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The Expedition on the Steamer "W. T. Robb"

The Expedition on the Steamer "W. T. Robb"--Fierce Fight at Fort Erie--Stiff Resistance of a Gallant Band of Canadians Against a Fenian Force Ten Times Their Number.


After the steamer "W. T. Robb" cleared from the mouth of the harbor at Port Colborne, her prow was turned eastward, and under full steam the staunch little craft proceeded to the Niagara River. The morning was a most beautiful one, and the surface of Lake Erie was as calm and glassy as a mill-pond. All on board were in the best of spirits, and their stout hearts beat high in the hope that they would be able to render their country some signal service in faithfully performing the duty for which they had been detailed.

After a quick run the "W. T. Robb" entered the inlet of the Niagara and started down stream. The expedition had not proceeded far when the boat was stopped by an armed patrol tug from the United States man-of-war "Michigan." The officer in command, on becoming acquainted with the nature of the Canadian steamer's mission, courteously gave Lieut.-Col. Dennis what information he possessed regarding the operations of the Fenians, and stated that Gen. O'Neil had "broke camp" at the Newbigging Farm during the night and moved off down the River Road.

The "W. T. Robb" continued on down the river to Black Creek, where Lieut.-Col. Dennis learned that the Fenian forces were then at a point about two miles south of New Germany. A messenger was despatched to Col. Peacocke, giving all the information obtainable, and as Lieut.-Col. Dennis was of the opinion that the modified plans arranged by the conference of officers at Port Colborne had been assented to by Col. Peacocke, and that the two columns were working in unison along these lines, he ordered the "Robb" to return to Fort Erie to meet Lieut.-Col. Booker's force as arranged. But on arrival there he was disappointed to find that the connection had not been made, and as he was in ignorance of Col. Peacocke's definite orders to Lieut.-Col. Booker, after he had left Port Colborne that morning, he was somewhat nonplussed at the failure of Lieut.-Col. Booker to join him at Fort Erie.


But as the plan had seemed to have mysteriously miscarried, Lieut.-Col. Dennis resolved to do something on his own account. He therefore decided to employ his force in patrolling the river, and endeavor to intercept the retreat of any Fenians who might attempt to escape back to the American shore. Capt. Akers having assented to this programme, a force was landed at Fort Erie, who picked up a number of Fenian stragglers. These men were placed on board of the "Robb" under guard, and while the steamer slowly drifted down the stream the Welland Canal Field Battery and a portion of the Naval Brigade patrolled the shore and scoured the woods and by-roads for some miles, in the course of which "round up" they gathered in another batch of prisoners. On arrival of the patrol parties at a point on the river about two miles above Black Creek, all were taken aboard the steamer by means of rowboats, and after securing the prisoners in the hold, the "Robb" was again headed for Fort Erie. On arrival there she was moored to the dock, when a detachment of the Welland Canal Battery again landed and brought in still another squad of Fenian prisoners, who were confined in the hold with the rest of their comrades.

After the boat had lain at the wharf for some time, Lieut.-Col. Dennis conceived the idea of landing all of the prisoners and leaving them under guard of the Welland Canal Battery at Fort Eric, while he and Capt. Akers would go around to Port Colborne with the "Robb" on a reconnoitering expedition and obtain further instructions and orders. This cool proposition did not appeal favorably to Capt. King, and he naturally remonstrated strongly against such action, especially in regard to leaving so many prisoners in his charge, as they outnumbered the strength of his command, and in his isolated position there was a strong possibility that they might be rescued by their friends from the other side of the river before assistance could reach him. Lieut.-Col. Dennis, however, was obdurate, and was making arrangements to billet the Welland Canal Battery in the village when the intelligence came that a battle had been fought at Ridgeway, and that the Fenians were on their way back to Fort Erie, moving rapidly.

