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The Battle of Ridgeway & the Battle of Chippawa remembered in Niagara Region

September 2022

The Battle of Chippawa

The Battle of Chippawa National Historic Site, along the Niagara River in Niagara Falls, Ontario, pays tribute to the British Forces, their American opponents and Aboriginal allies on both sides, who fought and died in the battle that would be part of the last major American invasion of Upper Canada in the War of 1812.

Taking place along the Niagara Frontier on 5 July 1814, the battle occurred when British Major-General Phineas Riall, with his force of 1400 regulars, 70 cavalrymen, and 300 Aboriginal allies, attacked the American forces, under command of Major-General Jacob Brown and his subordinate, Brigadier-General Winfield Scott, who had a combined force of 2300 soldiers.

Prior to the battle, Major-General Riall had sent a small contingent of snipers to attack the Americans with and to gain information on their numbers. Unfortunately, Riall’s soldiers mistook the grey-coated American soldiers for militia, when they were in fact regulars.

Outnumbered and faced with highly trained soldiers, MGen Riall was forced to retreat across the Chippawa River after engaging in a short battle. Riall was almost shot, with a musket ball piercing his coat, and BGen Scott was almost captured when British light infantry surprised his position while he was having breakfast in a farmhouse.

In the end, the Americans casualties were reported as 60 killed, 249 wounded and 19 missing. British losses were 108 killed, 319 wounded, 75 wounded prisoners, 15 unwounded prisoners and 18 missing. The 100th Regiment of Foot, which held the centre line, was hit particularly hard, reduced to “…one Captain & 3 subalterns doing duty, with 250 effective men.”

MGen Brown succeeded two days later in crossing the Chippawa River, forcing British forces to fall back to Fort George. British reinforcements arrived soon afterwards, making an attack on the heavily defended fort impossible.

A few weeks later, British and American forces engaged in the Battle of Lundy’s Lane.

The Legacy of the Battle of Chippawa

The legacy of the Battle of Chippawa, and the subsequent Battle of Lundy’s Lane, was that American forces proved that properly trained and led American regular units could hold their own against British regulars.

Several current American regiments perpetuate the lineage of regiments that fought at Chippawa. The 6th Infantry Regiment, originally formed 11 January 1812 by future president Zachary Taylor. The regiment’s moto “Regulars, By God!” was derived from a statement supposedly said by MGen Riall when he realized his troops were facing American regulars, not militia, although the only source for this was MGen Scott himself.

The Cadets at the United States Military Academy at West Point wear gray parade uniforms. Although many claim this is in tribute to Scott’s troops at Chippawa, but the actual reason is something more practical: the gray material used for them was cheaper than blue.

Chippewa Square in Savannah, Georgia, is named after the famous battle.

The Commanding Generals

In the years after the War of 1812 ended, the U.S. Army was reduced in size and by 1821, MGen Brown was the only major-general still in the service. He was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for his leadership in the Battle of Chippawa.

Brown suffered a stoke in 1821, but was fortunately able to continue in his duties. His personal legacy includes advocating for the establishment of two post-graduate schools for the military, precursors of present-day staff and command colleges. He also created the General Recruiting Service in 1822.

MGen Jacob Brown died in 1828.

BGen Winfield Scott was admitted to the Pennsylvania Society of the Cincinnati as an honorary member, in recognition of his service in the War of 1812. He attempted a career in politics, seeking the Whig presidential nomination in 1840, 1844, and 1848. He finally won it in 1852, but was defeated by his former army subordinate, Franklin Pierce. 

He died in 1866. His Pennsylvania Society of the Cincinnati insignia is now on display in the United States Military Academy Museum.

As for MGen Riall, while his tactics likely would have been successful against American militia, against trained regular soldiers, they proved disastrous. He served as Governor of Grenada from 1816 to 1823. Knighted in 1833 and promoted General on 23 November 1841. He died in Paris in 1850.

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The Battle of Ridgeway

The Battle of Ridgeway, sometimes called the Battle of Lime Ridge, was a battle on 2 June 1866, fought between Canadian Militia soldiers and Fenian Militia attacking from America. It was the largest battle of the Fenian Raids of 1866.

Fenian Brotherhood were Irish-Americans who conducted raids on British Army forts, ports and other targets in British North America, undertaken to bring pressure on Great Britain to withdraw from Ireland. Numerous raids were conducted in 1866 and then again from 1870 to 1871, but none of these raids achieved their aims.

