The Power of Graceful Words and Cogent Arguments

It was a word salad. Ms. Palin’s endorsement of Donald Trump’s candidacy last week did something few could imagine. It outdid even her past performances in presenting a rambling exhortation as bereft of grammar and sentence structure as it was a cogent argument. She had valid points to make but even Mr. Trump appeared embarrassed at her inability to make them.

Plenty of people laughed. Tina Fey revved up her spot-on impersonation for Saturday Night Live. Others were outraged at the depths to which political discourse has sunk and by the fact that her speech garnered applause at the time and, from the predictable quarters, praise afterwards. I, however, was sad.

I was sad for all those young people with good teachers who are learning the power and beauty of the spoken word. In classrooms across North America, good teachers are encouraging an appreciation for poetry, Shakespeare, and stirring speeches. Students are learning that the more they read, the better they can write, and the better they write, the deeper they are encouraged to think. They are learning that to be articulate is a good thing. And yet, there was Ms. Palin addressing a serious matter, the presidency, with profane and made up words more akin to a drunken karaoke rap than reasoned prose.

I was also sad for students learning the precision of a well-defined argument. They are being taught to dismiss false dichotomies that present either/or options that don’t really exist. Students are learning to begin the evaluation of an argument by exploring its premise and to be unfooled by straw men foisted as false foils. If nothing else, they are learning that arguments must at least be arguments, that is, they must state a point of view and defend it with demonstrably valid evidence. They learn that truth matters and that one can have one’s own opinion but not one’s own facts. And yet, there was Ms. Palin presenting not an argument as to why Mr. Trump should be president with but, rather, nonsensical assertions, jumbled phrases, insults, non-sequiturs, and even goofy rhymes.

If you missed it, all twenty minutes, here is part of what Ms. Palin had to say:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CubzfKS5yQk

Let’s pause for a moment to consider two examples that demonstrate the way things used to be and can and should still be today. First, in about two minutes Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Gettysburg Address stated the reason for the gathering, the value of the sacrifice of those lost in the recent battle, established the Civil War’s global and moral purpose, and affirmed the legitimacy of the fight. And he did it all in words he wrote himself and with the grace of a poet.

Take a moment to read what Lincoln said that afternoon in Pennsylvania with consideration for the value of marrying diction and argument.

http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/gettyb.asp

There is another example among many that could be chosen. On April 4, 1968, Robert Kennedy was running for President. A crowd in the predominately Black section of Indianapolis had been waiting for a long while and was growing restless. It was dark. Just as he was ascending the stairs to speak, Kennedy was told that Martin Luther King had been assassinated. His handlers ordered him back to the car. He refused.

Instead, Kennedy looked into the sea of Black faces and asked them to lower their campaign signs. This would not be about his campaign. He said that their hero and inspirational leader had been killed and that a White man had done it. There were gasps. But Kennedy went on. He gently interpreted the murder in a personal context and then as a national, existential challenge. He quoted several lines from the Greek poet Aeschylus. That’s right, a man running for president extemporaneously quoted a Greek poet.

Value of Graceful Words and Cogent Arguments

(Photo: http://www.peacebuttons.info)

In cities across America that night there were riots in Black neighbourhoods with grief expressed as rage. That is, in every major city except one: Indianapolis.

Allow yourself the gift to be moved by Robert Kennedy and the power of elegant, graceful  words and a genuine, cogent argument:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BCrx_u3825g

I refuse to believe that Ms. Palin’s ramblings and Mr. Trump’s rants are cause for despair. It is just as I refused to be disheartened when in the recent Canadian election the prime minister embarrassed himself and disgraced the office by abandoning reasoned arguments to instead, day after day, present a sophomoric, faux game show complete with buzzers and bells.

Palin, Trump, Harper, and for that matter Mr. Cruz and Mr. Sanders, have their audiences and I think I understand them. They are angry. They are angry that the rules they have followed and thought they understood are changing. The bad guys have been winning on Baghdad’s Main Street and New York’s Wall Street. They are angry that the elite, donor class sold them on voting against their interests to support people, policies, and programs that have widened gulfs and strangled mobility. Their anger is palpable. Their anger is justified.

