The following article was published in our periodic newsletters. The Friends of Roselawn Centre Newsletter is one of many benefits of our membership.
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The Fenians are Coming!
Summer 2016 Newsletter
In 1866, Roselawn was a newly built mansion just outside the village limits of Port Colborne.
Its peaceful existence was not to last!
Toronto newspapers reported “wild and feverish excitement” in towns around the province as a large Fenian force under Colonel O’Neil crossed the Niagara River and took possession of Fort Erie, meeting no opposition.
The Fenian Brotherhood had been formed in Ireland to promote insurrection against Britain.
As many Irish had immigrated to the US and had fought in the Civil War, there were thousands of armed, trained and experienced soldiers just across the border!
With peculiarly Fenian logic, they thought that by capturing various positions in Canada, they could force the British to release their hold on Ireland!
In 1866, they seized a scow commanded by Thorold resident, William Aikens and ferried hundreds of men across the river.
Port Colborne became a strategic defense position at the mouth of the Welland Canal and also at the junction of two railways. Troops arriving by train gathered in the area now known as Seaway Park.
Troops from Welland boarded the tug W.T. Robb which had arrived from Dunnville and others climbed aboard a train at the station and headed for Ridgeway where the battle had commenced. Many were inexperienced Canadian soldiers , some only teenagers. One rifle company of University of Toronto students took the brunt of a fierce Fenian charge and suffered the highest number of casualties. They came from a generation that had not seen combat since MacKenzie’s 1837/38 rebellion. They were joined by a battalion of the “Queen’s Own Rifles” from Toronto, a battalion from Hamilton, and companies from Caledonia and Essex County.
The Canadians were hit hard by expert insurgent rifle fire . When the Fenians fixed bayonets and charged headlong howling the Celtic war cry , the inexperienced Canadians , it was said, broke ranks and ran, leaving their dead and wounded on the field.
The raid itself was a failure for the Fenians. A numerically superior force of British and Canadian troops were assembling nearby and they were cut off from supplies and relief in the US. Retreating across the river, they were taken prisoner in midstream by the US Navy.
Our FoRC Board Chair, Arlene Lessard is descended from people who took part in the battle. She continues the story….
As the troops were coming to Ridgeway from Port Colborne, the Huffman (Hoffman) properties on the Limestone Ridge became the site of the Battle of Ridgeway on June 2, 1866.
The Huffman clan included my great, great grandfather, George and my great, great uncles, Michael and Isaac.
At that time, Michael owned and ran the “Smugglers Tavern” on the north west corner of Garrison and Ridge Road.
It was used for wounded soldiers as the day wore on.
Isaac’s property was farther north on Ridge Road and they found everything destroyed and the home in shambles.
It was a scary and frightening time.
(Sources include: first hand newspaper reports and written accounts by survivors, the Huffman family history and “Ridgeway” by Peter Vronsky. This report has been expanded from the original newsletter CB)
Carole Black Brisley