From Confederacy to Confederation

The American Civil War and the making of Canada

Readers with a fondness for well-crafted narrative history will be sure to enjoy Blood and Daring: How Canada Fought the American Civil War and Forged a Nation, the fourth book by Toronto historian John Boyko. The story unfolds in the midst of an extraordinary historical event, the American Civil War, and is filled with all manner of fascinating individuals from both sides of the Canadian-American border. Boyko is a very capable storyteller, not only when discussing diplomacy and grand strategy, but also in the way he manages to pull the reader down to the ground level and show the war from the perspective of six historical figures, or “guides,” as he describes them, whose exploits collectively make up the backbone of Blood and Daring.

As he did in his third book, on Canadian prime minister R.B. Bennett, Boyko has a tendency to overreach when striving for dramatic effect. He occasionally neglects to devote sufficient attention to important figures and events, and some scholars will lament the absence of primary sources from the United States or Quebec. But Boyko is a brave man for even attempting to write about such an epic subject in 300-odd pages, and on the whole he has succeeded admirably at telling a truly momentous and captivating story.

First, it must be said that Boyko could hardly have settled upon a topic of more inherent interest, at least from the perspective of those who enjoy Canadian history. This one is a real gem, and one that is only recently starting to recapture the attention of historians. Much of the existing scholarship on the immediate pre-Confederation era has gone stale with age, but it should be noted that two important biographies, Richard Gwyn’s John A: The Man Who Made Us and David A. Wilson’s Thomas D’Arcy McGee, have recently touched on the impact of the Civil War upon the British North American colonies, while another book, Ridgeway: The American Fenian Invasion and the 1866 Battle That Made Canada by Peter Vronsky, centres on the largest of the Fenian Raids. More such books may well be in the works, given that the 150th anniversary of Confederation is approaching fast. If a renewed debate about the origins of Canada emerges as a result, then Boyko has made a valuable early contribution to it.

Never on such a broad scale has anyone pulled together a narrative history of how the Civil War affected the British North American colonies and their inhabitants. Boyko has made it gripping by focusing not only on politicians such as George Brown and John A. Macdonald—marvellous subjects in their own right, to be sure—but also on lesser-known figures such as John Anderson, a Missouri slave who escaped to Canada and then desperately fought extradition for a murder committed while fleeing his owner, and Emma Edmonds, an expatriate New Brunswicker who disguised herself as a man and served as a nurse and secret agent for the Union. Each of the six chapters has one of these guides, and the focus on each individual succeeds in making the narrative more personal and visceral than a strict diplomatic or military history would.

Boyko’s decision to build his first chapter on the story of Anderson is brilliant.

The brief introduction acknowledges that there are many points of view about the causes of the Civil War, but, in the end, Boyko observes, “one always returns to slavery.” It was the great evil of American society, an unrelieved horror for generations of suffering and desperate people. By concentrating his attention on the story of a single slave, Boyko establishes from the outset what was at stake in the Civil War for millions of people, all while explicitly recognizing the moral righteousness of the Union’s cause. He writes at length about the cruelty and inhumanity of slavery in the South, and it will be appalling reading for those who have never really explored the subject. The sheer savagery of the physical abuse of slaves, their constant fear of sudden, permanent separation from their loved ones, and the mental anguish of facing a life of constant pain and hopelessness is all made starkly evident, as is the absurdity of the Southern legal system, which branded Anderson a thief following his escape because he had, the law said, stolen himself. It is galling and upsetting, but makes for an emotionally engaging start to the book.

From this poignant beginning Boyko pans out to a broader view of North America in the 1850s and early 1860s, deftly providing the reader with a summary of the outbreak of the Civil War. He focuses too on the rising diplomatic tension between the United States and Great Britain at the time, which stemmed largely from the latter’s position of neutrality (which implicitly, albeit not officially, recognized that the Confederacy was a functioning state). The writing here is quite evocative, and some of the images Boyko crafts—for example, that of President Abraham Lincoln standing on the roof of the undefended White House, nervously watching Confederate armies massing across the Potomac River—linger well after the page has been turned. The guide for this chapter is William H. Seward, Lincoln’s secretary of state, whom Boyko rather hyperbolically denounces as “viperous,” “rapaciously ambitious” and “one of the most dangerous men in the world.” Seward did want to annex British North America, as did many northern American politicians in the 19th century. But he was also a responsible statesman, as Boyko acknowledges in his discussion of Seward’s handling of the 1861 Trent crisis and his loyalty to Lincoln, who would not have countenanced military action against Great Britain or its colonies. The reader may not know what to make of this guide as a result, but on the whole the chapter effectively explains, in sharp and fast-moving prose, what was happening in the United States and how the British government positioned itself in response.

