We will remember them.




Battle of Ridgeway June 2, 1866On June 1, 1866, after nearly fifty years of peace since the War of 1812, Canada was invaded from the United States by an insurgent army of Irish-American Fenians determined to expel British rule from Ireland by taking Canada hostage.  A 1,000 man heavily armed vanguard of battle hardened Civil War veterans from the US and former Confederate army seized the town of Fort Erie and began moving towards the Welland Canal next, threatening to destroy it.  On the morning of June 2, near the village of Ridgeway west of Fort Erie, they were intercepted by a brigade of Canadian militia from the Queen’s Own Rifles (QOR) of Toronto and 13th Battalion of Hamilton (today the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry (RHLI) in what became Canada’s first modern battle to be fought exclusively by Canadian troops and led entirely by Canadian officers:  the Battle of Ridgeway.


Nine riflemen from the Queen's Own Rifles, three of them University of Toronto student volunteers hastily called out from their final exams on the day before, were killed in the battle before the Canadian forces were forced to fall back by the more experienced and better armed Fenian insurgents.  Twenty-two more Canadians would die of either wounds or disease sustained during the fighting or on frontier duty during the Fenian Raids that would also extend into Quebec in the following week.  Beginning with the first casualty, Ensign Malcolm McEachern killed in the early minutes of the battle on June 2, these thirty-one casualties were the first 31 of nearly 120,000 Canadian servicemen to fall in military service from the South African War to Afghanistan.


Except for miniscule payments to those severely wounded in the battle, or to the widows and orphans of those killed, the veterans received from the government no acknowledgement, honours, decorations, pensions or awards for their service in the defence of Canada during the Fenian Raids.  The Canadian Volunteers Monument, raised in 1870 near Queens Park (Toronto's currently oldest standing public monument)  was paid for entirely by private donations.  As Canadian-American relations warmed towards the mutual "undefended border" further public discourse or commemoration of a battle defending against an invasion from across the U.S. border became unpolitic, inconvenient and impolite.  The more than eight hundred veterans who fought at Ridgeway were forgotten and ignored for twenty-five years following the battle.


In May 1890 after nearly two and a half decades of silence, a short paragraph in the Globe, “Ridgeway Remembered,” reported that the Veterans of ’66 Association had “taken the matter in hand” and would meet in protest on the twenty-fourth anniversary of the battle to lay flowers and wreaths at the Canadian Volunteers Monument  near Queen’s Park.[1]  


The Globe described the occasion under the headline “Our Decoration Day” and promised that from now on the day would be commemorated annually in the same way that Americans memorialize their war dead.[2] The next year in Hamilton, it was reported that the Ridgeway veterans of the Thirteenth Battalion had come together for a reunion for the first time in twenty-five years.[3] The national memorialization of Ridgeway had begun and would now unfold from about 1890 to1925, resulting in a thirty-five year renaissance of acknowledgments, awards, speeches, ceremonies, reminiscences, and published accounts, some sponsored by regional historical societies.


On June 2, 1891 in Toronto, the twenty-fifth anniversary of the battle, thirty thousand people gathered at the Volunteers Monument. Spectators climbed up on the scaffolding of the newly constructed Parliament Buildings onto lumber piled up at the site and into the trees of the park. Schoolchildren covered the monument in wreaths and leafy plants, some bearing the names of those killed at Ridgeway.  Not a practice followed in Britain at the time, this was a gesture adopted from the United States where, after the Civil War, flowers were laid on military graves in May on national Memorial Day, or Decoration Day, as it was also known.  Toronto’s militia regiments, along with 450 boys from the public school drill corps carrying muskets and accompanied by 30 Toronto Police constables, escorted several hundred Veterans of ’66 from the drill shed at Simcoe Street along a route packed with fifty thousand spectators.[4]  The “decoration” of the monument by Toronto’s schoolchildren became an annual ritual.  It was the beginning of Canada’s first remembrance day.[5]


Decoration Day would eventually encompass the remembrance of those who died in the 1885 Northwest Rebellion[6] and later the  South African War 1899-1903, with the first joint remembrance ceremony being held in June 1903.[7] Throughout the Great War (First World War) the mounting casualties were mourned on Decoration Day in June long before there came to be a November 11 armistice in 1918.


