A monument was constructed in 2017 in Cornwall, Ontario and is dedicated to all of the Canadians that fought in the American Civil War. It honors the estimated 40,000 Canadians that fought for both the Union and the Confederacy, with the large majority of them joining the Union. These Canadians played important roles for both sides, while also providing a boost for the start of Canada’s independence. Thanks to the efforts of the Grays and Blues of Montreal, a group that aims at preserving and understanding the role of the common soldier during the US Civil War, over $35,000 was raised in order to construct this monument. Understanding some of the different roles that individuals played throughout the war helps to both appreciate their sacrifices and honor their memories.
During the start of the Civil War, present-day Canada was known as British North American and consisted of several colonies. Since they were controlled by Britain, they officially remained neutral during the war, as Britain was neutral and didn’t want to favor one side over the other. Although officially neutral, the British elite tended to favor the Confederates, while the common citizens tended to side with the Union. This split difference in opinions caused some uncertainty for the British North American colonies, as there was no clear direction on which side they were expected to favor, if any. Although neutral, slowly Canadians began to pick and join a side in order to help out in the war effort. Because the British colonies ended slavery in 1833, most of the Canadians were also against slavery. This led to the large majority of them to join the Union, but there were still some Canadians that joined the Confederacy. These people were thought to have joined the South in fear of the Union eventually attacking the colonies, if the North was victorious in the war. Another reason that some Canadians joined the Confederate war effort was the push by the Confederate recruiters, as the Confederates received aid from the British, who had control of all of present-day Canada. This relationship between the Confederacy and Britain provided the opportunity for Southern recruiters to travel to Canada and attempt to bring in new soldiers for the Confederates. Regardless of what side of the war these individuals fought for, this monument still serves as a long-lasting remembrance for their courage and sacrifices.
Before Canadians became readily involved in the war, there were some events that threatened the immediate involvement of Canada and war with the United States. The first event that threatened the direct involvement of Canada in the Civil War was the Trent Affair. This event occurred shortly after the start of the war, as a Union ship intercepted a British merchant ship called the Trent near Cuba. The Union arrested two Confederate political officials who were on a voyage to discuss the possibility of diplomatic recognition for the South from Britain. This arrest escalated the tensions between Britain and the Union, as Britain didn’t approve of the Union’s actions. Britain stated that it would declare war on the Union if they didn’t release the Confederate officials. As time went by, Britain began to send thousands of soldiers to Canada in order to prepare for a potential war with the North. After a few tense weeks, Lincoln decided that the Union could only focus on one war at a time and therefore released the Confederate officials. Although this affair provided a direct threat of war with Canada, this event never actually resulted in any major conflict involving Canada in the US Civil War, but it did help strengthen and form an identity on which Canada would later morph into.
Canadians were involved in many different aspects of the Civil War. Although the majority of Canadians were soldiers, they were also known to be officers, generals, spies, and nurses. Over the course of the war, 29 Canadian’s received Medal of Honor, the highest award for acts of valor in combat for serving in the Armed Services of the United States. This prestigious award provides evidence of the importance that individual Canadian’s played during the Civil War, as their actions are now a part of American history. Aside from these Medal of Honor recipients, some of the most well known Canadians that served include Edward P. Doherty, Sarah Emma Edmonds, and Calixa Lavallee. Edward Doherty was a Union officer who was in charge of detachment that captured and killed John Wilkes Booth, the infamous assassin of Abraham Lincoln. Calixa Lavallee had a less herotic role in the war, as he was a Union musician. Lavallee was enlisted in the 4th Rhode Island Regiment, where he was wounded in the leg at the extremely deadly Battle of Antietam. He was later credited with composing the music for “O Canada,” which later became the national anthem of Canada. Sarah Emma Edmonds was a woman who served as a man for the Union and is possibly the most famous of these Canadian soldiers.
