Some Special Soldiers

The little-known tale of black recruits from Canada in the Civil War.

It was horrific. The American Civil War cost more than 600,000 lives. Extrapolating to today’s population of the United States, the figure equates to a staggering 6.1 million dead. Beyond that, the war marked the death of the Confederate States of America and rebirth of the United States, finally determined to fulfil its creed. Current debates regarding race and region being played out in staid courtrooms and smashed city streets are clear evidence of the Civil War’s long shadow.

Beginning before the war’s musket smoke cleared, the battles, politicians and soldiers from generals to privates began to be examined in books that are now too numerous to count. In the 1920s, historian Fred Landon sparked a new tangent by noting the war’s Canadian connection. He began by looking at slave migration to the British North American colonies of Canada (West and East—now Ontario and Quebec), Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Robin Winks later made important contributions to understanding Canada’s involvement in the war. The last few years have witnessed a growing interest in Canada’s important role in the war’s cause and course and the essential part it played in Canada’s creation and development. Richard M. Reid’s African Canadians in Union Blue: Volunteering for the Cause in the Civil War is a welcome addition to this growing canon.

Reid is a professor emeritus at the University of Guelph who has focused his work on the war experiences of African Canadians and Americans. His other books include the well-received Freedom for Themselves: North Carolina’s Black Soldiers in the Civil War Era.

African Canadians in Union Blue is a fascinating exploration of the overlapping influence of principle, naked greed, blatant self-interest and the soulful yearning for justice amid the butchery of the Civil War. Reid meticulously cross-references census data, recruitment records, newspapers, archival letters and diaries, and even ancestry.com. It is a scholarly work so, rather than allowing his impressive research to inform stories of events and individuals, his research is the star. Mini-biographies serve to illustrate his statistical analyses that challenge many long-established popular beliefs while assessing what motivated African Canadians to enlist.

Reid acknowledges that the era’s statistics are suspect. With respect to recruitment, for instance, record keeping was shoddy and many people lied. Recruitment officials had quotas to meet and so lied about where recruits were born or lived. Agents and crimpers were interested in their fees and so lied about their often unscrupulous or illegal recruit-gathering tactics. Many recruits lied about their age, hometown, nationality, occupation, experience and sometimes even their race. Consequently, readers can be excused for considering the precision offered in various statistical charts with appropriate scepticism.

About 40,000 Canadians fought in the Civil War. Reid states that the 2,500 African Canadians who enlisted were “probably responding to the powerful message of the Emancipation Proclamation.” Much of the book then steps back from that broad generalization by carefully exploring the myriad factors that led men to join. Reid explains that while some jumped to sign up shortly after Lincoln issued the proclamation—and many joined the famous Massachusetts 54th, the first “colored” regiment—most waited for conditions for black soldiers to improve before enlisting. Many, he admits, signed up for the money because the bounties offered by federal, state and districts authorities could amount to over a thousand dollars, more than a year’s pay for black recruits who came mostly from poor farm or working class families.

There are four aspects of Reid’s book that are especially valuable and instructive. First, while the Emancipation Proclamation must have tugged at young black men’s hearts, the range of reasons Reid outlines as motivating black Canadians are exactly the same as those that respected Princeton historian James McPherson found to have motivated white Americans: patriotism, dedication to the cause, money, adventure and a desire to prove manhood. While ignoring the comparison, Reid superbly establishes that African Canadians were mobile and independent and, most important of all, had agency. Like their white Canadian counterparts, they acted as individuals motivated by individual factors. They were not victims, dupes or pawns.

A second important contribution is Reid’s examination of the navy, an aspect of military service too often ignored in Civil War histories. Reid does terrific work in explaining that, even before the war, the American navy was desegregated. He relates stories of many African Canadians who signed up in 1861, two years before the Emancipation Proclamation, and served with distinction aboard a number of ships and often under harsh circumstances. Many boys under the age of 18 became sailors and some crews were 10 percent black.

Third is Reid’s excellent exploration of the hardships faced by African Canadians who sought pensions after the guns fell silent. Most suffered a bureaucratic nightmare. Some fights lasted well into the 20th century. The demands made and questions asked were often difficult and sometimes embarrassingly personal. The process—which, by the way, introduced the term “red tape” into our lexicon, due to the colour of pension file bindings—was often impossible to navigate for many African Canadians, especially those who returned to Canada after the war. In the end, 92 percent of white veterans who applied won pensions but only 74 percent of black veterans were successful.

Finally, and perhaps the book’s most important contribution, is its examination of the war’s black doctors. The Union army suffered an acute shortage of physicians and so black ones were recruited. Twelve “or so” came from Canada. Reid follows a few of these doctors, including Anderson Ruffin Abbott of Canada West, who was persuaded to leave the University of Toronto’s medical school to become a contract surgeon—not a soldier but an army employee—in June 1863. Abbott’s fine work and that of other black doctors was not well received by white society or soldiers and they suffered cruel discrimination. Many were paid substantially less than similarly qualified white doctors. Many toiled without the rank and privilege they deserved. However, in a war where more men died from disease than gunshots, the sacrifices and service of the black doctors challenged racist concepts of black potential, ability and ambition. Many, including Abbott, went on to prestigious positions where they made substantive contributions to medicine and race relations. Abbott once met and impressed Lincoln. After the assassination, he inherited the shawl that the late president wore to his first inauguration.

While the book lingers a little too long on research problems, relies too heavily on statistics that Reid admits cannot be trusted, and is a trifle repetitive in spots, it is a valuable addition to the growing conversation about Canada’s racial history and its involvement in the war that played such a fundamental role in how and when this country was formed. Reid establishes that African Canadians fought for justice and equality but often found neither; they fought for money and were forced to settle for unequal pay; they fought for glory and found horror; and they fought for adventure and too often met death. The service of so many to such a glorious cause should never be forgotten and thanks to Reid’s important book, they will not.