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University of Toronto
U of T Great Past

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In what battle did the U of T's University Rifle Corps first see action?

Answer The corps fought in 1866, resisting the Fenian raids on the Niagara frontier. Three students died, and the bell in University College tower tolled every minute until their bodies were brought home.

On March 15, 1827, King's College - the precursor to the University of Toronto - was granted its royal charter by King George IV. Throughout 2002, U of T celebrated 175 years of Great Minds. As part of the celebration, the U of T website featured excerpts from The University of Toronto: A History, written by Martin Friedland, University Professor and Professor Emeritus of Law at U of T.

The number of full-time students at University College continued to increase during the 1860s. At the time of Confederation, there were 250 full-time students, primarily from the towns and villages of Ontario.

One of those who graduated in 1867 was a prize-winning black student, Alfred Lafferty, whose parents probably came from the United States in the 1830s. Lafferty went on to become the headmaster of the Guelph High School and, later, a lawyer. Another member of a minority group was James Ross, who received his MA in 1865, after receiving two gold medals for his BA. Ross, whose grandfather was an Okanagan Indian chief, became a lawyer and was chief justice in Louis Riel's 1869 provisional government at Red River.

The 1860s were not peaceful years for the University. Nor were they peaceful outside the campus .

The 1860s were not peaceful years for the University. Nor were they peaceful outside the campus. For the first half of the decade, Canada lived under the shadow of the American civil war, which posed a threat to British North America, particularly after American forces forcefully removed Confederate agents from a British ship on the Atlantic Ocean. In view of the threat, Professor Henry Croft organized the University Rifle Corps. Croft was the captain, [natural philosophy professor John] Cherriman was a lieutenant, and [alumni president Adam] Crooks an ensign.

The corps saw action in 1866 in resisting the Fenian raids on the Niagara frontier. Three University College students, Malcolm Mackenzie, I.H. Mewburn, and William Tempest, were killed. The bell in the great tower of University College tolled every minute until their bodies were brought back to the University. A memorial window in their memory can be found in the East Hall of University College, and a monument to those who took part in the battle can be found on the mound between the legislative buildings and the Sigmund Samuel Library building.

Fenian monument
Fenian monument constructed in 1870
Hart House, 1919

In April, the House of Commons declared the first Sunday of June to be "Canadian Forces Day," in appreciation of the service of Canada's soldiers. Coincidentally, this year it falls on June 2, the anniversary of the action at Ridgeway in which the three U of T students died fighting the Fenians.

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