Invasion Threatened When Local Units Trained
By Howard M. Brown
Carleton Place Canadian, 31 March, 1966
Fifty years before Canadian volunteer soldiers began to leave their home towns in 1914 for overseas service, men equally prepared to risk their lives for Canada were forming the first active service military units of many Canadian towns. Their fortunately brief defence service was in the years of the Fenian Raids of the 1860’s, when the last armed invasions of Canada came to challenge our national Confederation.
Among these defenders were more than fifty men of the Carleton Place Rifle Company. The Carleton Place Rifle Company was formed at the start of the first expansion of a trained and permanent volunteer militia of the old Province of Canada, made to meet the risk of possible war between the United States and Great Britain at the outset of the American Civil War. Like those of neighbouring localities and others throughout the province, it replaced a venerable succession of local but normally untrained and unarmed companies of the original sedentary militia. A view of the participation of this community, then an unincorporated village, in Canada’s first major development of its own military forces is given in the pages of the locally published weekly newspapers of that day.
When war threats and consequent militia expansion came in 1862, local demand led to the formation of the first trained and equipped militia company to be based at Carleton Place. In January of that year, in the words of the local Herald editor:
“At a meeting of some of the inhabitants of Carleton Place and vicinity, held at Lavallee’s Hotel on Saturday evening last, it was unanimously resolved that: – ‘In view of the unsettled state of affairs between the British and American governments and the possibility of war, it is expedient that a rifle company should be formed in this village and neighbourhood, to aid in the defence of their country.’
A muster roll was then opened and signed by those present at the meeting. Several others have since added their names, making in all upwards of sixty.”
This number, including some young men of nearby farms, appears to equal nearly half of the total number of men of ages 18 to 40 living then in Carleton Place.
The gazetting of the Carleton Place Volunteer Militia Rifle Company came in December, 1862, with James Poole as captain and John Brown as lieutenant. Within a month it was equipped and undertaking military training. The Perth Courier in December stated:
“Volunteer Rifle Companies are organizing in all parts of the country. In Carleton Place a Company has been Gazetted under Capt. Poole. The volunteer movement if properly encouraged will soon result in twenty or thirty thousand well disciplined men. Let it be made imperative on every Militia officer to be well drilled, and Canada would soon have her militia on a footing that would be ready for all emergencies. At present the supply of Drill Instructors is sadly inadequate.”
The newly authorized company was first paraded in greatcoat uniforms on New Year’s Day, when its captain, news editor James Poole, wrote:
“According to notice given, the members of this company assembled in front of the ‘Herald’ office on the morning of New Year’s Day. After being dressed in the coats and accoutrements forwarded by the Government from Quebec, they were drilled by Robert Bell, Jr., nephew of Robert Bell, Esq., M.P.P. for the North Riding. They paraded the streets several times, and from the manner of performing the drill, dictated by their youthful teacher for the time, have given great promise of future utility, should any unfortunate occasion arise.”
By mid-July it was announced:
“In a few days the new clothing will be ready for distribution, and Carleton Place will be able to turn out one of the best looking Rifle Companies in Canada. The Company will continue to drill as usual every Thursday, Friday and Saturday evening.”
Another summer notice stressed the need for target practice, as judged by the captain of the Carleton Place Company, who published the names and scores of marksmanship of each of some sixty militiamen:
“A rifle shooting match was held near this village on Saturday last, the 15th instant, between the Carleton Place Rifle Company and the Infantry Company from Almonte. The Riflemen were requested to be in uniform at the armoury at six o’clock in readiness to march to the station to meet the Almonters.
The Riflemen were uniformed in the regular Rifle dress – dark green tunics and grey pants, with red facings, dark belts and shakos to match. The Infantry wore the scarlet tunics, gray pants, white belts and shakos trimmed to suit. The shooting was conducted under the able management of Sergt. Cantlin. The shooting on both sides was bad, and much below the average, there being but a few men in either company sufficiently practiced with the rifle. The following is the score of points…”
(Totalling Almonte 107, Carleton Place 106).
A mid-winter inspection of these two companies in February, 1864, as reported by Captain Poole, showed the required drilling which lay ahead:
“The Almonte Infantry and Carleton Place Rifle Companies were inspected on Saturday last by Lt. Col. Earle of the Grenadier Guards, accompanied by Brigade Major Montgomery. The attendance of both companies was much below what it should have been – The Almonte Company mustering only 27 including officers, and the Carleton Place Company 43. The Colonel was well pleased with the condition of the arms and accoutrements of the men; but did not compliment them very highly on their proficiency in drill, which was owing to their very irregular attendance during the fall and winter.”
The American Civil War ended in the spring of the following year. Within six months the Fenian Brotherhood in the United States was building its resources for its expected conquest of Canada, and in November, Canadian troops were posted for several months duty at border points from Prescott to Sarnia.
In Lanark County, contracts for erecting drill halls were let early in 1866 at Carleton Place and Almonte. Construction of the Carleton Place armoury was aided by the promise of a £50 grant by the municipality. It was built by William Pattie on the Beckwith Street site of the recently demolished skating rink bordering the park which then was the village market square. Supported by its hand hewn beams, it remained a useful memorial of the perils of the 1860’s until destroyed in the town’s great fire of 1910. Its use was granted at times for other community purposes ranging from the Beckwith Agricultural Society’s exhibitions of the 1860’s and the ambitious annual choral and musical festivals of the 1880’s to a series of Bishop R. C. Horner’s Hornerite revival meetings. Almonte’s armoury was built for the combined purposes of the militia and the exhibitions of the North Lanark Agricultural Society.
When Fenian preparations in March had indicated they then might be about to attack, and ten thousand Canadian volunteers had been called for duty, no invasion occurred, although two minor ones were attempted. Captain Poole’s Carleton Place newspaper reports of this time said:
“The rumors of a Fenian invasion have created a great stir through the country. The volunteers are called for service and have responded nobly. In our own village the company is filled up and is drilling three times a day. The men are billeted on the inhabitants and have orders to be ready at a moments notice.”
Postponement came in two weeks, when it was reported (March 28) that:
“The prospect of a Fenian invasion of Canada is so far distant that the government feels justified in disbanding a portion of the volunteer force. An order for the disbanding of the Carleton Place Rifle Company was received on Monday evening. The bugle was sounded, and in a few minutes the whole company were at their posts. They naturally thought that marching orders had been received, and were rather disappointed.
The new drill shed is to be completed by the first of September. We would again express our gratification at the manner in which the company have conducted themselves while under arms.”
Forces on each side of the international boundary continued to prepare for a coming encounter. Other views of the Canadian preparations will follow in the next section of this story of the times of Confederation.