Unjustified, however, is meeting anger with bombast. Insults are not arguments. Beliefs are not policies. Prejudices are not facts. Biases are not opinions. We deserve better. All of us deserve better, even, or perhaps especially those angry folks attracted to Mr. Trump on one side and Mr. Sanders on the other.

Leaders and those who seek to lead should elevate and not stoop. They should inspire and not conspire. They should speak not to our inner demons but, as Lincoln called them, our better angels. And they should present themselves in ways that encourage calm reason over empty passion and articulate debate rather than spewed slogans. Like Kennedy, they should cool the embers of justifiable anger rather than stoke infernos. Picture Palin or Trump in Indianapolis that night.

For the sake of the children learning to speak, write, and present persuasive arguments as part of their becoming engaged citizens and whose world will be shaped by our decisions, let us demand more. Let us refuse to support those who’s jumbled words and absent arguments suggest we settle for less.

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The Little Known Canadian Links to Lincoln’s Assassination

One hundred and fifty years ago this week, on April 15, 1865, famous actor John Wilkes Booth placed a small derringer behind Abraham Lincoln’s left ear. Several hours later, the president who had led the United States through the horrific Civil War that had ended only days before, was dead.

With Lincoln went his goal of treating Southerners not as conquered but countrymen. The Senate’s Radical Republicans ran roughshod over a new and weak president to impose their program of punishment and retribution. To a large degree, America’s regional, political, and racial divisions are echoes of the botched reconstruction that Lincoln would not have allowed. We understand the assassination’s consequences for America but few know of its Canadian connections.

Canada and Lincoln Assassination

(Photo: en.wikipedia.org)

A virulent racist and staunch believer in the Southern cause, Booth gathered a group of like-minded people at Mary Surratt’s Washington boarding house and hatched a plan to kidnap Lincoln. They would release him when the United States, seen by Southerners as a foreign country that had invaded theirs, withdrew its forces. To help organize the plot, Booth travelled to Montreal.

Like many other Canadian cities, Montreal was a hotbed of Confederate activity. A year before, Confederate President Jefferson Davis had appointed Jacob Thompson, a former federal cabinet secretary, to save the South by going north. Thompson established offices in Montreal and Toronto. He organized Confederate deserters, escaped prisoners, and sympathetic Canadians who then harassed Lincoln’s Union with daring raids, Great Lakes piracy, and fifth column intrigues.

Booth arrived in Montreal in October 1864. He took a room at the swanky St. Lawrence Hall hotel that served as Thompson’s headquarters. He met with Confederate spies and gun and blockade-runners. At the Bank of Ontario, he exchanged $300 for gold sterling. Booth worked for 10 days making plans and contacts.

Booth’s failed kidnapping plot and the war’s end led to a new idea. On a single night they would kill Lincoln, Vice President Johnson, Secretary of State Seward, and General Grant. The government would be decapitated and the South inspired to rise again. However, at the appointed hour, Grant had left Washington, Johnson’s assassin got drunk, and Seward survived his stab wounds. Only Booth succeeded.

Booth was hunted down and shot by a 26-man detail led by Quebec-born First Lieutenant Edward Doherty. On May 2, a proclamation stated that the government was seeking a number of Booth’s accomplices, including “rebels and traitors against the United States, harboured in Canada.” Among those listed was John Surratt. He had fled to Canada and was being hidden by priests, first in a Village north of Montreal and then in the city. Canadians helped him to escape to Europe.

Booth’s other conspirators were captured and brought to trial. The prosecution sought to prove their guilt along with the complicity of what it called the Confederacy’s “Canadian Cabinet”. The first words spoken in testimony were by a War Department spy, “I visited Canada in the summer of 1864, and except for the time I have going backward and forward, have remained there for almost two years.” Canada was central to the majority of testimony that followed, including that of a spy posing as a Montreal businessman who later arrived to clear his name. The trial’s final words went to Special Judge Advocate Bingham, “Surely no word further need be spoken to show that…[Booth, Surratt] and Davis and his several agents named in Canada, were in this conspiracy.”