Until 1931, Decoration Day was Canada’s popular national memorial day, held in late May or early June and in some places as late as August.[8] It is still commemorated today in some of the Ontario rural communities that witnessed the Fenian Raids or saw their sons die or be broken in them. In 2010 the town of Dunnville held its 113th annual Decoration Day on June 6,[9] while Caledonia held its own on May 30.[10]


By 1895 the Veterans of ’66 Association had organized a national petition for the recognition of all the volunteers who served during the Fenian Raids.[11] In January 1899, in response to the petition, Britain authorized a Canadian General Service Medal for veterans of the 1866 and 1870 Fenian Raids and the 1870 Red River Rebellion. Anybody who was on active service in the field, had served as a guard at any point when an attack from the enemy was expected, or had been detailed for some specific service or duty was eligible for the medal upon applying for it—it was not issued automatically. There were 15,300 of these medals issued to Canadians with their individual names and units engraved on the rim. (Another 1,368 were claimed by British veterans.)[12] The medal was issued by Britain just in time for the call on Canada to help in the upcoming South African War. The Canadian federal government acquiesced to the British medal but added nothing of its own for the veterans of Ridgeway as it did in the case of the Red River Expedition and Northwest Rebellion, whose veterans were granted 160 acres of Crown land, whereas those who fought in South Africa would get 320 acres.[13] In the end, in 1901 the province of Ontario undertook to grant its Fenian Raid veterans 160 acres of provincial land if they applied for it.[14]


Decoration Day Canadian Volunteers MonumentWhile the medals and recognition might have healed some hurt pride, the process of historical restoration was incomplete. The public events were accompanied by newspaper articles on the histories of the battle and on the units who fought in it. Over the next two decades, witnesses and veterans of the battle began publishing their recollections in popular magazines and historical journals and in papers presented at historical society talks.[15] But these fragmentary sources were never assembled or collated in any new comprehensive history of the battle other than the one authored by Captain John A. Macdonald in 1910. His book, Troublous Times in Canada: The History of the Fenian Raids of 1866 and 1870, would be the last on the battle for more than a century to follow. It added nothing new but lamented how, “It is a strange fact that Canadian authors and historians do not seem to have fully realized the gravity of the situation that then existed, as the event has been passed over by them with the barest possible mention. Thus the people of the present generation know very little of the Fenian troubles of 1866 and 1870, and the great mass of the young Canadian boys and girls who are being educated in our Public Schools and Colleges are in total ignorance of the grave danger which cast dark shadows over this fair and prosperous Dominion in those stormy days.”[16] Nothing had changed in the hundred years since those words had been written which is why the author of this article researched and wrote Ridgeway in 2011.


In the early 1900s, mention of “Decoration Day” began to fade from the newspapers. By 1903 the commemoration coverage in the Globe was reduced once again to a small paragraph, and by 1907 the event had been moved to the privacy of the cemeteries where the fallen were buried. It was no longer the public event it had been in the 1890s and gradually became disconnected from June 2 and moved closer to Victoria Day in May. After years of peace following the South African War, the Great War of 1914 to 1918 sadly revived Decoration Day as Canada’s national memorial day.


In 1916, on the fiftieth anniversary of Ridgeway the cornerstone for a monument was laid at a five-acre site on the Garrison Road end of the battlefield, approximately where the schoolhouse stood and where the ridge began its rise toward the north. In 1921 the site was made a National Historic Battlefield to be administrated by Parks Canada with a cairn to mark the spot. One of the surviving cabins that was used during the battle as a field hospital and in which Canada’s first military casualties were treated, was relocated to the site. Farther down the road in the town of Ridgeway are a battlefield museum and Fort Erie’s historical archives. The battlefield itself, east of Ridge Road between Garrison and Bertie roads, until very recently had remained untouched, although the orchards had long disappeared, but it is now facing extinction under creeping housing developments.