The third chapter, which focuses on the involvement of British North Americans in the Union and Confederate armies, opens with a wonderfully memorable passage about the unvarnished realities of warfare. “An army on the move is a magnificent and horrible beast,” Boyko writes; “it eats and drinks and defecates and fornicates … the beast is both hunter and hunted, existing to kill while offering itself up to be slain.” The guide for this chapter is an inspired choice: Sarah Emma Edmonds, a young woman from New Brunswick who ran away from a cruel father, found work in the United States and felt compelled to sign up for duty in the Union army at the outbreak of war as a male nurse named Franklin Thompson. She witnessed firsthand the unimaginable horrors of Civil War battlefields, risking her life and tending to mangled men, all while concealing her gender, even from a fellow New Brunswicker for whom she had feelings that she could not express without revealing her true self. When he was killed, she mourned alone. She then became a spy for the Union, employing numerous clever disguises—including that of a woman—to conduct operations behind enemy lines. Her story is incredible, and one little known even to Canadian historians (she does not, for example, have an entry in the generally exhaustive Dictionary of Canadian Biography). Boyko returns to her often in his narrative about Canadians and Maritimers who became participants in the war, while describing the reasons why they did so (overwhelmingly on the Union side) and noting many nefarious ways in which ordinary people were wooed into enlisting. Along the way Boyko navigates the reader through the Civil War as far as the Battle of Gettysburg, the infamous high-water mark of the Confederacy.

A full description of the battle itself, and in particular Pickett’s Charge, opens the fourth chapter in vivid fashion. Boyko devotes it to documenting the attempts of Confederates, sensing that the tide was turning against them, to utilize British North America as a safe haven and base for attacks against Northern states. Canadian readers may be shocked by the extent to which some British North Americans, especially in cities such as Montreal and Saint John, welcomed the southerners openly and even supported their efforts. A North Carolinian named Jacob Thompson, whom the Confederate government assigned to take charge of the intrigue occurring north of the border, is the guide in this chapter, and a well-chosen guide he is.

For all Boyko’s attempts to create dramatic tension, however, he cannot hide the fact that most of the Confederate efforts to disrupt the Union war effort from Canada fizzled, even the infamous St. Alban’s Raid of 1864, which created major problems for British diplomats because southerners had launched their abortive assault from Canadian soil and found refuge there afterward. Here, for the only time, Boyko’s narrative lags a bit as it moves from one unsuccessful confederate plot to the next. As always, however, he still manages to paint the big picture with success, and as the war moves toward its conclusion he shifts his focus to Confederation. He overstates things slightly with the concluding remark that because of the threat of American annexation, “Canada and the Maritimes had to reinvent themselves to save themselves,” but he has generally set the stage effectively for the book’s last act.

The fifth and sixth chapters focus on Confederation, although the end of the Civil War, Lincoln’s assassination and the 1866 Fenian raids into British North America feature prominently as well. The two guides are George Brown and John A. Macdonald, both of whom are discussed at length earlier in the book and are therefore well known to the reader by the time they appear here. It is good to see Brown getting due credit for kick-starting the process of Confederation, as most popular and scholarly material relating to the subject in recent years has tended to exalt Macdonald at the expense of everyone else (an exception is the 2011 CBC-produced movie John A: Birth of a Nation, in which the title character is a bit of a jerk, but Brown comes off as a selfless visionary). Boyko offers a glowing assessment of both men that is mostly deserved but occasionally over the top, as when he speculates that Macdonald actually timed his legendary drinking binges for his own political benefit. The trouble here is not what Boyko has covered, but what he has left out. For readers without a background in the subject, he has not delved into the murky depths of mid 19th-century Canadian politics far enough to make everything easily understandable. Occasionally—only occasionally—he has muddied the waters with small errors, for example when he states that legislation had to have “double majority” support to pass, when this was actually only an informal convention tried by the Reform-rouge administration from 1862 to 1864. Boyko’s use of Brown and Macdonald as guides implicitly and unjustly demotes George-Étienne Cartier to secondary status, although he controlled more votes than Macdonald in the 1860s and was instrumental in bringing the wary province of Quebec into Confederation, thus making him at least an equal partner at the head of the three-man Great Coalition. D’Arcy McGee receives a thorough treatment, but none of the Maritime politicians get much attention, and Charles Tupper and Leonard Tilley are almost incidental figures. In fairness, it must be acknowledged that Boyko did not set out to write a blow-by-blow history of Confederation: he has instead explored the impact of the Civil War and the looming threat of the United States, on British North Americans during this period. But some readers may find that after bringing them up to the critical moment, Blood and Daring spends too little time on the creation of the Dominion of Canada itself.

Boyko elects to conclude the book not with a sweeping interpretation of the meaning of it all, but with a summary of Anglo-Canadian-American relations after Confederation and a look at the lives of each of his guides after the Civil War. He does offer this colourful description of Canada as it was when the conflict had ended:

Canada emerged from the war unified in its un-American political and social values, led by a determined and visionary leader, secure in its heritage and bristling with the power of its potential.

This goes a bit too far, perhaps, given that ethnic and religious lines, as well as differing attitudes toward the United States, would continue to bitterly divide Canadians in the late 19th century. But that is a story for another book. In its general contours, and in its conclusions about how British North America experienced and was changed by the Civil War, John Boyko’s Blood and Daring is both skilfully presented and historically sound. It is above all a compelling piece of narrative history, one that ought to appeal greatly to Canadian and American readers with even a passing interest in the subject.