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Canadians Serving in the Civil War

By Norman Shannon
11/21/2018 • America's Civil War Magazine

Stewart Taylor, recalled a contemporary, had put his “heart and soul in the anti-slavery cause. An excellent debater and very fond of studying history, he stayed at home, in Canada, for the winter of 1858-59,and then went to Chicago,thence to Bloomington, Illinois, and thence to Harpers Ferry [West Virginia]. He was a very good…[stenographer], rapid and accurate. He was overcome with distress when,getting out of communication with the John Brown movement,he thought for a time that he was to be left out.”

Taylor was not left out. In October 1859,Taylor, from Uxbridge, in what is now Ontario, was killed while taking part in John Brown’s raid on the U.S. armory at Harpers Ferry. He was one of three Canadians,or British North Americans, in Brown’s small party, and could be considered the first from Canada to die in the troubles related to the Civil War. He would not be the last.

When the Civil War commenced, Canada was still six years away from nationhood, and its 3.3 million citizens therein called Canadians were officially British North Americans.For two decades the Underground Railroad had had links to Canada,and by 1860 more than 30,000 people of color were living north of the border.

More than 40,000 Canadians joined 250 Union and 50 Confederate regiments,and there is no simple answer as to why they did so. Slavery might have been a factor, and the Underground Railroad ended in Canada, but it could not be the only reason. After all, the war was into its third year before President Abraham Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation,and blacks were not accepted for military service in the Union Army until 1863. Furthermore, as some Canadians supported the Confederacy,it is possible some simply participated in the war because they had become bored with farming and sought adventure.

Nova Scotian seamen became prominent in the Northern forces because of their seafaring skills, and conscription in the North permitted a Union draftee to call upon a Canadian hired gun to do his military service. Conscription in 1863 brought a total of only 807 enlistments from Maine residents,but more than 1,600 Canadians signed on as substitutes for about $700 per person.

Benjamin Jackson typified the Nova Scotians. He left Lockhartville to sign on as a substitute for Lewis Saunders. He served on several ships,including the steam sloop USS Richmond, on which he was wounded on the Mississippi River. The flow of Nova Scotians to one Massachusetts regiment meant that it was nicknamed “the Highlanders.”

A recruiting process known as “crimping” also flourished. An unscrupulous recruiter,known as a crimper,would ply an unsuspecting Canadian with alcohol until he passed out.The next thing the inebriate might hear would be a bugle blowing in Maine, and a soldier of the U.S. Army yelling at him to get in formation.

Most Canadians who served, however, joined with a clear head and acquitted themselves well as soldiers. John McVean was among the first to join the American forces,signing up with the 49th New York Infantry in the first months of the war.One of 30 Canadians to earn the Medal of Honor,he was later killed in the fighting at the Wilderness.William Cook served with distinction in the 24th New York Cavalry and reenlisted after the war. He died with General George A.Custer at Little Bighorn in 1876.

Four Canadians rose to the rank of brigadier general. During the Battle of Mobile Bay, Medals of Honor went to Canadians William Pelham and Thomas Fitzpatrick,who served on Admiral David Farragut’s flagship.The man who allegedly mortally wounded Lt. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart during the 1864 Battle of Yellow Tavern was Canadian John Huff.Huff himself was wounded a few weeks later and died within a month.

Canadians, like their neighbors to the south,were divided by the war.In Quebec many simply walked across neighboring fields into Maine to join Union forces, while others journeyed to Louisiana to join kinsmen fighting for the Confederacy. Prior to the war,the growth of the South’s overseas trade reached Saint John, New Brunswick, and pro-Confederacy sentiment was very much alive among longshoremen.When The Chronicle, the newspaper of the nearby village of St. Croix, published an editorial that criticized proConfederates, a mob promptly destroyed the office. At Fredericton, some 60 miles upriver from Saint John, the feeling was strongly pro-Union.Volunteers from the two cities joined different sides, and there is evidence that Canadian neighbor fought neighbor at Gettysburg and elsewhere.

Medical personnel also joined both sides. Francis Wafer, a Queen’s University medical student, became assistant surgeon to the 108th New York Regiment, while Solomon Secord, from Kincardine, served as a surgeon with a Georgia regiment.

