I recall my Canadian high school social studies teacher saying that the American threat formed the basis of national unity. Confederation, the forging of a national government from the British North American colonies, occurred in 1865 due to the threat of a U.S. invasion after its Civil War. This legacy of American encroachment, they told me, continued on to the present day by corporations, media, culture, consumerism, and others in a long list of negative influences. This made sense to the young me, who knew no better. I know now that this narrative is grossly flawed, misleading and downright insulting to my understanding of the Canada-U.S. relationship. The only plausible part is the menace posed after the American Civil War. The potential certainly existed for conflict. Had it occurred, Canada would have been erased from history. At the same time, it could not have happened for a variety of reasons. Since then, the two countries mended their differences and have become a model for international relationships. But it may not have been that way had the mighty United States armies turned their attention northward in 1865.
The end of the Civil War marked the best opportunity for an American attempt to conquer British North America. Previous attempts in 1775-1776 and 1812-1814 failed for two reasons. First, the terrain impaired movement between the northern colonies and the Eastern Seaboard. Long distances, forests, few rivers, and hostile Native American nations reduced mobility. Any army – British or American – would have encountered these difficulties. Anglo-American forces fought the French and Indians in this territory – modern New York and Pennsylvania – only with the help of friendly Natives, even then with difficulty. Americans found out at Quebec in 1775-76 the perils of the terrain. Their armies attacking the Niagara peninsula in 1812-13 exhausted themselves before reaching the area. The refusal of some state militias to deploy out of the country stemmed from their physical condition as well as political attitudes. The small numbers of British regulars and weak Canadian militia easily defeated them but progressed no further than the shores of the Great Lakes. The only practical route was the Hudson Valley and Lake Champlain corridor. The British found out twice that sufficient American resistance as at Saratoga in 1777 and Plattsburg in 1814 could stop any invasion attempt cold. It also led to the inability to reinforce western units at Detroit or Chicago. All this had changed by 1865. Railroads linked the coast and the major population centers north and south as well as east and west. Whole armies, tens of thousands strong, could mass and/or redeploy along the northern border quickly and easily. They would have had a much easier time waging war on the colonies than their predecessors had.
Second, the United States Army in 1865 differed from its forbearers. Hundreds of thousands of men served in it, the largest it had ever been up to that point and the largest it would be until the First World War. Sheer numbers alone could have crushed the British regulars and Canadian militia in that year. Any experience the former gleaned from its observations of the Civil War, or participation in the Crimea, the Indian Rebellion of 1857-1858, or China in 1860 would have been of limited value against an experienced, rapidly approaching foe. Yet the U.S. Army had also learned how to wage “hard war.” Stubborn rebel resistance compelled them to change tactics from winning secessionists back to their original allegiances into punishing the civilian population for supporting the Confederacy. In 1861 and1862 Union soldiers received orders to respect civilian property, including slaves. When this failed, indeed encouraged the rebels to continue fighting, commanders in the field adopted harsher measures. They destroyed anything that may aid Confederate resistance, including enlisting slaves as soldiers or laborers. The Army also demonstrated its ability to march through the heart of rebel territory with impunity, best exemplified by Sherman’s March to the Sea and Sheridan’s Shenandoah Valley campaign, both in 1864. Both, along with the loss of so many men, helped to destroy the Confederacy by April 1865. The Army would have employed the same tactics on the Canadian colonies as the best means to end the war rapidly. Had they invaded, they would have done up north what they had done down South.
Imagine if you will President Johnson, Secretary of War Stanton and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles ordering General Grant to redeploy the armies to the northern border. They mass by rail at Detroit, Buffalo, and Burlington, Vermont aiming for Canada West, the Niagara Region and Montreal, respectively. Another small army made of cavalry forms in Wisconsin with order to move overland on Manitoba. A fleet carrying more troops sails from Boston for Halifax. Another gathers at San Francisco to move on the West Coast. Opposing them are a few British regulars and some militia, no more than thirty thousand and of varying degrees of training. Ironically, they include Union Civil War veterans their ranks. The Detroit Army moves eastward, ripping up the recently completed Grand Trunk Railroad along the way as it heads for Toronto. As local forces move to block them, the Buffalo Army moves in first to capture them from behind along the Niagara front. The Burlington Army pins down resistance in the Montreal area, the largest population center in the Canadas at the time. The Wisconsin cavalry force seizes Winnipeg in an epic overland march that catches the defenders completely by surprise. The East Coast fleet blockades the Atlantic ports and captures its fortifications, much as the West Coast force does on the Pacific. In a few weeks, the remnants of British North America surrenders after giving limited resistance. At the resulting peace conference, the British sign their colonies over to the United States. The population must then decide whether to accept their new government or return to Europe.
None of this would ever happen. At war’s end, the British went to great lengths to repair relations with the United States. The tragic death of President Lincoln created great sympathy for them in Britain. Queen Victoria wrote a very nice handwritten letter of condolence to Mary Lincoln, approved by the cabinet. The resulting negotiations over damages caused by the raider Alabama and the subsequent Treaty of Washington helped mend a tortured state of affairs. The status of the Dominion of Canada was also secured for all time. Moreover, the United States Army all but disappeared within weeks after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Its half-million or so men returned to their homes and families. The Army deployed its few troops left standing to the South to aid with Reconstruction and the Freedman’s Bureau, to the West to fight the Indians and help white migration, and to seacoast forts. The only special force in being was an army deployed to Texas to deter the French then occupying Mexico. Therein lays one of the great ironies of the original Canadian narrative: the U.S. was more worried about the French to the south than the British to the north. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a circumstance in which the United States would have needed to attack Canada in the narrow time frame where both the need and the means existed for them to do so. Perhaps an unprovoked British attack on the Eastern Seaboard in 1865 could have convinced the Americans to act, but this is extremely unlikely.
In sum, the United States posed a real and serious threat to Canada in 1865. If unleashed, their troops would most certainly have won and wreaked the greatest ruin on their enemies. Railroads made it possible for them to move quickly and decisively at multiple points simultaneously in contrast to previous efforts. Their hard war policy and desire to end the matter quickly would undoubtedly have turned the tide against the British and Canadians. Yet the razor-thin window of opportunity and strong diplomacy prevented this from ever occurring. Certainly this was well known at the time. That it continues in the Canadian mindset stems from current concerns with living next to and being allied with the U.S. as a world superpower more than a realistic portrayal of the past. It confirms my belief that Canadians are as much purveyors of bad history as anyone. It is not healthy and must be corrected.