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A Retrospect of Events

A Retrospect of Events--A Combination of Unfortunate Circumstances Involve Leading Officers.


That the campaign on the Niagara frontier might have been conducted on lines which would have proved much more satisfactory for the success of the Canadian forces, is admitted. It seemed to be a combination of errors and omissions from the beginning, which furnished food for unfavorable criticism and condemnation by journalistic and arm-chair critics which created impressions on the public mind that exist even at the present day. Of course each critic would have done different--this plan or that plan "should have been" adopted, regardless of all military rules. The trite saying that "nothing succeeds like success" should be supplemented by adding, "and nothing more reprehensive than failure." In military operations success or defeat are in the scales, and the least little occurrence is liable to outbalance the other. No matter how carefully a commanding officer may lay his plans, or how minutely he may explain them to his staff and subordinates, if one does not do his part in promptly carrying out instructions at the proper moment, the whole machinery is thrown out of gear, and failure is the inevitable result.

In the first place, while Gen. Napier's plan of campaign was excellent in itself, there were several very important things omitted that were essential to its success. That of the greatest importance was the lack of proper provision being made for obtaining information of the exact position and movements of the enemy, such as a corps of competent scouts could have given. That omission is fatal to the success of any military movement. Again, those who were in command of columns on the 2nd of June do not seem to have had an intelligent idea of the country they were about to move over, and had to rely on whatever chance information they could obtain, much of which, in the excited state of the minds of the people, was unreliable. To condemn any particular officer for an unlooked-for disaster is a serious matter, unless such defeat is clearly the result of his own negligence, or some movement of which he had personal control. Therefore critics should always be careful to put the saddle of blame on the right horse.

As Col. Peacocke had been assigned to the immediate command of the troops operating on the Niagara frontier by Gen. Napier, it will be noted (as related in a former chapter) that he arrived at Chippawa on the evening of June 1st, with a considerable number of regular troops and a complete battery of field guns, manned by experienced gunners of the Royal Artillery. His reinforcements from Toronto and St. Catharines were closely following, and quickly available. That night he sent Capt. Akers across the country with definite orders to Lieut.-Col. Booker to move eastward to Ridgeway by rail at 5 o'clock the next morning, and effect a junction with his (Col. Peacocke's) column at Stevensville at 10 o'clock. These instructions stated that Col. Peacocke would leave Chippawa at 6 a.m., and in accordance with this programme Lieut.-Col. Booker proceeded to carry out his orders. On the other hand, it was nearly 8 o 'clock before Col. Peacocke left Chippawa, which threw the whole programme out of joint by nearly two hours. Various excuses were made for the delay, but some of them were not very tenable. The regulars had had a good night's rest, and the volunteers (who were all on the ground at Chippawa before 4.30 a.m.) were eager and willing to proceed. Why he did not leave Chippawa by at least 6 o'clock (in the cool hours of the morning) is not sufficiently clear. A pilot engine was sent up the line of the Erie & Niagara Railway early in the morning, upon which were Lieut.-Col. John Hillyard Cameron and a detail of riflemen from the St. Catharines Battery of Artillery. They made a reconnaissance nearly as far as Black Creek, and returned with the report that they had not observed any signs of the enemy between Chippawa and that point. This was before Col. Peacocke started on his march. Why could it not have been possible for him to have moved a portion of his advance up by train as far as Black Creek, was a question that was prevalent at the time. But Col. Peacocke was not apparently taking any chances. He appears to have been overly cautious, and was disposed to adopt the old-time method of plodding along the beaten trail. Here again he made a mistake in taking "the longest way around" to reach Stevensville, while the intense heat and dust began to tell on his troops, which compelled him to halt at New Germany about 11 o'clock. Before reaching there he was informed of the disaster at Ridgeway by parties who had arrived from the battle-field. Why, then, did he not push on in search of the enemy, instead of remaining at New Germany until 5.30 p.m.? is another question. Excuses are easily framed and plausibly given in reports, but the country generally, and his soldiers particularly, have always thought that he might have managed to have got into a conflict with the enemy in some way. Col. Peacocke was a very fine gentleman, and had the reputation of being a skilful military officer, but his extreme caution in this campaign spoiled all chances of any success in winning the renown that might have been his portion had he acted with snap and celerity of movement in battering the Fenian army before they left Canada. He had the opportunity, the men and the guns, but he let his golden chances slip by while he idly passed away the time "resting" at Chippawa and New Germany.

