The Red River expedition - British Empire 1815-1914

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The Red River Expedition, Canada

Tension increased between the USA and Britain after 1861
In April 1861 the Civil War broke out between the US states, and for a time it was thought that Britain might get drawn in for in November 1861 a British ship the RMS Trent was stopped by a Union frigate, the San Jacinto. Two Confederate representatives were found on board and arrested by the  Union frigate San Jacinto. Britain then demanded the release of the captive diplomats.  With the American public demanding war tension escalated between the two countries until Lincoln, not wanting a war with Britain released the two men concerned. At the time there were just 4,500 British regular troops and 10,000 poorly trained militia  in Canada making the country an easy target for the US should Lincoln have decided to invade. The Duke of Cambridge, the Commander-in-Chief of the army decided to reinforce the forces in Canada and improved the fighting potential of the local militia.
By February 1862 there were an additional 18,000 regular troops in Canada and Garnet Wolseley was sent as Assistant Quartermaster General. He arrived in Halifax on 5 January but as the route to Montreal was iced up, the group of officers forming the advance party (which included Wolseley as it was his job to arrange the housing for the troops) travelled incognito by steamer  to Boston in the US and then by train to Montreal.

Wolseley appointed as commander of the training camp
In 1865 Wolseley was appointed as commander of a new militia officer training camp near Montreal in which he would receive a thousand new cadets every three months. There was to be a minimal threat after 1865 from the United States but there were to be times when tension increased, and it was important that Britain could call upon a well led local militia if needed. In addition to this threat there was always the threat from the Fenians, set up in New York to achieve a republic in Ireland and always ready to make a nuisance of themselves in Canada. In 1866  the Fenians crossed in to Canada from Buffalo. There was a brief skirmish with the local militia, following which Wolseley was sent to the area to help the local commanding officer to better prepare for any subsequent invasion. Training new men in the art of warfare and developing their character and morale was useful training for Wolseley for he had as yet not been in command of any expedition.
When a rebellion began against the creation of the Dominion of Canada which included what became Manitoba in the former Hudson’s Bay territory, Wolseley was  given the chance to test his ideas out and his quality of leadership by being given command of the Red River expedition.

The British North America Act, 1867 created the Dominion of Canada by bringing together the North American British "Provinces" of Canada (previously Lower and Upper Canada), New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia.
Canada in 1866 prior to the North America Act
Uprising in Alberta
The new federal government was given the power to negotiate the entry of new provinces into the Union without the need to seek the permission of the existing provinces and in 1870 it purchased the former Rupert’s Land that had been owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company as well as northern Alberta. The new province was called North West Territories. In 1882 the District of Alberta was created as part of North West territories and in 1905 this district was enlarged and was given provincial status.

There was not universal support in Alberta for its inclusion within the new federal Canada. In particular French Canadians living in the territory did not want to be part of a British dominion. In November 1869 the French Canadians in the southern part of the territory rose up under the leadership of Louis Riel and occupied Fort Garry. A British settler Thomas Scutt was court martialled and shot meaning that Riel had added the crime of murder to that of rebellion.
There was concern amongst the authorities that a rebellion 1200 miles from Toronto could encourage a Fenian response or even an invasion from the United States. There had to be a quick response and to deal with the threat Wolseley was on 5 April ordered to organise an expedition in to the heartlands of the new Canada. Few maps existed of the area which would be difficult to reach by a large force. To reach the destination meant travelling through the great lakes, along rivers with numerous rapids and other obstacles and through forests with no established trails. Wolseley was to show in the way he approached the campaign that he would not take chances with the safety of his men.
Wolseley's expedition to Fort Garry
Wolseley divided the route to Fort Garry in to four stages. The first would be ninety four miles by train from Toronto to Collingwood on Lake Huron. Lakes Huron and Superior would be crossed by steamer to the base of the operations which would be set up at Thunder Bay. A road of forty eight miles would then have to be constructed through virgin forest to take the force to Lake Shebandowan from where specially constructed boats would carry the force 600 miles through a wilderness to Fort Garry. For this operation Wolseley had 1200 men, largely consisting of British regulars but also with two battalions of Canadian militia.