On June 1, 1930, eight surviving Ridgeway veterans in their eighties marched in St. Catharines in the last Decoration Day parade to be held there.[17] After that they came no more.  On November 9, 1936, the Hamilton Spectator noted that “the last but one” of the remaining Fenian Raid veterans from the Thirteenth Battalion, Thomas Kilvington, had died. Allan Land, ninety-two years old, was the only one left standing of the “boys” from Hamilton.[18] 

Following the First World War, Decoration Day in late May or early June (and even as late as August in some communities) had continued to be Canada’s national memorial day for all veterans until an Act of Parliament in 1931, in order to "harmonize it with Commonwealth practice" transformed November 11 "Armistice Day" into "Remembrance Day" while Thanksgiving Day was moved back a month to October.[19] The Ridgeway veterans, of whom those still living were aged men, were forgotten and excluded from the new Remembrance Day, the honour extended by Veterans Affairs Canada only as far back as 1899, to those who fought in the South African War.[20] At this writing, the fallen of Ridgeway are not listed in Canada’s National Books of Remembrance and their graves scattered across Ontario, the land they defended with their lives,  remain forgotten and uncared for by the government, abandoned without national historic monument status or as Canadian war graves.[21]  



By Peter Vronsky, Ridgeway: The American Fenian Invasion and the 1866 Battle That Made Canada, Penguin: Toronto, 2011.



[1] Globe, May 31, 1890.

[2] Globe, June 3, 1890.

[3] Hamilton Spectator, June 3, 1891.

[4] Globe, June 3, 1891.

[5] Paul Maroney, “‘Lest We Forget’: War and Meaning in English Canada, 1885–1914,” Journal of Canadian Studies, Vol. 32, No. 4 (Winter 1997/1998); Globe, May 30, 1896.

[6] Globe, May 30, 1896.

[7] Maroney, “‘Lest We Forget.’”

[9] Cathy Pelletier, “Decoration Day in Dunnville,” The Chronicle, June 8, 2010,  http://www.dunnvillechronicle.com/ArticleDisplay.aspx?e=2614364 [accessed July 6, 2010].

[10] Katie Dawson, “Honouring Veterans During Decoration Day Ceremony,” Cambridge Reporter, May 19, 2010, http://www.cambridgereporter.com/news/article/210556 [accessed July 6, 2010].

[11] Globe, March 11, 1896; April 12, 1897; May 24, 1897; Captain Macdonald, p. 185; Committee of Citizens Chosen to Represent the City of Toronto, “To The Queen’s Most Excellent Majesty,” circa 1897 [CIHM NNo. 46333].

[13] Captain Macdonald, pp. 186–188.

[14] RG 1-99 Fenian land grant records, Archives of Ontario

[15] Globe, July 4, 1896, and January 7, 1899; Canadian Magazine, November, December 1897, January 1898, July 1899.

[16] Captain Macdonald, p. 5.

[17] Globe, June 2, 1930.

[18] Hamilton Spectator, November 9, 1936.

[19] http://www.vac-acc.gc.ca/general/sub.cfm?source=teach_resources/remdayfact and www.calendar-updates.com/info/holidays/canada/remembrance.aspx [retrieved October 10, 1866]. James Wood argues that the militia lobbied in the 1890s to move Thanksgiving Day to October for the Canadian holiday in the hopes of enjoying better weather and larger audiences for its church parade. See James Wood, Militia Myths: Ideas of the Canadian Citizen Soldier 1896–1921, Vancouver-Toronto: University of British Columbia Press, 2010. p. 30.