Ridgeway Nine - Heroes of the Battle of Ridgeway - 1866

A Defining Canadian Moment

Historians often argue about what is Canadian history’s most defining moment. Some will point to the establishment of Quebec City in 1608. Others will say that it was the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759 or the Battle of Vimy Ridge in 1917.

However, many will argue that it was an obscure event, a moment that, for a time, had been wiped out from our history: the 1866 Battle of Ridgeway (aka Battle of Lime Ridge) which was part of the authorities’ response to the Fenian Invasions.

Throughout the 19th century and especially during the Potato Famine of the late 1840s, a large number of Irish people emigrated to North America. Many ended up in Toronto and often settled in areas such as what is now known today as Corktown or Cabbagetown.

Many also ended up in the United States and became part of the American society. Proud Irish soldiers fought on the side of the Union in the American Civil War (1861-1865). They however never forgot their country of origin. After the Civil War, many banded together to form the Fenian Brotherhood (aka the Fenians). Their dream was to free Ireland from British rule and their goal was mostly to raise money for an Irish uprising against what they saw as the English oppressor.

But after 1865, these experienced military men, well trained, competent with weapons, hardened, became idle and very impatient.

In 1866, the Province of Canada was still a British colony and the Fenians saw it as a bargaining chip they could use to regain Ireland’s independence. Invading Canada, holding it hostage, could, in their eyes, force the British hands and liberate Ireland.

So between 1866 and 1871, the Fenians raided many areas of Canada: New Brunswick, Canada West (Ontario), Canada East (Quebec), Manitoba, etc.

The charge of the Fenians (wearing green uniforms) at the Battle of Ridgeway, on June 2, 1866. (Library and Archives Canada, c-18737)

The main battle against the Fenians took place in Canada West (now Ontario) near the American border.

On June 1, 1866, 1,500 Fenians crossed the Niagara River and marched into Canada. Their aim was to take control of the Welland Canal that they saw as one of Canada’s most important strategic assets.

Very quickly, the alarm sounded and the authorities prepared their response. Thousands of militiamen (volunteers) were called out.

At the same time, negotiations for a new Canadian Confederation were at a critical stage. And let’s remember that, at the time, the young country-to-be didn’t have a Department of National Defense.

Seeing that the terrain would give them some advantage, the Fenian main force stopped near Ridgeway at Lime Ridge. On June 2, 1866, they were eventually met by a group of around 350 ill-prepared militiamen, many of them University of Toronto students. During the short battle, 7 militiamen were killed. Two were mortally wounded and died within days. 41 were wounded.

Illustration (wood engraving) by Charles Fuller published in a London magazine in late June 1866. It shows the funeral at St. James Cemetery of volunteers killed.

A service was held at St. James-the-Less (Cabbagetown’s St. James Cemetery chapel). The dead were buried in both Cabbagetown’s St. James Cemetery and the Necropolis.

Were killed in action:

  • Ensign Malcolm McEachern, 35, store manager (UofT student), bullet in lower chest, Necropolis
  • Private William D. Smith, age unknown, married labourer (UofT student), St. James Cemetery
  • Private Mark Defries, cellarman or malster in brewery (UofT student), shot in the back, St. James Cemetery
  • Private Christopher Alderson, 40, clerk/messenger, shot through the heart, St. James Cemetery
  • Private William Fairbanks Tempest, 23, (UofT student), bullet cut jugular vein, Necropolis
  • Private H. Mewburn, student (UofT student), head wound, St. John Cemetery, Stamford (Niagara)
  • Private Malcolm McKenzie, 27, student (UofT student), shot to the heart, Woodstock Presbyterian Cemetery

Died a couple of days after battle:

  • Corporal Francis Lakey, 26, shoemaker, St James Cemetery
  • Sergeant Hugh Matheson, 28, assistant pharmacist, leg amputated, gangrene, Necropolis

Although victorious, the Fenians retreated to the American side as they knew that the actual British Forces were about to show up. Over the following few years they continued their raids but they gradually lost steam. The Brotherhood eventually disbanded.

One year before the establishment of the Canadian Dominion (Confederation), skirmishes with a group of American Irish laid bare how weak and unprepared the fledgling country was. It likely sent a jolt to the officials negotiating the establishment of our country.

The then government led by John A. Macdonald certainly didn’t see the Battle of Ridgeway as a high point. Although it was pointed out that Ridgeway was the first battle fought exclusively by Canadians and led by Canadian officers – there were no British officers or men in the battle – it was an embarrassment. For the longest time, the government tried to sweep this event under the carpet, even refusing to recognize the veterans of the Battle of Ridgeway. It was suppressed from our history books.

A Battle of Ridgeway Volunteers’ Monument was unveiled in 1870. As the time of its erection, the monument was on the west end of Queen’s Park grounds. With changes in the landscape and roads, it is now on top of a hidden hill on the University of Toronto grounds, west of Queen’s Park Circle.

A memorial window for the “Ridgeway Nine” was also installed in the East Hall of University College. But only recently has the Battle of Ridgeway and its heroes received the attention it is due.

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