It was the first modern industrial-era battle to be fought by Canadians and led exclusively by Canadian officers. Soldiers from the Toronto-based Queen’s Own Rifles, 13th Hamilton Battalion (now the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry) and the Caledonia and York Rifle Companies of the Haldimand Rifles (now perpetuated by the 56th Field Artillery Regiment, Royal Canadian Artillery), fought against between 500 to 800 Fenian invaders, crossing from

The battle took place near the intersection of Ridge Road and Garrison Road, with most of the fighting taking place around Lime Ridge, an elevated terrain that ran almost parallel to Ridge Road.

Led by Lieutenant Colonel Alfred Booker, the Canadian Militia put up a strong defence against the Fenians, led by Colonel John O’Neil. Although Booker’s troops outnumbers the Fenian invaders, a lack of experience and training, and supply issues, hampered their efforts. Eventually, Brooker ordered his soldiers to retreat near the Village of Stevensville, so that they could await re-enforcements from the British Army 47th Regiment of Foot (Regular Army), arriving from nearby Chippawa.

This was enough to convince O’Neil and his Fenian Militia to flee back across the Niagara River, some on logs, on rafts, or by swimming. Once back on American soil, O’Neill and 850 Fenians were arrested by American authorities.

Despite the failure of the Fenians to hold this territory, it has the distinction of being the only armed victory for the cause of Irish independence between the Irish Rebellion of 1798 and the Easter Rising of 1916.

The Fenian Raids divided the Irish-Canadian population, with Irish Protestants mainly siding with the British and the pro-Union Orange Order, while Irish Catholics were split between an independent Ireland, freed of British rule, and loyalty to their new home in British North America.

The Legacy of the Battle of Ridgeway

Some evaluations of the Fenian Raids are that they had a significant influence on reluctant Maritime provinces in favour of the collective security of nationhood, making Ridgeway the “battle that made Canada.” The battle wasn’t without controversy, though.

Newspapers that were against Confederation claimed which claimed Ridgeway was proof that Canadians would be unable to defend themselves without the security of the British Army. Two military boards of inquiry ruled that it was inexperienced and undertrained troops, along with being undersupplied, that led to the Fenian gains, not poor leadership of the officers in charge of the regiments, which some claimed was the real reason.

It was because of these official rulings that the Canadian government refused to acknowledge or commemorate the Battle of Ridgeway. Some considered it an embarrassing point of shame for Canada’s military. An official medal wasn’t even issued until 1899, when the Canada General Service Medal, with Fenian Raid 1866 & 1870 bars, was made available to eligible veterans. This came about only after an almost ten-year campaign by the Veterans of ’66 Association for recognition and land grants for veterans.

However, in what could be interpreted as a final insult, eligible veterans had to apply for it. There was no automatic issuance of the medal.

Today, the battle site is a National Historic Site, commemorated by a cairn and interpretive signs that tell the story of the battle. It can be found on the north side of Garrison Road, between Ridge Road and Burleigh Road. A period house was moved to the site as a part of the display, but it wasn’t part of the original battle.

I 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 from 1890 to 1931, Decoration would be Canada’s popular national memorial day, the first Remembrance Day, commemorated on the weekend nearest to June 2 and acknowledging Canadian dead in the Battle of Ridgeway, the North-West Rebellion (1885), the South African War (1899–1902), and the Great War (1914–1918). In 1931 the Remembrance Day Act established November 11, Armistice Day, as Canada’s national official memorial day. At the same time the Remembrance Day Act expelled the casualties of Ridgeway and the Northwest Rebellion from national memorialization, fixing Remembrance Day to Canadian casualties overseas starting from the South African War.[17]

First day of Fenian crossings[edit]

The Fenian insurgents, led by Brigadier General John O’Neill, a former Union cavalry commander who had specialized in anti-guerrilla warfare in Ohio, secured boats and transferred some 800 men across the Niagara, landing above Fort Erie, before dawn on June 1, 1866.[7]

An additional 200–400 Fenians and supplies crossed later during the morning and early afternoon until the US Navy gunboat, the USS Michigan, began intercepting Fenian barges at 2:20 p.m. — 13 hours after the first Fenian advance party landed in Canada.[8]

An advance party of 250 men of Lieutenant Colonel George Owen Starr’s 17th Kentucky Fenian Regiment landed in Canada at about 1:30 AM and raised a large Fenian green flag with a gold Irish harp some two hours in advance of O’Neill’s main force. Starr’s advance party rushed to seize the town, cut telegraph wires and take control of the railway yards south of Fort Erie by dawn as the rest of O’Neill’s force was disembarking.[9] U.S. authorities also allowed unarmed men to board the ferry from Buffalo and small boats freely crossed the Niagara River until the afternoon. It is estimated that at least 1,000 and possibly as many as 1,350 Fenians in total crossed during the first thirteen hours of June 1, but it is impossible to determine a precise number.

