Decoration Day History

Decoration Day is a fine and noble tradition that predates the establishment of November 11 as Armistice Day, now known as Remembrance Day. Do you know how, and why it started? 

Knowing why helps us make decisions and adds meaning to our choices.

On June 1, 1866, Canada was invaded from the United States by an insurgent army of Irish American Fenians seeking to expel British rule from Ireland by taking Canada hostage.  A heavily armed 1,000-man group of Civil War veterans from both the US and former Confederate armies seized the town of Fort Erie and threatened to destroy the Welland Canal.  

On the morning of June 2, near the village of Ridgeway west of Fort Erie, they were intercepted by a brigade of Canadian militia from the Queen’s Own Rifles (QOR) of Toronto and 13th Battalion of Hamilton (today the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry (RHLI).

This became Canada’s first modern battle to be fought exclusively by Canadian troops and led entirely by Canadian officers:  the Battle of Ridgeway.

The first casualty, Ensign Malcolm McEachern was killed in the early minutes of the battle on June 2.  Nine riflemen from the Queen’s Own Rifles were killed in the battle.  Twenty-two more Canadians would die of either wounds or disease sustained during the Fenian Raids.  

Except for miniscule payments to those severely wounded in the battle, or to the widows and orphans of those killed, the veterans received no acknowledgement of their service in the defense of Canada during the Fenian Raids.  

As Canadian American relations warmed, commemoration of a battle defending against an invasion from the U.S. became unpolitic, inconvenient and impolite.  The more than eight hundred veterans who fought at Ridgeway were forgotten and ignored.

In May 1890 the Veterans of ’66 Association decided to meet in protest on the twenty-fourth anniversary of the battle to lay flowers and wreaths at the Canadian Volunteers Monument near Queen’s Park.  

This first Decoration Day was followed by a national petition in 1895 for recognition of all the volunteers who served during the Fenian Raids. In January 1899, in response to the petition, Britain authorized a Canadian General Service Medal for veterans of the 1866 and 1870 Fenian Raids and the 1870 Red River Rebellion. 

The medal was issued by Britain just in time for the call on Canada to help in the upcoming South African War.