Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Why the Civil War matters to Canadians.

Someone asked me the other day why the Civil War matters to Canadians.  I had to ponder why this question would be posed.  To me, it is as simple as it gets.  Confederation in 1867 would not have occurred when it did and in the form it took without the Civil War.  The books by Robin Winks and Greg Marquis have made this case beyond reproach.  Yet, despite the qualities of those books, neither appears to have had much effect on Canadian historiography - most definitely in the public realm.  This is, I think, a mistake.  The Civil War was as important to Canadian history as the War of 1812.  

Much of this comes from the perils of writing a 'national' history - crafting a narrative that unites and reassures disparate members of the country.  It seems to me that Canadians have tried to purge any semblance of U.S. influence over the nation’s development, and limit that of the British or French.   The Civil War merits barely a few sentences in textbooks as a causal factor behind Confederation.  While this is true, it is hardly a fair representation.  Such a narrative makes it appear as if the war forced the Canadian population together in fear of a U.S. invasion.  This omits the divided opinion within the colonies on the war, actions in support of both sides, the role of the British government at the time trying hard – and successfully – to avoid greater conflict, as well as the controversial Confederation process itself.  It ties in with the dominant meta-narrative that Canadians appear to have that the U.S. is out to get them.  That the two countries have had extensive interconnections before, during and since the 1860s has failed to budge this idea. 

However, this desire for a ‘national’ history is no excuse for a bad one.  It was impossible for anyone in North America to escape the effects of the largest and costliest war ever fought in this continent.  No one in the United States did, and works on Mexico, the Bahamas, Cuba, the Caribbean, Britain, France, Japan, China, Russia or South Africa testify to its worldwide impact.  Canada felt its effects, and made its effect felt, more than any of these.  I’d like to point out several of these effects:

1)     Somewhere between 18,000 and 50,000 British North Americans served as soldiers, sailors or marines in the Civil War.  Winks and Marquis debate the numbers, but even the low estimate indicates that more British North Americans fought in the Civil War than any other nationality, and even some states.  They also believe that most supported the Union cause rather than the Confederacy.  Many more may have journeyed south to work in factories or on farms in the U.S.  We probably will never know how many made either trip.  It is hard to define or identify them since travel was so common place then.   One of those who fought was Calixa Lavellée, the composer of the music to “O Canada.”  A musician with the 4th Rhode Island Volunteers, he was wounded at the Battle of Antietam in September 1862.

2)     Many of these former servicemen returned to Canada or travelled north after the war and established veterans’ association.  The Grand Army of the Republic had eight branches in Canada, four in Ontario, three in Quebec and one in Manitoba.  This was the second such group in Canada, following the Army and Navy Association of British veterans.  The G.A.R.’s impact on Canada remains unknown.

3)     Little is known about the economic support the colonies gave to the U.S. during this conflict, which Canada has done from the First World War up to the Iraq War.  If British neutrality laws did not impair exports, this could have been a major asset to Lincoln.  It is known that an influx of deserters and draft evaders, as many as 20,000, lowered wages in Canada during the war.

4)     The pro-Confederate actions committed by Canadians to impair the U.S. war effort, such as the St. Alban’s Raid, the seizure of the S.S. Chesapeake, and the escape of the C.S.S. Tallahassee, are omitted.  These acts challenge the idea that Canada was a passive actor in the war.  They contributed to legitimate U.S. concerns about their northern frontier.  Fortunately, they saw a greater menace from the French in Mexico than the British in Canada.  The Treaty of Washington resolved these issues for all time. 

5)     Canadians like to take pride in their role in the Underground Railroad, the last stop on the fabled escape route for the enslaved.  This, however, is only half of the story.  Most left after the war, partly because of the promises of racial equality under Reconstruction, and of hostility in Canada.  If the estimated 30,000 to 100,000 African Americans had stayed, its history would have been changed.  Racially exclusive immigration laws kept the black population of Canada would remain below 20,000 until the 1960s.  Had they remained, Canadian race relations could have been very different.  In areas where blacks lived in numbers, such as Nova Scotia or New Brunswick, they faced all the trappings of segregation and marginalization more commonly found in the former Confederacy, and well into the Twentieth Century.

6)     For all the resentment of the U.S. and its system of government, Canada’s constitution resembled theirs in many ways.  First, the fact that they had a constitution.  Second, the federal system which was unknown anywhere in the British Empire at the time – copied in 1901 by Australia.  Canada modified the division of powers to keep authority centralized rather than devolved, a slight contrast with that of the U.S. 

So, here are six reasons why the Civil War matters to Canadians.  The people, more than their leaders, participated in the conflict in a myriad of ways.  Sometimes they supported the U.S., while opposing them at other times.  It was a major event in their history.  If the War of 1812 ensured that the northern part of North America would remain in British hands, the Civil War defined its style of government, its mixed approach to its southern neighbor and, finally, its racial makeup.  More work is definitely needed on this topic.  


  1. A word of dissent. Ireland and Germany each contributed more than 150,000 soldiers to the Union army.

    I am writing a series on immigrants in the Civil War. Can you point me to web resources on Canadian participation?

    Are there any good websites on fugitive slave communities or experiences in Canada?

    Thanks. I enjoy reading your blog.

  2. Hi Pat, sorry for the delay in posting your comment. It's been a busy day.

    I see your point, but I'd ask for clarification: how many of those Irish and German soldiers come from their home countries to the U.S. to fight in the Civil War, or were they already in the country?

    British North Americans may have done both. No one knows how many BNA served in the Civil War. Winks and Marquis both said that the project is impossible since defining who counts as "Canadian" is extremely difficult. It is hard to separate them from the mainstream of American society. So many would have been born in Britain, Ireland or Europe. Not even being born in Canada qualifies - General Jacob D. Cox was born in Montreal to visiting American parents but left as an infant.

    I'm sure there are some sites out there. Here's a re-enactment: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BCx3Xkn9Wuc

  3. Tough to disentangle those nationalities. Peter Welsh, whose letters are cited by everyone from McPherson to Gallegher as the quintessential Irish Brigade Unionist, was born in Canada!

    Thanks for the link.

  4. A nice post! I am working on telling more about how the Underground Railroad experience did not end in Canada, happily ever after, but was a global search by African North Americans for rights and opportunities; see the start of it here -- http://blackpast.org/?q=perspectives/after-underground-railroad-finding-african-north-americans-who-returned-canada


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