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Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History No. 4

The Second Battalion, Quebec Rifles, at Lower Fort Garry

by William R. Morrison

At the Lower Fort

The expedition reached Fort Garry on 24 August, and the whole affair ended with a whimper, when it was found that Riel and his followers had fled. The British regulars were almost immediately sent back to eastern Canada, as had been previously agreed, and the troops moved into quarters, the First Ontario Rifles at Fort Garry and the Second Quebec Rifles at Lower Fort Garry. It should be noted here that during this period one company of the First Battalion served at Kingston, and one company of the Second Battalion served at St. Helen's Island, Montreal.

The stone fort had been suggested by S. J. Dawson as a good place for quartering the troops before the expedition started out, and even before the arrival of the troops, plans were under way to build new structures at the lower fort for the Quebec Rifles. The "Proposed Appropriation of Buildings in Lower Fort as Barracks for the Quebec Rifles" is a most important document in this respect, both for its glimpse into the stay of the battalion at the fort, and for the information it gives on the contemporary physical layout of the fort. It is therefore reprinted in full in Appendix B.

Apparently not all the officers actually lived in the fort; the evidence for this assertion rests on a letter from J.W. Irvine, who was representing the control department on the expedition, to Colonel Wolseley:

The quarters placed at our disposal, by the Hudson's Bay Company for the use of officers at the two Forts, afford very limited accommodation and as it is necessary that as many officers as possible live in these buildings, few if any will have the space that would be allotted to them in ordinary Barracks. Those who cannot be accommodated will find the greatest difficulty in obtaining lodgings and will have to pay exceedingly high rents . . . submit the case for your consideration with a view to authority being obtained for the issue of all allowances in kind to them.21

The work of altering the two forts to suit the needs of the troops went on through the autumn of 1870, and was completed before the worst of winter set in. S. J. Dawson wrote to Colonel Wolseley on 6 September 1870, informing him that:

I have already ordered the purchase of all the lumber to be procured in the settlement and have entered into communication with the manager of a small saw mill at Pembina, in the hope of obtaining an additional quantity . . . . nails, glass etc. have been ordered from St. Clouds' and the carpenters, now on the line of route between Fort Francis and Lake Superior have already been sent for. The difficulty of finding skilled labour and the scarcity of material in this remote section must occasion delay but I trust nevertheless to have the work well on before the severe weather sets in.22

The troops at both forts were supplied mostly by contract, let out locally. An example of an invitation to submit tenders has been preserved:

Notice Sealed Tenders (in duplicate) will be received by the Assistant Controller, Fort Garry, until noon on Thursday the 1st September next. . . for the supply of such quantities of the undermentioned articles as may be required by the troops stationed at Fort Garry and the Stone Fort up to the 30 June 1871 - viz:—

   Fresh Bread at per lb
   Flour per 100 lbs
   Fresh Beef per lb
   Potatoes per Bushel
   Coffee per lb
   Tea per lb
   Sugar per lb
   Salt per lb
   Pepper per lb
   Fuel Wood per Cord
   Coal Oil per Gallon
   Pine lumber per 1000 feet
   Timber for building purposes, per log.

The commissariat at the lower fort was superintended by "Captain Peebles and his assistant." Controller Irvine suggested to Wolseley "the appointment of a Non.Commd. Officer as Store keeper but all supplies received direct from Contractors, should be received by the Quarter Master of the Regiment."24

Documentary evidence on the duties and routine of the Quebec Rifles at Lower Fort Garry is, unfortunately, far from abundant. No one attached to this battalion seems to have written his memoirs, or deposited any papers in an archives or a library. The military records afford only glimpses of the activities at the fort and it seems we must be content with these. The problem was the same in 1870 as with the military expedition of 1846; all the activity which was considered important enough to record took place at the upper fort, and what went on at the lower fort was largely ignored at the time and afterward.

One such glimpse comes from correspondence between Father M. J. Royer, who was Roman Catholic chaplain to the Quebec Rifles, and Sir George Cartier. On 23 September 1870, Royer wrote to Cartier complaining that there was no chapel at the stone fort and that he was therefore unable to minister to his flock. He had, he said, decided to move to St. Boniface, where he would be able to minister to Catholics of both battalions.25 He seems to have carried out this plan, for on 28 November, he wrote to Ottawa protesting that the spiritual needs of his charges at the lower fort were being neglected.

J'ai en aussi de fraiches nouvelles de la chapelle au Fort d'en bas. M. [illeg.], chargé des travaux qui doivent se faire ici, m'a dit qu'il ne pourrait me faire préferrer d'appartement pour cet objet, parce qu'il n'avait pas assez de bois. Je ne sais franchement comment je ferai pour faire du bien aux soldats; sans chapelle, je regarde la chose comme impossible . . . . ah! mon cher Monsieur, nos pauvres jeunes gens auraient pourtant bien besoin d'exercises religieux, pour les maintenir dans leur foi, au milieu de Protestants.26 It will be remembered that the French Canadians in the battalion were in a distinct minority. The chapel, despite Royer's pleas, was never built.

