Saturday 2 June 2012

June 3, 1876 - 10th Anniversary of the Battle of Ridgeway

Last evening the splendid band of the XIII Battalion gave their third concert of the season. The attendance was very large and select showing that this style of amusement is getting popular with our citizens.
Hamilton Spectator  June 3, 1876
The concert presented by the Thirteenth Battalion Band included more musical selections of a military nature than were usually included in the band’s repertoire:
“Under the able management of Mr. Robinson, the band played several difficult selections in beautiful style, keeping good time and blending their notes well. It being the anniversary of Ridgeway, the selections had a martial tone, which was very acceptable. The next concert will be held on Friday evening next, when it hoped a still larger audience will be present.”
It was only ten years previously that Hamilton soldiers were involved in a battle not very far from the city itself.
Shortly after the conclusion of the American Civil War, Canada was actually invaded by members of the Fenian Brotherhood, based in the United States. The purpose of the Fenian Raids was mainly to influence England, by attacking one of her colonies, to withdraw from Ireland, allowing it to become an independent nation.
Approximately 600 to 700 Fenians were confronted at Ridgeway a tiny hamlet, west of the community of Fort Erie,by members of the volunteer militia units of Canada West, including Hamilton’s own Thirteenth Battalion.
On the 10th anniversary of the Battle of Ridgeway, there were observations marking the Fenian Raids and the following account of the battle by one who participated in the effort to repulse the invaders:
“Yesterday was the tenth anniversary of the celebrated fight of Ridgeway. All day long a flag floated from the staff on the drill shed and little knots of men stood at the street corners discussing the time when they, unexpected volunteers, marched against an invading horde who intended the destruction of their country. It does not seem ten years ago since the alarm swept like wildfire over the country, to the effect that the Fenians had crossed the borders; it does not seem ten years ago since the XIIIth left to meet them, or when the news came home that they had been routed at Ridgeway and a number of them killed and wounded.
Last evening a number of the veterans assembled at a popular rendezvous in this city, and over a dish of salmon chowder, discussed the now celebrated campaign.
The clever sketch of the campaign by the campaign by the pen of Lieut. MacMahon, of the Field Battery, was read, and from this we obtain the following details of the action : -
Early on the morning of the 1st of June 1866, the alarm spread through Hamilton. The greatest excitement prevailed, as the numbers of the enemy were exaggerated, and more than that, three hundred of Hamilton’s men were about to leave to meet the invaders. At seven o’clock, the Battalion mustered (in one hour’s notice), unfurled their colors, and marched away to the station with the best wishes of every good citizen of Hamilton. A special train awaited them at the station by which they were conveyed to Paris, thence down the Grand Trunk Railroad to Dunnville, where they arrived at 2:30 p.m. The troops were immediately billeted throughout the town, there not being sufficient hotel accommodation for all, and the men were just beginning to feel at ease, when the assembly call sounded, and the boys had to board the cars once more. They crossed the Welland Canal at Port Colbourne, and at daybreak next morning the train halted about six miles from Ridgeway. Here they were joined by the Queen’s Own Rifles, and together the two battalions marched upon the enemy. They had marched about  one hour and a half when they suddenly came upon the enemy , when the fight commenced.
The following graphic sketch of the fight is clipped from Lieut. McMahon’s interesting article :
The right wing of the Queen’s Own was immediately thrown out into skirmishing line. This line extended out to the right and left of the road, and presented a front of about two hundred yards in length. The left wing of the same corps was to act as supports, and formed a short distance in rear of the line, while the 13th stood in close column, in reserve, half a mile further back. These movements were the work of but a few minutes. Directly after their execution, the order was given to the line, by a bugler, to “Fire and Advance ! ” and then the fight began. The line opened independent fire in a lively manner, and the enemy, as soon as he had collected his senses, returned the compliment with a vengeance. The firing was kept up pretty steadily for fifteen or twenty minutes, our line having advanced over a couple of fields. The air began to fill with smoke. The smell of powder, the whizzing of the enemy’s bullets and a sight of a bleeding dead body of an officer of the Queen’s Own, as it is borne to the rear, together with the intense excitement, almost made the heart stand still and awakened a new and strange series of thoughts in the minds of the young participants.
