Book details story of forgotten Decoration Day
The Canadian Press
Published Thursday, November 10, 2011 7:17AM EST
TORONTO - The first Armistice Day, which would later be renamed Remembrance Day, was commemorated in 1919, celebrating the end of the First World War on Nov. 11, 1918 at 11 a.m.
Remembrance Day now officially honours the sacrifices of those who served in the South African War beginning in 1899 through to today's military campaigns.
But left out of Remembrance Day is recognition for Canadians who fought even earlier, in a war that had ties to Confederation and helped shape the country. Those soldiers inspired another annual day of mourning that began in 1890 but it's now mostly forgotten.
The story behind Decoration Day -- a tribute to the Battle of Ridgeway, a little-known episode in Canadian history --is chronicled in the new book "Ridgeway: The American Fenian Invasion and the 1866 Battle That Made Canada."
Author Peter Vronsky had been researching the history of the Toronto police force when he stumbled upon some interesting anecdotes from a war in Canada's history that he wasn't very familiar with.
"I had encountered in the police archives all these references to prisoners of war being escorted by the police to the Toronto jail back in 1866 and, of course, as a product of the Ontario educational system I went, 'What war in 1866?"' Vronsky says in an interview.
"I'd heard vaguely about the Fenian raids but with the Battle of Ridgeway I never really placed it in being so close to Confederation."
His book details how in June 1866 more than 1,000 Fenians -- who dubbed themselves the "Irish Republican Army" -- invaded Canada from Buffalo, N.Y., across the Niagara River. The invaders were mostly veterans of the Civil War, while the Canadians who stood to defend against the attack -- including farmers, shopkeepers and teachers -- were largely inexperienced in combat and some had never even fired guns.
Vronsky says the ensuing Battle of Ridgeway was the first modern conflict to be fought entirely by Canadians and led by Canadian officers.
"It's where we fought for the Maple Leaf for the first time, even before we fought for the Crown," he says.
"But most people, I think, have not heard of Ridgeway ... and I think partly because we lost that battle. It's fallen off our cultural historical radar."
The sacrifices on the battlefield during the Battle of Ridgeway inspired Decoration Day, which was modelled after a U.S. commemoration honouring Civil War soldiers.
Vronsky eventually discovered that a statue he regularly walks past near Ontario's legislature -- the Canadian Volunteers Monument -- is actually a tribute to the Battle of Ridgeway. It was also the site of the first Decoration Day in June 1890 where 50,000 were said to have attended a memorial.
"That was an extraordinary portion of the population of Toronto at that time, (it shows) how big this event used to be in our remembrance of our heritage," he says, adding that the Battle of Ridgeway also inspired Canada's unofficial anthem "The Maple Leaf Forever," written by veteran Alexander Muir.
Besides learning more about the history of Decoration Day, Vronsky was also captivated by how the Fenian conflicts affected the birth of the country in 1867.
"I think the most fascinating thing about it is just how this crisis overtook our entire political discourse during that summer of 1866, and also the state of emergency that Canada was in in Confederation," he says.
"My assumption, being a typical product of our high school system here, was that Confederation took place quietly in these whisky-and-soda meetings at Charlottetown and Quebec between lawyers and there was no drama.
"I certainly hit upon a Canada I'd never heard about and hadn't been taught about. This was a hidden Canada, almost like another dimension to our nation."