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Justice Under Pressure: The Saint Albans Raid and Its Aftermath.

The 1860s was a decade of change and turmoil in North America as Americans found themselves being forced apart in the tragic circumstances of a civil war while British North Americans contemplated the advantages and disadvantages of coming together in a political union based on economic and military need. The fear of a victorious northern army with guns pointed northward propelled two groups: British government officials, who wished to free themselves of costly defence expenditures; and reluctant colonial politicians, who came to believe that separate colonies were doomed to become part of the American republic. American Unionists, on the other hand, feared that the official stance of neutrality masked the true southern sympathies of the British government which would only be too pleased to see the destruction of the American continental empire. American, British, and British colonial fears came to the fore in October 1864 when two dozen Confederate raiders robbed and plundered the good citizens of Saint Albans, Vermont, and then sought refuge in the British colony of Canada. This is the focus of Dennis K. Wilson's study, Justice Under Pressure: The Saint Albans Raid and Its Aftermath.

Wilson correctly identifies the significance of this seemingly trivial event in a time when clashing northern and southern armies led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans: the Saint Albans raid resulted in a rapid deterioration in British and American relations and which could have led to war. Similarly, Wilson correctly identifies the scholarly lacunae by posing a series of questions: "what preceded the Raid? . . . What actually happened during the Raid? . . . How did the quality of the opposing lawyers and judges affect the outcome? . . . What affect did the forces within Canadian society have on events following the Raid? . . . How extensive was official corruption? . . . How effective was the Confederate organization in Canada in its support of the Raid? . . . What was the impact of the Raid on the diplomatic relationship between the United States and Great Britain? . . . Did the perceptions of high level United States officials (including the Secretary of State) come near to bringing about war between the Union and Great Britain?" (pp. xvi-xvii).

Commander Wilson, U.S.N. (retired), only partially succeeds in responding to these questions. Drawing from contemporary printed and non-printed sources, Wilson provides: useful insights into pre-raid Confederate activities north and south of the American-British border; a blow-by-blow account of the raid; and an in-depth analysis of the legal wrangling. The author is less successful in dealing with the wider repercussions of the raid. He makes an intriguing assertion that ethnic differences coloured the responses of the French, English, and Irish Canadians. Unfortunately, he fails to supply enough evidence to support this assertion. Nor is his analysis of the international situation convincing. Much of the difficulty lies with his failure to consult Montreal-based French-language newspapers such as le Pays and la Minerve. Even more problematic is the author's exclusive reliance on a high school picture book (Donald Swainson's Macdonald of Kingston, 1979) to buttress his claims about Canadian political life.

Equally irritating is the presence of numerous factual errors that one might expect from a first-year university essay: Sir John A. Macdonald's name is mis-spelled throughout (MacDonald); Sir John Abbott was Canada's third, not second, prime minister; John Rose was not a "Father of Confederation"; the French spelling of Quebec is Quebec, not Quebec; such English-language newspapers as the Montreal Gazette do not require an accent (Montreal Gazette); and Canada was not a country in any sense of the word until 1867 (p. 133).

This book makes a contribution to the historical literature of the raid. An editor with an adequate knowledge of Canadian history and the French language would have increased this book's value considerably.
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Author:De Brou, Dave
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 1993
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