Lieut.-Col. Dennis did not place much reliance on this rumor, and seemed determined to carry out his plan of leaving the Battery on shore. But Capt. King was solicitous for the safety of his men and the prisoners, and after some parley Lieut.-Col. Dennis allowed the Battery to go aboard the steamer. But they were scarcely at their quarters when he changed his mind and ordered them all on shore again, together with a portion of the Naval Brigade. Altogether the force landed consisted of 76 combatants, consisting of three officers and 54 men of the Welland Canal Field Battery, and two officers and 18 men of the Dunnville Naval Brigade.

Meanwhile (about 2 p.m.) Capt. Akers had secured a horse and buggy and drove up to the Buffalo & Lake Huron Railway telegraph office, seeking information. While there the Fenian forces suddenly appeared, and he was cut off from returning to the steamer by the rapid advance into the village of the Fenian skirmishers. By sheer good fortune he escaped capture, and by taking a secluded route along the lake shore reached Port Colborne safely about 7 o'clock in the evening.

Then Lieut.-Col. Dennis perceived his error, and with a realization that the warnings he had received of the near approach of the Fenians were correct, he appears to have become excited and confused. He had about 60 prisoners on board the "Robb," and after securing them well in the hold, ordered the Captain to cast off his lines and get out into the stream, which was speedily done.

About 2.15 o'clock he formed up his little command and advanced up the main street about 150 yards to meet the advancing Fenian forces, who were coming down the street in large numbers. When they approached within a distance of 200 yards they Commenced a fusilade of rifle fire on the Canadians, who immediately retaliated by delivering a volley, which was executed with such precision that the Fenian advance was checked. Another volley from the Canadians also had a telling effect, and several of the enemy dropped in their tracks. By this time the Fenians were approaching from several directions, and a severe flank fire was opened on the Canadians, who were exposed on the road in close formation. Opposed to them on the street was a detachment of 150 Fenians, led by Col. Bailey, while the main body of Gen. O'Neil's forces were coming down over the hill from the west in large numbers.

The firing was now terrific, and bullets were flying thick and fast, with men falling on both sides. About half-past 2 o'clock the Fenians fired a general volley, and Gen. O'Neil ordered a charge with fixed bayonets. With a wild Irish cheer the Fenians dashed down the village street, but were promptly stopped by another volley from the Canadians, and more men dropped. Among those who fell was Col. Bailey, the Fenian leader, who received a bullet through his breast. Fearing another charge and the ultimate capture of his force, Lieut.-Col. Dennis then ordered his men to retreat, and do the best they could to get safely away, each man for himself. He set the example and vanished. But his soldiers were made of different timber. The Welland and Dunnville men stood up to their work and contested every foot of ground, as they slowly and doggedly retired from one position to another, dodging from cover to cover, and firing into the enemy's ranks as fast as they could load.

Capt. King rallied a portion of his battery behind a pile of cordwood on the dock, and made a determined stand against the enemy until he fell with a bullet through his ankle, which shattered the bone. Still he fought on, and even while lying on the dock, grievously wounded, he emptied his revolver at the Fenians and kept cheering his men on to fight to the last. This they did courageously and nobly until they were flanked out of their position and taken prisoners.

Another portion of the Battery, under Lieut. A. K. Scholfield, and some of the Naval Brigade, under Capt. McCallum and Lieut. Angus Macdonald, retreated northward along the street stubbornly fighting every yard of the way until they reached the large frame residence of Mr. George Lewis, adjoining a small building which was used as the village post office. Here about thirty of their number took possession of the building, while the remainder (under command of Capt. McCallum) continued on down the River Road under a galling fire.

The men who occupied the Lewis mansion resolutely continued the battle, firing through the doors and windows with such steadiness that the Fenians were glad to get under cover behind a pile of cordwood, from which place of security they fairly riddled the house with bullets. How the Canadians in this old frame building escaped the deadly missiles is a miracle, for, strange to say, none were injured, although exposed to a perfect hail-storm of bullets which crashed through the thin boards, lath and plaster, in all directions. After this gallant band had fired their last round of ammunition, they saw that further resistance was useless, and discreetly surrendered.

