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RIDGEWAY: A UNIQUE REENACTING OPPORTUNITY
by Paul Winslow
At 11:00 on the night of June 23 after a nine-hour drive, my son Dominic and I found ourselves crossing the Peace Bridge at Buffalo, NY. At Canadian Customs the agent asked us, "Why are you entering Canada?" We told her we were there for the reenactment of the Fenian Raid; she pointed over her shoulder and said, "It's over there." She explained that there was no $50.00 fee for our muskets because they were to be used in an educational activity. We had no pistols with us since we were warned in the event kit and during two phone conversations with Tim Warnick, the event organizer, not to try to bring them into Canada. A short drive to Old Fort Erie, Ontario, brought us to the camps of what was billed "The 135th anniversary 'Battle of Ridgeway' Fenian Raid".
At the center of the "raid" was the June 2, 1866, Battle of Ridgeway, which was the largest Irish stand-at-arms between the Rising of 1798 and the Irish War of Independence in 1919. Nine hundred Irish soldiers of the Fenian Brotherhood, commanded by Col. John O'Neill, met and defeated thirteen hundred soldiers of the Crown in what was supposed to be a diversion to draw Crown forces away from Montreal and Quebec City. In the end the diversion amounted to the whole fight. US President Johnson, after giving his tacit approval to the planned invasion, reversed himself after Britain paid claims remaining from the Civil War and threatened war if the US did not stop the Fenians. The overall Plan of Attack of Maj. Gen. Thomas Sweeney, commander of the Fenian troops, involved upwards to 30,000 men, the largest part of which were poised in upstate New York for a dash at Montreal once O'Neill's diversion had its effect.
We were beginning our eighth year as reenactors when we saw the announcement of the 135th reenactment of the "Fenian Raid" in the December issue of Camp Chase Gazette; we vowed to attend. We were further enticed by the promise of it being a "One-time living history weekend." We had always portrayed Fenians in our Civil War impressions and always made their cause part of our presentations to groups and spectators at Civil War events. To some extent it was art imitating life in that we were also active in Irish causes when not lost in the '60's.
We pulled into the parking lot on the west bank of the Niagara River. Across the wide stream, the lights of Buffalo glowed. We donned our equipages. We travel light. Since the 135th Gettysburg event, we had moved from "A" tent, to dog, to bedroll or pack and shed coolers, carrying a pound of salted meat per day, a pound of hardtack per day, and coffee. We drifted into this without knowing there was a name for this quest for authenticity. We turned to head for the camps and Old Fort Erie loomed above us. Crossing the road, we entered the Fenian camp. We were greeted by Provost Lenny Denommee (Second Mississippi) and soon the event organizer Tim Warnick (Co. A, Ninth NY Cav.), both Canadian and their units are Canadian. They expressed appreciation and a bit of puzzlement at the fact that we traveled a third of the way across the continent. Our only explanation was that the Fenian "cause" will make you to do things out of the ordinary. We then swung into discussions of events attended, the Canadian reenacting scene and the Missouri reenacting scene. With that we spread our rubber blankets next to a fire, wrapped ourselves in our double blanket, and slept. Our slumber was interrupted by a predawn shower, which caused us to decamp to a huge ancient tree for a few more winks. We rose at dawn to face the day.
The light of the new day revealed a camp of men dressed in a mixture of civilian cloths and Civil War accoutrements. Few of the Fenian units were uniformed. They moved around camp preparing rations, drilling and generally performing camp duties of soldiers in the 1860's. At the far end of the field others were moving about their camps in the same manner but their uniforms were green, with black accoutrements and red, with white accoutrements. They drilled, were inspected, and drilled some more. We had little time to observe our opponents. Dominic and I fell in with the third company portraying the Seventh Fenian Regiment. The drill was the same and, as always, slightly different. It was apparent from the beginning we were with a veteran unit (155th NY).
