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Manitoba History: The Biggest Day Winnipeg Has Ever Seen: The Northwest Field Force Returns From the Front

by Jack Dunn
Calgary, Alberta

Number 43, Spring / Summer 2002

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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For five days in July 1885, Winnipeg welcomed several thousand soldiers returning from service in the Northwest Rebellion. Three battalions—the 92nd Winnipeg Light Infantry, the 90th Winnipeg Rifles (the “Little Black Devils”), and the Winnipeg Field Battery of Artillery—were from the city; the other units on their way home to eastern Canada.

At the end of the rebellion (1 July), troops that had marched against the insurgents were garrisoned at four posts along the North Saskatchewan River. Teamsters, police scouts and several battalions left these camps for an overland journey to their home base or the rail line. River steamers moved the remaining 1500 soldiers 800 km downstream to Lake Winnipeg. At this transfer point, two steamers, the Colville and the Princess, towing three large barges, awaited the men for the 600 km lake journey to Selkirk. From this landing, a train would transport the men to Winnipeg.

“B” Company of the 90th Winnipeg Rifles in front of the Welcome Arch on Winnipeg’s Main Street, July 1885.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

On 6 July, to coordinate the proposed celebrations, Winnipeg city council arranged a meeting with representatives from local societies to form a Reception Committee. This organization decided to honour the troops with a citizen-soldier torchlight parade. Other relevant issues discussed including the cost of ordering roman candles from Chicago, the march route, the construction of three triumphal arches and a review platform, formal welcome addresses, and the declaration of a public holiday.

Since there was no communication with the oncoming vessels, the Reception Committee directed Colonel E. A. Whitehead to meet General Middleton and “the boys” at Selkirk. Upon their arrival, Whitehead was to release carrier pigeons to deliver the news to Winnipeg, where ten strokes of the city market bell would inform townspeople that the troops were coming.

On Wednesday morning, 15 July, seven days after leaving Prince Albert, steamer whistles announced the arrival of the flotilla at Selkirk. Excited citizens gathered along the river banks and at the landing. As a welcome, the town’s ladies had prepared a luncheon in a beautiful park. A printed placard to the “Victorious Soldiers”, signed by the mayor, extolled the courage and patriotic duty fulfilled by the men. The lunch, especially one hundred quarts of donated strawberries, provided a tasty relief from the hardtack diet of nearly four months campaigning. Perhaps, more important, kegs of lager ornamented the tables. Unlike the Northwest Territories, Manitoba was “wet”—much to the approval of most of the men.

Following lunch, the drinking establishments in the small town quickly filled with soldiers and in minutes several rows ensued among the men. Upholding their campaign reputation as troublemakers were members of the Midland Battalion of Ontario who “got drunk and started to fight.” It was not until 4 p.m. that the main body of troops boarded a train for Winnipeg. Major Middleton and his staff had departed an hour earlier on a special train that arrived with prominent politicians and Mrs. Middleton.

Victory Arch, Winnipeg, 1885.
Source: Canadian Pacific Railway Archives

The news that “the boys” were in Selkirk spurred workers to complete final decorations on the Triumphal Arch of Victory, built at what some considered an exorbitant cost of $500. Of special attention were the electric lights, already having been tested. The city had a festive appearance. Bunting, mottoes, flags, banners and spruce decorations adorned the main streets. The city nursery had supplied 2000 spruce trees, 500 sold to the city at ten cents each and the remainder to private citizens for twenty cents delivered.

In the spirit of the moment, decorations and visual greetings fronted almost every building. In what must have taken reporters hours to compile, The Winnipeg Daily Times detailed the decorations and mottoes displayed at 335 establishments. Examples include:

Alex Black, private house, nicely decorated with flags, evergreens, flowers, etc; ... the Winnipeg Hotel had mottoes: “Welcome Home—Tried and True—Canada’s Boys” and flags, evergreens, etc; ... Marotta Brothers had a motto: “Welcome Home Brave Boys”—also spruce, flags, and lanterns; ... R. Winks, banker, headed their decorations with the motto: “Honour to our Brave Boys”, ... Miss Andrews—spruce trees, bunting, etc.

