BOOKER, ALFRED, merchant, auctioneer, and militia officer; b. in 1824 in Nottingham, England, son of the Reverend Alfred Booker, a Regular Baptist clergyman; d. 27 Sept. 1871 in Montreal, Que.
The Booker family had been in Hamilton, Canada West, for eight years when, in 1850, Alfred Booker Jr established a business which he conducted until 1867. At his sale rooms he auctioned real estate, horses, dry goods, and the stock of merchants going out of business. He became wealthy and was a respected member of the freemasons (being a founder of St John’s Lodge of the Irish registry in 1852), of the St George’s Society, and of the Regular Baptist Church.
On 16 May 1851 Booker was commissioned ensign in the 1st Wentworth militia. He transferred as 2nd captain to the 1st Hamilton Independent Artillery company in 1853; he claimed to have helped outfit this company. In 1855 he was gazetted captain of the Volunteer Militia Battery of Artillery of Hamilton, which he organized. He was promoted major in 1857 to command the volunteer (or active) militia artillery and rifle companies of Hamilton, and lieutenant colonel in 1858 to command the volunteer force in Hamilton. On 15 June 1861, shortly after the outbreak of the Civil War in the United States, Booker was appointed a staff officer to provide information on local conditions to imperial troops.
In 1862 formation of the 13th Battalion (later the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry) was authorized and the command was given to Isaac Buchanan*. Booker took it over in 1865 in preference to another officer, James Atchison Skinner, while retaining over-all command of the active force in Hamilton. In the same year he commanded several volunteer companies on the Niagara frontier following the St Albans raid by a group of Southerners in October. He had been examined by a board of three imperial officers in 1864 and received the first 1st class certificate of military qualification ever granted by the Department of Militia Affairs. His strenuous voluntary services brought some rewards: he was wont to refer to “the special approval and personal commendation” of the Prince of Wales in 1860 and to his presentation to Queen Victoria in 1864.
The event with which Booker’s name is chiefly connected is the battle of Ridgeway fought on 2 June 1866 between Canadian volunteers under his command and the Irish Republican Army under John O’Neill. On 1 June, when news of a Fenian invasion was received by British military officials, Booker was instructed to call out the 13th Battalion and take it to Port Colborne. He picked up two additional volunteer companies (the York and Caledonia) en route, and found the 2nd Battalion of Toronto already there when he arrived late the same day. Because he was senior to the 2nd Battalion’s temporary commander, John Stoughton Dennis*, Booker took command of the whole force.
The volunteers under Booker were to act in conjunction with imperial troops commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel George J. Peacocke; both were under the orders of Major General George Napier. Peacocke was to meet Booker in Port Colborne but the place was changed to Stevensville. Booker, however, had better knowledge of the whereabouts of the Fenians than Peacocke, and he suggested that he take his column to Fort Erie and attack them at Frenchman Creek; the scheme was vetoed by Peacocke.
Booker considered that to “keep my appointment at Stevensville was my obvious duty,” and accepted Napier’s expectation that the Fenians would not attack until the two columns had arrived there. Booker’s force reached Ridgeway by train and began the march to Stevensville. His troops – young, inexperienced, and ill trained – consisted of 480 men in the 2nd Battalion under Charles Todd Gilmor, 265 in the 13th under J. A. Skinner (in temporary command as Booker had taken command of the whole column), and about 50 in each of the York Company and the Caledonia Company. Gilmor’s advance guard, however, met the Fenians under O’Neill about midway between Stevensville and Ridgeway, and became heavily engaged. Booker then learned that Peacocke had been delayed at Chippawa; there was now no hope that the imperial troops would hear the fighting and come to Booker’s aid. According to Gilmor, “the situation of the Volunteers was thereby rendered most critical, as it seemed improbable we would hold our position for the two hours we were thus left unsupported.” Neither side had artillery or cavalry.
Booker drove back the Fenians, but when he ordered parts of Skinner’s 13th to replace the companies under Gilmor which were low in ammunition, O’Neill counterattacked. “A scene of confusion ensued” and Booker’s force was routed. Booker was unable to regroup his men at Ridgeway, and retired to Port Colborne, while O’Neill, wishing to return to the U.S.A., and unable to take advantage of his military success, moved to Fort Erie. In all, nine of Booker’s men were killed in action. Peacocke’s column, which had artillery, was never engaged. Subsequently it was hinted that Peacocke should be court-martialed, but Sir John Michel* (commander of the forces) let it be known that the volunteers’ weapons were such that “at present the unfortunate Canadians fight at a disadvantage” and that if the Canadian government had authorized money for a dozen mounted volunteers Peacocke’s force would have been warned in time to destroy the Fenians.
The British military placed responsibility on the Canadian government, but a court of inquiry demanded by Booker and presided over by George Taylor Denison II failed to assign blame at the same time indicating Booker’s personal courage. The officers of the 13th, however, showed no intention of letting matters lie. Skinner and others hired a former protégé of Isaac Buchanan, Alexander Somerville*, to write a malicious account of the battle. Somerville later admitted that the officers were “hostile to Colonel Booker and blind to fair play” and that the book was “doing the work of Col. Booker’s personal enemies.”
Booker’s resignation on 30 July 1866 from command of the 13th Battalion was followed by permission to retire from the militia in 1867; he retained his rank, a virtual vindication of his actions by the Canadian government. The reasons for the defeat were, however, too deeply entwined with imperial and Canadian attitudes to defence to allow Booker’s comeback in the volunteer movement. In 1867 he left Hamilton and reopened his shop in Montreal, where he died four years later, survived by a son.
PAC, MG 27, I, D4 (Cartier papers), 4, p.1792; RG 7, G10, 2; RG 8, I, A1, 185; D5, 1672; RG 9, I, C1, 265–67, 270; C8, 6, 8; II, A1, 2, f.145; 6, f.501; 36, f.3923. Canada Gazette (Ottawa), 23 June 1866. Evening Times (Hamilton), 1864–66. Gazette (Montreal), 28 Sept. 1871. Montreal Herald, 5, 7 Nov. 1870. G. T. Denison III, History of the Fenian raid on Fort Erie; with an account of the battle of Ridgeway (Toronto, 1866). Alexander Somerville, Narrative of the Fenian invasion of Canada (Hamilton, C.W., 1866). Hutchinson’s Hamilton directory for 1862–63 . . . (Hamilton, C.W., 1862).
E. A. Cruikshank, The origin and official history of the Thirteenth Battalion of infantry, and a description of the work of the early militia of the Niagara peninsula in the War of 1812 and the rebellion of 1837 (Hamilton, Ont., 1899). J. A. Macdonald, Troublous times in Canada; a history of the Fenian raids of 1866 and 1870 (Toronto, 1910). J. R. Robertson, The history of freemasonry in Canada from its introduction in 1749 . . . (2v., Toronto, 1899), II. E. A. Cruikshank, “The Fenian raid of 1866,” Welland County Hist. Soc., Papers and Records (Welland, Ont.), II (1926), 9–49. F. M. Quealey, “The Fenian invasion of Canada West, June 1st and 2nd, 1866,” Ont. Hist., LIII (1961), 37–66.