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The Life of James Robertson

FOR three years Robertson taught the Innerkip school, working hard meantime in private study preparing for his university course, and giving full service besides to his church and Sabbath-school. They were years of strenuous toil, but toil was his delight, nor did the days ever drag, for they were lightened by love. In 1863, he matriculated at the University of Toronto, but of his university career little is known. While not a brilliant scholar, he took a good general stand, being devoted particularly to mathematics, modern languages, and metaphysics. But while he won little distinction in the class lists, he laid very solid foundation for his future study and developed in a marked degree the student instinct and habit which kept his mind fresh and open to truth, and made him throughout his laborious life keenly alive to all that was new in every department of knowledge.

His photograph taken during his college course shows him a full-bearded man, grave, thoughtful, mature of face, and withal somewhat stern and rugged. His clothes were not of the most fashionable cut, the travelling tailor at home despising all newfangled notions, and his whole appearance was such, as to expose him to the ridicule of the smart and "sporty" set. But, as a fellow student, who afterwards came to hold him in high regard, writes:

"Though he wore his trousers at high water mark, and though his hats were wonderful to behold and his manners abrupt and uncouth, still ‘Jeemsie,’ as he was dubbed by the irreverent, commanded the respect of the giddiest of the lot for his fine heart and for his power of pungent speech, for he would fire words at you like a cannonball. And for the ridicule of the boys, Jeemsie cared not a tinker’s curse."

He kept himself aloof from much of the college life. His earnest purpose and thoughtful, intense nature found little congenial in the college societies and the college sports and politics of the day. But if he took little interest in these sides of the university life, when there was anything serious afoot Robertson was not found wanting. Hence, when at the close of the American Civil War, rumours began to run of invasion of Canada by the Fenians, he joined the University Corps of the Queen’s Own Rifles and gave himself diligently to drill, so that when news of the actual raid came he was ready with his fellow students to obey his country’s call to arms. The following extracts from letters to Miss Cowing show the spirit in which the men of the Queen’s Own Rifles responded to the call and incidentally throw light upon the extent to which the feeling of alarm prevailed through the country. The letter is dated from Toronto University, Feb. 21, 1866.

"We were all called in by Croft and Cherriman the other day and told that he, Croft, had received a telegram from headquarters asking him to have all his men ready to be called out at a moment’s notice, the Government having received definite information that the Fenians were going to make a raid. The place of attack was not known; it was suspected, however, to be one of the cities, the main object of the raid being to obtain funds. The banks, consequently, were to be specially guarded. The guards throughout the city were doubled and all held in readiness. We of the University Corps took our rifles and greatcoats home with us and ten rounds of ammunition, after a place of rendezvous was named. I sincerely hope that these deluded men will not engage in so foolish an undertaking as the invasion of the British Provinces since they must expect nothing else than to be shot down or hanged. But fanaticism may do mischief and it is to prevent anything of the evil results that arise from such that these precautionary measures are adopted. If all things are in readiness they cannot do nearly the amount of damage that might otherwise be effected. Of course, incendiarism and everything of that kind has to be guarded against. The banks have lights burning through the whole night, men guarding the front and rear, and so forth and so forth."

The incident of the Fenian raid is well known to all students of Canadian history. It was planned in folly, carried on in a spirit of bravado and ended in ruin to those who were responsible for it. Robertson, with his fellow members of the University Corps, took part in the unfortunate skirmish at Ridgeway. A comrade in arms writes as follows:

"In May, 1866, the call came to the Canadian Volunteer Militia to put into practice on the field of strife what they had been acquiring so steadily during the past years. With the Thirteenth from Hamilton, the Queen’s Own Rifles appeared on that bright, beautiful day in June, 1866, at Ridgeway. No regiment could more gallantly go into action than did the Queen’s Own Rifles that morning. Our company, Number Nine, was ordered to the right, and after marching through a couple of fields along the edge of a wood, we turned eastward through the fields to meet the invaders, under whose fire we had been since leaving the wood, though by order no reply was made by us.