The adventures of field nurse Sarah Emma Edmonds have left a colorful legacy that often does not appear to be hampered by facts. Emma grew up on a farm near Fredericton.She was forced to marry at 15 a man she detested, but she solved that problem by running off to Flint,Mich.For some reason,she then took on a male identity, calling herself Franklyn Thompson, and worked as an agent for a publishing company. When war came, Franklyn Thompson joined the Michigan infantry as a male field nurse.She served in Virginia, where she volunteered for spy missions behind Confederate lines, becoming the Union’s answer to the Rebel spy Belle Boyd. On her spying missions, she sometimes not only disguised her sex but also masqueraded as a slave. She found this a most useful way of getting information on the location of Confederate troops. After several missions,she contracted malaria and was hospitalized. Fearing her secret would be discovered, she deserted. She wrote a book that sold 170,000 copies,and in 1867 she married Linus Seelye.She applied for a pension some 20 years after the war and was awarded $19 a month “to be paid to Sarah E.Seeyle alias Franklyn Thompson.”

Montreal and Toronto became the locus of spy and counterspy activity in Canada. In Toronto an estimated 250 Union and Confederate agents were fully engaged. Confederate spy activity was aimed at creating confusion behind the Union lines, launching raids,freeing prisoners and initiating sabotage in Northern cities. One of the most dramatic raids originated in Montreal, where Confederate Commissioner Clement C. Clay supported Lieutenant Bennet Young’s repeated efforts to raise a little hell behind Union lines. Two attempts to release prisoners from Northern camps had failed, and Young picked St. Albans, Vt., as the scene for his next mischief-making.St.Albans,which lay 15 miles from the Canadian border,had little strategic value but tremendous psychological potential. It also had three banks waiting to be robbed.

Most of Young’s 20 men drifted down from Canada to St. Albans, and some crossed from New York state. Dressed as civilians,they found rooms for the night of October 14, 1864. Young and his men assembled on the main street the next afternoon.Some accounts have them shedding civilian clothing for uniforms.They set fire to buildings and stole about $201,500 from the banks.This included the $393 that merchant Sam Beck was depositing in one of the banks at the time of the robbery.The raiders then ran for the border with a posse on their heels.Eight members of the group were captured,but on the Canadian side of the border they were turned over to Canadian authorities. Due to legal complications, they escaped prosecution.

The Queens Hotel in Toronto was the center of Confederate spy operations in Upper Canada. But Colonel Jacob Thompson’s missions—originating there— were not successful.The Confederate plan to seize a Union gunboat in Lake Erie failed when a strong Northern force quickly overcame the raiders. Operations in Cincinnati,Philadelphia and Boston also failed. The next major Toronto caper was a plan to burn New York City. Lieutenant John Headley brought eight Confederate agents down to the city, where he picked up a valise containing 144 bottles of a substance called Greek Fire that would ignite on contact with the air. He lugged the highly combustible load onto a horsecar and headed uptown.The stench of hydrogen sulfide drifted through the car, and a woman passenger complained loudly that there was something dead in the bag at Headley’s feet. Headley made a quick exit and went on by foot to meet his men and distribute the bottles.They were then sent to register in at least three hotels.

The plan was for each operative to start a fire in his room and then check out, repeating the process in the second and third hotels. At the appointed time, Headley opened a bottle and carefully spilled it on a pile of rubbish he had placed on his bed at the Astor House. It blazed up instantly. Headley locked the door and checked out, then he moved on to the second,third and fourth hotels. Each time, he handed in his key as his room blazed.Soon 19 hotels were burning, but the New York Fire Department,to Headley’s disappointment,quickly got things under control.Headley originally suspected the quality of the Greek Fire,but the operation had been sabotaged by a turncoat named Godfrey Hymas,who had leaked detailed information on the mission to the New York Evening Times Post a month earlier.Within a day of the fires,the names and descriptions of Headley’s force became common knowledge,and Confederate spy games became part of the ashes.

The Civil War claimed 14,000 Canadian lives, and the war also had an impact on place names along the Maine-New Brunswick border,as U.S.citizens dodging the Northern draft created settlements in New Brunswick.One such settlement near Mapleton was called Skedaddle Ridge.

 

Originally published in the January 2007 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here

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