Some Further Investigation of Carleton Place’s Connection to the Battle of Ridgeway
Howard Brown’s article in the Carleton Place Canadian, 17 March, 1966, titled “Border Raids Promoted Confederation in Canada,” makes reference to a man with a connection to Carleton Place being among those of the ranks of the Queen’s Own Rifles killed in the Fenian Raid at Ridgeway, June 2, 1866. His name was John H. Mewburn. “He was a university student, age 21, only son of Harrison C. Mewburn who at this time was headmaster of the Carleton Place grammar school.” I thought it would be interesting to discover a little bit more about John H. Mewburn, and his role in the ‘forgotten’ Battle of Ridgeway.
A search on Ancestry.com for J. H. Mewburn, born circa 1845 shows him in the 1851 census living in Stamford, Welland Co. with his parents, Harrison C. Mewburn (farmer )and Ann Mewburn, and with his grandparents John Mewburn (Surgeon) and grandmother Henrietta Mewburn. He was born in England.
A search of the 1861 census only locates his mother, Ann, living with her in-laws, and she is listed as single. There’s no sign of John or his father in this census.
At some point, his father, Harrison C. Mewburn moved to Carleton Place. His son was at the University of Toronto in 1866, writing his final exams on the morning of June 2nd, when he was called to battle.
It was not difficult to find more information online, and in books, about J. H. Mewburn and this historically significant battle. Most scholars feel the Battle of Ridgeway led directly to Confederation in 1867. Most Canadians know very little about the importance of this politically charged battle.
Feeling curious about all of this? Google searches of ‘Fenian Raids’ elicits the following worthwhile sites to visit:
A picture of soldiers at the Battle of Ridgeway on Our Ontario site:
A list of casualties at Ridgeway as well as everything else about Ridgeway, can be found on Peter Vronsky’s site. The list of casualties includes J. H. Mewburn’s name: http://www.ridgewaybattle.ca/ .
At the library we have a copy of Peter Vronsky’s book, “Ridgeway: the American Fenian invasion and the 1866 battle that made Canada.” This is a must-read for anyone looking for a comprehensive account of this battle, and why he believes it has received so little attention. According to Peter Vronsky:
“On June 1, 1866 Canada was invaded by Irish-American Fenian insurgents from their bases in the United States. The Fenian Brotherhood planned to take Canada hostage in an attempt to free Ireland from the British Crown and establish an independent republic. The invasion culminated on June 2, with the Battle of Ridgeway near Fort Erie, Ontario, Canada’s first modern battle and the first fought exclusively by Canadian soldiers and led entirely by Canadian officers.
Nine militia volunteers from Toronto’s Queen’s Own Rifles Regiment were killed in the battle, including three student soldiers from a University of Toronto rifle company called out while writing their final exams and who took the brunt of a Fenian charge at Limestone Ridge. While Canadians had not fought a major war in Canada since the War of 1812, the Fenians were all battle-hardened veterans of the American Civil War, many having served in crack Irish brigades.
The “Ridgeway Nine” were Canada’s first soldiers killed in action and Ridgeway was the last battle fought in Ontario against a foreign invader, but after the disastrous conclusion the Macdonald government covered-up what happened so thoroughly that most Canadians today have never heard of this battle.”
Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada site: – Has a picture and a biography of John H. Mewburn. Here we discover that his middle name is Harriman, and we learn the graphic details of how he died:
The band, Fenian Raid, has a site with battle songs (‘Tramp, tramp, tramp’), more history and pictures of the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada, & talks about ‘The Maple Leaf Forever’ : http://fenianraid.ca/fr_fenianraids.cfm
Howard Brown’s article in the Carleton Place Canadian of 04 August, 1960, describes the uniforms, and gives us an abbreviated list of the men of the local Rifle Company who defended their country at Brockville, Ontario in 1866. J. H. Mewburn’s name is not among them, so it seems that his only connection to Carleton Place was that his father lived here:
“In a target shooting competition at Carleton Place between the local Rifle Company and the Almonte Infantry Company, the rifle company appeared in its new uniforms with green tunics, grey pants with red facings, and dark belts. The infantry uniforms had scarlet tunics, grey pants and white belts. The impressive headpiece of both companies’ uniforms was an ornamented cap known as a shako.”
Brockville river front and railway communications were protected by the provisional battalion which already had been called up in March, formed of the Brockville, Perth, Carleton Place, Almonte and Gananoque companies.
Raids from the United States upon border points were made in 1866 by groups known as Fenians, whose professed objective was political independence for Ireland. The Carleton Place and Almonte volunteer companies were dispatched to Brockville in June. Captain of the Almonte company was James D. Gemmill. Total of all ranks serving from Carleton Place numbered fifty-seven. Under local officers Captain James C. Poole, Lieut. John Brown and Ensign J. Jones Bell, they included such Carleton Place and township family names as Burke, Coleman, Cram, Dack, Docherty, Duff, Enright, Ferguson, Fleming, Hamilton, Kilpatrick, Leslie, Lavallee, Moffatt, Moore, Morphy, and McArthur, McCaffrey, McCallum, McEwen, McFadden, McNab, McNeely and McPherson, Neelin, Patterson, Pattie, Rattray, Sinclair, Stewart, Sumner, Williams, Willis and Wilson.
Volunteers from these and other Lanark County areas served also in the Fenian Raids of 1870. Drill halls built in 1866 at county centres including Perth, Carleton Place and Almonte were used for many years. The Carleton Place drill shed was at the market square between Beckwith and Judson Streets, at the present site of the skating rink. Almonte’s military quarters were combined with the North Lanark Agricultural Society’s main exhibition building then being erected.”
It is doubtful that any of the Carleton Place men saw active duty during the Fenian Raid of 1866, as after June 2nd the Fenians’ supplies of men and munitions had been curtailed.
If, as all of the above evidence suggests, the Battle of Ridgeway precipitated Confederation a year later, why has it been forgotten, or has it been deliberately covered up?
Maybe it’s time to breathe some new life into the Battle of Ridgeway, and give it the recognition it deserves in 2017, when Canada celebrates its 150th birthday.
Stay tuned for more Confederation Series articles by Howard M. Brown!