At the appointed hour the red coats of Brockville Infantry Company and the green jackets of the Queen's Own Rifles and the York and Hamilton Rifles formed up and moved out and disappeared. We were called into ranks. "Right Face - Forward - March!" The ground we marched on and had slept on was not the actual battlefield; that was several miles inland. It was the sight of American earthworks from the War of 1812 whose contours are still plainly visible. Aware of the ground tread over, with Old Fort Erie off to the right, I looked up and caught sight of the Fenian banner. It was green, with the Harp of Erin on it, and the initials "IRA" prominently displayed. The first time "IRA" was used was in the Rising of 1798. Imagine the thrill of those Civil War veterans at the sight of that banner. All the terror, friends lost, relatives lost, the horror, the sickness, and bloodshed had been for this. All the good men lost, Meagher, Cochrane, Roarty, O'Rorke, and, might I add, Cleburne. The heroic stands and charges, all for this. The Irish Brigade at Fredericksburg, the 69th Pennsylvania at the Angle, the 116th Pennsylvania at the Mule Shoe, the Seventh Missouri at Vicksburg, the Fifth Missouri, C.S.A., at Champion Hill, the 23rd Illinois at Lexington, and many more, all for this chance to strike a blow for Ireland's freedom. All that Irish blood spilled for this. Seize British North America, and trade it for Ireland's freedom, or use it as a base to free the Emerald Isle. After all the horror, how could they put one foot in front of the other, one more time? The "cause" will make you do things out of the ordinary.
We are on the field. "Company - Deploy as skirmishers - On the left file - March!" We moved quickly maintaining our intervals. To our front across the field, the enemy was forming into line of battle. Someone said, "Now; we'll get our chance to shoot redcoats." The redcoats advanced, with the green jacketed Rifles as skirmishers. They looked formidable. Those redcoats really work. We've faced greater numbers of gray and butternut troops across that deadly space, who did not seem as ominous. "Skirmishers forward - March!" " Fire! Fire! Fire at will!" We load and fire. The drill takes over. The battlefield shrinks as the lines close. No panorama here just a green jacket, then a red coat. "Extend to the left! Don't let those fellows get through!" A group of Canadian militia had joined their skirmish line. Their line began contracting, "What are they doing?" It was a square. "Haven't seen that since Bull Run," was heard from the ranks. There, with them all bunched up, we did our best work and poured it into them. All that horror did make a difference. This scene drove home to me with all the understatement of a sledgehammer slicing butter the salient difference between the two forces on that field. Though outnumbered, the Irish were veterans to a man, their enemy, though formidable on the drill field, had never been in combat.
I was surprised at my reaction to the field strewn with red and white crumpled shapes. I had anticipated a great thrill at seeing the "enemy" of my people portrayed as cut down. What happened was a soldier's reaction. They had fought well. Their officers thought they were Wellington at Waterloo. There were few rifles at Waterloo. Those soldiers paid the price soldiers always pay when their officers don't know what they are doing. I felt bewildered, if not cheated, but I knew that some of the Fenians would have had the same reaction. Another days work in the soldier's trade.
On the 25th there was a joint memorial service for the dead of both sides. A reenactor portraying John MacDonald, who within a year of Ridgeway would be the Dominion of Canada's first Prime Minister, spoke on the significant of the Battle for Canadians. The Fenian Invasion was the event that finally convinced the colonies of British North America to form the nation of Canada in 1867. Before the reenactment, Mayor Wayne Redehop of Fort Erie spoke, as did Brian Merrett, a Member of the Niagara Parks Commission and Member of Parliament John Malone. The battle was reenacted again before a large and enthusiastic crowd of spectators. Some sported tricolors and there were even Cadets, the equivalent of the Junior ROTC, in the crowd. The Battle on both days was narrated by Ben Maryniak, who is best known for his portrayal of Father Corby in the movie Gettysburg. With the end of the Battle we marched back to camp. We said our good-byes all around and thanked our hosts for providing us with a unique reenacting opportunity. At their advice we did a "drive-by" of Niagara Falls, never having seen the place, and then moved out for the long haul to St. Louis.
All reenactments pale in comparison to the actual event, Pickett's Charge at the 135th being the only exception we've witnessed. On the other hand, the planning of the event organizer and the skill and dedication of the reenactors often create an educational experience for spectators that classrooms and movies never achieve. Often at small events, one hundred fifty reenactors at this event, we still come away with a sense, a feeling, a moment that deepens our understanding of the history and the men we portray. The 135th Anniversary of the Battle of Ridgeway was all of these.
