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History of the York Rangers
Chapter IX

Another Quarter Century of Rust

THE “Patriot” demonstrations of 1838 having subsided, interest in the militia rapidly evaporated and what little skill as men-at-arms the citizens had acquired was soon forgotten. The annual musters of the forces more and more took that burlesque character which is fatal to discipline. For a good soldier has even more need to subdue his sense of humor in time of peace than he has in time of war to control his sense of fear.

The rigorous drill and fine old military decorum of these annual musters (when attended at all) may be gathered from the description by an astonished participant in one, which was held in 1845.

“At that date, and for some years before, there had been an annual muster on old King George's birthday, of the young men of our rural parts not yet enrolled for military purposes. I was then resident in the county of Haldimand, Niagara district, and received a notification that I must proceed to the village of Dunnville and attend the annual muster on the 4th of June. I proceeded there in due course, reported at a named tavern, and fell in with some thirty other young fellow’s in front of it. The specified hour having arrived, we lined up in fair order, and our names were called with military vigor. Then came a veteran carrying a tin pail with something in it, and its bearer stopped in front of every man in turn. A tin dipper descended into the pail and ascended to the welcoming hand of each visitor as he was reached. A gurgle and a smack of the lips, and another nail had been driven into the system of the soldier. Capt. Farr, commanding, then appeared in front of the contingent specially under his orders, and called us back to the ‘Attention’ which we had bestowed elsewhere. We were ‘two deep,’ not a little more, and received the order to ‘wheel’ to the ‘left.’ Explanation was necessary before we could take up the unexpected movement, but after its repetition we were almost equal to the performance of the double shuffle dignified by the name of a ‘quick march.’ Then we reached a turn to our left. Dispirited by the response to the previous command to ‘wheel,’ the gallant captain—called ‘Cap,’ for short, by his corps.—politely informed his command that it was useless to tell them what the drill book said, but they must ‘haw ’ or ‘gee’ as they were directed, so first we ‘geed,’ and then we ‘hawed,’ and got there just the same.

“There were several squads on the vacant lot to which we had been marched, mostly big lads and young men, who were lying on the ground good-naturedly awaiting orders. One special squad, in uniforms, and really looking soldier-like, were drilling with a combination of snap and vigor. Their backs were turned towards us, but on their countermarching we discovered that our models were all negroes, a company raised during the recent Rebellion and said to have been very efficient in making corduroy roads. They received special notice from the colonel, who wore regimentals, too, and sat his steed, a mare as if not afraid of it. In passing up and down the line now formed he gave us ample opportunity, not only to admire his horsemanship, but to form an opinion of the good points of a lively colt running at the heels of its mother. After his little speech of commendation and recommendation, reports were made by the company officers, and we involuntarily broke into groups. Then the fun commenced. Wrestling, jumping, ‘stumping for a horse race,’ and so forth, soon broke up all semblance of order, and one irreverent and evidently licensed good fellow tiptoed to the rear of the ‘Cap.’ and suddenly snatched and drew from its scabbard the slightly rusted sword which had been carried through a rebellion now apparently forgotten. A loud haw-haw from the boys, and the advice from one of them to our commanding officer to put up his ‘old cheese-knife,' and we marched back to the tavern to receive another drink, after which the military heroes were dismissed, and more fun and frolic followed.”

It is not to be supposed, however, as the years went by that all annual musters of the militia were as successful even in the picnic sense, as the one just described. Lieut.-Col. Geo. A. Shaw, ex-commanding officer of the 10th has a curious recollection of one attended by him as a newly gazetted ensign. It was in Toronto itself, where surely, if anywhere, the flame is never allowed to die on the altar of Mars. Arriving with the zeal that becomes a young officer at the appointed hour and the appointed place he could not find any militia. He found, however, a negro asleep under a tree. Summoning his best military crispness of manner he tapped the Sambo with his boot and said, "My man, where are the militia?"

“Tsede militia, sah."

“You’re the militia! What do you mean?"

“Sure, I’se de militia and de oder militia is up de tree."

Looking up the tree Shaw discovered the other militia in the form of a youth picking nuts. Presently the captain came in his full uniform of a captain of the Sedentary Militia of Canada, and the parade was complete.

Things drifted along, nevertheless, becoming of course worse rather than better as the weapons became older and rustier and the memory of any active service became dimmer. The Crimean war, however, awakened the attention of England to many things in connection with her army, the blaze of whose valor only served to light up the hideous weakness of its organization. Among other things the British authorities, while rummaging in 1854 for effective troops, recollected that some thirty-three hundred regulars were defending Canada, and that the Canadians, outside of a few voluntary companies (who drilled without pay and bought their own uniforms), were not interfering with the duties of these regulars. Accordingly England, with the same sad-eyed persistence with which of late years she has reminded Canada of her naval obligations, kept bringing the matter of defence to the attention of the Canadian authorities.

The result was a new militia law in 1855, which made provision for active militia corps which were to provide their own uniforms and clothing and up to the number of 5,000 to receive a very limited number of days pay annum. Additional corps were also authorized who were to drill without pay. These two classes kept up the active militia spirit under difficulties; and owing to the indifference of the public appeared rather to be on the decrease than on the increase. For while in 1850 they numbered 4,999 and rose in 1857 to 5,288, yet in 1858 they sank to 4,895.

However, on November 8th, 1861, the U.S. Steamship San Jacinto fired a shot across the bow of the British mail steamer Trent, and took from her two Southern gentlemen, Mason and Slidell. It required some diplomacy to set this matter right, and in the meantime so sensitive is the Canadian pulse in Imperial matters that our active militia had risen to 12,000 by the end of 1801, and by 1863 to 25,000.

During this period of growth we find certain companies gazetted which form a link between the present regiment of York Rangers and its predecessors in the York Militia of older days.

Thus on September 4th, 1862, was gazetted, the Scarborough Rifle Company, Capt. W. H. Norris, Lieut. J. H Taber, Ensign Geo. Rush.

On December 11th, in the same year, the Aurora Infantry Company,
Capt. Seth Ashton, Lieut, W. B. Hutchison, Ensign C. Good.

On December 19th, The Lloydtown Infantry Company, Capt. Ed. Bull, Lieut. Geo. Ramsay, Ensign Robert Hunter.

And on January 23rd, 1863, The King Infantry Company, Captain Geo. Lee Garden, Lieut. Isaac Dennis, Ensign Chas. Norman.

These companies, quite independent of one another, were part of the 5th Military District (comprising Ontario, York, Peel and Simcoe) and appear from a publication called “The Active or Volunteer Militia Force List of Canada,” to have owed some sort of disciplinary obedience to one J. Stoughton Dennis, the Brigade-Major.

With some changes in personnel, for four years they continued their vigil, turning (as the sentries used to turn) always outwards in one direction; and that direction the South. For from the South the enemy was to come.

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