Wolseley was to become known for how closely he personally supervised the preparations and the level of detail. Wolseley wanted boats that were light enough to be carried over the 47 rapids and strong enough to carry fifteen men and their supplies. The boats were specifically built in Canada, supervised by Wolseley at every stage and thoroughly tested. They had sails and also were equipped to be rowed for when there was little wind. Wolseley tested all the equipment and where it was not up to the task he adapted as he did with the regulation axe which he found useless for cutting through the type of forest that faced them.
The force reached Thunder Bay on 21 May and a hospital and stockade was built to protect the supplies and the garrison of local militia. The road to the next destination was not finished when the force left Thunder Bay, and the last section had to be constructed by the force itself, working in a mosquito infested area. Whilst the force remained at Thunder Bay it rained for twenty three days. The force in their boats began to leave Thunder Bay on 16 July, with six to eight boats leaving each day thereafter. Wolseley left in a fast canoe on 23 July and the last boat left on the 1 August. Being in a fast canoe enabled Wolseley to go up and down the line of boats and maintain a close eye on their progress.
The full route of Wolseley's expedition from Toronto to Fort Garry
The routine on each day was very similar. The men would get up and begin rowing at first light until eight o’clock when there would be a break for breakfast. They would then row until one when they would break for an hour lunch before rowing four or five hours when they would stop and make camp. The soldiers slept in blankets in the open on soft mossy ground. To eat there was beans, salt, biscuit  and sugar. No alcohol was allowed.
One of the many rapids the force had to negotiate
Fort Francis was reached on  4 August where Wolseley received news from a spy that panic had set in amongst the settlers  of Fort Garry. Louis Riel was making ready to resist the expedition with a small group of supporters and the rival groups were reported to be at each other’s throats. Wolseley tried to push his troops hard and at one point the force pressed ahead without a guide, resulting in them getting terribly lost.
Whenever the expedition  came across one of the forty plus rapids, the boat was unloaded and was pulled around the rapids using a specially made harness. The supplies also had to be carried and often ten trips would be needed to carry everything.
Fort Garry, the administrative centre of Louis Riel's provisional government
Arriving at Rat Portage, Wolseley received more requests for speed. Here there were some boas of the Hudson’s Bay Company to take them down the fast flowing Winnipeg River. At Fort Alexander at the confluence of the Winnipeg and the Red River Wolseley learnt that Riel had six hundred men.
The final few days
On 21 August the expedition left Fort Alexander for the final section. The river was very shallow and the boats kept grounding. It was also very hot, being mid-summer. On 23 August the force was just twenty miles from Fort Garry and was received by cheering crowds of loyal settlers. Supplies were unloaded so that a mounted column could be organised to reconnoitre the final few miles. As this column moved south through small communities it was received by loyal crowds of settlers shouting their support and the peeling of church bells. The mounted column made the final few miles on 24 August in pouring rain, approaching the fort from the west to cut off Riel’s retreat. An open gate was found and on entering Riel was found to have gone along with all of his supporters. Riel had heard the bugles of the British troops whilst eating his breakfast and fled to the United States swimming across the border. The troops were formed up in the main square and the guns gave a royal salute with three cheers being said for the Queen.

Wolseley’s  first command had been a success with no loss of life. Normally after a successful conclusion to an expedition all the officers would have been recommended for promotion. Some of the officers were but Wolseley refused to put the doctor’s name forward  as he had had so little to  do. Wolseley himself was made a Knight Commander of the Order of  St Michael and St George. As the expedition took place so far away from Britain with few means of communications, there was little news of what had been accomplished by Wolseley and it would take further expeditions closer to home before he was to be  known as the nation’s colonial problem solver.

Peter Crowhurst, April 2019

Further Reading:
Sir Garnet Wolseley by Hanif Kochanski, 1999
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