Universal soldier on guard

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Glengarry Fencible
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Location: York, Upper Canada

Universal soldier on guard

Post by Glengarry Fencible » Thu Feb 22, 2007 12:00 pm

TheStar.com - Universal soldier on guard

A monument to the War of 1812's fallen is the only hint Victoria Square was
Toronto's first military cemetery.

Just to the west of the downtown in what is now the Fashion District is a large
park that was once the city's first military cemetery.
You wouldn't know that now, because the headstones and burial mounds are long
gone and the only reminder of what Victoria Square once was, is a monument in
the middle of the green space.

It commemorates soldiers who fell during the War of 1812, and particularly at
the Battle of York in 1813, when the Americans captured and burned the town.
The park is bounded by Portland and Bathurst Sts. and Niagara and Wellington
Sts. and over the course of its history, this parcel of land has mirrored the
growth, decay and renewal of the cityscape around it. As local historian Lisa
Dillon says, the site has been "both an object of commemoration and a victim of

Dillon, who works for the city as a part-time curator at Mackenzie House and
also for the Multicultural Historical Society, created an exhibit about the park
two years ago while working for the city. A Toronto native, she studied history
at Queen's University and went on to do a master's in Museum Studies at the
University of Toronto.

"It is an enchanting space," Dillon says of the park. "It whispers stories of
19th-century life and death, and speaks to the values Torontonians have placed
on their collective history."

Somewhere under the grass and trees lies Katherine Simcoe, the infant daughter
of Upper Canada's first lieutenant-governor, Sir John Graves Simcoe. Katherine
was the first person to be buried there, dying at the age of 15 months in 1794.
By the time the cemetery closed in 1863, she had been joined by 400 other
soldiers, their families and officials.

One of the strangest things interred there is the remains of two horses, shot
dead and buried by their distraught owner. Lieutenant-Colonel Francis Battersby,
a British officer ordered home after the War of 1812, couldn't bear the thought
of leaving his steeds behind, steadfastly refusing all offers to buy them.
He kept the garrison guessing about what he would do until the day of his
departure, when with due ceremony and perhaps misty eyes he had them taken
to the cemetery, shot and buried where they fell.

Most of those interred there were civilians who died of disease, particularly in
the city's cholera epidemics of the 1830s. Most of the war dead would have come
from the single battle in late April 1813, when Americans occupied York for five
days and sacked the town in retreat. The engagement killed 157 British soldiers
and Canadian militia and another 320 Americans.

Many of those killed would have been buried where they fell or in mass graves,
but those who died of injuries later ended up in the garrison cemetery.
By 1863, the city had crept west, the cemetery was full and there was no land
around it to expand. The site was closed, the ground levelled off and more or
less abandoned.

A second military cemetery was opened briefly on what is now the Exhibition
grounds, but closed quickly because the ground was too wet. It was relocated not
far away.

Post-Confederation, the more affluent citizens moved away from the Victoria
Square area, and it gradually became rundown. Neglect and vandalism led to
smashed, looted graves and the once carefully groomed grounds became overgrown
with weeds and brush.
It wasn't until the 1880s that the city was embarrassed enough to clean up the

The remaining headstones were moved to a memorial terrace along the park's
western edge, although they were later removed and put in storage. Sod was laid,
flowers planted and in an age when there were few public parks, Victoria Square
became a place for Sunday afternoon picnics.

In 1907, the sculpture that forms the centrepiece of the memorial in the park
was put up. It was designed by the renowned Canadian sculptor Walter Allward and
the work depicts an old soldier looking out over the cemetery.

As Dillon points out, he is not a famous historical figure, but rather a
"universal" soldier from the 1812 era. His left sleeve is empty, his head is
bald and stooped, and his face is lined. As she says, not a triumphant young
warrior, "but a weary and solemn veteran who can testify to the terror of war."
By the 1930s, the park was central to the neighbourhood again and in 1938, as
part of a Depression-era public works project, the city decided to put a wading
pool in the northwest corner. As earthmovers started to dig, passersby were
horrified to see bones sticking out of the piles of earth. The work was stopped
and the bones reinterred. The City Parks Commissioner said he believed the
graves were clustered in the southeastern part of the park and not in the area
where the pool would have gone.

The pool never was built and these days the rundown homes of the 1930s have been
replaced by tony condos and row houses.

In the corner where the wading pool would have been is a playground with
climbers, slides and monkey bars the sort of things that Sir John Graves
Simcoe's daughter Katherine might have enjoyed.

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