The Manitoba Free Press asserted that the foliage, signs, and decorations so transformed the small city that “the boys will scarcely know their old stamping ground.”

News that the troops would arrive shortly after 6 p.m. attracted an immense crowd to the station. As the train came slowly into the depot the cheering was unrestrained. A reporter observed that “quite naturally the people felt most interest in the “Little Black Devils” but in their enthusiasm they did not forget the boys from the east, and many a cheer went up for the Queen’s Own, the Grenadiers and the Ottawa Foot Guards.”

The returning bronzed and sunburnt soldiers presented a ragged spectacle for the enthusiastic citizens of Manitoba’s capital. Most of the men sported beards and looked somewhat seedy. Some of the men marched in pants sewn from oat sacks with the stencil brand visible while others had their heads adorned with hats made from supply bags and dyed with coffee. But the unkempt appearance of the volunteers was of little importance. What mattered was that the troops had returned—especially the two local units.

With the arrival of General Middleton, the men formed a column to march down Main Street. It appeared that every one of the city’s twenty thousand inhabitants was on hand. All business was at a standstill and unbound enthusiasm prevailed. The people, wrote a member of the Black Devils, “were wild with joy.”

Such enthusiasm erased “all the hardships and dangers of the campaign,” remembered R. G. MacBeth, of the Winnipeg Light Infantry. It was, he realized, exactly three months to the day since his battalion had departed for Calgary.

Three Highland pipers stood on top of the main arch and played while the men passed through and assembled before the nearby civic offices. The city clerk read the official greeting and Acting-Mayor G. F. Carruthers, Lieutenant Governor James C. Aikins and Premier John Norquay lauded the volunteer soldiers for their unflinching ardour, patriotic duty, and bravery. General Middleton, mounted on his horse opposite the review stand, responded on behalf of his soldiers. The assembly ended with three cheers for the citizens of Winnipeg. The following day (Thursday, 16 July) was designated as a public holiday and for a grand review of the troops.

After the official reception at City Hall, the men marched to set up camp. They then were released to celebrate. Most battalions had received their first pay of the campaign at Selkirk or Winnipeg. An obliging Acting-Mayor, by proclamation, declared that the taverns could remain open all night. Furthermore, the police were instructed not to interfere with the anticipated revelry.

Joining the 1500 soldiers from the Saskatchewan River expedition were another 1000 men arriving that week by rail from the west. The young men were free to celebrate. Lieut.-Colonel George Denison recalled:

I never saw such a scene as Winnipeg displayed that night. The streets were crowded with men of various regiments, all mingled together in the highest good humour, a great many good-naturedly drunk and singing and shouting.

Regarding the spirited celebrations, officer J. A. Forin commented: “the boys are doing the town,” and surveyor A. O. Wheeler agreed that “the boys [are] painting the town red.” In less diplomatic language, L. Miller, Queen’s Own Rifles, described his unit “as nearly all drunk.”

Returning troops march down Main Street, July 1885.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

A diary entry, “la pluie commence a tomber,” indicated what was in store for Winnipeg. “It rained as only it can in Winnipeg,” noted a soldier from the Maritimes. Twenty-four millimetres of rain fell that night and morning, flooding the tent camp base already muddy from a storm two days earlier. Undeterred, the men sought refuge in vacant buildings, hotel lobbies and the doorways of shops. Rain was not going to stop the nightlong revelry. One account described the Queen’s Own Rifles by morning as “looking like a lot of drowned rats.”