Our line continued to advance over the fields, keeping up the fire, and the enemy was forced to fall back towards the woods on the right of the road. Assistance was asked for from the right of the line, when the Highland company of the Queen’s Own was despatched to take up position on the extreme right. The companies in support, and the reserve, of course, kept following up at their proper distances in the rear of the skirmishers, to be ready for any other emergency. It was plainly to be seen from the start that the enemy by far outnumbered us, was disciplined in the kind of warfare he was engaged in and was composed of a hardened and desperate class of men. It was well known that the Fenian army consisted chiefly of old soldiers collected together out of recently disbanded regiments of the U.S. Army, and, although it was looked upon over there as a rabble, yet they were not the pleasantest sort of people to meet on an occasion of this kind. They were well armed, h plenty of ammunition, and evidently had the benefit of a substantial breakfast that morning, for, as we advanced over the ground from which they had been driven and upon which they had camped the night before, we found the ashes of their camp fires still hot on the ground, strewed about with cooked and uncooked provisions. A number of rifles, a few officers’ swords and various other articles of a like nature were also left scattered about. The fighting had now continued half an hour or more; we had lost three or four dead or wounded and had advanced about a mile under fire, when the report “ammunition expended” came from the front. One company of the Queen’s Own had been armed with repeating rifles, which were capable of discharging twelve shots per minute, and it was this one company which had sent back the report. The reserve was immediately ordered to the relief. The 13th doubled up in splendid style and quickly took up the ground occupied by the Queen’s Own, the right wing composing companies 1, 2 and, relieving the skirmishers, and the left wing – companies 4, 5, and 6 – the supports. The Queen’s Own doubled into close column, fell back and took up position in reserve half a mile in rear, where the party in charge of the colors was located. No. 1 was now on the right, No. 2 in the centre, and No. 3 on the left of the skirmishing line. The company of “Rangers” doubled out to the extreme left, while the Highland company was peppering away on the extreme right.  These changes were, of course, executed without interrupting the fire, and the new line went to work like men. The smoke became so dense at times that nothing could be seen anywhere about. Field after field was crossed, and the only available shelter our boys could have against the enemy’s bullets was an occasional rail fence. The main body of the Fenians had by this time gained the woods, which were now but a short distance to the right of the road, and continued to fire and fall under the cover of the trees, having left some of their dead in the fields behind. Luckily for us, we advanced so rapidly as to keep pace with the enemy’s range, and the bullets went whizzing through the air, mostly over our heads.
A portion of the Fenians had entrenched themselves behind a farm house, a barn, a pig-sty, and a stone fence, and were making a desperate stand to maintain their ground. The firing now became hotter than ever, and the excitement for a time was awful. Several of our men were wounded here, among others Lieut. R---. of the left wing, and Private S----. of No. 3 company who were shot in the breast and neck respectively. A few, my near rank men included, actually fell down through excessive fatigue, and had to be carried to the rear.
