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Canadians in the U.S. Civil War: although it was an American tragedy, the Civil War was a defining moment in Canada's history. Fear of invasion and the political fallout of the war were the catalysts to Confederation.

There has been nothing like it on American soil before or since. A devastating confrontation that threatened to tear the United States apart, the Civil War pitted brother against brother, family against family, and state against state. The names of its great battles resonate still: Antietam, Chickamauga, the Five Forks, Gettysburg, Shiloh, Vicksburg, and the Wilderness. So, too, do the names of the generals: Grant and Lee, Sherman and Longstreet, Sheridan, Forrest, Jeb Stuart, and Stonewall Jackson. Above all, the name of Abraham Lincoln lives on, the tragic president who became a victim of the war. Before it came to an end at a courthouse at Appomattox in 1865, more than a million of America's young men had been killed or wounded, entire cities and once-productive farmlands lay in ruins, and a way of life had vanished forever.

Although it was an American tragedy, the Civil War was a defining moment in Canada's history. Tens of thousands of Canadians fought in the war, caught up in what they saw as the romance and excitement of it all, or attracted by generous signing bonuses offered by Northern recruiters. At least 5,000 died, and thousands more returned home wounded in body and spirit. The war also marked the initial influx of draft dodgers--"skedaddlers" as they were called then. Of the 776,000 men drafted into the Union army, 161,000 "failed to report," many of them fleeing to Canada. They joined the approximately 30,000 escaped slaves who had come by the Underground Railroad to a Canada they saw as Canaan, the Promised Land.

When the war began in 1860, most Canadians were overtly sympathetic to the North. Slavery in the South was seen as an abomination and geographical proximity to the border states inevitably led to trade and close personal and family ties, as Canadians and Americans travelled freely back and forth across the border. As the war went on, however, Canadian sympathies underwent a dramatic transformation, as relations between Britain and the United States deteriorated and Canada was threatened with invasion. In the Maritimes, where blockade running continued to supply the South with munitions and material, Southern sympathies were soon running so high that many businesses openly flew Confederate flags and traded in Confederate currency. Conservative newspapers in the Canadas became increasingly critical of the North and many were openly pro-Southern. In the last year of the war, as the tide turned against the South, Southern leaders found Canada a convenient base of operations. Spies and saboteurs crossed the border to raid and loot. One group attempted to firebomb hotels and public buildings in New York City, while another sacked the town of St. Albans, Vermont. None of these forays were particularly successful, but they angered the North and fueled a movement to annex Canada. Fear of invasion, and the economic and political fallout of the war, were the catalysts to Confederation.

Britain's attitude towards the war was summed up in a ditty published in Punch:
 Though with the North we sympathize
 It must not be forgotten
 That with the South we've stronger ties
 Which are composed of cotton.

Although Britain was officially neutral, the mercantile and upper classes--like those in Canada--echoed Lord Palmerston's complaint that the Americans were "the most disagreeable fellows to have to do with." Lincoln's election in 1860 spurred hopes that this entirely unpleasant country might disappear, leaving behind the "gentlemanly" and cotton-rich Southern planters. The middle class, as deeply moved by Harriet Beecher Stowe's immensely popular anti-slavery polemic Uncle Tom's Cabin as most Canadians were, tended to favour the North. Canadians, however, could express their preference in a very tangible way--by enlisting in the Union armies, which more than 40,000 eventually did.

Britain's unofficial attitude towards the United States was reflected in its foreign policy which almost led to war in 1861. On November 8, less than a year after the Confederates opened fire on Fort Sumter, an American warship, the San Jacinto, stopped the British mail packet Trent in the Gulf of Mexico and arrested two Confederate agents on their way to Europe on a diplomatic mission. They were imprisoned in Boston, and the British, outraged at this supposed breach of international law, demanded redress. "I don't know whether you are going to stand for this," Palmerston thundered at a cabinet meeting, "but I'll be damned if I do!" Palmerston demanded an apology and the release of the Confederate agents. In the meantime, he dispatched 14,000 troops to Canada. Lord Newcastle, the colonial secretary, wrote to Governor General Charles Stanley Monck: "You must have heard of the affair of the Trent and the serious implications which it must produce. I am bound to warn you that war is too likely to be the result ... Every preparation should be made to defend Canada from invasion."

Some Americans welcomed the prospects of war. "In the event of England in her folly, declaring war on against the United States," the New York Herald proclaimed, "the annexation of the British North American possessions will unavoidably follow. We could pour 150,000 troops into Canada in a week, and overrun the province in three weeks more. In this invasion, we should be aided by a large portion of the inhabitants, two-thirds of whom arc in favour of annexation with the United States."

