Red River Expedition — Colonel Garnet Wolseley led troops through “wilderness of forests and water”

by Bruce Cherney (part 1)

In the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, The Pirates of Penzance, one of its most memorable songs contains the lyric, “I am the very model of a modern Major-General.”

When they wrote the operetta, Gilbert and Sullivan actually had a real-life figure in mind. The man they singled out also had a direct influence on Manitoba’s history.

Garnet Wolseley, the “modern Major-General” of song, led the expedition sent by the Canadian government to quell the Red River Resistance of 1869-70. His success in Manitoba made him the “go-to guy” when it came time to put down irksome uprisings and ensure that the red of the British Empire spread continually outward on maps of the world.

In Patience, another Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, the line, “Skill of Sir Garnet in threshing a cannibal,” commemorates Wolseley’s role on the world stage in subduing “savages” threatening the Pax Britannia of Victorian England.

When Wolseley was on his way to do battle with Louis Riel and his followers, Wolseley remarked to his wife in a letter: “I have such horror of rebels and their vermin of his kidney, that my treatment of him might not be approved by the civil powers.”

Wolseley’s  viewpoint and expression of distaste for Riel and so-called rebels was a widely held opinion among the British officer corps. Officers only grudgingly remarked on the bravery of those they fought in distant lands and regarded them more with contempt by referring to their foes in battle as “savages,” “vermin,” “primitives” or “Kaffirs.”

The British were continually at war with rebellious subjects, including Sepoys in Indian, Sihks in Punjab, Afghans, Maoris in New Zealand, Métis in Canada, Chinese, Burmese, Arabs and various African people and tribes. Wolseley was in the thick of conflicts with all of the above.

The British Army went everywhere, and it is a testimony to the fighting quality of the men they whipped into shape — they didn’t spare the rod and spoil the soldier — that for the most part small numbers of British regulars sent to quell trouble spots were frequently successful.

“There must surely be some inherent good in the regimental system,” wrote Wolseley on his way to the Red River Settlement, “which can in a few years convert the British lout into a highly-trained soldier, developing in him qualities such as cheerful obedience, endurance, &c. &c. unknown to the beer-house-lounging rustic.”

Wolseley had a lot to do with converting the British “lout” into first-rate soldiers, since he wrote the manual adopted by the British Army called the Soldier’s Pocket Book for Field Service (1869).

Officers such as Wolseley further believed that, while the men they led were born louts, English gentlemen were born brave. Gentlemen officers were noted for standing firm as bullets whizzed by, continually exposing themselves to the prospect of an untimely death. Anyone who flinched or ducked while facing a relentless foe was admonished by fellow officers, “Don’t bob!” Few did “bob” for fear that they would be be stigmatized as cowards.

These officers frequently reveled in killing. On the way to Red River, British officers wrote in their journals that they hoped for a “jolly, good bang-up” with Riel and the Métis. Their spirits were buoyed when agents of the Canadian Party reported that people in the settlement were panic stricken. All letters he received, reported Wolseley, ended with. “Come as quickly as you can; we are in momentary dread of our lives and property.”

Wolseley was gladdened when his spy in Red River, William Butler, told him that Riel and 600 of his men were prepared to use force to repel the expedition from Eastern Canada.

The bravery of Wolseley is not in question. During the Crimean War, he lost the use of an eye and received the Legion d’Honneur from Britain’s French allies in the war against the Russians. At other times, he had been severely wounded and on one occasion it was feared he would not recover from his wounds. By 1870, he had received six medals as well as the Victoria Cross, the British Empire’s highest military honour “For Valour.”

Nor were his leadership skills ever in question. While many British officers of his era may have professed to having attained “gentleman” status, they were also frequently a few bricks short of a full load — being somewhat dense in the head helps when avoiding to “bob” as bullets whiz by. There is an old quip that British soldiers were “lions led by donkeys.”

Lord Raglan, who commanded the British during the Crimean War and was a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars, kept referring to the Russian foe as “the French,” failing to grasp that the French were his allies. 

As a military man, Wolseley was noted for his ability to get men and equipment from point A to B as quickly and efficiently as possible. Getting his expedition to Red River was a logistical nightmare, but Wolseley still managed to get the job done while keeping up the morale of the troops he commanded, who were a combination of British regulars, Canadian militia and voyageurs.

For all his later success, Wolseley did not lack critics. In an 1899 interview with Wolseley found in the Winnipeg Telegram  (December 8), it was reported “outsider” officers were always “fulminating” against Wolseley as a “charlatan and duffer.”

“I have often wondered whether the vituperators quite realized that the object of their abuse, comparatively young though he be, is more of a veteran, in the true military sense of the word, than almost any other soldier who wears the Queen’s uniform,” wrote the unnamed reporter who interviewed Wolseley while he was on military manoeuvres near Aldershot, England.

In Wolseley’s later career as the organizer of British administration of Cypress, the reporter described him as “incisive when occasion demanded” and “never betrayed a sign of temper,” which are characteristics shared in his military endeavours.

