Influence of the American Civil War

From 1861 to 1865 the United States was embroiled in an internal conflict that divided that country. This conflict also had an influence on the British North American colonies: continental and transatlantic trade was affected, and the battles taking place south of the border created tension across the entire continent. The following texts examine certain aspects of the influence of the Civil War on life in the British North American colonies. Because these colonies were on the verge of a political restructuring that would result in the creation of Canada, it is interesting to ask ourselves what role the American Civil War played in the process that led to Confederation in 1867.

Fear of annexation by the United States

Since 1850, William Seward, the American Secretary of State during the Civil War, had been an annexationist who felt that British North America(BNA) was destined to become part of the United States. As it became obvious that the North would emerge victorious there was a fear that American expansionism would rear its head and turn its eyes to the north.

In the Canadas and the Maritimes many thought that invading BNA would give the victorious Union army something to do. The possibility of annexation was even more real in the northwest of what is now Canada. In 1860 Seward praised the people of Rupert's Land for conquering the wilderness and creating a great state for the American Union.

In the election of 1864 the Republican Party used annexation as a means to gain support from Irish Americans and the land-hungry. In 1865-66 annexationism was a factor in the American abrogation of reciprocity. An annexation bill introduced by General Banks was passed in the United States House of Representatives in July of 1866. It intended that the United States acquire all of what is now Canada.

Whether based in reality or not, the fear of annexation played a definite role in the achievement of Canadian Confederation and in shaping its constitution. Seeing the horror of war that resulted from the divisiveness of American federalism, the Fathers of Confederation decided that Canada should have a stronger federal government than the one south of the border.

Secession first he would put down, Wholly and forever, And afterwards from Britain's crown, He Canada would sever.
(Yankee marching song sung to the tune of "Yankee Doodle" 1861).

Our American cousins in the North having had their waiting, whining and scolding time, have now come to the crowing, swelling and bullying time.
(Quebec Gazette, April 7, 1865).

If the opportunity [Confederation] which now presented itself were allowed to pass by unimproved, whether we would or would not, we would be forced into the American Union by violence, and if not by violence, would be placed upon an inclined plain which would carry us there insensibly.
(Hunter Rose, 1865, p.6, Sir É.-P. Taché, Premier, Lower Canada, February 3, 1865)

Raids and skirmishes

When the opening shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter in 1861 there began a period of crisis in the relations between British North America and the United States which was to last throughout the war and some years beyond.

While the reasons for the Confederation of Canada in 1867 are many and varied, the American Civil War gave dramatic impetus to the movement. During the war (1861-64), there were many peaks and valleys in the tension between the two countries. Among the moments of crisis were the Trent Affair (1861), the Chesapeake Incident (1863) and the St. Albans Raid (1864).

The Trent Affair

On November 8, 1861, the USS Jacinto, flouting international laws, stopped the British mail packet the Trent sailing from Havana to England and arrested two Confederate diplomats and their secretaries who were on a diplomatic mission to England. They were imprisoned in Boston. The British government demanded their release.

The affair caused a "profound sensation" in British North America as the Maritimes and Canada realized that they could become a battlefield in a potential Anglo-Northern war. The militia was called up. London announced that it would defend its colonies with all its power and sent 14 000 officers and men as reinforcements. On December 26, 1861 the prisoners were released and tension relaxed for the moment.


The Chesapeake incident

On December 7, 1863, a group of Confederates seized the ship Chesapeake making a run between New York and Portland. They reached British territorial waters near the coasts of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. They wanted to sell the ship's cargo in the Maritimes, buy arms and convert her into a privateer to attack the merchant ships of the North.

On December 16, in St. Margaret's Bay in Nova Scotia, two Northern warships captured the Chesapeake. Also, in British territorial waters, the Americans searched a little Nova Scotia boat, the Investigator, looking for fugitives. British neutrality had been violated by both the Confederates and the Northerners.

Although there were no serious consequences, the incident showed the British colonies that the South would try to use the Maritimes and Canada as a base for operations against the North.

The St. Albans Raid

On October 19, 1864, a group of Confederate agents, dressed in civilian clothes, robbed three banks in the village of St. Albans, Vermont. Their take was $200,000. On stolen horses, killing one American pursuer on the way, they fled across the Canadian border to Montréal.

The Canadian government arrested the raiders and returned the money but these actions did not calm the fears or reduce the anger of the Northern states who saw in it hostility to the Northern cause. American troops were ordered to pursue the raiders into Canada and wipe them out if necessary. If this had been done it would have violated Canadian neutrality and war could have resulted. President Lincoln revoked the order realizing that a Canadian-American conflict would only serve to help the South. Nevertheless it was rumoured that the United States would abrogate the Reciprocity Treaty in retaliation.

