Author: Victorian Swords

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From Military History Now

By Paul Mcnicholls

IN MAY OF 1870 an Anglo-Canadian military expedition under the command of Colonel Garnet Wolseley embarked on a journey of near epic proportions.

Its goal was Fort Garry at the Red River Settlement, the site of modern-day Winnipeg in the Canadian province of Manitoba.

It would be the last British-led military expedition in North America and also the first independent command for Wolseley, a man who in 1895 would become commander-in-chief of the British Army.

Wolseley was a military reformer with an attention to detail and planning that was prodigious. His success in the field would result in the popular phrase of the time, ‘All Sir Garnet,’ meaning everything is in order.

Much has been written about the unrest at the Red River Settlement. Yet somewhat surprisingly, given Wolseley’s rise to the top of his profession, the expeditionary force that it led to has largely been ignored.

In 1869 the Red River Settlement was part of the vast Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) territories, but the viability of its fur trade monopoly had long since passed.

Sir John A. Macdonald, the prime minister of the recently formed Dominion of Canada, was determined to acquire this vast tract of real estate. He knew that for his new country to prosper it must span the continent.

Scant consideration was given to indigenous and settler populations, and this caused unrest among the Métis at the Red River Settlement.

The descendants of French-speaking fur traders and First Nations women, Métis comprised almost half of the settlement’s 12,000 residents. Among the several communities there, the Métis legal claim to the land on which their farms were situated was the most tenuous. They sought guarantees from the Canadian government and, when these were not forthcoming, tensions rose. Their quasi-military discipline, developed from the buffalo hunt, together with their view of themselves as ‘a new nation,’ made them a potentially formidable opponent.

A dynamic but unstable young man named Louis Riel rose to become their leader. He was determined that his people’s grievances would be addressed. Riel demonstrated a willingness to use force to ride roughshod over the views of the other resident groups when dialogue failed to win the day.

Macdonald did not recognize the extent of the unrest brewing on the far-off prairie until it was almost too late. Negotiations began and for a time, the crisis appeared to be abating. Riel, however, made a serious blunder and sanctioned the execution of Thomas Scott, a troublesome prisoner being held at Fort Garry. This resulted in outrage in English-speaking Ontario. Demands for vengeance were widespread and a political crisis loomed that Macdonald could not ignore.

The prime minister had, in fact, been considering sending an armed force to Fort Garry even before Scott’s killing, but recognized that Canada lacked the military expertise to carry this through without British leadership and participation. Yet before the onset of the Red River troubles, Prime Minister Sir William Ewart Gladstone’s government in London had announced that, other than at Halifax, all British garrisons would be withdrawn from Canada. The reasons were budgetary and a rationalization of the British army’s assets to allow greater concentration at home.

Self-governing settler colonies, it was also reasoned, should provide for their own defence. Some in London even believed that colonial possessions were a needless drain on the British exchequer and, in the case of Canada, one that risked drawing Britain into a war with the United States. America was an exceedingly important trading partner and after the Civil War a military land power not to be trifled with.

The administration of U.S. president Ulysses S. Grant, along with leading politicians in Minnesota, was already casting covetous eyes on the HBC lands, and on Canada itself. In fact, Grant’s Secretary of State went so far as to sound out Britain’s ambassador about the likely reaction in London should Washington act on its wishes. The diplomat’s response was that there would be no objection, as long as Canadians were in accord. When word of this reached Ottawa, Prime Minister Macdonald was not pleased.

The reluctant British government agreed to spearhead an expedition to the northwest, but only under specific conditions:

  • That a larger force of Canadian volunteers would accompany the British troops.
  • That British participation was in no way a signal that Britain’s garrisons would remain in Canada. The policy of withdrawal remained steadfastly in place.
  • That a political settlement between Canada and the populace of Red River must be completed prior to the force setting out.
  • In no way was this to be a punitive expedition.

Lieutenant-General James Lindsay, dispatched from Great Britain to ensure matters were handled effectively, immediately appointed Colonel Garnet Wolseley, the Deputy Quartermaster-General in Canada, to lead the expedition.