Sarah Emma Edmonds was born in New Brunswick, Canada in 1841. After fleeing from her home to escape an arranged marriage, she found her way to Flint, Michigan, where she was selling books for a living. She began her service by joining the 2nd Michigan Infantry, as a male nurse under the alias of Franklin Thompson. Her regiment was active in the Battle of Bull Run before being stationed to Virginia, where her role in the Union shifted. Her time as a nurse was soon to be over, as she would find herself in a new position with the Union. After volunteering for a mission in Yorktown, she was examined by physicians in order to determine if she was fit to serve as a spy. Edmonds easily passed this test and her life as a Union spy began. Her transformation to become a spy included disguising herself as a slave, an Irish salesperson, and a Confederate laundry worker. Although her time as a spy was very effective, it was cut short once she came in contact of malaria. This forced her to leave the military without permission, as she was in fear of being discovered as a woman if she were to seek medical assistance from the Union. After her recovery from malaria, she discovered that her alias Frank Thompson was being called a deserter. Edmonds lived a relatively quiet life after serving her time with the Union. Her story became more well known in 1883, after which she began to give lectures. Sarah Edmonds passed away in 1898, but her legacy lived on. She became the recipient of many achievements, including an inductee of the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame and the only woman to be given membership into the Civil War Veterans’ Association. Her story over the course of the war provides one of the many examples of Canadian’s playing key roles during the Civil War.
Edward Doherty was born in Wickham, Canada East in 1838. He spent his early days in Canada before moved to New York at 22 years old. He joined the Union army about a year later when he was assigned to the 71st New York Volunteers regiment. During the First Battle of Bull Run, his unit was captured. He was a prisoner for the Confederates for just under twenty days, until his regiment was able to escape. Doherty then made his way up the ranks during the remaining years of the war, as he was a First Lieutenant and Captain. His most famous actions took place after the war, when he was still a Lieutenant in the 16th New York Cavalry. His captain assigned him to lead the urgent and discreet group to hunt down John Wilkes Booth, who was responsible for President Lincoln’s death ten days prior. Two days after being assigned as the leader of this task, Doherty and his men caught Booth and his accomplice in Virginia, when they surrounded them in a barn. Doherty recalled the following events as follows:
“It was a kind of tobacco house, and rather small. Of course he was on the alert and heard us closing in upon him. We called upon him to surrender, but he refused. Someone set fire to the barn and I rushed up to the door. Booth’s companion came forward and surrendered to me. At this juncture the soldiers were closing in rapidly, and none too soon, for Booth raised his gun to shoot me when the report of Corbett’s rifle rang out clear and sharp upon the morning air. The actor fell forward as I rushed to him and caught him in my arms. The ball had penetrated his head in almost the same spot where he had shot Lincoln. I lifted him in my arms and carried him out of the burning barn.”
Edward Doherty’s story provides yet another example of the importance that Canadian’s played during the war. His courage and passion, along with the tens of thousands of others, shows how even internal wars can transcend national boundaries and raise awareness in different countries that can lead to drastic changes. Canadian’s actions in the Civil War ultimately led to the drive for their own independence, as Canada gained independence just two years after the end of the Civil War.
Canada’s role in the Civil War helped push the nation to independence, which happened in 1867. Even though Britain remained neutral during the Civil War, tensions still rose during the war between the United States and Britain. Since Canada was still controlled by Britain, Canada was right in the middle of these increased tensions. With the increased tension, Canadains started to become concerned for their own security and independence. Due to this concern over security, the British North America colonies started to form a stronger bond between each other, which became known as the Canadian Confederation. This bond that formed helped provide protection against the possibility of the United States launching an attack on Canada, whether it was an expansion quest or an indirect war with Britain. The Canadian Confederation was concerned about the popular American concept of Manifest Destiny, which was the idea that American expansion was justifiable and inevitable. Since the individual colonies had relatively weak economies with a large amount of debt, the Canadian Confederation was worried about the possibility that Lincoln would soon attempt to take over the small, weak colonies one by one. As a preventative measure, the Canadian Confederation grouped the colonies together that allowed them to be operated by a strong federal government. Since the Father of Confederation thought that the Civil War was in part caused by strong state governments, they decided to form Canada with a strong federal government and smaller provincial governments. The US Civil War had many long-lasting influences on Canada and how the nation formed and developed during the early years of its existence. Recognizing and remembering the impacts that the US Civil War had on Canada is often lost is history, but this monument will now serve as a lasting memory for this lesser known part of history that ultimately led to Canada’s independence.
Over the course of the Civil War, about 7,000 Canadians died, which makes it one of the deadliest wars in Canadian history, only behind the two world wars. Canadians fought for both sides in the war and played important roles for either side. Canadians were involved in many different aspects of the war and they can often get overlooked in history. With 29 Canadians receiving the Medal of Honor, there will always be a reminder for the importance that these individuals had in the view of the United States Armed Services, as they were honored with the highest award for their acts of valor. Without having much recognition for their sacrifices during the US Civil War, Canada has finally constructed a monument to commemorate all those who bravely took a stance in a foreign war. Their sacrifices transformed the colonies into a proud nation that is now home to a monument so that their memories can live on forever.
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