top of page

Canada and the American Civil War

Jacob Thompson
Jacob Thompson, United States Public Domain

We here in Canada didn’t have much to do with the American Civil War (1861-1865), did we? Think again. We were very tied into the conflict south of the border. Not small potatoes either. We were tied in huge. The following are just a few facts to look at…

- To begin with, Canada was officially neutral during the war, as was our mother country of England. Not yet our own country, we were a loosely-knit colony containing the United Province of Canada (parts of southern Ontario and southern Quebec), separate colonies of Newfoundland, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia, plus the western crown territory of Hudson’s Bay Company called Rupert’s Land.  

- Most Canadians opposed slavery.  Our economic and cultural ties were to the North. However, the conservative press in Canada West (Ontario) supported the Confederacy, and called the Unionists immoral.

- As far as how many Canadians fought in the war, the numbers are all over the place, depending what you read. To sum it up best, it’s safe to say that about 40,000 Canadians fought for the Union side and their federalist beliefs. About 1,000 fought for the Confederacy, who promoted slavery and states’ rights over federal powers. Interestingly, of these 40,000 or so, about 400 women disguised as men fought in the war on both sides.

- Why did Canadians join? Several reasons. For one, adventure. Also, we were the-end-of-line for thousands of escaping slaves who had  sneaked their way to freedom along a network of routes and safe houses called the Underground Railroad. Southern Ontario and Southern Quebec were a haven for these fugitives.  Over a 20-year period, 30,000 slaves found freedom here.  The main drop off points were Windsor, Toronto, and Niagara Falls. If the Canadians at that time hadn’t met or seen some of these former slaves, they would have at least heard the stories of  this organized movement. What better way to gain sympathy for the Northern cause? Also, Washington offered better wages to join the army than what the Canadian men were receiving back home. We had American cousins fighting across the border and we wanted to join them. And some Americans living here spread the good word to fight, especially for the Northern’s unity beliefs against the evil known as slavery.

- In the first year of the war, rumors were rampant that England would officially recognize the Confederacy. Abraham Lincoln’s government in Washington warned the British that war would be the result should that happen. With tensions high, England backed off, fearing that Canada would be caught in the middle and overrun by Union troops. Later that year, came the international incident called “The Trent Affair.”  In November, 1861, the British mail ship RMS Trent was stopped and searched on an Atlantic run near the Bahamas by the Union warship USS San Jacinto. In command was Captain Charles Wilkes. He seized two Confederate officials aboard, James Mason and John Slidell, who were on their way to England and France to plead the Confederacy’s case for diplomatic recognition. When news got back to Europe, London was furious, demanding the release of the 2 men and an apology. At the same time, 14,000 British combat troops were quickly sent to Canada and further plans were made in our country to arm 40,000 local militia. After weeks of tension, and the threat of war with Britain looming, Lincoln released the two Confederates on December 26th, 1861. But with no apology. I guess, the last thing Lincoln wanted was a two-front war (one of Adolf Hitler’s many strategic mistakes a century later during World War II).

- Still with the fear of a possible Union raid rampant, the Grand Trunk Railway guarded their rail routes in southern Ontario and Quebec, just in case of attack. And they did it by employing armed militia complete with their infantry and artillery units.

- Throughout the war, 15,000 American deserters and draft dodgers (mostly from the North) slipped into our country and we didn’t send them back.