"We advanced in the wide-open, skirmishing order; our left file was McKenzie and Robertson, and I, rear rank, stood next to Robertson. In our advance we took advantage of fences, stumps, stones, and so forth. When we had covered about two-thirds of the distance between the edge of the wood referred to above and the wood in which the Fenians were, beside a fence the gallant McKenzie yielded up his life for his native country. So did young Tempest to our left and Milburn to our rear. Thus out of the twenty-seven men of the University Corps who were at Ridgeway that morning, three were killed and five wounded.

"The following day, Sunday, a dull misty morning, we set out again from Port Colborne and marched to Fort Erie under the command of Captain Akers. Arrived at Fort Erie quite late in the afternoon, we pitched our tents on the heights overlooking the Niagara River, and not having had any food since we left Port Colborne, we were all ready to plead necessity for any requisition we might make upon the resources of the farmers of the neighbourhood for food or fuel.

"Robertson and I were in the same tent, and being both well accustomed to farm life, in the dusk of the evening we paid a short visit to the good people near at hand, returning soon, one with rails to cook the simple but tasty spoil of chicken, etc., secured by the other.

"During all this brief but eventful campaign, Private Robertson was strenuously attentive to all the duties of a soldier of the Queen in time of war. He and I have been most intimate friends ever since."

A letter from Robertson, dated Stratford, June 6th, throws the light from another point of view upon the affair at Ridgeway:

"I am, as you see, a soldier after all, and have endured, to some extent at least, the dangers of a soldier’s life. I scarcely ever expected to see a battle, much less take part in one, although I have been called upon to do both now. It will be an occasion which I shall ever remember, and that for more reasons than one. I passed through all safe, however, and now how thankful I should be; amidst dangers I was protected and by God’s providence I am yet in the enjoyment of good health and buoyant spirits.

"I see by your letter that you did not get any tidings at all of the battle when you wrote. I suppose when you were in Woodstock I was in the middle of the fight, thinking only of seeing foes and dispatching them. When I went away from home even, little did I think of the danger. It is really good that we have no knowledge of the future. If we had, what gloomy thoughts, continual fears, what a depression of spirit! When I think of my poor comrade McKenzie, my heart is turned at once. Just before we reached Port Colborne he spoke to me and said, ‘Well, who would ever have thought that we two should be sitting in a car grasping each a rifle, to go to meet an enemy.’ I feel sure that he had a kind of foreboding that he should never come back safe. I tried to cheer him up by telling him to banish gloomy thoughts from his mind. When fighting, he seemed to have the same fear and foreboding. But alas! poor fellow, he is gone. B— came up with the body and he was buried in Woodstock with military honours. There never was such a funeral in Woodstock. All the stores were closed and flags at half-mast. All seemed to do him honour. A telegram sent up at my request reached there in time to be read at the grave. I am really sorry that I did not know at the time that it was he who was shot, but I was in such a position that I could not see who it was.

"They told me of the great turn- out in Toronto on the arrival of the dead and wounded. Stores were closed and all honour paid them. The people of Toronto sent the Queen’s Own a great lot of stuff to Fort Erie and we enjoyed it well, I can assure you. Tardy honour is now being done our brave little company. Everybody is speaking of the way in which they acquitted themselves. I cannot regret too much that we were not supported, for then things might have been different from what they are, but it cannot be helped now. The artillery came up last night and we are ready for any place to which we may be called. The rest of our boys are coming up from Toronto. Our company is pretty strong, growing fast and in good spirits. We have no cowards with us."

The raid was soon over, the men disbanded and dispersed to their homes. A few graves and a quickened spirit of loyalty were the general results of the short campaign. The country learned that it could rely in case of need upon its young men, and upon none more surely than upon the students in her colleges.

The year of the Fenian raid saw the close of Robertson’s university course. He left college without winning distinction in the way of medals or prizes, but thoroughly well-grounded in arts and with his mind well disciplined, especially in dialectics, in which he took peculiar delight.

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