Sensational American newspaper coverage spoke of Canada’s complicity in their president’s murder. Public meetings and vicious letters to editors revealed even greater anti-Canadian sentiment than had developed during the war. There were calls for retribution. The rising tide of hatred led Canadians and Maritimers to renew their demand for Confederation that the Civil War had turned from a good idea to a necessity. Canada had to create itself to save itself.

Today’s divided America and united Canada are the twin legacies of Booth’s smoking gun.

For more on this story and of Canada and the American Civil War please check out “Blood and Daring: How Canada Fought the American Civil War and Forged a Nation”. It’s available everywhere including here: http://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/home/contributor/author/john-boyko/#page=0&pid=978030736146

KISS is Cute But Keeps Us Stupid: Consider an Example

The KISS principle (Keep It Simple Stupid) is cute but keeping anything simple keeps us stupid. While I contend that this idea is true in every aspect of our lives let’s test its validity by looking at one event in History that we know about, or think we know about – the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln’s freeing of the slaves. The document is far too often simplified beyond recognition. In so doing, in robbing it of its complexity, History itself is deprived of its ability to do what it exists to do, to act as a wise teacher invoking yesterday in an invitation to better understand today. So let’s test the idea with a consideration of the lessons offered by Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation.

Abraham_Lincoln_November_1863

Lincoln was a visionary but he was also a pragmatist and hard-nosed realist. The American Civil War began with the shelling of Fort Sumter in April, 1861 and for a year Lincoln’s Northern armies lost nearly every major battle. With each bloody month the costs mounted, the astounding number of casualties tore families, support for Lincoln and the war waned, and Britain threatened to tip the balance by entering on the side of the Confederate South.

In the summer of 1862, with everything falling in tatters about him, the president told his incredulous cabinet that he wanted to free slaves in states still in rebellion. The notion met with unanimous opposition. Lincoln swayed them by arguing that he was motivated not by a moral imperative but by military expediency. His stated goal in going to war in the first place, after all, had not been to end slavery but to preserve the union. Freeing slaves now, he told his dubious cabinet, would help pursue that goal by helping to crush the South. The act would allow for the creation of so-called ‘coloured’ regiments to bolster the North’s faltering recruitment efforts. It would stir havoc in the South as even more slaves were inspired to escape. After all, the Proclamation would mean nothing if the North lost the war. Further, the Proclamation would dissuade Britain from offering aid or diplomatic recognition to the Confederacy. Having banned slavery decades before, he reasoned, Britain could hardly be seen supporting the peculiar institution in a war now redrawn as about good versus an evil.

The cabinet relented but persuaded Lincoln to postpone announcing the Emancipation Proclamation until a Union victory was won so that it would not appear to be an act of military desperation. When Lee’s Confederates were not really defeated but at least repulsed at Antietam in September 1862, Lincoln claimed the battle as the victory he needed. He publicly announced that he would sign the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863.

The Proclamation freed some but not all the slaves. It allowed slavery to remain in the Border States of Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri. To end slavery there, Lincoln believed, would possibly end their neutrality and spur them to join the South. The act also exempted parts of the South that had already come under Northern control for those areas were chaotic enough without adding the crush of runaway slaves seeking the protection of the Northern army. Also limiting Lincoln’s action was that it was not a constitutional amendment or even a law for he could not have won or waited to win those victories. It was merely a Proclamation that could be more easily ignored at the time or later.

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Despite its limitations, the Proclamation changed everything. It meant that with the Civil War’s costs and casualties mounting and Lincoln’s fragile alliance of Republicans, abolitionists and northern Democrats fraying, the struggle was suddenly about something greater than the preservation of a political state. From that point forward the war would be about an idea. It would be about freedom. It would be about the very concept of humanity. The Declaration of Independence had insisted that all men are created equal but the Emancipation Proclamation stated an intention to transform that aspiration to a fact. Millions of people who for over 200 years had been property could become human.

