"Incident on the Picket Line", by Dave Geister,
used with permission of the artist
The United States Civil War, which was fought between the years 1861 and 1865, was the last major conflict on the North American continent. The war itself had many causes, many of which centered around States rights. Eleven southern states chose to leave the union, and formed their own government, the Confederate States of America, with Richmond, Virginia, as their capital. Jefferson Davis was elected Confederate President, and the army would come under the command of General Robert E. Lee, a Virginia born career army officer. At sea, Stephen Mallory was appointed as Secretary of the Confederate Navy, which would be responsible for the protection of southern ports, and assaults on northern shipping.
Sharing the North American continent with the United States means, for Canada, that almost everything that takes place south of the border has an effect on this country. The Civil War was no exception. As author Adam Mayers notes, Canadians and Americans have always shared time and place, and geography has forced us to share history as well. Canadian, as well as British, sympathies were divided during the Civil War, and Canadians played a role in the conflict before, during and after hostilities. Although exact numbers are unknown, and may never be fully known, thousands of Canadian men and women did cross the border, fighting for either the Union or Confederate forces. Four Canadian born men rose to the rank of general within the ranks of the Union Army, twenty-nine Canadians were awarded the Medal of Honor, and a Canadian born officer played a role in the capture of President Abraham Lincoln's assassin following the war.
With this page, I hope to tell the stories of the some of the men and women from Canada who played a role in the U.S. Civil War, as well as the story of places and incidents that shaped both nations during this turbulent time in North American history.
Canada and the Union
Because of the geographical proximity between Canada and the United States, many Canadians chose to enlist with the Union. Those who enlisted did so for various reasons, and came from all economic, political and social backgrounds. For some, it was the chance to leave behind a boring existence, and find adventure. One such man was Quebec's Reni Tremblay, who long desired to serve in the French Foreign Legion. While living in Rhode Island, Tremblay witnessed the heroes welcome returning soldiers received, and decided he, too, would serve in the U.S. Army. He had returned to Quebec by the time he was old enough to enlist, but walked to a recruiting station in New York State and signed up. Tremblay would see action with the 14th U.S. Infantry at several engagements, including the Battle of the Wildnerness. He later became a prisoner of war, and later commented that during the Civil War he "saw very little money or glory, but plenty of misery." Others were motivated by belief, while others, who had recently emigrated to Canada from the United States felt a loyalty to return and defend their homeland. Money was another motivating factor. Many Canadian men were out of work, and serving in the U.S. Army would provide them with pay, clothing and meals.
Private John Huff who was born in East Gwillimbury Township, near Toronto, was working as a carpenter when the war began south of the border. He crossed the Detroit River, and enlisted with the 5th Michigan Cavalry in the early days of the war. By 1864, Huff found himself in General Sherman's regiment, marching on the Confederate capital of Richmond. When the Union and Confederate forces clashed near the Yellow Tavern, north of Richmond, Private Huff is often credited with firing the shot that killed the great Confederate cavalry officer J.E.B. Stuart. Less than two weeks later, Huff himself was killed in action. Calixa Lavallee of Quebec joined the 4th Rhode Island Regiment as a musician, and was wounded at Antietam. Following his military service, he returned to a career as a composer in Canada, and composed the song that would become the country's national anthem in 1880. Canadians who left blue collar jobs to join the Union Army were not always men. Sarah Edmonds of New Brunswick, who was living in Flint, Michigan, at the beginning of the war cut off her hair, disguised herself as a man, and enlisted as a male nurse with the 2nd Michigan Volunteer Infantry. She tended to the wounded, helped bury the dead, conducted spy missions behind Confederate lines, and even picked up a rifle and fought in a few skirmishes. Years after the war, she published a book about her life as a Civil War nurse, and was buried with full military honours in Texas.
Many enlistees from Canada came from wealthy families, or left succesful businesses to join the United States military. Frederick Howe was the son of Joseph Howe, a well known and wealthy newspaperman and politician from Nova Scotia. The younger Howe served as a cavalry officer under General Sherman. Erastus Holt, a wealthy bookseller and businessman from Hamilton, Ontario, also served as a Union cavalry officer, as did Mark Downie, a bank executive from Chatham, New Brunswick. Doctor Anderson Ruffin Abbott, of Toronto, who became the first black physician in Canada at age 23, also volunteered to serve with the Union Army. He became one of only eight black doctors to serve in the army, and following the war, was a personal physician to President Lincoln before returning to Canada and a successful medical practice. William Winer Cooke, of Brantford, served in the United States Cavalry as an officer, seeing action at the Battle of the Wildnerness, and Petersburg. His fame, however, came after the war, when he died with General Custer at the Little Big Horn.