Lindsay was fortunate in having someone of Wolseley’s calibre already in the country. In anticipation of being placed in command, Wolseley had prepared a detailed plan outlining the expedition’s requirements. The document was waiting on Lindsay’s desk upon his arrival; its pages spoke to the numbers of men required, how they would travel, and the supplies and equipment they would need. No detail was overlooked.

The British designated the 1st Battalion of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps (the 60th Rifles), together with detachments from the Royal Engineers and the Royal Artillery to go to Fort Garry. Four seven-pounder cannons would accompany them, though two of these would remain at Thunder Bay.

The Canadian contingent proved more problematic. Despite Macdonald being the driving force behind sending troops to Red River, upon his arrival in Canada Lindsay found that nothing had been done by the government in Ottawa to raise its contribution to the expeditionary force.

The general was far from pleased upon discovering this and recommended designating the Royal Canadian Rifles, a British army regiment of long-service regulars that had been permanently stationed in Canada for 30 years. But with the British withdrawal pending, the unit was about to be disbanded. Ottawa rejected the idea.

Instead, two battalions of volunteers would be raised from the ranks of the Active Militia, one from the province of Ontario and the other in Quebec. Emotions were running high in Ontario over the murder by of Thomas Scott and the ranks of the battalion were quickly filled. This was not the case in Quebec where sympathy for the French-speaking Métis, compounded by an unwillingness of English-speaking Quebec militiamen to serve under francophone officers, resulted in delays. Lindsay lost patience and made up the shortfall with volunteers from Ontario and from the ranks of the Royal Canadian Rifles.

The most formidable obstacle in the path of the expeditionary force was geography. The easy route to the west was south of the Great Lakes, but this would take it through United States territory.

Two other options were considered: the traditional route of the HBC from Hudson’s Bay and the old North West Company route from the head of the Great Lakes.

After a detailed study, the latter route was selected, though it had never before been used by such a large body of men, or seen craft as large as the expedition’s boats either. Members of the small American community at Red River assured Washington that the expedition stood little chance of success.

The first troops set out from Toronto on May 21st and then traveled by rail north to Collingwood on Lake Huron. Here they embarked on steamers, crossed Georgian Bay and passed through the canal at Sault Ste. Marie before proceeding to Thunder Bay on Lake Superior. Between here and Shebandowan Lake, a distance of 50 miles, the Canadian Public Works Department was constructing a road.

At Shebandowan Lake Wolseley’s men took to their boats and, relying on lakes, rivers and portages, made their way across the Canadian Shield to Fort Garry. There were 47 portages along the route ranging in length from 100 yards to over a mile. The distance from Shebandowan Lake to Fort Garry was 550 miles and the total from Toronto was 1,228.

Putting the expeditionary force into a state of readiness for its trek to the northwest was a complicated business, but three additional controversies confronted it before the men embarked in their boats on Shebandowan Lake.

First, the chartering of the steamers to carry the expedition and its supplies from Collingwood to Thunder Bay proved problematic.

The British and Canadians should have been working to the same ends, but Ottawa, rather strangely, kept the British military planners in the dark regarding steps it had taken to hire ships to support the expedition. The Canadians had chartered one steamer (possibly two) under a highly lucrative mail contract. Presumably the deal was a ruse to keep the Americans in the dark as to the true purpose of what was underway. One or two steamers was never going to be enough, but why Lindsay was not informed as to what Ottawa had done is a mystery. The general eventually lost patience and authorized the chartering of several steamers and these ships were certainly valuable additions to the enterprise. However, the confusion had resulted in much duplicated effort and caused unnecessary tension between the British military and Canadian civil authorities.

Second, the American closure of their canal at Sault Ste. Marie resulted in a delay until an agreement could be worked out.

The expedition’s planners had, somewhat surprisingly, operated on the assumption that access to the canal would be unimpeded. Without it, the expedition’s steamers would have been unable to transit from Lake Huron onto Lake Superior. It, therefore, came as something of a shock when the second expedition steamer was turned back. Why the Americans allowed the first one through is also a mystery. The decision to close the canal to the expedition had, in fact, come from President Grant. The British Minister in Washington had been informed of this and it can only be assumed that this vital intelligence was not passed to Lindsay and Wolseley.

