Sunday, January 4, 2015

Review: Blood and Daring: How Canada Fought the American Civil War and Forged a Nation. By John Boyko.

Review: Blood and Daring: How Canada Fought the American Civil War and Forged a Nation. By John Boyko.  Toronto: Knopf Canada, 2013.  Pp. 355.

The story of how the American Civil War brought the British North American colonies to form the Dominion of Canada is well known.  Every Canadian history textbook covers the issue, as do previous specialist works by Robin Winks in 1960 and Greg Marquis fifteen years ago.  With the 150th anniversaries of both the end of the Civil War and of Confederation soon approaching, the need for a new work on Canada during this turbulent period would help both fields.  John Boyko, a school administrator and author of five previous books, produced this book for that purpose.  The result, however, is a major disappointment.  The author contributes nothing new to the scholarship.  Even if he intended it for the popular market, flaws in research, analysis and writing reduce its value considerably. 
My first thought after reading this book is “where’s the blood and where’s the daring”?  Neither exists in this book.  Instead, he attempts to use the stories of six contemporary figures to prove a tenuous thesis about how the conflict mobilized the British North Americans to set aside their differences and form a new identity in the Dominion of Canada in 1867.  Poor research prevents him from achieving this goal.  Boyko uses the first case, escaped slave John Anderson to prove that Canadians opposed pressure from Britain and the United states by freeing him.  He neglected to mention the increasing resistance in the northern states to the institution after the Compromise of 1850, such as the Christiana Riots and Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  Boyko aimed to show William Henry Seward as a rabid expansionist whom Canadians stopped in the Trent Affair, but the supposed villain barely appears in the chapter.  Sarah Edmonds stands in for the forty thousand or so colonists who served in the Civil War, but perhaps due to the spotty nature of the evidence, little is learned about their experiences. 
Research problems mar the remaining three chapters in ways that undermine Boyko’s thesis.  He based the book on a shallow base of including handful of Canadian archives and only U.S. printed sources.  The section on spies, as represented by Jacob Thompson of Mississippi, shows how Canadians escalated wartime tensions by aiding the rebellion, instead of being a victim.  George Brown, the Horace Greeley of Canada, portends to show how the Confederation process began amid the war’s tense last two years.  Boyko concludes with John A. MacDonald, who guided the new nation towards its new status amid Fenian Raids and annexationist fears.  He quotes Canadian leaders at length about the American threat, but contradicts himself by saying how U.S. officials rounded up the Irish invaders after the raid (p. 273) and demobilized the mighty Union Army after the war (p. 290).  These inconsistencies not only disprove his thesis, but distract the reader.  There is not much blood or daring in this book.
Writing issues compound throughout this mess.  The Civil War appears mostly as narrative in each chapter, save for the first which has no context at all.  Boyko skips over the major events of the four year conflict with celerity.  One suspects that he knew little about the subject before he started.  His handling of Confederation is likewise thin.  This book ends on a low note, with Boyko citing how Confederation yielded a “unique centralized parliamentary democracy governing a bilingual, multicultural, tolerant country with too much democracy and too few people, was underway” (p. 304).  The partisan nature of this statement needs no further commentary.  Amateurishly researched and weakly written, Blood and Daring offers nothing to scholars and little to the general public.  Its sole purpose is to capitalize on the sesquicentennials of the Civil War and Confederation.                  

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