While the battle was in progress the American shore was lined with spectators, who cheered the Fenians lustily whenever it appeared to them from a safe distance that the Canadians were suffering losses or being defeated.

In the meantime Capt. McCallum and his detachment had fought themselves clear of the range of the Fenian rifles and retired down the River Road about three miles, where they were discovered by Lieut. Walter T. Robb, sailing master of the steamer, and taken on board. Capt. McCallum then decided to proceed to Port Colborne and send the captured Fenian prisoners who were in the hold of the vessel to a place of safety. He accordingly ordered the boat to head for that port, and while going past Fort Erie village was obliged to run the gauntlet of a heavy Fenian rifle fire for more than a mile. Although many bullets struck the boat, and some passed through the wheel-house uncomfortably near the heads of Capt. McCallum and Lieut. Robb, no person was injured by any of them.

Capt. McCallum arrived at Port Colborne at 6.30 o'clock that evening with 59 prisoners, who he handed over to Lieut.-Col. W. McGiverin, of the 20th Battalion, with a full list of their names and commitment papers. These men were sent to Brantford the same evening in charge of the Special Service Company of the St. Catharines Home Guard, and lodged in the jail at that place for safe keeping.

While the Canadians were still fighting desperately in the streets of Fort Erie, encompassed by a force of fully 800 Fenians (as nearly the whole of O'Neil's brigade was there by that time). Lieut.-Col. Dennis succeeded in reaching the residence of a Mr. Thomas, in the village, where he lay concealed until evening, when he disguised himself, and getting through the Fenian lines without being detected, struck across the country in search of Col. Peacocke's column, which he found in bivouac at Bowen's Farm (about three miles north-west of Fort Erie) at 3 o'clock the next morning, and reported his mishap.

The Canadians who were captured at Fort Erie were well treated by Gen. O'Neil, who complimented them highly on the bravery and courage they had displayed during the battle, and bestowed upon them kind attentions.

The Fenian losses were heavy in comparison with the Canadian casualties at Fort Erie. Four of their number were killed, five more mortally wounded, and a large number sustained wounds from rifle balls and bayonet thrusts at the hands of the Canadians.

Although the engagement only lasted for less than an hour, it was hot and spirited throughout, and the valiant phalanx of 70 men who held their own under such trying circumstances, in the face of fully 800 veteran soldiers, fully deserve the greatest honor and credit that can be given by the Canadian people, and are well worthy of having their heroic deeds handed down to posterity on the pages of our country's history.

The following is a list of the casualties on the Canadian side during the engagement at Fort Erie:

Welland Canal Field Battery.--Killed--None. Wounded--Capt. Richard S. King, in ankle (leg amputated); Gunner John Bradley, above knee (leg amputated); Gunner Fergus Scholfield, below knee (leg amputated); Gunner John Herbison, wounded severely in leg; Gunner R. Thomas, wounded in thigh severely.

Dunnville Naval Brigade.--Nelson Bush, bayonet wound in chest.

Captured.

Welland Canal Field Battery.--Lieut. A. K. Scholfield. Lieut. Chas. Nimmo. Sergt.-Major Wm. Boyle, Farrier-Sergeant Isaac Drew, Gunners Robert Offspring, Gideon Griswold, Wm. Brown, John Waters. Patrick Roach. Samuel Cook, Thomas Boyle, Stephen Beattie, Vilroy McKee. Joseph Reavly, Jonathan W. Hagar, Isaac Pew, William Black. Robert Armstrong, Jacob Gardner, Edward Armstrong. J. H. Boyle. James Coleman, Chas. Campbell, Isaac Dickerson. S. Radcliffe. Morris Weaver.

Dunnville Naval Brigade.--Second Lieut. Angus Macdonald. Samuel McCormack, James Robertson, Abram Thewlis, Geo. B. McGee, Thomas Arderly. Wm. Burgess, Harry Neff, Wm. Nugent, and Joseph Gamble.