Northern abolitionists and radical Republicans applauded the Proclamation. Britain initially reacted with skepticism but then responded as Lincoln had hoped. Gone was talk of Britain entering the war on behalf of the South or of its recognizing the Confederate government. “Colored Regiments” were formed beginning with enlistment to Boston’s famous Massachusetts 54th. Eventually about 200,000 African Americans donned the blue uniform. Lincoln said their contributions and numbers represented a turning point in the war that could have been lost without them.

But all were not happy. Not surprisingly, the South was outraged. From the Southern point of view the Proclamation was useless as it was merely an act by a foreign leader with no jurisdiction in what it insisted was a newly formed and sovereign state. It was another example of what many were fighting about – a far-away federal government insulting the Southern way of life and attacking the economic foundation of their society. There was more rage when, as Lincoln had predicted, the number of slaves escaping from Southern plantations rose.

There was also consternation among many in the North. Editorials attacked Lincoln for changing the aim of the war arguing, quite rightly, that it had never been about abolition. The Copperheads, a loose amalgam of northerners who wanted peace at any price, said that even though the war was now about freeing slaves that the cost was still too high. They increased their efforts to defeat Lincoln in 1864 and to negotiate an end to the war with slavery in place. Hundreds of Union soldiers deserted. They claimed that they had not signed up to free slaves. Lincoln’s commanding General George McClellan was advised to stage a coup. McClellan refused to do so but a year later he accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination to run against Lincoln for the presidency.

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Signing of the Emancipation Proclamation

The Proclamation also affected Canada. Britain had declared itself neutral in the war and so Canada and the Maritime colonies were automatically neutral as well. But then as now Canadians were a cantankerous lot who considered dictates as merely suggestions. Many were disappointed when Lincoln did not immediately free the slaves upon becoming president and so supported the South. The majority of Canadian newspapers were pro-Confederate. Many Quebecers identified with Southern interests fighting a government that seemed unsympathetic to their beliefs about a threatened culture. Many Canadians and Maritimers saw business advantages and believed that Canada would be more militarily secure with a shattered United States and so supported the South. Two members of parliament who ran into the Canadian legislature shouting that the South had won the war’s first battle at Bull Run were welcomed with a loud cheer.

However, even given all of this, newspaper editorials throughout Canada and the Maritimes were unanimous in their praise for the Emancipation Proclamation. It spurred a new wave of Canadians and Maritimers to cross the border and join the thousands of their countrymen who had already enlisted. The vast majority, ironically given pro-Southern sentiment in official circles, fought with the Union. Among those heading south to fight for the North were hundreds who had escaped as slaves but were returning as men. Approximately 40,000 Canadians and Maritimers served in the Civil War. They fought in every major battle and 29 won Congressional Medals of honour.

The legitimate fear of American attack or annexation grew more acute with the Emancipation Proclamation because it was, as Lincoln expected, a boon to his cause. Six months after its enactment, the Confederacy was broke and nearly broken. Union victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg altered the war’s trajectory as surely as the Proclamation had recalibrated its moral imperative. With the Union victory more certain than ever and many Canadian leaders sure that once the South had been dispatched that Lincoln would march his armies north, the impulse to act became acute. Confederation had been talked about for years but it was suddenly a necessity. Canada needed to invent itself to save itself. Plans were made to meet in Charlottetown in September, 1864 to forge a new country.

Abraham Lincoln understood the enormity of what he had done. Upon affixing his signature to the Emancipation Proclamation he said, “If my name ever goes into history it will be for this act.” We owe it to ourselves to pause and reflect upon the Proclamation for the milestone it represents in the evolution of mankind’s freedom. But in considering what it was we should also accept what it was not. We should consider the role it played not just in the re-imagination of America but also in the birth of Canada.

