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History of Saskatchewan and The Old North West
Chapter XXIII - The Battle of Fish Creek


Dumont Restrained by Riel—Attempted Surprise at Tourond's Coulee—Battle of- Fish Creek—Melgund Crosses tiie River— Middleton's Own Account of the Engagement—Casualties— Dumont's Report.

During the advance on Batoche it is notorious that Dumont was in favor of systematically harassing the Canadian forces, which he could easily have done with much effect. Intimately knowing the country as he and his warriors did, it would have been relatively safe and easy for him to have severely strained the nerves of the militia by oft-repeated alarms, especially at night. However, he was overruled in this by Riel, and indeed Lord Melgund subsequently pointed out that the Halfbreeds seemed governed simply by a desire to protect their own homes and settlements from aggression.

On the morning of the twenty-fourth, however, Middleton's forces clashed with the rebel outposts at Tourond's Coulee, which in the newspaper accounts was called Fish Creek. This was a steep and winding ravine lying directly in Middleton's path and leading down to the river. Here Dumont and his associates had carefully planned a surprise. It was not entirely successful, as Major Boulton's scouts were feeling their way ahead of the advance guard.1 They informed Middleton that at the left of the trail they had come across a camping place, not long vacated and the fires still smouldering. From the number of the fires and other signs it was believed that nearly two hundred men had camped there. A few moments after the receipt of this warning the skirmish began. Men in the advance guard of the Ninetieth afterwards declared that "the first indication of the enemy's presence which they had was in seeing several of the scouts in front fall from their saddles under the deadly fire of the Halfbreeds concealed in the bluffs." Major Boulton's description of the opening of Fish Creek Battle is as follows:

"I gave the command, 'Left wheel, gallop,' and we charged down upon thirty or forty mounted men who were standing in the shelter of a bluff. When we came upon them they at once turned their horses and bolted for a ravine, or gully, about a hundred and fifty yards distant, dismounting as they galloped. I instantly gave the word to my men, 'Halt! Dismount! Extend in skirmishing order and lie down.' Simultaneously the enemy, who were in a ravine, and out of sight, opened a murderous fire upon us. I said, 'Fire away, boys, and lie close; never mind if you don't see anything, fire,' my object being to keep the enemy down in the gully and hold them in check till the supports came up. The rebels would pop up from the ravine, take a snap shot, and disappear in an instant. The General at once sent back Captain Wise, A. D. C., to hurry up the main body, in which duty his horse was shot. We here sustained the whole of the enemy's fire, which was very hot and unfortunately fatal. Captain Gardiner, who was beside me, was the first to say, 'Major, I am hit.' Almost immediately Langford called out that he was hit. Bruce was the next victim. Then poor D'Arcy Baker called out, "Major, I'm hit,' and he received his death wound by a bullet crashing into his breast. Then Gardiner called out, 'I am hit again.' Langford, too, was hit a second time. I told the wounded to drag themselves to the rear the best way they could and get out of further danger, ordering the remainder to hold 011 and fire away."'1

One Indian in full war paint came forward, dancing and shouting his war cry apparently out of sheer bravado. lie was immediately shot and fell in the open, where his body remained all day. The advanced guard of the infantry under Captain Clarke, of the Ninetieth, who was wounded shortly afterwards, presently arrived, and was extended to the right of the scouts, and when the main body arrived under Lieutenant-Colonel Houghton and Major Mackeand two additional companies were extended to the right. Captain Peters brought the two guns into action, but with such little effect, owing to the cover in which the enemy fought, that Middleton, after a few rounds, withdrew them.

The firing line pushed on to the edge of the bank of the creek. Here many casualties occurred, and Middleton has been criticised for thus exposing his men. It lias been said that he should have taken advantage of the superior range of his rifles. However, I do not think criticism valid in view of the nature of the country in which the fighting occurred. Granting that it was necessary to clear the Indians and Halfbreeds out of the steep ravine in which they were concealed, it seems evident that such action could be accomplished only by bringing the Canadian forces right to the edge of the coulee, and even into it. The rebels were entirely invisible almost from first to last even at this close range.

Towards the right of the Canadian lines the rebels set fire to the prairie, and under cover of the smoke made a gallant attempt to dislodge the volunteers. The seriousness of the situation at this juncture was candidly admitted by Middleton in articles which subsequently appeared in the United Service Magazine. However, the volunteers kept their nerve, and a group of teamsters under Bedson's directions advanced, and with great pluck beat out the flames. "If anything had been required," says General Middle-ton, "to keep the men steady at this rather critical moment, it would have been found in the extraordinarily composed and cool behavior of William Buchanan, a little bugler of the Ninetieth, who, while calmly distributing ammunition along the line, kept calling out in his childish shrill voice, 'Now, boys, who's for more cartridges?'"