This was indeed news to most Canadians. "I do not believe it is our destiny to be engulfed into a Republican Union," Thomas D'Arcy McGee wrote. "We can hardly join the Americans on our own terms and we never ought to join them on theirs. A Canadian nationality, not French-Canadian, nor British-Columbian, nor Irish-Canadian--patriotism rejects the prefix--is, in my opinion, what we should look forward to--and that is what we ought to labour for, that is what we ought to be prepared to defend to the death."

Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed. In Washington, U.S. Secretary of War William Seward grudgingly apologized for the Trent affair and the Confederate commissioners were released. Seward even went as far as inviting the troops Palmerston had dispatched to land at Portland, Maine, from which they could take the British-owned Grand Trunk Railway to Canada. Palmerston would have none of it, however, and insisted on marching them up the Tamicousta Road, the winter trail through New Brunswick which ran from Fredericton to Quebec City.

Unfortunately, as the threat of invasion receded, garrison towns in Canada themselves became battlegrounds for bored soldiers and resentful locals. In towns throughout Upper Canada, public buildings were taken over for barracks and rents doubled. In Halifax, an argument over who had won a greasy-pole climbing contest at a fall fair erupted into a gang fight between soldiers and civilians. Drunkenness and prostitution were widespread. So, too, was desertion, as disgruntled soldiers found their way across the border to enlist in the Union armies.

A militia bill was introduced in the Canadian legislature in 1862, prodded by Governor General Monck and supported by the Macdonald-Cartier coalition. A parliamentary commission reported that the Canadas needed an active militia of 50,000 and a reserve force of a similar size. The active force, consisting of the existing volunteers as well as men selected by ballot from the Sedentary Militia, was to drill for 14 to 28 days a year. Committees met to formulate plans for fortifications and one hundred thousand rifles were ordered from Britain. However, Macdonald knew that there was little support for the bill and repeatedly delayed it. He finally introduced the bill with a disjointed speech, then disappeared. "Mr. J.A. Macdonald," Monck observed dryly, "was prevented from attending his place in the House during the whole of last week, nominally by illness but really as everyone knows, by drunkenness."

The bill was defeated after 15 French-speaking members from Lower Canada defected and Macdonald's government resigned. A.A. Dorien, the leader of the opposition Rouges, argued that French-Canadian boys would be torn from their farms to fight in Britain's wars, while George Brown saw no reason that "Canada should provide entirely for her defence when she is not the author of the quarrels against the consequences of which she is called to stand upon her guard." There were many reasons for the defeat of the defence bill, but not for the first time or the last Canadians had refused to accept responsibility for their own defence.

There was outrage in London. "Canada," The Times said, "has learned to trust others for the performance of services for which weaker and less wealthy populations are wont to rely exclusively on themselves." The Spectator was more succinct. "It is, perhaps, our duty to defend the Empire at all hazards," an editorial read, "it is no part of it to defend men who will not defend themselves,"

A succession of Confederate-inspired incidents along the border, culminating in the St. Albans raid in 1864 and the foolish release of the raiders by a Canadian court heightened tensions. A Union general ordered "all military commanders to cross the boundary into Canada and pursue the rebels wherever they take refuge." President Lincoln revoked the order, but immediately terminated the Reciprocity Treaty and threatened to place gunboats on the Great Lakes and Lake Champlain in violation of the Rush-Bagot Agreement of 1817. For the first time, Canadians were required to produce passports to enter the United States.

Tension along the border hurried Canadian politicians to Charlottetown to promote the idea of Confederation. A host of reasons backed the idea: political deadlock in the Canadas, the dream of western expansion, gaining credits to build railways, even personal ambitions. But every problem was linked to the fear of war and invasion. To protect itself, British North America would have to be united.

"War or no war, the necessity of placing these provinces in a thorough state of defence can no longer be postponed," George Brown said as he boarded the Queen Victoria for the journey to Charlottetown. "And we can do this efficiently and economically by the union now proposed."

Macdonald, Cartier, Alexander Gait, and D'Arcy McGee were also aboard the steamer Queen Victoria. "We had great fun coming down the St. Lawrence," Brown wrote, "having fine weather, a broad awning to recline under, excellent stores of all kinds, an exceptionable cook, lots of books, chessboards, backgammon and so forth." They occupied themselves by discussing the proposed union and refining their arguments. On board was $13,000 worth of champagne.
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Author:Twatio, Bill
Publication:Esprit de Corps
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2006
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