We should also consider the Emancipation Proclamation as an example of how we must invite History to teach us lessons that resonate today and that in order to properly learn those lessons we must dismiss the balm of simplicity and welcome, in fact, demand complexity. Complexity, after all, is History’s highway to the truth. In fact, complexity and truth are reliant upon each other in every sphere of our lives.

Sir John the Saviour

Part of the joy of being an author is the privilege of travelling the country and meeting people who share a passion for books and ideas. Interviews are fascinating too because questions reveal the issues that are stirring interest. The questions are sometimes surprising.

Last January I was speaking with an American journalist from Louisiana about my book dealing with Canada and the American Civil War. She said, “I read your book and admit I had never heard of John Macdonald. It seems like he was quite was a big deal.” “Yes,” I offered politely, “He was and is quite a big deal.”  She continued, “So how would you explain Macdonald to our American readers in one sentence?” “Well,” I said, drawing a breath, “Macdonald is like America’s James Madison in that he led the writing of our constitution, and he is like your Thomas Jefferson in that he provided the ideological basis and political justification for the creation of our country, and he is like your George Washington in that he was our first chief executive that put flesh on the country’s skeleton while his every decision provided a precedent that resonates to this day; so our Macdonald was your Madison, Jefferson and Washington rolled into one man.”

I could have said much more. We can’t escape Macdonald. Every time we discuss the Senate, or the power of the prime minister, or the role of an MP, or government’s power we are revisiting his vision. We know that he created and built Canada. Less well known, however, is how he saved Canada.

Image Sir John A. Macdonald

In 1871, Canada was four years old. The American Civil War that had affected how and when the country had been created had been over for six years; but it was not really over. When the war began, Britain had declared itself neutral. That made Canada neutral too but still about 40,000 Canadians and Maritimers broke the law to don the blue and gray and fight. Canadians sold weapons to both sides and housed a Confederate spy ring that organized raids from Toronto and Montreal. John Wilkes Booth visited Montreal to organize Lincoln’s assassination. All of this and more led a great many Americans to call for revenge; generals, newspapers and politicians called for invasion and annexation.

Throughout the war, Britain had ignored its neutrality law and allowed ships to be bought or built then sold to dummy companies that turned them over to the Confederate navy. One such ship was called the Enrica. The Americans knew about it even while she was under construction at the Laird Yards in Liverpool in the fall of 1861. The British government allowed it to be built and then snuck down the Mersey to the Azores where it was refitted for war and rechristened the CSS Alabama.

The Alabama roamed the seas and eventually sank 64 American commercial vessels and a warship. Lincoln ordered it destroyed and the global hunt was on. In July, 1864, the Alabama was sunk outside a French port.

Image CSS Alabama

At the war’s conclusion, the United States continued its Manifest Destiny driven desire to have Canada. Annexationist Secretary of State William Henry Seward purchased Alaska in 1867. He explained that the purchase was merely a step in driving Britain out of British Columbia and eventually all of North America. But Macdonald stopped him by persuading those in Vancouver and Victoria to join Canada. Seward negotiated with Britain to purchase Rupert’s Land from the Hudson’s Bay Company – nearly all of what is now northern Ontario and the prairies. But Macdonald stopped him again by negotiating around the United States and buying it for Canada.

Seward had one card left to play. He argued that by allowing ships such as the Alabama to be built and bought that Britain had prolonged the Civil War and cost America money and lives. He added up everything from lost ships to increased maritime insurance rates and presented Britain with a bill totalling an astronomical 125 million dollars.

Britain would not, and in fact simply could not pay. Its economy would be crushed. Plus it needed what money it had to build its defence in light of growing troubles in Europe. It reacted to what became known as the Alabama claims by playing the diplomatic game of deny and delay.

By 1871, Ulysses S. Grant had become president. Like Seward, Grant hated the roles Canada and Britain had played in the war. He told his cabinet, “If not for our debt, I wish Congress would declare war on Great Britain, then we could take Canada and wipe out her Commerce as she has done ours, then we would start fair.” Grant’s Secretary of State Hamilton Fish spoke with the British minister to Washington Edward Thornton. He said that Grant would waive the entire Alabama reparation payment if Britain would simply hand over Canada. Thornton said the Canadians would probably not like it but that he would inform his government. Shortly afterwards, a conference was convened to settle the matter. Grant was pleased and said that if Canada was annexed then the Alabama claims could be settled in five minutes.