The exact composition of the Quebec Rifles may be ascertained from the monthly pay sheets which are preserved in the papers of the Department of Militia and Defence. A copy of the list for October 1870 appears in Appendix C.

The names of the officers and especially of the men who served in the battalion are more difficult to discover, for no nominal roll seems to have survived. The names of some of the officers are known: Lieutenant-Colonel L.-A. Casault, the commanding officer; Major A.G. Irvine (not the same man as Controller Irvine); Captain Thomas Howard, the paymaster; Captain C.L. de Bellefeuille, of No. 1 Company, St. Helen's Island; Captain LaBranche of No. 5 Company; Herbert Neilsen (or Neilson), the medical officer; Captain Peebles, the quartermaster; Lieutenant Henri Bouthillier, who was appointed Lieutenant-Governor Archibald's orderly officer.27 The rest are, unfortunately, anonymous, except when their names appear in the official correspondence.

One file of correspondence which does shed further light on the matter is that which contains the letters which were written to the government from members of the battalion asking for commissions. One Arthur Charland, of No. 1 Company, petitioned the government to give him a commission in the event that, as was generally expected, the battalion should be increased to 1,000 men.28 (The petition was sent from Thunder Bay and was approved by Captain deBellefeuille. This raises a question: How did No. 1 Company come to be in Thunder Bay when it was meant to serve, and did serve, on St. Helen's Island, Montreal? Can we assume that this company went all the way to lakehead or Red River and then returned to Montreal? This seems rather unlikely, though the facts are missing. Perhaps all requests from the regiment were forwarded through the regimental headquarters, which would seem more likely.) Similar petitions were received from G.P. Dillon, Sergeant Thomas Garon and Sergeant Matthew Thomas de Beaujeu Hunter. One C/Sgt. Herman Martineau wrote directly to Cartier, reminding him of his promises that the military would be a fine career for young French Canadians:

Si je m'adresse directement à vous, c'est que j'ai foi et confiance aux promesses, par vous faits aux jeunes canadiens qu'ont tout sacrifié pour joindre l'Expédition et embrasser la carrière militaire. Je suis un de ces jeunes canadiens, j'ai suivi l'Expédition depuis Toronto jusqu'au Fort Garry.29

It would seem that none of these petitions was granted, for there were no vacancies for officers, and the strength of the battalions was not increased.

What did the Quebec Rifles do during their stay at the lower fort? On these points the records are, unhappily, silent. Presumably they mounted guard, drilled, and carried out the numerous daily tasks of soldiers everywhere. But there seems to have been no extraordinary event in their service at the fort.

For amusement, the Quebec Rifles had a brass band, the instruments of which had apparently been purchased from the departing British regulars at the end of August, 1870.30 The plan of the alterations made at the fort shows no canteen; presumably the men had to go into the settlement to find a tavern, though it is likely that beer would have been available at the Hudson's Bay Company store, which continued to operate throughout the military occupation of the fort.

Some few members of the Quebec Rifles joined a police force which was raised by Lieutenant-Governor Archibald at the end of 1870. This unit comprised one officer, one sergeant, twelve men from the two militia battalions, and ten civilians. These men were to serve as a civil police force and would presumably have been more unbiased in their approach to the colony's peculiar problems than a force made up entirely of settlers — so, at any rate, Archibald believed.31

By the spring of 1871, arrangements were well under way for the removal of the troops from Red River. This measure was not popular with the English settlers, and petitions poured in to the government at Ottawa denouncing it. One from Kildonan read:

The rebels of last winter have gained confidence from the fact that they remain unpunished . . . . The appointment of rebels to office and the arbitrary and unwarrantable actions of those in high office has produced a want of confidence in the disposition or power of the Government [of Manitoba] to ensure to us safety and prosperity . . . . Indians in our neighbourhood are in an unquiet state, and say that if murder and robbery can go unpunished with us, it must also with them.32

On 19 January 1871, the Privy Council authorized the reduction of the force in the West to two companies, one from each battalion, who were to volunteer to serve for six months from the first of May, plus an extra six months if required.33 What actually happened to these companies is not recorded.

The arrangements for moving the rest of the troops were made in April, and the men left, apparently, in that month or early in May. It will be remembered that the volunteers were to be encouraged to stay in the West. Some 380, all ranks, from both battalions decided not to do so. On the other hand, 100 of the troops at Kingston and St. Helen's Island decided to exercise their option to go to Manitoba at government expense.34 Thus the West gained about half, or slightly more of the force. The rest went home. Some members of the Ontario Rifles felt inspired to write reminiscences of the expedition, but no one in the Quebec battalion felt the same impulse, and the contribution of that latter group was very quickly forgotten.

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