|SFCWRT Meeting, November 20th 2008
In teaching history, many students already know the end results. What they often overlook are
the conditions and circumstances that influenced those results. Oftentimes when Canada is
mentioned, we think of the Canadians who fought for either the North or the South. However,
it is not all about the U.S., and to understand Canada’s role during the war, we must also look
at Canada and its relationship to Great Britain.
Before the Civil War, Canada was British North American. What we know as Canada today
was actually several territories. There was Quebec which comprised the eastern seaboard
west to slightly beyond Montreal. There was the North-West Territory which borders what
we know today as Alaska. There was British Columbia on the Pacific Coast. In the middle of
those three was Prince Rupert’s Land which was controlled by the Hudson’s Bay Company.
Canada itself was controlled by the British Foreign Office which appointed Canada’s
Governor-General. Beneath him were individual lieutenant governor-generals for the different
In 1853, Britain abolished slavery in its empire. In 1850, because of America’s Fugitive Slave
Act, which compelled the states to use their resources to capture and return runaway slaves,
runaways had to flee not only from their native state, but also from the United States to Canada
if they wanted freedom. In 1854, a free-trade act was established between the United States
and the Canadian provinces. A Foreign Office concern about Canada was the difficulty in
ruling provinces that were over three thousand miles away. Besides not being very profitable,
there was also the difficulty of protecting them. The Foreign Office and many British North-
Americans were very aware of America’s doctrine of Manifest Destiny. They hadn’t forgotten
history and remembered the American invasions during the Revolution and the War of 1812.
The United States was the elephant on the continent and Britain would be hard pressed to
defend her interests. So, by the late 1850s, the Foreign Office was leaning towards Canadian
independence. It would relieve Britain of the liability of protecting Canada.
While many British North Americans felt allied with the Northern States, they didn’t rush to
support them when the Civil War broke out in 1861. Remember that the declared purpose of
the war in 1861 was not to emancipate the slaves but to preserve the Union. Britain imposed
strict neutrality on her Canadian provinces and citizens. Thus, when the various militia units in
the North were mobilizing and wanted the Enfield rifles stored in Canadian armouries, the
British balked at selling them. This angered many Americans and some ill will developed on
both sides of the border. Besides wanting to remain neutral, the Foreign Office and many
British North Americans feared an American expansion northwards. For decades, there had
been sabre rattling and during the war, there were pundits in the British and Canadian press
that opined that the North would lose. If the North were then to expand, it would be north into
Canada to regain territory. After a few years passed, many Canadians believed the Americans
to be insane to continue fighting despite sustaining huge losses on both sides. The war made no
sense to the Canadians. Britain didn’t want to lose Canada or be drawn into the war.
The Trent Affair electrified British North America. Two Confederate emissaries to England
were forcibly removed from the British ship Trent and taken to the United States as prisoners.
Ten thousand reinforcements were sent to reinforce Canada. One ship-load arrived right
before winter while the water was freezing over. The paddles were kept rotating to keep the
ice from forming while the men were instructed to jump off the ship and onto the dock. After
the last man leapt, the ship pulled away before the ice became too thick. Unfortunately it took
their baggage and clothing with it. Unable to provide for the men at winter’s outset, locals
were asked to quarter the men until the spring thaw when supply ships could reach them.
Lincoln de-escalated the situation by releasing the two Confederates and sending them to
Southern foreign policy was very tardy in realizing the potential of operating from Canada.
They missed the opportunity to send agents into Canada to engage in espionage or sabotage
along the northern border. There were plenty of ships on the Great Lakes that could have
been captured or burned. It wasn’t until late in the war that the South actually did or tried to.
Confederate plots to attack from Canada were too few. The potential for widespread piracy
on the Great Lakes was not realized until it is too late.
The United States also avoided war with Canada. Britain also avoided getting into war.
Britain and its provinces weren’t too happy about the Canadians who fought for either the
Union or the Confederacy. What if a Northern army composed of Canadians attacked
Canada? Another issue of concern was all the draft dodgers who were hiding in Canada.
In 1864, the British North American provinces had to decide whether they would band
together to become a group or to become separate nations. They opted for the former as the
unity would bring with it strength. A confederation of Canadian states was thought necessary
to face the United States. Quebec could break off, but didn’t since the Québécois feared the
American Protestants more than they feared the British-Canadian Protestants.
The post-American Civil War era saw two invasions of Canada by Fenians, the successor to
the Irish Republican Brotherhood. The Fenians formed a private army of ex-Union soldiers of
Irish descent to invade Canada. By grabbing Canada, they could trade Canada for Ireland.
Second, they could tie down a large number of British soldiers, weakening the British military
presence in Ireland and making the British more vulnerable in Ireland. Eleven hundred Fenians
fought two thousand Canadian militia and were defeated by them. They called for
reinforcements but the Canadians complained to the American government that its citizens
were organizing on the American border to invade Canada. The USS Michigan sailed out,
intercepted many of the Fenian reinforcements and turned them back. Some Fenians were
taken prisoners and incarcerated by the military.
In 1867, Parliament passed an act which created the Dominion of Canada.
Mark Stephens and Gary Yee
|"Aspects of Canada In The Civil War" by Mark Stephens.