Image President Grant

In February, 1871 five Americans, including Secretary of State Fish, welcomed five Brits to Washington. As a courtesy, the British allowed Sir John to be a part of their delegation. Macdonald knew that the future of his infant country was at stake. He took the proceedings so seriously that he even abstained from drink for the entire conference!

Macdonald maneuvered the agenda so that they began negotiating the American abuse of rules regarding inland fishing rights. It was an enormously important issue for Canada and he refused to budge an inch. But focussing on fishing was also a brilliant strategy for no matter how many other matters were raised Macdonald kept coming back to fishing. Every time anyone brought up the main question at hand – the Alabama claims – Macdonald talked to Fish about fish.

The Americans badgered him during the day. The British delegates badgered him every night. The Brits threatened him with a withdrawal of British military support. He was unmoved. They tried to bribe him with an appointment to Her Majesty’s Privy Council. He laughed them off. When cornered, Macdonald delayed by saying he needed to write home for advice. It was later discovered that his cables to the cabinet and governor general were being boomeranged back to Washington by Governor General Lisgar who had more loyalty to Britain than Canada. The backstabbing double-cross meant that British delegates knew exactly what Macdonald was doing and all of his fall back positions; but they could still not best him.

The conference ended after 9 weeks and 37 meetings. Macdonald won everything he had wanted. Fishing rights were settled in Canada’s favour. Because the Americans refused, Britain would pay Canada 4 million pounds in compensation for losses incurred in the Fenian Raids; Macdonald would use the money for railway construction. Free access to the American market for a number of Canadian products was guaranteed while Canadian tariffs could remain. Two concessions were more important than these and others. First, the Alabama claims would be settled by an international tribunal and it was agreed that the reparations for Canada swap was off the table. Second, it had been established that the ratification of the Washington Treaty would need approval by the American Congress, British parliament and by the Canadian parliament.

The Washington Treaty was the final battle of the American Civil War. It was the final episode of the American Manifest Destiny dream of Canadian annexation. Macdonald ensured that Canada could thrive because it would survive.

When he arrived back in Ottawa Macdonald delivered a four hour speech in the House. He did not strut. He did not gloat. Rather, he acted as a responsible statesman who respected Canadians sufficiently to explain what had been at stake and what had happened in all of its complex detail. He then went home and for the first time in over two months enjoyed a drink; perhaps more than one. He deserved it, he had saved his country, and that was quite a big deal.

A Canadian in the American Civil War: Sarah Emma Edmonds

The American Civil War continues to intrigue us because so many of the issues over which it was fought remain among us. Part of the fascination also springs from the horrible and heartwarming, the tragic and awe-inspiring stories of so many of the people involved. One such person was Sarah Emma Edmonds.

Edmonds was born to a poor New Brunswick farming family in 1841. When seventeen, her father ordered her to marry a man she had never met and who was nearly twice her age; she fled. A friend named Linus Seelye helped her escape by disguising her as a man. Besides adopting men’s clothing, she cut her hair, darkened her skin and changed her gait; she became Franklin Thompson. Edmonds was shocked by how differently she was suddenly treated. She was able to quickly find work and an apartment and to move about with a freedom she had never known. In her duplicitous but splendid liberation Edmonds was inadvertently illuminating women’s struggle and challenging the 19th century insistence that women couldn’t handle nor did they even want lives of self-sustaining independence.

After about a year, she did what many Maritimers and Canadians were then doing and moved to seek better opportunites in the United States. With an advance from a Boston publisher, she was soon back in the Maritimes selling Bibles. Her disguise had become so convincing that on a brief visit home she, for a while at least, even fooled her mother and sisters.

