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"Johnny Canuck" Afloat

Johnny Canuck Afloat--Splendid Service on Board the Gunboats--The Beginning of the Canadian Navy--Arrival of British Tars.


Concurrent with the mustering of troops to act on land, the need of naval forces to patrol our lakes and rivers was fully realized, so preparations were quickly made in that direction. The Toronto Naval Brigade, commanded by Capt. W. P. McMaster, was a very efficient and well-disciplined corps of brave and hardy men, who were among the first to respond to the call of duty. The Government chartered the powerful steam tug "Rescue," which being properly armed, was placed in commission as the first boat in the Canadian Navy. She was manned by the Toronto Naval Brigade, and sailed out of Toronto Harbor on June 4th under sealed orders. She arrived at Port Dalhousie the same evening and proceeded through the Welland Canal and Lake Erie to Windsor, where trouble was expected. Her officers and crew were a resolute and able lot of men, who were patriotic to the core, and were keen to get into action with the enemy. It had been rumored that a Fenian fleet was being fitted out on the Upper Lakes to assist in Gen. Sweeny's programme, therefore all on board the "Rescue" were vigilant and expectant that they would have an opportunity to meet a Fenian gunboat on Lake Erie and prove their mettle.

The roster of the Toronto Naval Brigade on this expedition was as follows: Captain. W. F. McMaster; Lieutenant, Alex. McGregor; Sub-Lieutenant, E. B. Vankoughnet; Surgeon, N. McMaster; Gunner, John Field; Boatswain. R. Montgomery; Chief Engineer, J. Nicholson; Midshipmen, R. Wilson and A. Miller; Paymaster. Joseph Fletcher; Quartermaster, George Wyatt; Assistant Engineers, James Findlay and John Young; Gunner's Mate, James Morrison; Boatswain's Mates, James Ford and Richard Ardagh; Carpenter, Joseph Smith; Carpenter's Mate, John Clendinning; Armorer, Fred Oakley; Seamen, Thos. G. Cable, George Mackay, Wm. A. Wilson, John Bolam, Harry Sewart Crewe, George Fox, Wm. W. Fox, George Poulter, Samuel Crangle, Ed. Metcalfe, Fred Walker, Samuel Mountain, Charles Corin, Wm. Miles, Ed. Scadding, Joseph Fetters, Thos. Hutchinson, James Humphrey, Wm. Dillon, Wm. Maclear, Chas. Callighan, R. Y. Ellis, Joseph Bywater, John Graham, James Ferguson, Fred Yates, Harry Y. Young, George Mutton, Edward Turner, Wm. Pedlow, Samuel Pettigrew, W. J. McClure, Ben. Cope, Thos. Spence, James Craig, Clarence Cooch, W. Cooch, T. Mulholland, Sam. Parker, E. J. Hobson, J. G. Hutchinson, Thos. Lunday, Geo. Williams, George Oakley; Powder Boys, F. H. Moulson and Gus Ellis.

Mr. E. B. Vankoughnet (a Toronto boy, who was then serving as a midshipman on board Her Majesty's warship "Aurora," lying at Quebec, and who was home on a visit at the time) wired his commanding officer for leave to join the "Rescue," and being granted permission, reported for duty to Capt. McMaster and was attached to the Toronto Naval Brigade as Sub-Lieutenant on board the "Rescue" before she sailed.

As an example of the alacrity which marked the men of the Toronto Naval Brigade, it may be mentioned that when they received orders to go on board the "Rescue" on Sunday morning, June 3rd, and fit her up for service, they responded so promptly that before evening they had put 67 tons of coal on board, besides transforming the boat from a peaceful tug to a veritable gunboat by making such alterations as were necessary for that purpose. All were workers, and "handy men" either ashore or afloat, and that night everything was so snug and secure that they took up their quarters on board, fully provisioned for a cruise. Early next morning the "Rescue" steamed up to the Queen's Wharf and took on board her armament and ammunition. A large 32-pound gun was mounted on the main deck, in a position available for service in any direction required, while the projectiles were placed in pyramidal piles near-by, so as to be convenient for quick action.

On the afternoon of the 5th of June, while proceeding up Lake Erie, a suspicious-looking steamer was seen approaching from the west. Heavy clouds of black smoke belched forth from her funnels, and she appeared to be heading for the "Rescue" under full speed. As rumors of a Fenian flotilla on the Upper Lakes had prevailed, it was conjectured that this strange craft might be one of the enemy's gunboats, and consequently its appearance caused some excitement on board the "Rescue." The men were called to quarters, the 32-pounder loaded and charged with chain-shot, and every preparation made to give battle in case the approaching steamer should happen to be a foe. As it came nearer it was seen that she was a side-wheeler, and was evidently crowding on all steam. Jack Fields (an experienced gunner) took charge of the 32-pounder, which he carefully trained on the stranger, and remarked: "We will take that walking-beam out of her." All were now expectant, and ready for action, awaiting orders to fire. But as the steamer approached closer it was learned that she was the United States revenue cutter "Fessenden," which was on patrol duty on Lake Erie, on the look-out for Fenians also, and her commander had intended to overhaul the "Rescue," as he likewise thought her suspicious-looking. After a friendly "hail" and mutual explanations, both steamers proceeded on their way.

