Canadian author John Boyko’s book Blood and Daring: How Canada Fought the American Civil War and Forged a Nation delivers an astonishing picture of the complex and sometimes subversive relationships between the United States and its northern neighbor. Through the lives of a fugitive slave, high-profile politicians and spies and a cross-dressing nurse, Boyko tells the extraordinary—and little understood—tale of how Canadians influenced the conflict and how America’s bloody strife forced a handful of weak, poor colonies to come together under a central government.
Did Canada feel threatened when the war broke out?
On a person-to-person level, no. On a government-to-government level, there was great fear that it was going to come over the border. U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward had recommended before hostilities broke out that the U.S. attack Canada, and that would draw England into the war. Britain would have to support its colonies, and the Americans would stop fighting because they’d have to rally around the fag and fight a common enemy, Britain. He had been an advocate of taking over Canada, so there was fear it would become a global war, meaning the war would be fought in America, and Canada would become American—and we did not want to become Americans.
Did Canada pose any threat to the United States?
We posed a threat because the U.S. was not certain how Britain would react to the war. Britain declared itself neutral, but in such a vague way that it was able to give help to the South. They built ships and allowed ships to be sold to the South. Canada became a haven for Southern spies, Toronto and Montreal especially, and there were great number of people in Canada who were sympathetic to the South, believing that if the war was won by the South, the U.S. would split—not into two, but shatter into a European-style situation, with small countries all over the place. And that would be better for Canada and Britain because the U.S. would be far less of a threat.
How did the war in America affect Canada?
At the time we had a system of government in Canada that was really dysfunctional. There were constant elections; decisions were difficult, and each of the colonies was rather poor, with trade problems. So we had a system, political and economic, that was simply not working. All that was papered over as long as Britain was giving economic support and the military backing we needed if the Americans decided to do what they had done before: pour over the border and attack us as they had done in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. But in the 1850s we had talked about getting rid of that system and forming one big country, Canada, which was going to be our Confederation. What it needed was an impetus, and that impetus came from two places: one was that it looked very much like the Americans were coming to get us, the other was that Britain was being taken over more and more by people who were saying they had had enough of the colonies. Think of Canada as a teenager: We know the way we’re living just doesn’t work any more, but mom is kicking us out of the house—Britain is kicking us out—and we’ve got to find someplace to live. We look at our neighbor and see his house is on fire. You guys were shooting each other, so we were certainly not going to join that place. Our only option is to move across the street and build our own house. And that’s what we did.
How did that happen?
In 1864 meetings were held to put Canada together. Gettysburg and Vicksburg had just happened, and it looked like the North would win. And if the North won, it was not only going to be the richest army on the planet, but the biggest army in the world, and we knew the Union also had foul designs on Canada. So we needed to get our selves together fast. We looked at Britain and took what they had that we liked—parliamentary democracy. When we looked at the U.S., it looked like it was a failed system. They were literally killing each other.
So what John A. Macdonald [who became Canada’s first prime minister] said is: We need a parliament, and all power must rest in the legislature in the House of Commons. He looked at the American president as a four-year dictatorship, and said the executive should never be that strong. He also looked at the power of the states. Well, the U.S. fell apart and went to war over states’ rights….We need to make the central government the most powerful force, with the provinces more or less municipalities. He set up a parliamentary democracy, with power vested in the House of Commons and the legislature and very little power for the executive and states. It’s evolved since then, but that’s the way it was set up back then.
How did you choose the characters for your book?
I think history is really important because it helps us to understand today. If we want more people to read more about their history, we have to make it interesting and accessible. I wanted to invite people into the story through six characters, each of whom invites readers into various parts of the story. Some are very well known, but some are brand-new, like John Anderson the slave, or Sarah Edmonds or the American politician Jacob Thompson.
Were you shocked by anything you learned in your research?
I had no idea Jacob Thompson had been a cabinet minister [secretary of the Interior under James Buchanan] before Lincoln’s administration. He had been a Mississippi politician, and I had no idea that CSA President Jefferson Davis put him in charge of organizing a Confederate spy ring in Canada. He worked out of Toronto with a budget of $5 million, astronomical in terms of 1864 money, to set up spy rings, which he did out of Toronto and Montreal. There was not only the raid that many people know about, in St. Albans, Vt., but other raids to free Confederate prisoners out of Northern prisons. I also learned about the attempt to burn down Manhattan that came from Canada, and that John Wilkes Booth was in Montreal planning Lincoln’s assassination and organized the money for the Lincoln conspiracy through a bank there. I didn’t know George Pickett and many others—including Davis himself—came to Canada after the war and went back only after the amnesty was later proclaimed. Yet about 40,000 Canadians broke the law by fighting in the Civil War—almost all of them fighting for the North.
What about some other characters?
Sarah Edmonds dressed up as a man and went to war as an army nurse, at a time when all nurses were men. She also volunteered to become a spy and ran a number of missions behind enemy lines—once, ironically, dressed as a woman. I think she’s fascinating not only for what she tells us about Canadians in the war but also because of the role of women in the war, which has long been overlooked.
John Anderson, a Missouri slave who came to Canada as part of the Underground Railroad, is fascinating. When Missouri wanted him extradited to stand trial for murder—he had killed a man in escaping—it provoked international debate. If the decision had been made to extradite him to the U.S., then the Underground Railroad would have been dead because Americans could have picked up ex-slaves on the streets of Toronto just as they could on the streets of Boston or Chicago. When the Canadian courts finally said we will deal with this, Britain was quite angry. But it was another step toward Canada’s becoming more independent and basically saying no to both Britain and the U.S. And it was one more case of the South saying, “That’s it—we need to secede from the Union.”
Originally published in the June 2014 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.