“That he was energetic one could discern, not less than his powers of hard work — and of fruitful hard work — were exceptional, but there was no gustiness in the energy, and he slid through his work with apt, bright dexterity.”

According to the same reporter, “He can inspire his subordinates, he can allocate them to duties in the fulfillment of which they earn credit and contribute to the success of their master ...

“Wolseley has been set to do nothing that he has not done promptly, neatly, cleanly, adroitly. He has fully answered every call that has been made upon him, and that without apparent strain ...

“So far as his career has revealed itself he makes war well, just as he would have done well any other duty that might have fallen his lot.”

Queen Victoria in 1874 said Wolseley was “thin, grey, but well, and a very smart, active, wiry-looking man, full of energy.”

Yet, his leadership skills may have never been noted by the British military establishment without the presence of Riel in Canadian history. In fact, Wolseley owed a lot to the Canadian government for making the decision that provided proof of his mettle as a commander of men.  

“This was my first independent command ...,” wrote Wolseley in his memoirs, “and felt that if I possessed any genius for such practical work, the time had arrived for me to show it.”

Canadian Prime Minister Sir  John A. Macdonald appointed Wolseley, with the permission of the British government, on April 5, 1870, as commander of the force to be sent to Red River, which was officially called an “Expedition of Peace and Civilization.” Until his appointment to a field command, it had been rumoured that Wolseley was considering retiring from the British Army and taking on a civilian engineering job. Wolseley was said to be frustrated by his desk job in Canada as the British Army’s deputy quarter-master general. His new commission put an end to such rumours.

Wolseley had come to Canada in the wake of the Trent Affair, which arose when United States Captain Charles Wilkes boarded the British merchant and mail ship Trent in neutral waters between Cuba and London to seize two Confederate emissaries to London and Paris. In Britain, the November 8, 1861, seizure was greeted with indignity as a violation of British neutrality. An apology was demanded from the Americans as well as the release of the Confederate agents.

At the time, war clouds loomed between Britain and U.S. President Abraham Lincoln’s Union government in Washington, but there were only 4,500 British troops in Canada and another 10,000 ill-equipped and inadequately-trained Canadian militia. By February 1862, the British strength in Canada had increased to 18,000 troops, including Wolseley.

At the time, Britain was contemplating entering the American Civil War on the side of the Confederacy, although, despite the Trent Affair, primarily for economic reasons. British mills heavily relied upon cotton from the secessionist  Southern States and the war constricted this source. In fact, the absence of Confederate States of America cotton had created an economic crisis in England.

Wolseley received leave and entered Confederate territory to gain an insight into the war. He visited the camp  of General Robert E. Lee, the famed Confederate commander, who gave him permission to visit the field units of generals Stonewall Jackson and James Longstreet. Much of his later opinions about modern warfare were derived from his observations while with the CSA Army as well as the outcome of the American Civil War. He would later say the success of the Union was due primarily to its use of combined naval and land forces and its ability to quickly move troops and transport equipment to where they were needed.

Yet, the Trent Affair passed without an escalation in tensions and English mills began obtaining cotton from India and other eastern regions of the British Empire, ending Britain’s reliance upon Southern cotton.

The Red River Expeditionunder Wolseley involved the movement of 26 officers and 350 men of the 1st Battalion of the 60th Royal Rifles (British), 28 officers and 350 men of the 1st Ontario Battalion (Canadian militia), 28 officers and 350 men of the 2nd Quebec Battalion (Canadian militia), a detachment of 20 men from the Royal Artillery (British), 20 Royal Engineers (British), 12 men from the Army Service Corps (British engineers), and eight men from the Army Hospital Corps. In total, he commanded 1,214 troops of all ranks, as well as 400 voyageurs and 100 teamsters. It was necessary to transport all the men and equipment to Red River over some rather formidable terrain.

The easiest route was to go by train from Eastern Canada through the United States to St. Paul, Minnesota, and then  by steamboat to the settlement. But this wasn’t seriously considered as it would mean passage of a foreign army through the U.S., something that the Americans would frown upon, nor would the Canadian government allow sending a military expedition disguised as civilians over American soil. 

Instead, the route selected was by Steamboat from Toronto to Thunder Bay along Lake Superior and then across rivers and lakes by boat and  canoe, over the not-yet-completed Dawson Road and then more rivers and lakes to the Red River Settlement.

Canadian surveyor Simon Dawson was responsible for the construction of the corduroy (log) road bearing his name. On May 26, 1870, Colonel Wolseley set off on horseback to inspect the road and returned to camp at Prince Arthur’s Landing not very happy with what he saw. In the end, he opted for a primarily water route to cover the unfinished portion of the Dawson Road — other portions his troops built — which entailed manhandling boats and supplies over numerous portages.

Wolseley recognized the need for urgency and recognized the British officers would not be pleased with spending a winter at Red River instead of returning east before snow and ice made the route impassible. In addition, the British government was anxious to get its troops out of Canada, making the three-year-old nation responsible for the cost of its own defence. By the end of the Red River Expedition, the British government paid £20,000 of the cost with the Canadian government paying the remaining £80,000.

