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SMITH, WILLIAM OSBORNE, soldier; b. apparently in 1833, eldest son of W. H. Smith of Hendreowen (West Glamorgan), Wales; d. 11 May 1887 at Swansea, Wales.

In 1855 William Osborne Smith was appointed ensign in the 39th Foot, and promoted lieutenant later in the same year. He presumably joined the regiment in the Crimea, where it was then taking part in the siege of Sevastopol. The 39th was one of the five regiments moved to Canada directly from the Crimea in 1856, as a result of the enlistment controversy with the United States [see Joseph Howe*]. In 1858 Lieutenant Smith married Janet Colquhoun of Montreal. The following year, when the regiment was about to be transferred to Bermuda, he sold his commission and entered “mercantile life” in Montreal.

The military excitement in Canada resulting from the outbreak of the American Civil War brought Smith into the volunteer force, first as commander of a new company formed apparently in September 1861 and subsequently officially recognized, and then as commander with the rank of lieutenant-colonel of a battalion formed unofficially in December 1861 during the Trent crisis and gazetted on 22 Jan. 1862 as the 3rd Battalion Volunteer Militia Rifles. The battalion was later allowed to assume officially the title Victoria Rifles, which it had used from the beginning. In December 1864, after the Confederate raid from Canada on St Albans, Vt [see David Thurston], the Canadian government called out for frontier service 30 volunteer companies organized in three battalions. Smith was appointed to command the 1st (Western) Administrative Battalion, which did duty on the Detroit frontier until July 1865. In November 1865, when the first extensive military precautions were taken against the Fenian Brotherhood, Smith was appointed to the militia staff as assistant adjutant-general at Montreal. From this time until 1881 he was on full-time military duty.

In the worst crisis of the Fenian troubles, the raids of June 1866 [see Alfred Booker*], Smith was in command on the frontier south of Montreal. On 5 June he made an arduous march with the Victoria Rifles and other troops from Hemmingford to Huntingdon, over roads broken up by rain, which probably averted an attack by Fenians assembled at Malone, N.Y. Major-General James Alexander Lindsay*, the regular officer commanding in Canada East, described Smith in his report on the operations as “a most valuable officer, energetic and active.” In the Fenian raid of May 1870 Smith was again in charge on the Quebec frontier. Before the engagement at Eccles Hill on 25 May he had posted the small force on the ground, though he was actually absent arranging reinforcements at the moment when would-be raiders led by John O’Neill* crossed the border and were driven back. For his services on this occasion Smith received the cmg.

O’Neill attempted another raid, this time against Manitoba, on 5 Oct. 1871. It was frustrated by the United States authorities, but it was clear to the dominion government that the military force in Manitoba, two companies, was inadequate. A reinforcement of 200 men under Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Scott was hastily organized and dispatched by way of the difficult Dawson route. At the same time a new military district (no. 10) was authorized with headquarters at Winnipeg, and Smith was sent west to take charge of it. Travelling by American railways, he reached Fort Garry on 27 October. Winter was already closing in. Smith collected a group of voyageurs and set out to assist Scott’s force struggling through the half-frozen waterways. He met it at the mouth of the Rainy River, and the expedition marched across the Red River ice into Fort Garry on 18 November.

For the next few years a considerable permanent military force, originally 300 men including an artillery detachment, was maintained at Winnipeg under Smith’s command. A new post was constructed there and named Fort Osborne, presumably after Smith. The garrison, although not mounted, made its influence felt over a wide area. In 1874 a column of over 100 men commanded by Smith marched to the Qu’Appelle lakes (The Fishing Lakes), 351 miles west of Winnipeg, to provide a guard for the commissioners negotiating Treaty no.4 with the Cree and Saulteaux Indians. That summer, however, the organization of the North-West Mounted Police provided a better means for carrying out such tasks, and the permanent garrison at Winnipeg was finally done away with in 1877. Smith remained in charge of Military District no. 10 until 1881, when he retired from the militia staff, still a lieutenant-colonel and apparently without a pension.

In the North West Rebellion of 1885 Smith raised the Winnipeg Light Infantry Battalion. This unit was sent to Calgary to join the Alberta Field Force commanded by Major-General Thomas Bland Strange*. Smith signed some telegrams as “commanding infantry brigade,” though this appointment does not seem to be referred to elsewhere. The Winnipeg Light Infantry under Smith’s command took part in the operations of Strange’s column, including the inconclusive engagement of Frenchman Butte, where, Strange records, Smith counselled him to break off the action and retire, which he did. At the end of the campaign Smith apparently suffered an injury from which he never fully recovered.

He was an unsuccessful candidate in the riding of Morris in the Manitoba general election of 1886; he had failed similarly in Winnipeg in the federal general election of 1882, being defeated by Thomas Scott. In the spring of 1887 he went on a visit to his native Wales, where he died; his wife had predeceased him. A son, Edward Osborne Smith, served as an officer in the British army. William Osborne Smith was clearly an officer of ability, and a figure of considerable importance in the early history of the professional military forces of Canada.

C. P. Stacey

PAC, RG 9, Militia general orders, 1862–81. Can., Parl., Sessional papers, 1867–78, Reports on the state of the militia; 1886, V, no.6a. Can., Prov. of, Parl., Sessional papers, 1866, II, no.4. Morris, Treaties of Canada with the Indians. Telegrams of the North-West campaign, 1885, ed. Desmond Morton and R. H. Roy (Toronto, 1972). Manitoba Daily Free Press, 16 May 1887. Montreal Gazette, 17, 18, 20 Dec. 1861; 14 Jan. 1862; 20–29 Dec. 1864; 3 Jan. 1865. Times (London), 20 May 1887. The annual register: a review of public events at home and abroad (London), 1887. Dominion annual register, 1886. Harts army list, 1859. C. T. Atkinson, The Dorsetshire regiment: the thirty-ninth and fifty fourth Foot and the Dorset Militia and Volunteers (2v., Oxford, 1947), I. Desmond Morton, Ministers and generals: politics and the Canadian militia, 1868–1904 (Toronto and Buffalo, N.Y., 1970). T. B. Strange, Gunner Jingos jubilee: an autobiography (3rd ed., London, 1896). C. P. Stacey, “The military aspect of Canada’s winning of the west, 1870–1885,” CHR, 21 (1940): 1–24; “The second Red River expedition, 1871,” Canadian Defence Quarterly (Ottawa), 8 (1930–31): 199–208.

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Cite This Article

C. P. Stacey, “SMITH, WILLIAM OSBORNE,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 26, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/smith_william_osborne_11E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/smith_william_osborne_11E.html
Author of Article:   C. P. Stacey
Title of Article:   SMITH, WILLIAM OSBORNE
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1982
Year of revision:   1982
Access Date:   September 26, 2023