Meantime the left column on the other side of the river could plainly hear the firing, but were, of course, unable to render any immediate assistance. Melgtind with the Tenth Grenadiers, however, under Captain Mason, crossed the river and were extended along to the right centre.

"The scow," says Middleton, "unfortunately was not in proper position, having been sent early that morning to our camp for forage for "the left column. It was then on its way down, and men were sent along the river to hurry it along. When it did arrive it had to be unloaded before the crossing could commence. The unwieldy scow, which could barely hold sixty men, instead of having the assistance of the wire rope and current, had now to be laboriously propelled with oars roughly improvised and made with axes by men totally unused to such work, the current being an obstruction instead of an aid. Added to this was the difficulty of embarking and disembarking, owing to the deep mud, boulders and blocks of ice, and to the absence of a wharf and of roadways down and up the steep wooded banks, some one hundred feet high on each side. Yet with all these difficulties to surmount, two hundred and fifty men and two guns and their wagons, fully horsed, were crossed over a wide and rapid river without an accident, principally owing to the indomitable energy and determination of the officers and the men, and especially of Lord Melgund and Major Jarvis, commanding the guns of the Winnipeg Battery. A force of regulars could not have done better, if so well.

For the following account of the chief remaining incidents of the battle of Fish Creek I am indebted to one of Middleton's articles1 in the United Science Magazine, to which reference has already been made:

"Captain Peters, commanding the artillery, now asked permission to have a party of volunteers to try and dislodge these troublesome 'Pitties,' which I granted. The party consisted of a few dismounted artillerymen and some of the Ninetieth under Captain Ruttan. They advanced into the ravine, at the bottom of which they were cheeked by the fire of the enemy, who, as usual, were invisible. Here they were joined by some more of the Ninetieth under Lieutenant Swinford, accompanied by Lieutenant-Colonel Houghton, who had been sent with orders, and attached himself to the party, and my aide-dc-camp, Captain Wise, who had obtained leave to go. At the same time another small party advanced in another direction to create a diversion. After making several gallant attempts, all had to retire with the loss of three men killed and five wounded, one of the latter being Lieutenant Swinford, who died of his wound. I refused to let them make a second attempt then, and took Captain Drury, with one gun, supported by a part of C Company, under Major Smith, across the ravine to the left, to try and take the pits in reverse, but with no apparent effect, as one of the gunners was wounded, and Major Boulton, who accompanied me, had his horse shot under him. I brought them back and contented myself with detailing a party, well under cover, to watch the place where the pits were. My gallant and ever-ready aide-de-camp, Wise, was now put hors-dc-combat by a shot in the ankle, received while trying to ascertain if the enemy had gone.

"By about 3 p. m., with the exception of an occasional shot from the pits, all firing had ceased; the enemy had fled, and the fight was virtually over. Captain Mason, of the Tenth, and some officers and men were now-very anxious to be allowed to again try and rush the rifle pits, but I did not think it advisable for several reasons to risk losing more, as we certainly should have clone in a second attempt. The tenants of the pit were evidently reduced to a small number, and could do little, if any, more damage. Moreover, I could not help having a feeling of admiration and respect for their stubborn defense when deserted by their comrades, and I refused, and shortly after the fire ceased altogether.

"I must now refer to the proceedings of the other column. On hearing the firing on our side Melgund, with the concurrence of Lieutenant-Colonel Montizambart. gave orders to make a secure lager with the wagons, and moved the force down the river bank, leaving a small party on guard. The firing becoming heavier, they moved down the river, and as they got nearly opposite the scene of action—which was not visible to them—they saw somebody on our side gesticulating and shouting. Melgund went down to the river side, and though he could not make out clearly what was said, he rightly concluded that they were wanted to cross, and immediately set to work to do so.

"The band of the 90th did most excellent service in bringing in the wounded, not hesitating to expose themselves to the fire of the enemy in so doing.

"My men had borne their baptism of fire well; and if they had not— as was only to be expected—displayed the dash and rapidity of movement of regular troops in their first essay of war, they had clearly evinced great staying and dogged courage."