With urgency his goal, the British regulars were the vanguard of the expedition with the Canadian militia battalions following. Wolseley and the regulars set off from Prince Arthur’s Landing on June 6, 1870.

The troops and supplies had to cover a distance of just over 1,000 kilometres to Upper Fort Garry, through what Wolseley later described in a letter to the Ontario militiamen as “a wilderness of forest and water, where no supplies of any description are obtainable.” Wolseley said his men carried the supplies on their “backs” over no less than 47 portages, covering a distance of 10.6 kilometres a day, “a feat unparalelled in our military annals.”

In a regular Winnipeg Tribune column entitled The Oldtimer Talks, by Col. G.C. Porter and dated April 13, 1940, Red River Expedition veteran George McIntyre recalled: “We each had to carry 200 pounds and it was no fun up and down those steep rocky slopes with that weight on our backs, even with tump-lines over our foreheads. And some of the men wouldn’t use a tump. I don’t know how they managed.” 

John Andrew Kerr, another veteran of the expedition, in an August 19, 1939 Tribune article, said they puffed and sweated “over the portages under 200-pound provender, fighting insects, setting the echoes agog with our ... shouts, pelted by rainstorms, asleep at night before the kinks were out of our muscles ...”

Kerr was the cook for the officers of a company of the Ontario militia. He said all he prepared for the officers was, “Beans — again beans. They were our staple food. I turned them into soup, chiefly, until Capt. Scott requested me to desist.” Later the captain had a change of heart — but denied he had originally told Kerr to stop turning beans into soup — and Kerr was again asked to make bean soup.

“You have descended a great river (Winnipeg River) esteemed so dangerous from its rapids, falls and whirlpools that none but experienced voyageurs attempt its navigation,” said Wolseley.

Prior to his arrival at Red River Wolseley issued a proclamation “to the loyal inhabitants of Manitoba: Her Majesty’s Government having determined upon stationing some troops among you, I have been instructed by the Lieut.-General commanding in North America (Sir John Young), to proceed to Fort Garry with the force under my command.

“Our mission is one of peace, and the sole object of the expedition is to secure Her Majesty’s sovereign authority.”

Wolseley promised troop discipline would be strictly maintained and private property respected.

“The force which I have th honour of commanding will enter your Province representing no party, either in religion or politics, and will afford equal protection for the lives and property of all races and creeds.”

The above was important, as the Canadian Party, which created unnecessary havoc in the settlement to the continual consternation of Riel and the provisional government, was instrumental in convincing Protestant Ontario voters to pressure Macdonald to bring Riel and his Catholic Métis followers “to justice” by sending the expedition west. The Ontario government even offered a $5,000 reward for the capture of Riel. Members of the Ontario militia heading west talked of revenge for the “murder” of Thomas Scott, who was executed at Fort Garry on March 4, 1870, after being convicted by a Métis hunt-style court marshall.

Wolseley’s force landed at the Stone Fort (Lower Fort Garry) after traversing the southern basin of Lake Winnipeg and the northern section of the Red River. 

Wolseley's original intention was to march his men from the lower fort along the road to the upper fort. The marchers were soon bogged down in ankle-deep mud caused by a torrential rainfall.

The troops were forced to stop 10 kilometres short of the upper fort and  camp at Point Douglas due to a torrential rainfall.

“Every one was very wet; we were cold and hungry; our very enemies would have pitied our plight,” wrote Wolseley.

The next day, the troops continued their advance aboard boats to the upper fort.

Wolseley was particularly disappointed that the rainfall made it impossible for his army of “liberation” to march to the fort in “all the pride, pomp, and circumstances of war.”

“Our advance up the river had much of a triumphal procession about it,” Wolseley said, as church bells rang and crowds of people along the shore cheered the troops as they passed by in boats.

Despite the rain, the men’s morale rose when they were told “Riel is going to fight.”

As they approached the fort, Wolseley sent out skirmishers to reconnoiter. All they found was an abandoned fort with the south gate swung wide open. It was through this gate that Wolseley and his men entered Upper Fort Garry, the former seat of Louis Riel’s provisional government.

The troops reported that Riel had departed in such haste that his breakfast was left on a table.

According to an interview with Riel, which appeared in the Winnipeg Daily Sun on a June 29, 1883, the Métis leader said he fled Fort Garry while eating breakfast after a Hudson’s Bay Company employee burst into his lodgings after a breakneck ride from the north, shouting: “For the love of God, clear out. The troops are just outside the city and you are going to be lynched.”

During the 1883 interview, Riel said he observed Wolseley from the opposite side of the Assiniboine River as the colonel entered the fort.

Riel said he fled because, “I knew he (Wolseley) would murder me if he caught me, and I always kept ahead of him. I wanted, however, to be in sight of him, so as to give him a chance to arrest me if he wished to do so.”

“He did not know where you were?” asked one of Riel’s interviewers.

“When a general comes on such an expedition,” replied Riel, “it is not the duty of the enemy to reveal his whereabouts, but it is the duty of that general to find out, and so General Wolseley should have known where I was. I was only a furlong ahead of him all the time.”

(Next week: part 2)