The following Canadians were also prisoners in the hands of the Fenians, having been captured at Ridgeway and brought back to Fort Erie by Gen. O'Neil, who subsequently abandoned them when he made his flight back across the river:

Thirteenth Battalion--Jas. S. Greenhill and Joseph Simpson.

Queen's Own Rifles--R, W. Hines (No. 8 Company), Wm. Ellis (No. 9 Company). D. Junor (No. 9 Company), and Colin Forsythe (No. 10. Highland Company).

Fenian Losses.

The casualties of the Fenians were heavy in both engagements, but the exact number is unobtainable, as no record was kept, and many of their wounded were removed to the United States and lost track of. At Ridgeway it is known that at least ten Fenians were killed, and quite a number severely wounded, some of whom afterwards died in Buffalo from their injuries. During the Fort Erie fight nine Fenians lost their lives and fourteen were wounded, most of them seriously.

The bravery and courage of the men who composed the Welland Canal Field Battery and the Dunnville Naval Brigade in standing up before an enemy nearly ten times their number, and fighting valiantly until the last round of their ammunition was expended and they were obliged to succumb to overpowering forces, will serve to show the resolute spirit and determination of these gallant troops. They were truly "a Spartan band," who were ready to sacrifice their lives on the spot, and their valor won the admiration of even the Fenians themselves, who complimented them highly on the stiff resistance they made, in the face of unequal odds, in the engagement.

The following personal narration of the fight, which was given by a member of the Dunnville Naval Brigade who participated in the engagement, is so vivid and graphic that I am pleased to reproduce it, as it gives a faithful and accurate account of the operations of the small Canadian force at Fort Erie on that eventful occasion:

On Friday, June 1st, at 10 p.m., Captain McCallum received a telegram to ship his men on the tug Robb, and proceed immediately to Port Colborne. About 2 a.m. on Saturday (2nd) we started, and arrived there a little after 4 a.m. We then took on the Welland Field Battery, numbering 59 men and 3 officers, commanded by Capt. King, of Port Robinson, which, together with the 43 men and 3 officers composing the Naval Brigade, made a total of 108 men. Col. Dennis, of the volunteer force, then came on board and took command of the expedition, when we at once started for Fort Erie, to co-operate with the gallant Queen's Own and the 13th Battalion, who were to leave Port Colborne early that morning for the same place. As we approached the village of Fort Erie all the men were sent below, leaving no one on deck but an officer dressed in civilian clothes. Nothing could be seen but the Fenian pickets and some stragglers. We went down the river nine miles, and received information that the main body of the Fenian army had fallen back to a wood some six or seven miles distant; but could gain no positive information as to their whereabouts. The movement was made about 3 o'clock a.m.; but in order to guard against surprise, they left their pickets behind. These our officers determined to capture, as well as all the stragglers. The boat then steamed back to Fort Erie, when a party of four men went ashore and succeeded in taking seven prisoners the first haul. The Welland Field Battery was also landed, with instructions to scour the woods along the liver bank for stragglers. The boat was then headed down the stream, and was proceeding very slowly, keeping a sharp lookout along the bank. We had not gone far before discovering a small body of eight or ten Fenians ahead of us, armed with rifles and bayonets fixed, who were about to get into a small boat and re-cross to the American shore. The speed of our boat was immediately increased, and on arriving opposite them an officer and eleven men got into a yawl and pulled for the shore. The enemy looked at us for a moment or two and then took to their heels and ran, thinking, no doubt, that we had a large gun on board to support our men. This, however, was not the case; but had the authorities placed one on board at Port Colborne, the casualties to be hereafter mentioned would never have occurred. Two of the squad were captured, however, and we proceeded down the river, sending out small parties of from eight to ten men until there were no more men to be spared. The parties were instructed to pick up all the stragglers and pickets they could, and hold them until the boat returned. On our return we picked up our men and their prisoners, together with the Battery and their prisoners, and proceeded to Fort Erie and tied up to the wharf of the Niagara River Railroad. We had not been there long before intelligence reached us that the Fenians were coming down the Garrison Road in force, and would be in the village in ten minutes. Col. Dennis seemed confused, and like the rest of us, thought they were being driven by the Queen's Own (at that time we were ignorant of the repulse of those forces). The moment they were seen approaching the Field Battery (which had been landed) were ordered aboard, and in another minute was again ordered ashore. Capt. McCallum was then asked how many of the Naval Brigade could be spared for a support. He replied that he thought it very imprudent to attempt an attack upon so large a force with his small body, and advised Lieut.-Col. Dennis to retire to the boat, and push out into the stream and endeavor to ascertain their strength and movements. The Colonel, however, decided to meet them. Capt. McCallum then said he would give him 25 men, himself and 2nd Lieutenant (leaving only seven men besides the crew on board to guard the prisoners, 59 in number). The Colonel formed his line in the open street opposite the hill in the rear of the village, but partially hid from him by some buildings on his right flank. In a moment the enemy appeared, coming over the hill in every direction; the buildings before mentioned hid them from view until they were upon him. From our position on the boat we could see all that was going on, and Lieut. W. T. Robb, of the Naval Brigade, seeing the small band was in great danger of being cut off, called to the Colonel that he was being outflanked and pointed to the hill, but he was not heard, and in a moment more the whole body were surrounded. It was, you may be sure, sickening to see one's friends and neighbors in such a perilous position, but even in this trying moment they did not at once surrender. Captains McCallum and King called on the Colonel to order the men to fire. He said no, but ordered them to the "right about," instead of "left half face," towards the boat; he, I suppose, mistaking the lower wharf for the one the boat was moored to, and started on a run, the men following. The enemy fired a volley in their rear, making one poor fellow kiss the dust, the balls striking the ground at their feet. The Captains called on their men to turn and fire, which they did with some effect. The next volley from the Fenians brought poor Capt. King down, and two others. Capt. McCallum called out to scatter, which was done; the enemy at this time were within 40 or 50 yards of them. We on the boat, with the aid of the crew who had rifles, tried to draw the fire of the Fenians, who were coming down Front street, on the boat, which we succeeded in doing. Their Adjutant, who was on horseback, here fell, and after picking him up they directed their fire at us and made a furious attempt to capture the boat. In this they were foiled by our cutting the line and backing down the stream, receiving at the same time a volley by way of a parting salute. By this time our men and the Battery had got into a house attached to the Post Office, from which they continued to resist the attack by every means in their power. Not a great deal of injury was inflicted upon the attacking party owing to a wood pile in the vicinity, behind which the enemy took shelter until our men had emptied their pouches and all the ammunition with them was gone. The Fenians then came up and demanded