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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)

    A thesis submitted in conformity with the requirements

    For the degree of Doctor of Philosophy

    Department of History

    University of Toronto

    © Copyright by Peter Wronski (2011)

    Peter Wronski (Peter Vronsky)

    Ph.D. program, 2011

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    Department of History, University of Toronto

    ABSTRACT

    Combat, Memory and Remembrance in Confederation Era Canada: the hidden history of

    the Battle of Ridgeway, June 2, 1866.

    On June 1, 1866, one thousand heavily-armed Irish-American Fenian insurgents invaded Upper

    Canada across the Niagara River from Buffalo, NY. The next day near the town of Ridgeway,

    800 Fenians battled with 850 Canadian volunteer soldiers, including a small company of 28

    University of Toronto students who ended up taking the brunt of the attack. The Battle of

    Ridgeway (or Lime Ridge or Limestone Ridge) ended with a disastrous rout of the Canadians

    who in their panicked retreat left their dead and wounded on the field. It was the last major

    incursion into Canada, the last battle in Ontario and the first modern one fought by Canadians,

    led in the field exclusively by Canadian officers, and significantly fought in Canada.

    The Fenian Raid mobilized some 22,000 volunteer troops and resulted in the suspension

    of habeas corpus in the colonial Province of Canada by its Attorney General and Minister of

    Militia John A. Macdonald, but the battle which climaxed this crisis is only prominent by its

    obscurity in Canadian historiography. Almost everything known and cited about Ridgeway

    springs from the same sources—four books and pamphlets—three of them published in the

    summer of 1866 immediately after the event and the remaining one in 1910.

    This dissertation argues that the history of the battle was distorted and falsified by these

    sources and by two military board of inquiries staged to explicitly cover up the extent of the

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    disaster. This study investigates the relationship between the inquiries and the contemporary

    author-historians of two of the sources: Alexander Somerville, an investigative journalist in

    Hamilton, Ontario, a recent immigrant from Britain with a controversial history; and George T.

    Denison III, a prominent young Toronto attorney, a commander of a troop of volunteer cavalry, a

    former Confederate secret service agent, author-commentator on Canada‘s military policy and

    presiding judge on both boards of inquiry.

    This study describes the process by which Ridgeway‘s history was hidden and falsified

    and its possible scope and significance in Canadian historiography. New archival and published

    sources are identified, assessed and assembled for a newly restored and authenticated micro-

    narrative of the battle.

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    Table of Contents

    Maps v

    Source Abbreviations x

    Table of Values xi

    1. Introduction: The Forgotten Battle of Ridgeway 1

    2. The Origins of the Canadian Volunteer Army 35

    3. The Rise of the Fenian Threat 51

    4. The Fenian Landing in Fort Erie Morning, June 1, 1866 78

    5. The Military Response in Upper Canada, June 1, 1866 97

    6. The Seed to Disaster, Night, June 1-2, 1866 136

    7. Limestone Ridge, Morning, June 2, 1866 176

    8. The Stand at Fort Erie, Afternoon, June 2, 1866 231

    9. Booker‘s Run and ‗The Whistler at the Plough‘ June-July, 1866 271

    10. The Dennis Inquiry and the Fenian Raid Aftermath 1866 312

    11. ‗Righteousness Exalteth a Nation‘: Memory and Remembrance 334

    12. Conclusion 361

    Notes on Sources 370

    Bibliography 373

  • v

    MAPS

  • vi

    REGION MAP BASED ON GEORGE T. DENISON’S SKETCH “ROAD LT.COL. BOOKER SHOULD HAVE TAKEN” (MG 29 E29 VOL. 43, FILE 1, LAC)

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    Source Abbreviations

    ARCAT Archives of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto

    CTA City of Toronto Archives

    DCB Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online (http://www.biographi.ca)

    DFUSCF Despatches from U.S. Consuls in Fort Erie Canada 1865-1906,

    Records of the Foreign Service Posts of the Department of State, 1788-1964,

    RG84; (National Archives Microfilm Publication T465, roll 1) National Archives

    at College Park, College Park, MD. (NARA)

    DFUSCT Despatches From U.S. Consuls in Toronto, Canada 1864-1906

    United States Consular Records for Toronto; Records of the Foreign Service Posts

    of the Department of State, 1788-1964, RG84; (National Archives Microfilm

    Publication T491, roll 1) College Park, MD. (NARA)

    FEHM Fort Erie Historical Museum, Ridgeway.