O’Neill spent the first day trying to rally the local citizenry to the Fenian cause and to commandeer supplies for his mission, but his force was plagued by desertions almost from the outset. By nightfall, O’Neill estimated that he had perhaps 500 men remaining in his camp.[10] Later during the night, O’Neill was reinforced by an additional column of 200 Fenians who had been deployed earlier on a bridgehead at Black Creek guarding against an approach from Chippawa in the north, bringing his total strength at Ridgeway to at least 650 men.[1]

Battle[edit]

Fenian forces charging at the Canadian Militia defending Ridgeway

Meanwhile, the British were mobilizing both local Canadian militia and British garrison troops to defend against the impending invasion of Canada. The Fenians night-marched north across Black Creek (Ontario) through a cedar swamp, then turned inland on Ridge Road on the morning of June 2; taking up a defensive position on Limestone Ridge near the present Canadian town of Ridgeway. There, they clashed with 850[2] advancing Canadian militia (the dark-green uniformed Queen’s Own Rifles of Toronto and the traditionally clad red-coated 13th Battalion of Hamilton, reinforced by two local companies from Caledonia and York) commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Alfred Booker of the 13th Battalion. In the first hour of the battle, the Canadians appeared to prevail, driving Fenian skirmishers back across Bertie Road. Then something went wrong: to this day, it is not clear exactly what. Some sources say that the Canadian militiamen mistook Fenian scouts on horseback for cavalry. Orders to form a square to defend against a cavalry charge, although quickly countermanded, led to chaos in the Canadian ranks and Booker ordered a withdrawal after ninety minutes of battle. Other sources indicate that troops mistook a company of redcoated 13th Battalion infantry for British troops relieving them and began to withdraw; which then triggered a panic among other troops who mistook the withdrawal for a retreat.[11] O’Neill, observing the chaos breaking out in the Canadian ranks, 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, the Battle of Fort Erie (1866), against a small but determined detachment of Canadians holding the town.

The Canadian loss was 9 killed, 37 wounded (some severely enough to require amputation), and 22 died of wounds or disease later.[3] One British soldier, Corporal Carrington, 47th Regiment of Foot Lancashire died on a forced march from Chippawa to Stevensville. His grave was identified 146 years later on the eve of Remembrance Day 2012.[12] O’Neill claimed he had one or two men killed, but Canadians claimed more.[13] The relatively low casualty figures make this an interesting battle for proponents of theories about soldiers’ reluctance to shoot to kill, but could also be accounted for by the fact that the Fenians had deployed only their skirmishers in an attempt to lure the Canadians towards their main force which did not advance until the last minutes of the battle, when they launched a bayonet attack that broke Canadian lines.

Fenian withdrawal[edit]

Aftermath

The Canadian Volunteer Monument in Queen’s Park, Toronto. The monument was erected to honour volunteers of the Canadian Militia.

The Canadian Volunteer Monument in Queen’s Park, Toronto, honours nine Toronto militia volunteers from The Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada including three University of Toronto student volunteers who fell in the Battle, and is located on the west side of Queen’s Park Crescent (43°39′45.55″N 079°23′36.01″W) in Toronto

Sources: Parks Canada – Ridgeway Battlefield National Historic Site of Canada (pc.gc.ca), Parks Canada – Battle of Chippawa National Historic Site of Canada (pc.gc.ca), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phineas_Riall, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Chippawa, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacob_Brown, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winfield_Scott, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Ridgeway, 47th (Lancashire) Regiment of Foot – Wikipedia, The Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada – Wikipedia, Fenian raids – Wikipedia, The Haldimand Rifles – Wikipedia, The Royal Hamilton Light Infantry (Wentworth Regiment) – Wikipedia.

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About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

Permanent link to this article: https://militarybruce.com/the-battle-of-ridgeway-the-battle-of-chippawa-remembered-in-niagara-region/

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