their surrender, which was at first refused. On the answer being given, fire was applied to the house in two places, the enemy standing around with bayonets fixed to prevent any one from escaping. Our men, seeing no way of escaping, then surrendered, determined to run the chance of being shot to being roasted. After disarming our men, some of the lowest of the Fenians threatened to shoot the prisoners for making a resistance while in the house. Col. O'Neil and the other officers prevented any violence being done, and at the same time threatened to shoot the first one who ill-treated the prisoners. In the meantime 15 men of the Battery, with Capt. McCallum and two of the Naval Brigade, were retreating down the river, a body of Fenians in full pursuit, exclaiming "Shoot the b--y officer." One who had got within ten feet of the Captain shot at him twice with a revolver, missing him each time, when one of the Brigade, named Calback, bayoneted him in the neck, turned and shot another through the heart, and then said to the Captain that the balls were coming too thick for comfort, advising him at the same time to take care of himself. Seeing our boat coming to the rescue of the Captain and the others, the enemy gave up the chase. It was high time for some more to come on board. As I have before mentioned, there were but seven left to take care of the 59 prisoners and work the ship. No doubt they would have attempted to rise had it not been for a few rifles at full cock pointed at them. Seeing our own perilous position with an enemy numbering 900 at Fort Erie, and thousands of sympathizing spectators on the opposite shore, our Captain determined to run the gauntlet and proceed to Port Colborne with his prisoners, fearing that the enemy might get a tug or two in Buffalo and attempt their rescue, thus causing more loss of life than was necessary. We then steamed up the river, close to the American shore, in silence, having been forbidden to fire while in American waters. As soon as we arrived opposite Lower Black Rock, the Fenians opened a furious fire upon us, and continued firing while we were going a distance of three-quarters of a mile. Their whole aim seemed to be the pilot-house, through which six shots passed, one of them grazing the head of our gallant Lieutenant Robb, who remarked to the wheelsman to jump up and take his place in case he fell. Those six shots struck the boat, doing no further injury than disfiguring the woodwork and painting. We arrived safely at Port Colborne and marched our prisoners to the railway station amid the deafening cheers of the volunteers and the citizens. Our officer delivered them to Lieut.-Col. Wm. McGiverin, who escorted them to Brantford, guarded by thirty men of the St. Catharines Special Service Company of Home Guards. A more rascally set of vagabonds were never congregated together. There were a great many Dunnville people at the Port on our arrival, and when they heard of the capture of our men volunteered to go and attempt their rescue; but owing to the scarcity of arms we could not accept them, besides we could not move without orders. These we received after waiting some time, which was to cruise along the lake as far as Windmill Point and no further. (It was a great pity we had not a gun on board and gone to Fort Erie, for if we had we could have captured or sunk the whole of the Fenian army, either of which would have given us great pleasure). On our return again to Port Colborne we received orders to proceed to Fort Erie, the Commander offering us as many men as we wanted. Our Captain said twelve good ones were all he wanted; these were immediately furnished him and we started. On our way down we built breastworks of cordwood along the bulwarks of the boat. These were impregnable to rifle bullets. When within six miles of Fort Erie two volunteers were called for to go ashore without arms and proceed cautiously down the lake and gather what information they could. All offered, but young Murdy and Edie were the chosen ones, two as brave boys as ever sun shone on. They went ashore, and then the boat resumed her journey. On turning into the river we saw the place was occupied by our troops, and the enemy in a scow made fast to the U. S. steamer Michigan, on the American shore. You may imagine the satisfaction this state of things gave us, nearly as much as if we had captured them ourselves. Our boys were much disappointed on finding the bird flown. We had heard of the repulse of the "Queen's Own" at Port Colborne, and every one went down with the determination to do all in their power to avenge their loss. Our joy was unbounded when we reached the wharf at finding our Second Lieutenant, Angus McDonald, and the greater part of our men, together with the most of the men belonging to the Battery. There were not many of our men taken, as they had no uniform, except the officers, and after slipping off their belts, they looked like civilians, in which capacity they effected their escape, and at once proceeded to Port Colborne and Dunnville to report themselves. Strange to say, the only one of our company touched was by a bayonet in the breast; not so bad as to prevent him from doing duty. The Welland Canal Field Battery was not so fortunate, having five wounded, namely: Captain King, leg, below the knee, amputated; Fergus Scholfield, foot amputated; John Bradley, leg amputated; John Herbison, wounded in the leg, and another with a flesh wound through the thigh. The Fenian casualties were Major Bigelow, with five balls through his breast, an Adjutant and six men killed, all shot through the breast, besides fourteen wounded, making in all twenty-two casualties--the gallant Queen's Own were avenged. The Fenian officers and men told the prisoners at the camp that their strength was 640 engaged in the fight, and 260 on the top of the hill as a reserve, and if all the Canadians fought as well as they did, they feared it would be a hard struggle, but they were determined to conquer.


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Troublous Times in Canada, A History of the Fenian Raids of 1866 and 1870

Fenian Raids of 1866 - 1870

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