Middleton had something less than 400 men actually engaged, of whom ten were killed or died of their wounds, and forty others were wounded. This heavy casualty list shows how effective was the firing of the rebel sharpshooters, who at no time during the engagement numbered more than 130, though they were credited with being present in much greater force. In General Middleton's account it is stated "That the rebels had eleven killed, or died of their wounds, and eighteen wounded, besides three Indians left dead on the field." However, from the parish register at Batoche and the monument raised to the memory of the fallen in Batoche country we learn that as a matter of fact only four of the Halfbreeds were slain.

The names of the volunteers who lost their lives as a result of the Battle of Fish Creek were as follows:

Killed—Gunner D. H. De Manolly, Gunner XV. Cook, Privates A. W. Ferguson, James Hutchins, George Wheeler, William Ennis.

Died of wounds—Lieutenant Charles Swinford, Corporal John Code, Private Arthur J. Watson, Trooper D'Arcy Baker.

Middleton remained a week at Fish Creek awaiting the arrival of the steamer Northcote, which was to convey the wounded to Saskatoon, and did not reach the crossing till May 5th. It was therefore necessary to carry the wounded, in improvised ambulances, a distance of about forty-two miles. Boulton's scouts formed the escort, and the wounded were placed under the care of Dr. Willoughby of Saskatoon, and other physicians.

When at last it arrived, the steamer brought, besides supplies, about eighty Midlanders, under Colonel Williams. M. P., Lieutenant-Colonel Van Straubenzie and Captain Howard (late of the U. S. Army), with a Gatling gun.

Let us now turn to a consideration of the Fish Creek engagement as seen from the point of view of the rebels themselves.

It is to be remembered that Gabriel Dumont had been wounded at Duck Lake fight, and it is believed by many who had exceptional opportunity of knowing the facts, that thereafter he was never entirely himself again, during the remainder of the campaign. Indeed, his conduct on the occasion of the skirmish at Fish Creek was severely disapproved by some of his associates. I have carefully weighed the available evidence, however, and have concluded that the flattering judgment of the Canadian soldiers was more just, and I believe that Dumont's story of the affair may be accepted as substantially reliable.

In his account Dumont informs us that on the evening of the 23d he set out from Batoche to meet Middleton with a force of two hundred of the insurgents, made up of Metis, a few French Canadians, and a motley company of Indians—Saulteaux, Crees and Sioux. "Riel accompanied us," he says, "and in the halts lie made us say our beads." The company halted for supper at Roger Goulet's farm, where they were overtaken by Noel Champagne and Morise Carriere, with word that the mounted police were believed to be advancing on liatoche by the Qu'Appelle road. Edouard Dumont, with a little garrison, had been left to defend Batoche and he desired either his brother or Riel himself to return with thirty additional men. Gabriel refused to go back, but Riel consented and the former gave him fifty of his two hundred men.

Dumont then advanced and at daybreak he and his men sighted Middleton's camp at Mcintosh's farm. After this preliminary reconnaissance, Dumont caused the main body of his party to fall back upon the precipitous coulee of Fish Creek. He himself, in company with Napoleon Naud. continued the scouting operations, approaching at 4 A. M. to within a half-mile of Middleton's cam]), after which they returned to Tourond's. There he was when one of his runners brought word that Middleton was approaching. Dumont then placed one hundred and thirty men in the coulee opposite Tourond's and set out with the remainder of his force, consisting of twenty picked horsemen, to prepare another ambuscade on Middleton's flank, but upon seeing recent marks inadvertently left on the trail by some of his men, he was obliged to abandon this plan. At 7:30 Dumont's advanced guard came under fire. Several of its members fled, as also did a considerable number of the Halfbreeds and Indians whom he had left in the coulee. Dumont and his more stalwart companions, by gigantic efforts, stopped their retreat, rallying their men to the number of sixty-two; forty-seven of these were in the main ravine, and fifteen were with Dumont in an adjacent coulee. Dumont was separated from the main body in the ravine during most of the day and it is commonly said that defections from the insurgent ranks reduced their number to forty-five.5 Those that remained, however, put up a most courageous fight. Isadore Dumont, to keep up the courage of his companions, started an old chanson of Napoleon the First, and all joined in the chorus. Maxime Lapine's report of what he saw and did in that fatal coulee will be found quoted at length in the chapter devoted to religious aspects of the rebellion."

Riel would not allow reinforcements to come from Batoche during the battle, but towards evening Gabriel Dumont's brother Edouard refused to remain any longer in the village and came to the support of his brother with eighty mounted men. By this time, however, the lighting was practically over. Dumont, with his handful of men, had successfully withstood Middleton's overwhelmingly superior force, and when in the evening he retired to Batoche, he carried away his dead and wounded.


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