The Battle of Ridgeway (also known as the Battle of Lime Ridge or Limestone Ridge) was fought on the morning of 2 June 1866, near the village of Ridgeway and the town of Fort Erie in Canada West (present-day Ontario). Approximately 850 Canadian soldiers clashed with 750 to 800 Fenians, Irish American insurgents who had crossed the Niagara River from Buffalo, New York. It was the first industrial-era battle to be fought by Canadians, the first to be fought exclusively by Canadian troops and led entirely by Canadian officers.
The Battle of Ridgeway was the last battle fought in Ontario against a foreign invasion force. The battlefield was designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1921. (See also Fenian Raids.)
Fenians were members of a mid-19th century movement to secure Ireland’s independence from Britain. While they functioned in secret as an outlawed organization in the British Empire, where they were known as the Irish Republican Brotherhood, they operated freely and openly in the United States as the Fenian Brotherhood. Eventually, both wings became known as the Fenians.
Fenian raids were armed incursions into Canadian territory between 1866 and 1871. They were intended to seize and hold Canadian territory hostage in return for Irish independence. It was thought that this would create a crisis in Britain — perhaps even a war between Britain and the US — and weaken British resolve in Ireland, once a planned rebellion broke out there.
Though US authorities tried to prevent the Fenians from mobilizing on the US-Canada border, the Fenians raided Campobello Island, New Brunswick, in April 1866. In late May, they began to amass enough guns and ammunition to arm about 20,000 insurgents.
Most of the Fenians were battle-hardened American Civil War veterans: experienced officers, infantrymen, sappers, gunners and other military tradesmen.
On 1 June 1866, an advance party of 1,000 heavily armed Fenians crossed the Niagara River from Buffalo, New York, and invaded Canada. The Fenians were led by John O’Neill, a former U.S. Cavalry officer who had served in Ohio and West Virginia during the Civil War.
The Fenians quickly captured the undefended town of Fort Erie, Canada West, and its railway and telegraph terminals. They arrested the town council and the customs and border officials at the international ferry docks and forced the town’s bakery and hotels to provide them with breakfast. After cutting outgoing telegraph lines to Canada, the insurgents seized horses along with tools to build trenches and field fortifications. By the end of that first day, the Fenians controlled the Niagara frontier from Black Creek in the north to Fort Erie in the south. They were within marching distance of the Welland Canal, the only navigable naval passage between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie.
During the Fenian Raids, some 22,000 Canadian militia volunteers were mobilized to respond to the Fenian incursion, along with several British infantry units stationed in Canada. As the Fenians took positions around Fort Erie, two Canadian militia units were deployed to Port Colborne near the village of Ridgeway: the 2nd Battalion, Queen’s Own Rifles (QOR) from Toronto and the 13th Battalion of Hamilton “Rileys” (The Royal Hamilton Light Infantry [RHLI]). As senior officer in the field, 13th Battalion commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel Alfred Booker, a prominent Hamilton auctioneer and volunteer officer, took command of the brigade of battalions.
On the night of 1–2 June, Booker was ordered to take a train to Ridgeway and march to the nearby town of Stevensville. There, he was to join an arriving column of British troops and Canadian militia for a joint counterattack against the Fenians, who were believed to be positioned near Fort Erie.
Booker was explicitly ordered to avoid the Fenians on his march to join the arriving column.
The Battle of Ridgeway
The Canadians and the British did not know that the Fenians had marched to a strategic ridge just north of Ridgeway during the night of 1–2 June. The ridge ran along the Canadians’ route to Stevensville. Although Lieutenant Colonel Alfred Booker had been warned that the Fenians had laid an ambush on the ridge, he proceeded to march toward the Fenian positions and engaged them despite his orders to avoid contact.
In the first hour of the battle, the Canadians appeared to prevail, driving Fenian skirmishers from their positions. Then something went wrong: to this day, it is not clear exactly what. Contemporary sources reported that Canadian militiamen mistook Fenian scouts on horseback for cavalry (mounted soldiers). Booker's order to form a square, designed to defend against a cavalry charge, exposed the Canadians to intense Fenian rifle fire. Although Booker quickly canceled the order, he was unable to reform the inexperienced Canadian ranks now under intense and accurate Fenian fire. Other sources indicate that troops mistook a company of 13th Battalion infantry for British troops relieving them and began to withdraw, triggering a panic among other troops who mistook the withdrawal for a retreat.
Observing the chaos breaking out in the Canadian ranks, John O'Neill quickly ordered a bayonet charge that completely routed the inexperienced Canadians. The Fenians took and briefly held the town of Ridgeway. Then, expecting to be overwhelmed by British reinforcements, they quickly turned back to Fort Erie where they fought a second battle against a small but determined detachment of Canadians holding the town.
On the night of 2–3 June, O’Neill realized that U.S. Navy gunboats were going to intercept any Fenian reinforcements crossing the Niagara River. The Fenians attempted to cross back into the United States, but were arrested and held in midstream by the U.S. Navy. They were eventually released on the condition that they would return to their home states.
Aftermath and Significance
The Canadian losses were 9 killed in action — known today as the “The Ridgeway Nine”— and 33 wounded, some severely enough to require amputation of their limbs. Four more Canadian militia volunteers eventually died in the months following the battle, either of wounds sustained or disease contracted at Ridgeway.
While the Canadians were well deployed and arrived in the vicinity of the Fenians within several hours of their incursion, they were poorly trained and unprepared for combat. Troops had scarce ammunition, no food or field kitchens, no proper maps, no provisions for medical care, no canteens for water, no tools for the proper care of their rifles and only half of the troops had previously practised firing their rifles with live ammunition. They were no match for the Fenians, who were well-armed and supplied Civil War veterans.
The inefficiency of the militia department under Canada West's attorney general and minister of militia, John A. Macdonald, was whitewashed by two military courts of inquiry. They concluded that the blame lay with inexperienced frontline troops, who panicked and broke, and not with the officers who led them or the government who undersupplied and undertrained them. The QOR were disparagingly nicknamed “Quickest Outta Ridgeway,” while the 13th Battalion were dubbed “The Scarlet Runners.” The history of the Battle of Ridgeway was muted in Canadian military heritage and history and the Canadian government was reluctant to acknowledge the veterans of the battle for nearly 25 years.
In 1890, the Veterans of ’66 Association held a protest at the Canadian Volunteers Monument at Queen's Park, Toronto, by laying flowers at the foot of the monument on 2 June, the 24th anniversary of the Battle of Ridgeway. It took a 10-year campaign of protests and lobbying before the Canadian government sanctioned a Fenian Raid medal and land grants to surviving veterans in 1899–1900.
The protest became an annual memorial event known as Decoration Day, when graves and monuments of Canadian soldiers were decorated in flowers. For the next 30 years, Decoration Day would be Canada’s popular national military memorial day, the first “remembrance” day, commemorated on the weekend nearest to 2 June and acknowledging Canadian fallen in the Battle of Ridgeway, the North-West Resistance (1885), the South African War (1899–1902) and the First World War (1914–18).
In 1931, 11 November was established as Canada's official national memorial day, named Remembrance Day. After the Armistice Day Act was passed, the casualties of Ridgeway and the North-West Resistance were no longer found in national memorialization, limiting Remembrance Day to Canadian casualties overseas, starting from the South African War.
Petitions to the federal government in 2013 — from the City of Toronto and from the Town of Fort Erie — to restore the Ridgeway Nine to Canadian military memorial heritage by including them in national Books of Remembrance in Ottawa, were not heeded.