The storm ripped the flags, bunting, and decorations. Evergreens covered the sidewalks and the streets were a muddy mess, postponing the torchlight parade. During the day and evening the station served as the hub of excitement. Large crowds assembled for the departure of three eastern units and at 6 p.m. the fifty-man Winnipeg Field Battery arrived by rail from the west to a boisterous welcome. The band of the 90th Winnipeg “Black Devils” greeted the troops with Here the Conquering Heroes Come and Johnny Comes Marching Home. After unloading their field pieces and enjoying a meal at the Canadian Pacific Railway dining hall the soldiers marched up Main Street to join the second night of revelry.

That evening the city was ablaze with lanterns and from every quarter rockets were fired. As on the previous night, troops crowded the hotels or paraded on the sidewalks singing and fraternizing. And with no rain, many residents joined the celebrations, making it almost impossible to make passageway. Especially welcomed were “young ladies, whose white dresses and pretty faces brought gladness to the hearts of the returning soldiers.”

A warm, bright Friday, 17 July dried the streets. For a third night the air was filled with excitement. Main Street was brilliantly lighted with an array of Chinese lanterns and colored lights. Several bands toured the city and again a brilliant display of rockets, gas jets, and lights illuminated the sky. There were, however, disquieting acts of rowdiness when roman candles were fired at people and fires ignited the main arch and nearly destroyed the cupola at the police station. A parade culminated the victory celebrations. It was, reported the Free Press, “the biggest day Winnipeg has ever seen.” The Daily Times echoed this sentiment: “Last Night’s Howl—The Biggest Time Ever Seen in the City.”

But three nights of revelry had taken their toll. Most of the men were anxious to return to their families and employment. It was, an officer’s diary simply noted: “about time we got out of Winnipeg.” Already many eastern regiments had boarded trains for the journey home, leaving Winnipeg to return to a quieter life style. The campaign was over.

For the young volunteers, this military experience on the Canadian plains was a “Great Adventure” that never came to an end. The great northwest symbolized their youth and for many men the campaign of 1885 remained the highlight of their lives. And, although the years scattered the once-callow recruits across a continent, in time the men re-assembled to share their experiences. As late as 1949, sixty-four years after the conflict, the thirteen living men of the 270-man 10th Royal Grenadiers assembled to recount old adventures.

And certainly Winnipeg—raw, unsophisticated and wet—held an indelible memory. The celebrations at this “stop over” signalled that the campaign was over. Behind them were the rigours and dangers of war. Ahead lay the future. It was a time to “let off steam.” It had been a boisterous time. To be sure, there were parades, fireworks, speeches, feasts, and dignitaries, all befitting the occasion—but perhaps no one celebrated more effectively that rainy July in 1885 than a nameless trooper, who, amply fortified by alcohol, demonstrated before muddy Winnipeg what life and youth were all about. Captain A. Hamlyn Todd wrote of the incident:

The soldiers laid themselves out to paint the town red, and I was told that one of them, to mark the effort, painted a horse that colour, and rode about the town.


Archer, John H. ed., “North-West Rebellion 1885: Recollections and Items, from Diary of Captain A. Hamlyn Todd,” Saskatchewan History, XV, No. 1.

Daoust, Charles R., Cent-Vingt Jours de Service actif. Montreal: Eusebe Senecal & Fils, Imprimeurs-Editeurs, 1886.

Denison, George T., Soldiering in Canada. Toronto: George N. Morang, 1901.

MacBeth, R. G., The Making of the Canadian West, Toronto: William Briggs, 1898.

Manitoba Free Press, 15-19 July 1885.

Archives of Manitoba, Diary of A. N. Mowat, 90th Winnipeg Rifles, 1885.

Roy, R. H. ed., “Rifleman Forin in the Riel Rebellion,” Saskatchewan History XXI,  No. 3.

Sherlock, Robert A., Experiences of the Halifax Battalion in the North-West. Halifax: Jas. A. Doley, 1885.

Winnipeg Daily Times, 16-19 July 1885.

Page revised: 14 October 2012

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