Journey Through the Wilderness: Garnet Wolseley’s Canadian Red River Expedition of 1870 by Paul McNicholls

Published by Helion & Company, LTD, available from Casemate Publishers

The Red River Expedition has its origins in a complex series of political actions transferring territorial sovereignty of lands in western Canada from the Hudson’s Bay Company, a commercial enterprise acting under a royal charter dating to the 17thcentury, to the government of Canada. The population of the region consisted predominately of First People and Métis (native Canadians of blended European and First People heritage) inhabitants, who viewed incorporation into an anglophile Canadian Confederation with suspicion. A provisional government under Métis leader Louis Riel pushed back against attempts to incorporate the region into the Dominion of Canada. Riel’s actions did not initially cause Canadian civil authorities too much concern, and many believed that a peaceful political settlement could be achieved. Things changed when Riel determined to execute a political prisoner, Thomas Scott. Scott was a staunch supporter of Canadian annexation of the western territories and clashed with Riel’s forces while employed as a surveyor in the region. Eventually imprisoned, Scott antagonized Riel and his supporters to the point where he was condemned to die. This decision escalated tensions to the point where authorities determined to launch a military expedition to put down the resistance. A three-battalion expeditionary force, comprised of British and Canadian troops, assembled under the command of Colonel Garnet Joseph Wolseley. Paul McNicholls focuses on the organization and deployment of this force in Journey Through the Wilderness.

Wolseley enjoyed a remarkable career in the years leading up to the Red River Expedition. He served with distinction in the Second Burmese War, The Crimean War, the Indian Mutiny and in China, compiling an impressive array of wounds and medals. As a special service officer in Canada in the 1860s, he made his way south to act as an observer during the American Civil War, thinking deeply about what he saw and recording his opinions for posterity. Wolseley was serving as the Deputy Quartermaster General of the British Army in North America at the time of Riel’s insurrection, and thus was available to command the expedition. He was well known Sir John MacDonald, prime minister of the Dominion of Canada, who considered Wolseley to be the right man for the job. His extensive and varied experience had taught him the value of detailed planning and thorough preparation. Wolseley also possessed a wealth of knowledge regarding professional fieldcraft, as evidenced authorship of The Soldier’s Pocket Book for Field Service in March of 1869.

McNicholls spends almost a third of the book (almost sixty pages) providing a wealth of background material explaining the evolution of the colonial Canada and development of the Canadian fur trade between the 17th and 19th centuries, the growth of the Hudson’s Bay Company and both the geographic and political landscapes that set conditions for the standoff between the Canadian Confederation and Riel’s Provisional Government. Given the complexities of British Imperial politics and the relationship between Anglophone Canadians and indigenous inhabitants, these chapters are critical for readers with a rudimentary understanding of Canadian history. These pages provide the context for understanding the purpose of Wolseley’s expedition. The author devotes an equal amount of ink to describing the details of planning for the operation, discussing command arrangements, route planning, troop selection and preparation, and logistics arrangements. Wolseley’s command had to traverse 600 miles of wilderness with no infrastructure, relying on watercraft powered by the troops’ own physical strength. Wolseley would be exercising truly independent command with no way to communicate with civil leadership. Given these conditions, and the politically sensitive nature of the mission, it is understandable that Wolseley took great pains to plan for all possible contingencies.

After such a thorough build up to the action, McNicholls delivers with his description of the action. The story of the Canadian Red River Expedition centers on the extraordinary efforts of over 1500 Imperial soldiers, Canadian militiamen civilian teamsters and rivermen (to include 100 Iroquois boatmen whose expertise Wolseley recognized as vital to the success of the mission) to traverse extremely rugged terrain without the loss of a man. The elements, grueling labor, and demanding topography combined to test the discipline, endurance, and spirit of Wolseley’s men but they arrived at their objective of Fort Garry, in western Canada intact. The endgame proved to be anticlimactic, as the Métis leader Riel had fled, and the expedition met no organized resistance. Despite the lack of combat, the expedition went far in cementing Wolseley’s reputation as a troop leader. He would go on to command several African campaigns and ultimately achieved the position of Commander-in-Chief of Her Majesty’s forces from 1895-1900.

Journey Through the Wilderness is a short book, comprising less than 200 pages, but it is comprehensive analysis of Wolseley’s campaign. The research is thorough and well cited in the book’s footnotes and bibliography. McNicholls does a tremendous job providing the reader with an understanding of the personalities and agendas that drove events, which results in an engaging read. The book boasts a good selection of maps, black and white photographs, and period illustrations to highlight the text. Paul McNicholls does readers interested in the wars of the British Empire a great service with this study of one of the lesser-known campaigns of Queen Victoria’s “little wars”.

Book review by Ben Powers


Readability- four stars

Historical Accuracy- five stars

Historical Value- five stars

Details- five stars

Overall Rating – four and a half stars

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