The American Civil War was America’s third civil war. The first occurred within the Revolutionary war when about a third of the people were neutral and another third were loyal to the British king. Many loyalists were harassed and killed and thousands fled to the safety of what would become Canada. The second American civil war began in 1812 under pretences so rickety they would blush the chalky cheeks of Dick Cheney. Because so many of those dying in Canadian border towns were the same un-American Americans who had fled the Revolution, the War of 1812 was really a cousin’s war.
We are as wrong to consider the 1861-1865 American Civil War the country’s first and only civil war as we are to consider it only an American war. France, Britain, Russia and what was becoming Germany were all active participants. More than any other country, however, Canada fought the American Civil War.
At the time, of course, Canada was not yet a country but a group of British colonies lying on America’s porous border. The colony called Canada was a squabbling and politically dysfunctional amalgam of Canada West (Ontario) and Canada East (Quebec). Most Americans also called New Brunswick and Nova Scotia Canada but such name-calling would spark a fight in any Halifax or Moncton bar.
Many Americans made no secret of coveting Canada with newspapers and politicians regularly reporting plans to buy, bomb or annex it. America had invaded Canada in the Revolution and again in 1812. The new civil war had Canadians steeling themselves to fight again.
Canada was involved in the Civil War’s cause, course and consequences. It affected when Canada was created and the nature of that creation. Here are the top ten ways that Canada fought the American Civil War:
- Slavery – Canada abolished slavery in 1833. About 30,000 racial refugees followed the North Star to forge lives of dignified freedom. Southerners were enraged because ex-slaves living happy, productive lives challenged everything they were saying about Black people’s desires and potential and the foundation upon which their society rested. The Canadian examples inspired Northern abolitionists. The Underground Railroad grew along with the animosities between North and South. Harriet Beecher Stowe based Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the book that Lincoln said caused the war, on an escaped slave living in Canada.
- Self-Defence – With war on the horizon, Lincoln’s newly appointed Secretary of State William H. Seward secretly advocated reuniting America by instigating a war with Britain by capturing Canada. The attack, he said, would lead Southerners to rally around the flag and forget secession and Britain would negotiate an end to the war by ceding Canada to America. Lincoln considered the idea but said no – for now. British and Canadian officials took Seward’s public threats quite seriously. Canadians helping the South through arms sales and other means led many American newspapers, politicians and generals to call for invasion. Over eleven thousand British soldiers were dispatched to the border. The Royal Navy was redeployed. Canadian militia were trained and armed. Border fortifications were enhanced and artillery stood ready.
- Soldiers – About 40,000 Canadians donned the blue and gray. Nearly all fought in Northern regiments. Most volunteered, some were tricked, and others, even children, were kidnapped and forced into uniform. Canadians fought in every major battle and 29 earned the Congressional Medal of Honor. Canadians swept down from Gettysburg’s Little Round Top, stood with Grant at Lee’s surrender and a Canadian led the troops that captured Lincoln’s assassin.
- Spies – When the war began turning south for the South, Confederate President Jefferson Davis created a spy network in Canada. Stationed in fancy Toronto and Montreal hotels, spy leader Jacob Thompson organized Confederates and their Canadian sympathisers to run communications for and weapons to the South. In Halifax, money was made selling supplies and information to Southern blockade runners and then to the Northern ships pursuing them.
- Sorties – Jacob Thompson disturbed and distracted Northern military operations with raids to free Confederate prisoners. He had yellow-fever infected clothing distributed in northern cities. He organized the plot that saw theatres and hotels simultaneously burst into flame along Manhattan’s Broadway. The raid on St. Albans, Vermont led to deaths, an incursion of American troops into Canada and Congressional reprisals designed to punish Canada.
- Separation – The Copperheads hated Lincoln. They were Northerners who wanted the war stopped with slavery and the Confederacy preserved and, failing that, the formation a new country comprised of several mid-west states. Lincoln called the Copperhead movement “the fire in the rear” and said that he feared its power as much as the Southern armies. The Copperhead’s chief spokesman was Clement Vallandigham who inspired Copperheads and campaigned to be governor of Ohio from his headquarters in Windsor, Canada West.
- Salvation – Joining Canada with the Maritime colonies in a new political arrangement through a process called Confederation had been discussed since the 1850s. When it appeared that Lincoln would win the war and then feared that he would then turn his massive army northward, the notion became a necessity. Canada needed to be bigger, stronger, richer and more efficient and the civil war meant that it needed it all now rather than some dreamy someday. Canada had to create itself to save itself. Former Reform Party leader and owner and editor of the powerful Globe newspaper George Brown got bickering politicians from both parties in a room, Macdonald kept them talking, Cartier forced federalism, and Tupper and Tilley brought in the Maritimes. The talks began in the fall of 1864 in the shadow of war and led to the birth of nation forged in war.
- Suspicion – Days after the guns fell silent there was a shot in Ford’s Theatre. Even while Lincoln lay dying in a boarding house across the street, investigators turned to Canada’s involvement in the president’s shooting and the attempted assassination of Seward. The border was shut. Agents were dispatched to Montreal. Weeks later, the very first question asked in the trial of the conspirators was about their links to Canada. It was proven that John Wilkes Booth had spent time planning the assassination while with Jacob Thompson’s Confederate conspirators and spies in Montreal.
- Sanctuary – With the war over, many Confederate leaders faced either prosecution or life under the military occupation of their enemy. Many fled to Canada. Among them was General Pickett who led Gettysburg’s tragic final charge. President Jefferson Davis’ family had been in Quebec for some time and after his release from prison he joined them. Cheering crowds welcomed his appearance in Kingston, Toronto and Niagara Falls. The haggard, sick man lived peacefully in Canada until an amnesty allowed him and his compatriots to return home.
- Self-Preservation – Britain had helped the Confederacy by allowing ships to built in Britain and sold to the small Southern navy. One of the most deadly was the Alabama that roamed the seas sinking Northern supply ships and even a military vessel. After the war President Johnson and then President Grant demanded an inordinate sum from Britain as reparation – it was called the Alabama claim. American and British officials discussed erasing the debt owed in exchange for Britain ceding Canada to the United States. In 1871, Prime Minister Macdonald ventured to Washington to negotiate Canada’s survival in what became the Civil War’s final battle.
Canada played a role in causing the war, 40,000 Canadians fought in the war, and its border, streets and harbours were involved in the war. Those who created the country used the United States as an example of how not to organize a society; after all, they invented Canada while the war was demonstrating the American model’s abject failure. Canadians today are children of those who were inspired by the fear of one country and the vision of another.
An edited version of this article appeared in this week’s Macleans magazine. To learn more, check out Blood and Daring: How Canada Fought the American Civil War and Forged a Nation available through Amazon, Chapters and sensible book stores everywhere.