve of ‗sedentary‘ militia consisting as before of all males between the ages of sixteen and sixty who were required to muster only once a year as before. The act also for the first time provided for conscription by balloting if needed. The active militia was first organized into independent companies of approximately thirty to fifty men each. Again, socially prominent citizens sponsored, organized and led these companies.
In 1859 the independent companies began to be grouped into battalions. In Montreal, Canada East, nine infantry companies were gathered into the First Battalion of Volunteer Militia Rifles of Canada—today the Canadian Grenadier Guards. In Canada West in 1860, four rifle companies from Toronto and a company each from Barrie and Whitby, were formed into the Second Battalion, which eventually took on the name Queen‘s Own Rifles (QOR), celebrating at Ernst J Chambers, The Canadian Militia: Origins and Development of the Force, Montreal: L.M. Fresco, 1907 Harris, pp. 11-21 this writing one hundred-fifty years of continuous service in the Canadian military paradoxically going back seven years before Confederation.8 The amalgamation of companies into battalions immediately revealed an underlying problem which will have significant impact when the Canadian militia will be tested for the first time in combat at Limestone Ridge. When an attempt was made to transfer men from one company to another to ―equalize‖ the strength of companies in a battalion, there were protests and resignations. Each company was really a tight-knit social club reflecting the civilian origins of its members who were often carefully selected and who paid dues to join and serve in the company.9 This mirroring of civilian society reflected as well the factional rivalries and divisions among the ruling elite who made up the officer class. The extent of the impact this mirroring will have on the leadership at Ridgeway in 1866 can be argued, but its impact on the subsequent historiography of the battle, as we shall see, will be inarguably large.
As trade between the U.S. and Canada boomed through the 1850s and no apparent hostility or threat arose, the condition of the militia began to decline. Neither the British nor the Canadian parliaments wanted to pay for maintaining this active force. Paid training days were reduced in number and the number of paid men per company was also reduced to thirty men maximum. By March 1861, the militia was once again on its way to being decrepit and entirely dependent on the British army which by this point had limited its deployment in North America to less than 4,300 men of all ranks, of which only 2,263 were stationed in the Province of Canada.10 Canada‘s militia was only on paper, many of its men not having reported for drill in years.