Image Sarah Emma Edmonds

Shortly after moving to Michigan for better commissions, Fort Sumter fell and America tumbled into war. Both sides called for recruits in what President Lincoln said was a crusade to save the Union while President Davis claimed to be leading a struggle to defend his country against a northern aggressor. Over 600,000 would die. An extrapolation of population figures means that it would be the equivalent today of over 6 million deaths. Edmonds could have easily missed the slaughter by returning home but instead she enlisted.

She became one of about 40,000 Canadians and Maritimers who donned the blue or gray. Some, like her, were already in the United States working when they signed up. Many others left what is now Canada to enlist in order to seek adventure or earn a little money or to offer themselves for a cause in which they believed. As the war dragged on and recruitment became tougher, many Canadians were cajoled, tricked, or drugged to fill Northern enlistment quotas. Many American recruiting agents, called crimpers, even kidnapped Canadian children from school yards.

Meanwhile, Edmonds, in her Franklin Thompson personae, became the 2nd Michigan’s field nurse. It was believed that women could not be exposed to battle’s gore or men’s bodies and so nearly all nurses at the time were male. Without anyone’s knowledge, Edmonds was again invalidating gender stereotypes.

At Bull Run, or Manassas if you were from the South, the war’s first major battle, Edmonds watched Union troops move smartly forward but then the tide turned. Her field hospital was overwhelmed. She helped saw limbs and patch wounds and then moved through the thundering din and whizzing minié balls to rescue bloodied young men, all moaning for water and their mothers.

Later, she was part of the ill-fated Peninsula Campaign that took the Union army within sight of Richmond’s church steeples. As a mail carrier and dispatch rider she was often alone and suffered the cold fear of capture and the white heat of enemy fire.

Seeking greater service, Edmonds volunteered to be a spy and undertook ten treacherous missions. She donned various disguises and once, ironically, slipped through enemy lines dressed as a woman. Between assignments she nursed or rode messages and, at the battle of Williamsburg, was handed a weapon and fought.

In Kentucky, Edmonds was felled by emotional trauma and malaria. Coughing, shivering and enduring nightmarish hallucinations, she remained sufficiently lucid to realize that she could not seek treatment without ending her ruse. She purchased a train ticket and fled. She limped into an Illinois hotel and two weeks later emerged wan and weak to find herself listed as a deserter. She purchased a dress and left the fugitive Franklin Thompson behind.

By this point, desperation was trumping discrimination and women were being accepted as nurses so Edmonds re-enlisted as herself. Like other Canadians who served, nearly all for the North, she had grown used to meeting other Canadians. Happenstance reunited her with her New Brunswick beau Linus Seelye. At the war’s end they were married.

Edmonds wrote a bestselling book entitled Nurse and Spy in the Union Army. It offered great detail but kept the fact of her gender switch from the reader. While some later criticized her for embellishing some tales, the book remains a tremendous account of adventure, courage and determination and a valuable resource for understanding the war from a soldier’s view.

At an 1884 regimental reunion, her Michigan comrades were shocked that the man they had known was a woman. They discussed the fact that because Thompson had been disgraced as a deserter that Edmonds could not receive a pension. Many of them wrote letters to Congress detailing her bravery and contributions. Eventually the President granted her an honourable discharge and her monthly stipend began. By that point, hundreds of pension cheques were also crossing the border into Canada and the Maritimes. Canadian bones were in Civil War cemeteries throughout the North and South and 29 Canadians had won the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Edmonds died in 1898 at the Texas home of her adopted son. She was buried with full military honours in a Houston cemetery. Her headstone reads, with typical Canadian modesty, “Emma E. Seelye, Army Nurse.”

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Sarah Emma Edmonds offered her life for a cause in which she believed and she served with élan. She proved that women were equal to men in will, courage, spirit and abilities. She represents the 40,000 other Canadians and Maritimers who offered themselves in a war that played an instrumental role in how and when Canada was born. Like the Civil War itself, Edmonds deserves to be remembered.

If you wish to discover more about Edmonds please check out Blood and Daring: How Canada Fought the American Civil War and Forged a Nation.