    FRSR Fenian Raid Service Records, Adjutant General‘s Office, United Canada,

    Pensions and Land Grants, RG9 IC5; Volumes 30-32. Compensation of Injuries,

    Wounds, etc, Received on Active Service Fenian Raids 1866-1868, Library and

    Archives of Canada (LAC)

    LAC Library and Archives of Canada

    LBCC Letter Books of the Chief Constable 1859-1921

    RG9/Fond 38 Toronto Police Service, Series 90, City of Toronto Archives (CTA)

    MRFR Miscellaneous Records Relating to the Fenian Raids

    British Military and Naval Records "C" Series,

    Miscellaneous Records RG8-1, Volume 1672;

    [Microfilm reels C-4299 to C-4300], LAC

    WDR War Department Reports 1863 – 1872, Division of the Atlantic, Department of

    the East, RG 393: Records of the U.S. Army Continental Commands, 1817 –

    1940, Inventory Identifier 1428, National Archives Building, Washington D.C.

    (NARA)

    NA/PRO National Archives, UK, former Public Records Office

    NARA National Archives and Records Administration

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    TABLE OF VALUES

    $1.00 Canadian (c.1866-1870) = $26.70 (purchasing power in 2005) 1

    1 yard = 0.91 meters

    1 mile = 1.64 kilometres

    1 pound = 0.45 kilograms

    1 ounce = 28.3 grams

    1 grain = 0.064 grams (0.002 ounces)

    1 James Powel, History of the Canadian Dollar, Ottawa: Bank of Canada, 2005. Appendix A, p. 88

  • 1

    Chapter 1. Introduction: The Forgotten Battle of Ridgeway

    In the early morning hours of June 1, 1866, approximately 1,000 Irish-American Fenian

    insurgents invaded Canada from Buffalo, N.Y. across the Niagara River. They occupied the

    town of Fort Erie and after seizing horses and supplies and posting pickets, the main Fenian

    force began heading inland threatening the Welland Canal system ten miles away. The next

    morning on Limestone Ridge near the village of Ridgeway, 841 militia volunteers from Toronto,

    Hamilton and York and Caledonia counties, fought with an approximately equal number of

    Fenians. After a two-hour battle, the Fenians forced the Canadians to retreat back towards the

    Welland Canal. Aware that British and Canadian reinforcements were in the vicinity, the

    Fenians did not pursue the retreating volunteers but instead wheeled back to the town of Fort

    Erie just across the river from the safety of their base in Buffalo and U.S. territory.

    Arriving in force at Fort Erie in the afternoon, the Fenians found the town now held by a

    small 71-man detachment of local Canadian marines * and artillery gunners armed only with

    rifles, dropped off on the shore by a high-speed steam tug. The vessel contained some 50 Fenian

    prisoners captured earlier that day by the unit. Outnumbered ten-to-one, the Canadians made a

    stand against a massive wave of attacking Fenians descending down upon them from the town‘s

    hillside while the boat that brought them there cast-off without them. A vicious house-to-house

    battle unfolded in the town‘s streets, storefronts, yards, railway tracks and riverside wharfs in

    which several Canadians were severely wounded while thirty-seven were taken prisoner by the

    Fenians. Among the few who managed to escape was the commanding officer of the

    detachment.

    * Although Canada had and has no formal ‗marines‘, the ship borne company of infantry trained with its vessel to

    deploy from it to shore and was formally called a ―Naval Brigade.‖

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    Early the next morning on June 3, the Fenians finding their supplies and relief cut off by

    U.S. Navy gunboats on the Niagara River decided to withdraw from Canada. Releasing their

    prisoners, the Fenians attempted to cross back into Buffalo but were intercepted by the gunboats

    and taken prisoner, ending the Fenian raid into Canada West (as Upper Canada was formally

    called then.) Thus while the Canadians were defeat