The Fenians were finally driven from their stronghold, and, amid a loud hurrah from our side, rushed off to join their friends in the bush. Meantime, the left of the line ad swung round over the stone fence behind the barn, through an orchard and down a slightly sloping hill, while the right remained stationary near the house. This movement slightly changed our front to the right, and gave a better range against the enemy. The Fenians were falling well back into the woods, and many were getting out of the way as fast as their legs would carry them. Two or three mounted officers could be seen moving about in the bush, and some of our boys amused themselves by sending the leaden messages towards them, but there were too many trees for direct communication. The Fenians kept up the fire, and their bullets came whacking against our apple trees and among our limbs, dropping the leaves like autumn frost. The day had grown insufferably hot, and, not a drop of water could be had to quench the burning thirst. Wet with perspiration, covered with dust, and faces and hands blackened by powder and smoke, our boys presented a ghastly appearance. The fighting continued, and the woods in front and on the right were alive with Fenians. From the enemy’s fire, we discovered that we had advanced too rapidly, and although the Highland Company had been working like Trojans all morning, still the woods on the right had not been thoroughly cleaned out as the line advanced. This was about the position of things when, about noon, that fatal order was given, “Retire, form square and prepare for cavalry.”  The order sounded a third time before the left of the line acted upon it, when No. 3 Company doubled together, formed square on its own ground, fixed bayonets and awaited the approach of cavalry. We had been standing about five or six minutes when a terrible volley was heard behind, in the direction of the reserve. Soon after No. 3 Company doubled through the orchard, up the hill and around in front of the house, when – oh, horror of horrors ! – we were struck dumb with amazement. The widest excitement prevailed. Far down the road, in the fields, everywhere, we could see our boys falling back in the utmost disorder. The reserve had formed a solid square, in obedience to orders, and the enemy in the woods nearby, having understood our bugle call, immediately rallied and fired a volley of bullets into the solid body. Four or five brave fellows of the Queen’s Own dropped dead at the feet of their comrades. There was no cavalry; but the mistake was discovered too late, another movement and another volley of deadly bullets, more terrible than the first, might be expected. The only safety was in separation, and the quickest way to separate was to break the ranks, and then the band of brave Volunteers – which had fought so nobly all morning, which had advanced so steadily under fire, which had driven the enemy before it, and put him completely to flight – dissolved and fell back. A panic set in, which soon became universal. A few minutes later the whole force was scattered and moving back to Ridgeway. I lingered a few minutes about the place looking for friends, some of whom I had not seen since the engagement began, but meeting with poor luck in this respect, I finally concluded to follow the crowd and sauntered along at the tail end of the retreat. The enemy, following up for a short distance, continued the fire. A little way down the road I fell in with a few members of the Highland Company, one of whom had a Fenian rifle which he was carrying back as a trophy. We were all examining the weapon, and I had just taken t into my hands when a Fenian bullet from the rear struck the poor fellow who had handed it to me, and he fell dead at our feet. His friends carried his body along with them. A little further on, Private P---, of the No. 3 Company, 13th, was shot in the leg, and in many a fence corner along the road, a poor fellow might be seen stretched out, completely used up. The farm houses along the road had all been deserted, and nothing in the shape of edibles could be had at Ridgeway, so that the only alternative was to go to Port Colborne, some twelve or fourteen miles distant. I had now met with several of my acquaintances, and after expressions of natural disgust with the termination of the day’s struggle, we decided to take the railway track, and jogged along together. Being in an almost exhausted condition, our progress slow. About half way down, we were met with a locomotive and a baggage car, and when the man in charge learned the state of things, he determined to take our party on board, and backed down to Port Colborne, where we arrived late in the afternoon. A large number of the volunteers had reached there before us, and hundreds of people had collected about the station. Wrapping my overcoat about myself and rifle, I lay down upon the front platform, and, amid all the tumultuous excitement, fell asleep. A couple of hours afterwards, I was awakened by one of my comrades who had discovered a hotel where refreshments could be procured. Later in the evening all the companies reformed, and the 13th was once more in shape. The school house at Port Colborne was given up as a barracks, and the 13th immediately took possession. At twelve o’clock the same night, the Battalion was ordered out, and paraded on the bank beside the canal. Shortly after, the citizens arrived from Hamilton with provisions for the men. It was then generally understood that the Battalion was to leave at once to join the main brigade under Col. Peacock, and that a battle was to take place that (Sunday) morning. After waiting several hours, the senior who was now in command, received orders which resulted in the battalion being ordered back to barracks, where it remained for the next twenty days guarding the mouth of the canal.”

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