The actual Battle of Ridgeway involved nine hundred Fenians and thirteen hundred Canadian troops, both regulars and militias. Col. John O'Neill, the Fenian commander, had enlisted in the US Army in 1857 and served in the 2nd Cavalry during the Mormon War. During the Civil War, he served as an officer with the 7th Michigan Cavalry and the 15th Colored Infantry. His force contained elements of the 7th, 13th, 17th and 18th Fenian Regiments, and an independent Company from Terre Haute, Ind. They came from New York, Nashville, Louisville, Cleveland, and Terre Haute. The Crown forces included the Queens Own Rifles, the 13th (Hamilton) Battalion, the York and Caledonia Rifle Companies and the Welland Canal Field Battery, sans cannon, but armed with Enfields.
O'Neill's objective was to establish a bridgehead on the west bank of the Niagara River, for the several thousand Fenians waiting in Buffalo. They landed just north of Fort Erie, a crumbing ruin at the time. They then turned north and south pushing aside small detachments of regulars and militia. Once their flanks were secure, the main force pushed west to capture rail transport and the bridges across the Welland Canal. Learning there was a large force on his left flank approaching from the south, O 'Neill determined to fall across their line of march at Ridgeway.
He deployed his forces in two lines with skirmishers out front. The first line was partially masked by the lay of the land with left flank refused to provide enfilading fire. O'Neill took seriously the saying, "five men on the flank are worth fifty in the front." A reserve line was posted behind the first line. The skirmishers were to engage the enemy and then withdraw bringing them into effective range of the first line.
The battle commenced according to plan. The skirmishers engaged the enemy and then withdrew. Unfortunately someone in the first line fired revealing the trap. The Crown forces began to conform to meet this new threat. They advanced, and the Fenians fell back on their reserves. Then the Canadians formed a square. Their officers had seen horseman, and, in the tradition of Wellington, adopted his tactics from Waterloo in 1815. The Fenians, being offered a stationary target in-depth, let them have it. The Fenians had no horsemen with them; no one is sure who they were. The Crown forces retreated in some disorder. O'Neill, not knowing the disposition of other enemy forces in the area, did not pursue. The Fenians soon learned of the US Government's change of heart. O'Neill led a fighting withdrawal.
U.S. Grant had arrived across the Niagara with troops and two gunboats to "observe." Once back in Buffalo, O'Neill and his men joined five thousand of their brothers in a mild detention, while friends in Congress debated repealing the Neutrality Act of 1811, or recognizing the Fenians as belligerents and/or sending troops to help. These efforts led nowhere and resulted in no change in the Fenians position. The debates ended around the 15th of June. The Fenians were paroled and sent home by train at government expense. In some cases their arms followed soon thereafter. Some unfortunate Fenians were captured, twenty-four were condemned to death, but the Canadians did not carry the sentences out, and they were released in the early 1870's.
Canadian re-enacting units that participated as Fenians, in the 135th Anniversary Battle of Ridgeway included Co. A, 9th NY Cavalry, the 2nd Mississippi, 18th Mississippi, 21st Mississippi, 10th Louisiana, and the 49th New York. We were impressed at the events attended by some of these reenactors: the 125th Gettysburg and performing in movies such as Gettysburg. The only US unit there was the 155th New York along with Dominic and I. Portraying the Crown Forces were the Queen's Own Rifles, actually an official Canadian Militia unit, similar to the National Guard and the oldest continuing unit in the Canadian Defense Forces, 12th York Battalion, Brockville Infantry Company, and the Caledonian Rifles. The Queens Own Rifles' Maj. Eric Simondson commanded the Crown forces. The Canadian Defense Forces take the history of their units very seriously.
The after action report from Tim Warnick is very positive. The Provincial Parks Commission had a change of heart. They were impressed by the positive comments of spectators that reflected Civil War reenactors emphasis on their role as living historians. They were also relieved that the current situation on the north of Ireland did not draw the Fenians' cause into the 21st century at the reenactment at least. The commission has moved from tepid support for a 140th event to enthusiastic support for a preparatory event to the 140th on June 29 and 30, 2003. Warnick is already moving ahead to create an event that will not only involve more reenactors but will more accurately portray the action at and around Ridgeway.
This article was originally written for the Camp Chase Gazette, but it was received too late for full publication there. It was published in full in the October 2001 issue of The Shrapnel, the newsletter of the Turner Brigade. For information about The Shrapnel, contact Capt. Randy Baehr, Editor.