For a dramatic account see "The Latest from Quebec," Montreal Gazette, October 20, 1864.

See also "Late American Telegrams" on the raid from The Colonial Standard (Pictou, N.S.), October 25, 1864.



The blacks, anti-slavery and the underground railway

The Underground Railway was a network of safe houses and individuals who helped runaway slaves reach free states in the American North or Canada. It operated from about 1840 to 1860. It was most effective after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 which enabled slave hunters to pursue runaways onto free soil. It is estimated that about 30,000 Blacks reached Canada by the "railway." The best-known "conductor" was Harriet Tubman.

In 1858 the famous American abolitionist John Brown visited Canada. He chose Chatham, in Canada West, as a safe base from which to develop his strategy, draw up a constitution for his planned provisional government and drum up support for the abolitionist cause.

I'm on my way to Canada That cold and distant land, the dire effects of slavery, I can no longer stand - Farewell old master, don't come after me. I'm on my way to Canada where coloured men are free.
(A version of the song "The Free Slave," by the American abolitionist George W. Clark)

Here the slave found freedom. Before the United States Civil War 1861-65 Windsor was an important terminal of the Underground Railway. Escaping from bondage, thousands of fugitive slaves from the South, men women and children landing near this spot found in Canada friends, freedom, protection under the British flag.
(Historical plaque, Windsor, Ontario)

Canada is not merely a neighbor of negroes. Deep in our history of struggle for freedom Canada was the North Star.
(Martin Luther King, Jr., CBC Massey Lectures, 1967)

Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman was born a slave in Maryland in 1820. She escaped in 1849 and made at least 19 return trips to the South to guide fugitives to the Northern states and freedom. In 1850 the Fugitive Slave Act made it dangerous for runaways to remain in the North. Harriet made 11 trips to Canada leading more than 300 Underground Railway "passengers" to Canada. They moved only at night, sheltering in barns, chimneys and haystacks. She allowed no dropping out or turning back. She drew a pistol on one discouraged fugitive, saying, "Move or die." He and the rest of the group reached Canada in safety.

John Brown

At that meeting Brown outlined his plans to attack Harpers Ferry in West Virginia, arm his followers and march south to smash slavery. At further meetings in Chatham the "Provisional Constitution and Ordinances for the People of the United States" was adopted and officers were elected to serve in a provisional government.

One Canadian Black, Osborne Anderson, took part in the disastrous raid on Harpers Ferry. Of the 21 men who fought with Brown, 10 died, 6 escaped (of whom 5 reached Canada and freedom) and 5, including Brown, were later hanged. The Harpers Ferry raid made a big impression in Canada and many felt Brown was a hero.

Confederate operations in Canada

At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 Britain, and therefore British North America (BNA), declared neutrality. The North saw the proclamation as British support of the South even though the British viewed the South as belligerent. English diplomacy did little to defuse this perception. In the beginning BNA sympathies were generally anti-slavery and anti-secessionist.

However, as the war went on bringing economic difficulties, the fear of American attack and a perception that the North's main aim was not the abolition of slavery but the smashing of the South, attitudes changed. More and more people north of the frontier began to see a Southern victory as their best defence and guarantee of independence. There was a growing fear of annexation. The Trent affair and the Chesapeake incident served to heighten the tension between the North and BNA. Although both the North and the South had violated British neutrality, the overtly pro-South or at least increasingly anti-North sentiments in BNA made it an inviting base for Confederate agents.

Excerpts from confederate operations in Canada and New York

Captain Thomas Hines was the first Confederate officer chosen by Confederate president Jefferson Davis for service along the northern borders. An account written in the third person was published in the Southern Bivouac as follows:

"In March 1864, Mr. Davis determined to send into Northern territory some Confederate officers who should especially undertake to effect the release of Confederate prisoners. Hines was given authority to collect and organize, for the accomplishment of his mission, all of the Confederate soldiers then in Canada, most of whom were themselves escaped prisoners. He was to be in active command of any force so created, but was subsequently ordered to report to and receive general instructions from the commissioners who… reached Canada in May (1864)."

A report of some Confederate agents appointed for "special duty in Canada":

"The Queen's Hotel where we stopped fronted on Toronto Bay. It may be said we found Confederate headquarters here at this hotel… There was everything in the prospect at Toronto to make a sojourn enjoyable. The leading newspapers of Canada were published here and the South got a friendly comment on the course of events."