After receiving direction from the Governor-General in Ottawa, the minister persuaded Grant to rescind his order and open the canal, but with the condition that no troops or military supplies could be onboard when the steamers passed through. This was an inconvenience, but one readily accepted by Lindsay and Wolseley.

Third, and most contentious, was the uncompleted road between Thunder Bay and Shebandowan Lake.

Simon J. Dawson was the Canadian government’s Public Works Department man responsible for the road’s construction. With progress lagging, Wolseley lost confidence in the road’s ability to transport his men and their equipment and decided instead to move the boats up the treacherous Kaministiquia River. This was no easy task and Dawson was strongly opposed, believing it put the boats at too great a risk of damage.

After returning from Fort Garry, Wolseley wrote an inflammatory article for Blackwood’s Magazine in Great Britain. In it, he did not attack Dawson personally, but was highly critical of many aspects of the work he had overseen, including the road. Dawson’s written riposte did not hold anything back. The affair brought credit to neither man.

The main force finally set out on Shebandowan Lake on July 16, 1870. The advance guard had arrived at Thunder Bay on May 25, which is illustrative of how long it took for the road to become usable.

Even then, the expedition did not move en masse and was spread out over 150 miles. Units traveled in brigades of usually 6 boats each. The 60th Rifles led the way, followed by the 1st Ontario Rifles and then the 2nd Quebec Rifles. Wolseley had his two seven-pounders with the vanguard. He wanted to ensure he had sufficient firepower should he run into trouble.

Until crossing the Height of Land Portage, the current ran against them, but afterwards it was in their favour until they reached the Red River itself. The men performed tremendous feats of strength and endurance as they rowed and poled their heavily laden craft across rivers and streams, and then hauled boats and contents over the portages.

Wolseley had great praise for his First Nations boatmen, particularly the Iroquois members of the expedition. There is little doubt that success would have been considerably more difficult, if even achievable, without their skill and endeavour.

The expedition traveled by way of Fort Frances, Rat Portage and Fort Alexander. The Winnipeg River was the most difficult obstacle of the entire journey prompting one force member to give thanks that it was tackled near the end after the men had gained in experience.

On Lake of the Woods, a storm forced Wolseley’s party to take refuge on an island. With his patience finally failing him and, despite warnings from his Iroquois guides, the colonel set out with a small party and became lost. The expedition’s report notes laconically that he would not be making such a mistake again.

It was also at Lake of the Woods that Wolseley rendezvoused with his Special Intelligence Officer, Lieutenant William Francis Butler.

Butler had travelled through the United States watching for signs of an American response to the expedition. He crossed back into Canada, passed through the Red River Settlement, and even met with Louis Riel himself. Then assisted by aboriginals from the St. Peter’s Indian Settlement near Lake Winnipeg, he trekked up the Winnipeg River to report to Wolseley.

From Fort Alexander Wolseley pressed on with his British troops without waiting for the leading boat brigades of the Ontario battalion. This proved fortunate as a major storm blew in that delayed the Ontario men and would have held back Wolseley too had he waited. The rain began to fall after the British had crossed Lake Winnipeg and entered the Red River. The current was again flowing against them but they were nearly at their objective. Nevertheless, this last leg was undertaken in appalling conditions with the men spending the night in the open with the rain falling in sheets.

The next morning, at Point Douglas they left the boats and made their final approach to Fort Garry on foot. Wolseley later wrote of tension in the ranks as everyone wondered if battle was about to commence.

Despite his orders from London that he was not commanding a punitive expedition, accounts he would write later indicate he was indeed spoiling for a fight. It was certainly in Wolseley’s nature to take every precaution to ensure he was not caught unawares; however, Riel never had the slightest intention of opposing the expeditionary force.

Nevertheless, as the British approached the fort, the Métis leader and his retainers were still in residence. He decided to make himself scarce and the fort was abandoned with breakfast still on the table. Given the mood of Wolseley and his men, it was a wise decision.

