John Boyko. Blood and Daring: How Canada Fought the American Civil War and Forged a Nation. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013. ISBN 978-0-307-36144-8
The title of this book, in its first part, is a tad grandiose, and in the second part, rather inflated in the sense that popular histories today seem required to have titles such as “How The Irish Saved Civilization” or “How the Germans Saved Sausage”. However, for a popular history, it’s a very good account of how Canada’s path to becoming a modern nation state, practically if not ceremonially independent of Great Britain, led through the years of the American Civil War.
When I was active in American Civil War reenacting, I was with an Ontario-based group, and when we staged events or “living histories” on our side of the US border, we would always tell slightly mystified spectators that a great many Canadians served in the Civil War. Roughly forthy thousand did, most in the Northern army, though perhaps 1 in 50 found their way to Confederate service. The stories of some of these Canadians are told here as points of reference in a larger story. They include soldiers and medical workers, including one woman, a New Brunswick farm girl, Sarah Edmonds, who managed to be both, serving in disguise as a man before becoming an undisguised women nurse later in the war.
What I didn’t really know was how porous the Canadian border was during the war and in the years leading up to it. Fugitive slaves and their pursuers often crossed the border, and in the case of one fugitive, John Anderson, were pursued even into Canada’s courts. Anderson’s case, which was about whether Canada as a British colony was obliged to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law (Anderson’s abolitionist supports thought not, while conservative lawmakers felt that Anderson, who had killed a white man in his flight, should be returned as a murderer). Anderson’s case eventually made it to the British cabinet in London, and did much to provoke impatience with what was perceived as British interference in Canadian courts. Anderson was freed on a technicality and was put on the touring circuit by abolitionist groups, but by then the war had started and the issue of fugitive slaves was moot.
While many Canadians disliked slavery, they were ambivalent or even hostile to the US government that was opposed to the southern slave state. Canadians remembered American invasions of Canada in 1776 and 1812, and attributed the rebellions of 1837 to US agitation and republican sentiments, which were seen as hostile to good government and order. Lincoln’s secretary of state, the “cigar chomping” William Seward, “an unapologetic supported or Manifest Destiny”, had made no secret that he wanted to see Canada become part of the United States. Canadians distrusted him, and for good reason. Britain’s sympathies were with the south, even though the Empire was neutral, and Canadians knew that if Britain entered the war on behalf of the Confederacy, it would be a bad day for Canada. The Canadian border had not been strengthened since the War of 1812 ended. Impressive defences, like Kingston’s Fort Henry, were not yet in existence. Only 4300 British redcoats were scattered between what is today Ontario (Canada West), Quebec (Canada East), and Nova Scotia, and they were often prone to desertion to the US. Canada’s militia was poorly trained and equipped.
From the Canadian election of 1861, which largely focused on fears of American republicanism, is part of Boyko’s story of how, through the Civil War years, Canada realized that it needed to come together politically in the face of a perceived American threat. Quite often that threat seemed very real. In November 1861, a US warship stopped a British ship, the Trent, and forcibly arrested two Confederate diplomats on their way to England. The Trent affair, as it was known, came within days of bringing the US and Britain to war. Viscount Monck, Britain’s governor general in Canada, along with Canadian leaders like John A. MacDonald, realized how open Canada would be to a US invasion. MacDonald added another 7500 men to the 38,556 armed and trained militia, while Monck asked for more troops from Britain. Around Christmas, 11,000 British soldiers, some eleven infantry battalions, arrived in Canadian ports like Halifax. The only problem was that, in the dead of winter, with no railroad between Atlantic Canada and Canada East and West, these troops would only have been able to defend Nova Scotia had war broken out. Some were moved by sleigh, which could not have been pleasant. The situation was so absurd that the British command staff arrived in January 5, 1862, and then, unable to move up the frozen St. Lawrence, went in disguise via mail ship to Boston, and bought rail tickets for Montreal. Fortunately for them and for Canada, Lincoln had already decided that one war at a time was enough.
For the rest of the war, the border remained porous. Confederate spies crossed freely, and hatched elaborate plots to sabotage Northern cities and free POWs for northern camps. American recruiters, some no more than press gangs, came north to recruit or even kidnap Canadians to meet recruiting quotas and profit from the bounty system. Some Canadians sympathetic to the south tried to arrange for weapons and even ships to be procured, which did not improve relations with Seward. Tempers flared when the US threatened to send troops into Canada to arrest Confederate agents. Confederates came north to exile at the war’s end. With the peace, many militant Irish Americans turned their sights on Canada, while in the bitter tone following Lincoln’s death, many in the US Congress took a harsh line to Canada, which was seen as being soft on Confederate terrorism. US President Johnson reeled the Fenians back in after their abortive invasion in 1866, but he needed Irish American political support and it was unclear if he would stop the Fenians a second time, particularly given resentment about the status of Fenian captives in Canadian courts. At the same time, Britain was getting tired of costly demands from Canada for troops and defences. In 1866, Benjamin Disraeli, one of the Little England party which was not keen on Empire, argued in cabinet that “If the colonists can’t, as a general rule, defend themselves against the Fenians, they can do nothing … what is the use of these colonial dead weights which we do not govern."
All of these threats and pressures were behind moves led by John A. MacDonald and his allies for Confederation, which brought disparate British colonies together in a political union. Until that union existed, Boyko argues, “MacDonald understood that Canada was still more an idea than a fact”. That union, the British North America Act, signed by Queen Victoria on March 29, 1867, became fact the same day that President Johnson signed the treaty buying Alaska from Russia. That purchase, and fears of annexation in the west, drove British Columbia to want in to Canada, made it possible for MacDonald to borrow 300,000 pounds from England to buy Rupert’s Land (everything from the Great Lakes west to the Rockies and north to the Arctic) from the Hudson’s Bay Company, and led to the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway and the creation of Canada. While the Grant Administration was no friend of Canada, it signed the Washington treaty of 1871, effectively ending any claims on Canada and Britain for its support of the Confederacy and essentially recognizing Canada’s right to exist.
John Boyko is a college administrator rather than a professional academic historian, but he knows his subject well, writes well, and tells an exciting and coherent story, making this an excellent example of the popular history. It may not be of great interest to non-Canadians, except as a minor footnote to the American Civil War, but it tells an important part of the story of how Canada came to be, which Canadians often, unfortunately, think of as being rather dull. The interlacing of this larger account by following figures such as Sarah Edmonds, while not essential to the plot, reminds us that there were real people, moved by great events, who wanted to be a part of someone else’s war. In that respect, they anticipate the journeys, if not always the motives, of later Canadians, like those who went to Spain in the 1930s, to Vietnam in the 1960s, and even to the various fields of jihad today.