At about 12 o'clock that night, when about off Port Stanley, a heavy storm of wind and rain arose, and the crew of the "Rescue" experienced a very rough time. The boat pitched and rolled in the trough of the heavy seas, and she sprang a leak. The big gun threatened to break loose from its lashings, and had to be thoroughly secured by cables. The round shot, which had been built up in pyramids on the deck, got away from their base-frames and were rolling in every direction, while the high waves swept over the bulwarks, deluging the men with water. During the whole of the night and part of the next day the men were kept constantly at the pumps, and by dint of hard work succeeded in keeping the boat afloat until the gale subsided and they entered calmer waters. The crew were pretty well worn out with hunger and fatigue when they reached the mouth of the Detroit River on the evening of the 6th of June. They arrived at Windsor about 8 o'clock on the same night, weary, but none the worse of their experience in a Lake Erie storm, which is said by old sailors to be the worst that can rage on any sea.

As matters looked serious along the Detroit River and Upper Lakes, it was decided to strengthen the naval force at Windsor by equipping another boat for service. Therefore the staunch ferry steamer "Michigan" was chartered and details of British tars from Her Majesty's Ship "Aurora" were brought up from Quebec to form her crew, and also to relieve the Toronto Naval Brigade from duty on the "Rescue," as Capt. McMaster had received orders to transfer his command to the "Magnet" and cruise the lakes. Both the "Michigan" and the "Rescue" were then efficiently armed and equipped for the naval service required, and went into commission under British officers and crews. Each boat had an armament of two Armstrong ship guns (9 and 12-pounders), with full supplies of ammunition, and were manned by one Lieutenant, one Second Lieutenant, and midshipmen, doctors, carpenters, etc., with about 90 seamen, 22 marines and seven other officers, all armed with rifles, cutlasses, revolvers and dirks. Lieut. Fairlie, R.N., and Lieut. Heron, R.N. (both of the British man-of-war "Aurora"), were placed in command of the "Rescue" and "Michigan," respectively.

On being relieved from duty on the "Rescue" by the British seamen, Capt. McMaster and his men proceeded to Toronto to fit out the steamer "Magnet" for lake service. They had just completed this arduous work and were awaiting sailing instructions, when an order came that their services were not needed for the present. In relieving them from further service they were specially thanked by Gen. Napier for the creditable manner in which they had done their duty, in the following order:

Assistant Adjt.-General's Office. Toronto, June 10. 1866.

Sir,--I am directed by Maj.-Gen. Napier, C.B., commanding Her Majesty's forces and volunteers, Canada West, to express to you his thanks for the efficient services rendered by the Naval Brigade under your command, particularly recently, when required to take charge of and convert the steamer "Rescue" into a gunboat, in discharging her cargo and getting the necessary armament on board in a very short time and in a highly creditable manner; and, when relieved from the charge of the "Rescue." in performing similar good services when placed in command of the steamer "Magnet." And the Major-General will not fail to again avail himself of the services of the Naval Brigade afloat should an opportunity occur, and will have great pleasure in bringing before the notice of His Excellency the Governor-General the important and valuable services which they have rendered.

          I have the honor to be, Sir,
          Your obedient servant,

          Capt. McMaster,
          Commanding Naval Brigade, Toronto.

          W.M. S. Durie,
          Lt.-Col., A.A.G.M.


On the St. Lawrence River the necessity for a patrol of gunboats was also very manifest, and the Government fitted out the steamer "Watertown" for such service. She was placed in command of Lieut. French, and was employed in cruising the upper part of the St. Lawrence and the lower portion of Lake Ontario, making her port of rendezvous at Kingston.

The gunboat "St. Andrew," commanded by Lieut. Spencer Smith, R.N., and manned by a detachment of British man-of-warsmen, patrolled the St. Lawrence between Brockville and Gananoque. She carried five guns, and her crew were armed with the usual fighting equipment of seamen in the British navy.

The steamer "Wabuno" was armed and placed in commission to cruise on the Georgian Bay, in which waters her crew performed active and vigilant service on patrol duty for several weeks.

On the Niagara River and Lake Erie the steamer "W. T. Robb" was retained in commission and fitted up for service as a cruiser. In addition to the Dunnville Naval Brigade, a detachment of the St. Catharines Garrison Battery (under command of Lieut. James Wilson) was placed on board with two guns, a 9-pounder and a 12-pound howitzer, and the necessary complement of small arms. The wheel-house and cabins were covered with boiler plates, and the bulwarks strengthened by heavy planking for the protection of her crew, so that she was soon converted into a formidable craft and admirably fitted for the work she was detailed to do. This boat was kept busy patrolling the Niagara River and the lower portion of Lake Erie, and her crew did excellent night and day service during the time she was so employed.

At Montreal the gunboat "Royal" was fitted out and despatched through the St. Lawrence Canals and River. She was armed with an Armstrong 12-pounder and a brass howitzer forward, and a 12-pound Armstrong gun aft. Her batteries around bows and stern were cased with iron for the protection of the men working the guns, and her wheel-house protected with sand-bags, making her secure against rifle fire. The gun-boats "Hercules" and "Canada" were also put in commission at Montreal and thoroughly outfitted for service on the lakes and river.

To aid in the protection of Montreal harbor H. M. ship "Rosario" (Capt. Versturme) was despatched from Quebec to that point. She was a steam screw sloop of 673 tons and 150 horsepower, with an armament of eleven guns, and had a full complement of British sailors and marines.

At Hamilton and Port Stanley the Naval Brigades stationed at these points performed shore duty, and did it well. Danger hovered everywhere, and the utmost vigilance was necessary to guard every point. The country was overrun with Fenian spies and emissaries, and arrests of suspicious characters were numerous. Even at home there were traitors who needed watching, as there were some who were ready to give countenance and support to the enemy. Thus the companies who remained at their local headquarters, and the Home Guards who were enrolled for home protection, did remarkably good service along those lines.


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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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