Capt. Akers was another officer whose action in consenting with the ideas of Lieut.-Col. Dennis to change the plans of their commanding officer is inexplicable. Why these two officers should have dared to assume such responsibility is beyond all comprehension. A soldier's first duty is obedience to orders, and as these had been definitely issued by Col. Peacocke, it was manifestly not their business to change them, but to see that they were rigidly carried out. For that purpose Capt. Akers had been specially despatched from Chippawa to Port Colborne; but in less than half an hour after his arrival he was busily engaged with Lieut.-Col. Dennis and Lieut.-Col. Booker in concocting a new plan of campaign. After deciding on what they intended to do, they condescendingly notified Col. Peacocke of the change in his own plans, and without, waiting for a reply they started off for Fort Erie on the steamer "W. T. Robb" to put them in execution. Such assumption was certainly astounding, and no doubt Col. Peacocke had a choleric fit when he was apprised of it. This was another mistake, which contributed largely to the defeat of Col. Peacocke's purposes, and left a cloud on the military prestige of both Lieut.-Col. Dennis and Capt. Akers. As Lieut.-Col. Booker had also been persuaded to join in the new plan, he was making his arrangements to do so when he received an imperative order by telegraph from Col. Peacocke to adhere to his original instructions.

As Lieut.-Col. Dennis and Capt. Akers sailed away in high hope from Port Colborne, they probably built the fairy air castles which were doomed to totter and fall before night. It did not seem to occur to them that Col. Peacocke's sanction to, and co-operation in, their change of plan would be necessary to ensure success. Therefore their disappointment must have been great when they found that Lieut.-Col. Booker failed to arrive at Fort Erie at 7 o'clock, as provided in their new arrangement. At this hour Lieut.-Col. Booker was leaving Ridgeway (in pursuance of his latest orders) on his march for Stevensville, and soon after had the misfortune to strike the enemy in force. And thereby hangs another tale of a grave mistake, which brought considerable censure to that officer. The story of the battle is told elsewhere, and need not be repeated.

In the light of official reports and the testimony of officers and men who were engaged in the battle of Lime Ridge, the disaster which occurred to Lieut.-Col. Booker's column (almost in the moment of victory) can be attributed wholly to a fatal order being given at the most critical time in the progress of the fight. Lieut.-Col. Booker had up to that eventful moment displayed singular sagacity and wisdom in the handling of his troops, and had correctly followed the usual military rules which would be applicable to the occasion. But somebody appears to have originated the report that the enemy were about to make a cavalry charge, and at this crisis, when the troops were ordered to "Form square," the demon of disaster suddenly appeared. It was the proper order to have given had there really been a cavalry force advancing, but as the alarm originated in the imagination of others, for which there was no valid reason, the movement proved a mistake which turned the tide of battle and caused the dire disaster for which Lieut.-Col. Booker was, and is to this day, most unjustly blamed. A little reflection on the part of his critics might have tended to tone down their asperity and given him some credit for what he did do, both before and after the unfortunate order was given. But some person had to take the blame, and Lieut.-Col. Hooker was made the victim of circumstances. Here was a volunteer Colonel (who had never previously commanded a brigade) suddenly placed in command of the whole column because he happened to be the senior officer present, and ordered to advance across the path of the enemy to make a junction with Col. Peacocke's forces at Stevensville. His orders were to leave Port Colborne at a certain hour, which he did--exactly on time. He was handicapped in many ways, yet he did his duty and carried out the orders he received to the letter. He had neither cavalry, artillery or scouts with his column, so that his position was not a very enviable one. Had Capt. Akers remained with Col. Booker instead of going off on an excursion with Lieut.-Col. Dennis on the tug "Robb," his presence might have made some difference in the fortunes of the battle at Lime Ridge. Lieut.-Col. Booker had no staff officer to assist him, and in this position Capt. Akers might have been of some service, and won more glory than he did in the campaign. As to Lieut.-Col. Booker's conduct on the field at Lime Ridge (which was so unfavorably commented upon by the public press and carping critics who accepted the multitude of erroneous rumors that were prevalent during that period of excitement), it may lie stated that the whole affair was fully investigated by a Military Court of Inquiry, composed of three competent officers of high and honorable standing, who took the sworn testimony of a large number of officers and men who were engaged in the battle. As the whole evidence, and a full report of the proceedings of the Court, are published as an appendix to this book, it will prove very interesting to the reader, and serve to give an intelligent idea of the events narrated, from which you can draw your own conclusions as to whether Lieut.-Col. Booker was unjustly censured or not.

Another officer who was roundly condemned by the officers and men under his command, and by the public generally, for his singular conduct during the engagement at Fort Erie, was Lieut.-Col. J. S. Dennis, who was in command of the expedition on the steamer "W. T. Robb." Grave charges were filed against this officer, which resulted in a Court of Inquiry being appointed to investigate the case. As the charges made and the finding of the Court will be found in the latter portion of the appendix of this book, the writer will not discuss them here. Suffice it to say that the officers and men of the force which he landed on the dock at Port Erie on the 2nd of June, and placed in great jeopardy and peril, were not at all satisfied with the opinion of the Court, which they considered in the nature of a "white-wash" for Lieut.-Col. Dennis (and a thin coat at that), as the President of the Court dissented from the finding of his two colleagues on two charges, but was over-ruled by them.


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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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