In the following days the Canadian brigades began to stream in. They would remain, although the British departed almost immediately. By winter they were back in Quebec and would shortly leave Canada for good.

The expedition was a tremendous triumph for Colonel Wolseley. It was a considerable accomplishment to have reached Fort Garry without major incident and with his force intact. He had become the man of the hour and great things awaited him. Lindsay suggested the two return to Britain on the same ship and, to ensure he made it in time, Wolseley did not stop at Toronto on his way through. Acrimony would ensue the following year when Simon Dawson responded to the colonel’s article in Blackwood’s, but it is doubtful that Wolseley ever knew. He was already looking ahead, focused on challenges new.



  Philadelphia Deringer retailed by Nathaniel and Charles Curry in San Francisco c.1863-68

The term “derringer” can be used to refer to any kind of small pocket pistol firing one shot per barrel, like single-shot pistols, double-barreled designs and even small ‘pepperboxes’. It generally excludes revolving or semi-automatic designs.


  A modern COP .357 magnum derringer, using a four-barreled layout.

The word derringer itself is a legally distinct bastardization of the name of Henry Deringer, who started commercializing his pocket pistol designs in 1825 as his ‘Philadelphia Deringers’ with massive success.
Henry was born to Henry Deringer Sr. who moved with his family to Philadelphia to manufacture Pennsylvania rifles. After his apprenticeship to become a gunsmith himself, he worked for the US government making military and trade muskets before switching to the civilian market.
Original Derringer pocket pistols were single shot handguns of either flintlock or caplock design, generally featuring a rifled barrel and measuring about 5 inches total in length.


  John Wilkes Booth’s Deringer pistol. Booth’s pistol was unusual for an authentic Philadelphia Deringer in that it used counterclockwise rifling, also known as a left-handed twist, a sure proof that left-handedness is a sign of evil.

As he never patented his design, Henry Deringer’s pistols were widely copied, sometimes by his own employees breaking off to form their own company. This is when the word derringer was coined, although some company either hired randos off the street named Deringer to be able to stamp the name on their guns, or flat out counterfeited Henry Deringer’s proofmarks. His life-long fight in court against such plagiarists ended with the historical trademark case of Deringer against Plate shortly before his death, but it didn’t stop “derringer” from making its way in the dictionary.


  The Remington Model 95, released in 1866 and one of, if not the most successful derringer design of all time.


British Pattern 1905 Staff Sergeant’s Sword

According to Brian Robson, Swords of the British Army; “A curious hybrid pattern was introduced in July 1905 for all dismounted corps except Highland. This consisted of a cut-down Cavalry Pattern 1899 blade mated with the Pattern 1897 hilt. It can only be assumed that this makeshift design was introduced in order to make up losses in the South African War. It is doubtful if many were made or issued and in 1912 both the 1898 and 1905 patterns were modified to substitute the cypher of George V for that of Edward VII.”

Images from (Item 22979).

The Guards Crimean War Memorial

A history of then Guards Brigade Crimean War Memorial in Waterloo Place in London.

Victorians referred to it as a “hideous granite pile” and “a standing lie” hoping that the fallen of the Crimea might be honoured with a memorial more “creditable to the arts of the country.” Why was this memorial so disliked? What does the memorial leave out of the history of the fallen of the Crimean War? 

British Army Victorian Royal Engineers Officers’ Swords

Looking at the famous 1857 pattern Royal Engineers officer’s sword and what came before it, with original antique examples. Considering the sword design and origins and also the motivation for changing sword pattern in 1857, with Matt Easton of Easton Antique Arms and Schola Gladiatoria.


A Extremely Rare Band Sword of the 2nd Lifeguards

83cm slightly curved blade double edged towards the point etched with scrolls and VR cypher, silvered brass hilt, the crossguard decorated with scrolls and a flaming grenade on the ecusson, lion’s head pommel with loose ring for knot, carved ivory grip (chipped), in its steel scabbard, two suspension rings.


A similar sword with wire bound fish skin grip, is in the National Army Museum and illustrated in Robson, ‘Swords of the British Army’ revised edition, p.255, and it is stated ‘so far, other examples have not been encountered’.