Colonel Arthur Rankin, a Canadian militia officer living in Windsor, Ontario, raised an entire regiment to support the Union. Known as "Rankin's Lancers", his volunteer cavalrymen were equipped and uniformed in the style of European lancers. He had tried to raise a similar regiment years earlier, to serve in the Crimean War, and this time set a recruitment goal of 1,600 men, many of whom would have British military experience. Although his plan was approved by President Lincoln, and he was awarded a commission in the United States Army, Rankin was arrested and tried for violation of the Foreign Enlistment Act. Although he was acquited, his Lancers were disbanded without ever seeing service in the Civil War.
Canada and the Confederacy
Monument to Solomon Secord, Kincardine, Ontario,
Photo by J. Gray, 2009
While many of the Canadians who served in the Civil War did so on the side of the Union, there was also a lot of support for the Confederacy in Canada. Fearing another war with the United States, Great Britain supported the idea of the country dividing in half, which would keep it less powerful. Colonel Garnet Wolseley argued that the Confederate States should be granted diplomatic status by Britain, and a large number of Confederate officers travelled to Montreal, where they established a headquarters in the city's St. Lawrence Hall hotel. John Wilkes Booth, actor and later assassin of President Lincoln, is known to have stayed at the hotel on several occassions, and many of the Confederate officers were popular with the townspeople. Throughout Montreal, other Confederate soldiers, spies and escaped prisoners resided in boarding houses.
Many Canadians, both rich and poor, also chose to serve with the Confederacy. Doctor Solomon Secord, the nephew of War of 1812 heroine Laura Secord, was a country physician in Kincardine, on the shores of Lake Huron, when the war erupted. He joined the 20th Georgia Volunteers as a field surgeon, where he was captured after seeing action at Gettysburg. Escaping from the Prisoner of War camp, Doctor Secord returned to Canada, where he continued to practice medicine. Secord was so well respected in Kincardine that, following his death, a monument was erected in his honour by the townspeople. It remains the only monunment in Canada dedicated to a U.S. Civil War veteran. John Lang Bray, also a surgeon, left his home in Kingston, Ontario, to serve with the Confederacy. He, too, returned to medicine in Canada after the war, eventually becoming President of the Canadian Medical Association. Major David Bridgford, a wealthy shipping executive and son of the Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada served as a cavalry officer with the 1st Virginia Battalion. Many French Canadians were also living and farming in Louisiana at the outbreak of the war, and large numbers enlisted with the 10th Louisiana Infantry. The regiment had so many foreign born soldiers within its ranks that it was nicknamed "Lee's Foreign Legion". One of these men, Private Jerry Cronan, was killed at Spotsylvania and holds the distinction of being the only Canadian born Confederate soldier interred at Arlington National Cemetery.
A controversial incident occured in October, 1864, when a band of Confederate officers, under the command of Lieutenant Bennett Young launched a raid on the banks of St. Albans, Vermont from Canadian soil. Three banks were simultaneously robbed in the town, and some damage occurred when the raiders attempted to set buildings on fire. They were pursued by Captain George Conger, a Vermont infantry officer, who led a posse that arrested many of the men in Quebec. The posse was prevented from returning Bennett and his men to the United States by the intervention of a British army officer, who had them jailed in Montreal, awaiting the outcome of an extradition hearing. At trial, the defence claimed that the men were acting as soldiers, attacking the commerce of their enemy. Lieutenant Young insisted that he and his men were in Confederate uniforms on the day of the robberies, and the operation was a military assault. The United States government claimed the men were not in uniform, and the robberies were nothing more than the actions of criminals. They demanded that the Confederates be returned to Vermont for trial. The judge declared that he did not have the authority to order the men deported, and since no crime had been committed against Canada, they were free to go. The Montreal police chief further had the stolen money returned to Bennett and his men. The whole incident enraged the United States government to the point threats of war against Canada were made, and the British began readying troops to sail to Canada. The raiders were re-arrested, and charged with violation of Canada's neutrality laws in front of a new judge. By the time the matter reached the court, the war had ended, and the U.S. government lost interest in pursuing the matter. Bennett Young remained in Canada for several years after the war, before returning to Kentucky where he eventually became a lawyer and then a judge.