- The Confederacy was not an industrial nation. Far from it. Their economy was based on agriculture. King Cotton. And they thought they could rule the world with it. With very few war plants, the South needed foreign trade to survive a military conflict. Realizing this as soon as the war commenced, Lincoln placed a blockade on all Southern ports. Although Britain was technically neutral, it still needed the South’s cotton for its textile industry. Fast ships called blockade runners owned and operated by Southerners and Englishmen and loaded with cotton left Southern ports at night for such Atlantic ports as the Bahamas and Bermuda where they would meet British agents who supplied them with arms and supplies for the return run. It was risky business, but profitable, if you weren’t caught. Mid-war, due to a yellow fever outbreak and a resulting quarantine in Bermuda and the Bahamas, the blockade-running skippers looked to Halifax, Nova Scotia, which had been a popular shipping and refueling point between England, Nassau, Bermuda, and Cuba since the beginning of the war. Halifax was one of the few ports where iron-hulled blockade runners could receive extensive repairs.  By early 1864, the Canadian shipping firm of Weir and Company  had set aside a wharf and a  warehouse  for the transfer of blockade goods. The activity was watched closely by the US consul in town. But Halifax never really caught on as a major blockade-running port. It was too far away from Southern ports, requiring more fuel and less goods aboard. And the Northern seas were too rough for navigating, sometimes causing damage to the ships. Less than 10 full-scale return trips were made between the Confederacy and Halifax that year. Then once the cooler weather arrived, and the yellow fever scare declared over, Halifax was no longer a factor.  But it still remained a refueling point for foreign vessels, including the new blockade runners that were built in Great Britain and making their way to the Southern ports for active service.

- One of the most famous Canadians who went south was Dr Solomon Secord, great-nephew of Laura Secord. Yes, the same Laura Secord of chocolate fame, who was first heard from as a War of 1812 heroine when she walked 20 miles to warn the British troops near Niagara of an impending American attack. Prior to the American Civil War, Dr Secord left his home in Kincardine, Ontario to work in Georgia, where he had friends. When war broke out, he enlisted with the 20th Georgia Infantry as a surgeon. Captured at Gettysburg, he became a POW in Maryland. He escaped and found his way back to Ontario. After he died in 1910, a monument was erected in Kincardine in his honor, the only known Canadian monument honoring a Confederate officer.

- There were so many Confederate spies and secret agents in Montreal during the war that the city was nicknamed in honor of the Confederate capital in Virginia, “Little Richmond.”

- In 1864, Jacob Thompson, the Inspector General of the Confederate States Army, arrived in Canada on secret orders from Confederate President Jeff Davis  to help organize subversive activity against the Union. Using our country as a base (mainly Toronto and Montreal), he had agents burn down parts of New York City. He had others to try and help Confederate prisoners escape from Sandusky, Ohio, as well as others to cause havoc at the 1864 Republican convention in Chicago where Lincoln was going to be nominated.

- The CSS Tallahassee, a heavily-armed commerce raider in the Confederate States Navy, was a pain in the butt to Lincoln’s Navy on the high seas. In one 19-day period, she destroyed 26 union vessels and captured 7 others before sailing into Halifax harbor on August 18 to take on coal and water. International neutrality laws limited her to stay to 24 hours in Halifax. Granted another 12 hours to fix a broken mast, she was then allowed only enough coal to take her to the nearest Confederate port. Meanwhile, 2 Union war ships, who had followed her to Nova Scotia,  were waiting outside the harbor. Under the cover of darkness, a local Halifax pilot named John Flemming, helped guide the Tallahassee through a narrow passage he knew that only fishing vessels had used. Hours later, by the time the Union ships realized what had happened, the Tallahassee was well on her way to safety in the open Atlantic.

- On October 19, 1864, 20 Confederate  agents  in civilian clothing entered St Albans, Vermont, 15 miles south of the Canadian border. In retaliation to Sherman’s march through Georgia, where it destroyed everything in its path, the Confederates plan was to burn St Albans and to rob 3 of her banks. They only got as far as burning a wood shed, but they did net $200,000 from the banks, while killing one man and wounding 3 others along the way.  The agents crossed our border with Union forces in hot pursuit. Canadian authorities tracked the agents down and arrested 14 of them, while the remainder eventually surrendered. All were later released, but they had to return to Vermont the $88,000 still on their persons .

- Twenty-nine Canadian born Civil War soldiers received the US Congressional Medal of Honor. Dozens of Canadian Civil War vets are buried at military cemetery in Arlington, Virginia.

- The outcome of the war, of course, was a Union victory. The war led to the rebuilding of the United States and the birth of Canada. When our founding Fathers of Confederation-- including our first prime minister, John A Macdonald--established our nation in 1867, they concluded that the US war was a result of too much power in the hands of the states. So, our boys created a more centralized federation with Ottawa running the show. The rest, as they say, is history.


bottom of page