In Armageddon's Shadow:
The Civil War & Canada's Maritime Provinces

by Greg Marquis,
384 pages,
ISBN: 0773517928

Post Your Opinion
Rebels, Yanks, and the rest
by Kenneth Stickney

How the teacher of undergraduate history groans when he comes to contemplate a course on Atlantic Canada in the American Civil War. The topic headings come naturally to mind: the Trent Affair, British-American diplomatic relations, Canadians in the U.S. army, the Civil War and Canadian Confederation, the Fenian Raids. The yellowing files of newspapers of the 1860s are not as boring as modern computer printouts when the subject is considered in the usual constitutional-political-diplomatic manner.

But what if the subject were considered a genuine slice-of-life look at one region of the country during four years of turmoil to the south? What if it were filled with slim, grey blockade runners slipping out of harbour in the morning mist, strange piratical cutting-out expeditions, mighty British squadrons and regiments sailing across the ocean and sliding across New Brunswick in befurred sleighs to defend threatened colonies? What if some of the most respected men in Halifax grabbed the chief constable's pistol arm to help an accused Rebel murderer escape? And why did the 1865 graduating class of the exclusive King's College School sing: "We're going to hang Andrew Johnson from a sour apple tree"? Were they anti-American, anti-Johnson or just pro-singing?

Greg Marquis, a professor of History at St. Mary's University in Halifax, has produced a genuine romance, best enjoyed with a glass of rum in one hand and a pipe in the other.

To one who lived throught the 1960s and the Vietnam War, the parallels are striking. Almost every shade of opinion in the United States at the time was reproduced in Canada, together with a healthy dose of anti-Americanism fortified by the Trent Incident and the subsequent fear of American invasion, and a sneaking respect for the Rebels for making fools of those damned Yanks.

Most Canadians come to the subject with a simple view of it: Britain was pro-South because it wanted to weaken the United States, but Canada was pro-North because it was anti-slavery and many Canadians served in the northern army. Marquis corrects this impression with manifold complications. He gives a brief history of race relations in Atlantic Canada (which makes for ugly reading) and he points out that most Atlantic Canadians disliked blacks as much as they disliked slavery. He remarks that, in 1870, Canadians formed the fourth-largest immigrant group in the United States, and that many of the Canadians who joined the American armies were already living south of the border.

He is also strong on the economic consequences of the war, which had a great effect on three countries. One-seventh of the British population was employed in the textile industry, and many of them were thrown out of work by the cessation of cotton imports from the American South. Charity collections were being conducted in Atlantic Canada by 1862 for British workers made redundant by the war (and, later on, similar collections were carried out for southern prisoners in northern hands). Atlantic Canada lost much of its fish exports with the blockade of the South, since salt cod was a staple of the slave diet and 50,000 barrels of salt fish had been shipped to the South each year before the war broke out. However, Nova Scotia's exports to the United States doubled between 1861 and 1863, as the Cape Breton coal mines took over from Pennsylvania mines shut down by the northern draft, and New Brunswick reaped a bonanza selling lumber to the northern states. Moreover, huge agricultural exports went from Nova Scotia to Bermuda, where they were then carried into southern ports by swift blockade runners. Not only did many Atlantic Canadians serve aboard those blockade runners at handsome wages, but many others made a profit by assuming the ownership of northern ships so they could sail under the British flag and be safe from southern cruisers. Marquis writes: "One wonders if this was the case with Annie Kidley, an English spinster residing at St. Andrews (New Brunswick), who suddenly came into possession of several American merchantmen".

In Atlantic Canada, as in the United States, the active agitation against slavery was carried on by churchmen and church newspapers. The Charlottetown YMCA, in its 1862 annual report, asked its members to pray "for their dark-skinned compatriots" and that God "take away their yoke never to be imposed again". But, just as pure orneriness contributed to the South's rebellion against the North, so pure orneriness made many Canadians support the underdog. A southern courier who stopped in Halifax on his way to France described it as "a hot Southern town-they hate the Yank as bad as we do". The clichés of the time have not changed in 130 years. Frances Lady Monck, the wife of the Governor General, thought that "[a]ll the nicest, bravest, most gentlemenly men belong to the south", while the Halifax Casket thought that southern gentlemen "despise peaceful pursuits" and the Acadian Recorder commented on the "coarseness and brutality" of Confederate leaders.

The seen-at-a-distance view of the war vanished in December 1861, when a northern warship boarded the British steamer Trent and took off two southern commissioners bound for Britain. War between Britain and the United States now threatened and 9,000 British troops were immediately sent to Canada. (The Grenadier Guards boarded ship at Liverpool with their band playing "Dixie".) In the spring of 1862, forty British warships arrived in Halifax and the British sailors promptly took over the town in the grand manner of the 1945 naval riots. The newspapers reported that the British tars were "running wild" and were promenading up and down Granville Street "wearing steel-hooped skirts, petite bonnets and other finery of the fairer sex"-a century before Monty Python composed the "Lumberjack Song".

Immediately, volunteer militia regiments were raised throughout Canada and the Maritimes. A local militia officer in Pictou, N.S. praised the British sergeant drilling his men for his efficiency, but noted that "his previous training and habits... did not allow him to become one of the Sons of Temperance". In New Brunswick, however, the British sergeants assigned to train the militia were described as "cold water" men. Among the militia regiments raised in Halifax was the all-black regiment, the Victoria Rifles, but it was routinely snubbed at militia functions and disbanded after the end of the war.

The Trent Incident was solved by diplomacy, but it was not the last adventure in Atlantic Canada which nearly embroiled Britain in the American conflict. In December 1863, an Englishman with a southern commission and a group of New Brunswickers boarded the passenger ship Chesapeake in New York and seized her, killing the ship's engineer as soon as she was at sea. They sailed on to New Brunswick and Nova Scotia and were finally tracked down by an American gunboat at Sambro near Halifax. The American gunboat recaptured the ship within Nova Scotian territorial waters, prompting another diplomatic foofaraw. And when the hijacker suspected of killing the ship's engineer was about to be arrested in Halifax, he was bundled into a whaling boat at dockside, and three prominent Haligonians-Dr. William Almon, Dr. Peleg Wiliwell Smith, and brewer Alexander Keith-prevented the chief constable from drawing his pistol to prevent his escape. Such was the small change of a much greater war.

Thankfully, Marquis does not exhaust the reader with the debates leading up to Canadian Confederation, although he does describe the various Canadian delegations arriving in the Maritimes to discuss it, and does point out that the postwar Fenian Raids did help drive Atlantic Canada into the Confederation camp. (One Maritime fear about Confederation was that their sons would be drafted to serve in Canadian wars.) He also shows how the Civil War affected the language of the Confederation debate: those opposed to Confederation were "Confederates", while those who supported it were "Union".

Marquis paints a much more multifarious picture of Maritime reactions to the Civil War than has ever been attempted before, and he gives a fascinating picture of the fractious public opinion of the time. One's only regret is that, colourful though his account is, he has written it in a modern academic style, and one wishes he had indulged himself (and the reader) a little more by dipping into the polychrome inkwell of Raddall, Creighton, and Kilbourn. 

Kenneth Stickney is a writer who lives in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.


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