A report by Captain John Y. Beall whose attempt to rescue Confederate prisoners from Johnson's Island in Lake Erie failed. From a letter to the editor of a Canadian newspaper that had criticized his conduct:

"Immediately on my arrival in Canada I went to Colonel Thompson at Toronto… He informed me of a plan to take the "Michigan" (14 guns) and release the Confederate officers confined at Johnson's Island… We arranged our plans… I came to Windsor to collect men… On Monday morning we started… Off Kelley's Island I seized the "Philo Parsons"… When the "Island Queen" came up we took her… I then started to attack the "Michigan," when seventeen of my twenty men mutinied… This necessitated my turning back…"

In a further communication to a Canadian journal Captain Beall defends his conduct:

"Mr. Editor: You condemn the conduct of those who captured the two steamers on Lake Erie as infringing the laws of Canada… The United States is carrying on war on Lake Erie against the Confederate States… The Confederates clearly have the right to retaliate, provided they can do so without infringing your laws… This did not infringe your laws… This attack was matured and planned to be carried out in the United States; there was not a Canadian, or any man enlisted in Canada… No act of hostility was carried out on Canadian waters or soil…"

Lieutenant Young leads the St. Albans Raid:

"A profound sensation was created all over the United States and Canada on the morning of October 20, 1864. The papers published the particulars of a raid upon St. Albans, Vermont, by a band of Confederate soldiers. It appeared that the attack was made by a party under the command of Lieut. Bennet H. Young of Kentucky. The town had been fired upon, several citizens had been shot in the melee, and a large sum of money taken from three of the banks. The guerillas had been chased by the citizens… (at the border) The party at once donned their citizens' clothing… dispersed and proceeded on foot to Canada… Young and his comrades preferred to await their fate in the courts of Canada, since their extradition had been demanded by the Government of the United States."

Source: Confederate Operations in Canada and New York by John Headley, The Neale Publishing Company, 1906.

Some little-known stories

Some 40,000 to 50,000 Canadians are estimated to have taken part in the American Civil War. The following are some of their stories.

Newton Wolverton

When Newton Wolverton, born at Wolverton, Ontario, was 15 years old and working as a teamster in Washington, he presented a petition for peace to President Lincoln from a committee of Canadians at the time of the Trent affair. President Lincoln said to him:

"Mr. Wolverton, I want you to go back to your boys and tell them long as Abraham Lincoln is President, the United States of America will not declare war on Great Britain."

On July 20, 1861 Wolverton enlisted in the Northern army. He returned to join the Canadian militia to protect the border after the St. Albans Raid and during the Fenian War. He later became principal of Woodstock College and received an honorary doctorate from McMaster University in Hamilton.

Calixa Lavallée

Calixa Lavallée, the composer of O Canada, was born at Verchères, Quebec, in 1842. He left for the U.S. in 1857 and lived in Rhode Island where he enlisted in the Northern army. During and after the war he moved between Canada and the United States developing his career in music. He died in Boston in 1891 and his remains were brought to Montreal in 1933.

Jock Flemming

Jock Flemming was a Halifax harbour pilot in August 1864 when the Confederate commerce raider CSS Tallahassee visited port at the end of a run along the U.S. east coast. The ship needed fuel and repairs. Nova Scotia was a neutral colony and not involved in the U.S. Civil War, so after causing a minor diplomatic incident the Tallahassee was ordered out of port. Flemming piloted the warship out of harbour through the narrow, shallow and dangerous Eastern Passage so the captain could avoid the Northern warships rumored to be waiting outside. This feat of skilled harbour piloting made Flemming famous.

Sarah Emma Edmonds

Sarah Emma Edmonds of New Brunswick enlisted in the Union army under a man's name in 1861. Masquerading as a "he," she served as a nurse, spy and general's aide for two years. She fought in the cavalry at Antietam and went on to fight with the western armies until she became sick. She then lived in St. Louis, a city full of Confederate spies, whom she in turn spied upon for the North. She married and settled in the United States where her comrades-in-arms found out her true identity at a regimental reunion in 1884.

Jerry Cronan

Private Jerry Cronan died of wounds suffered in the Battle of Spotsylvania. He is the only Canadian Confederate who is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Shortly after he was buried it became a cemetery for Union soldiers. Private Cronan has a dual claim to fame, as a Canadian and as a Confederate buried among the victorious enemy.

Source: Anxious for a little war: the involvement of Canadians in the Civil War of the United States by Tom Brooks and Robert Trueman. Toronto: WWEC, c1993.

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