Civil War Wiki

At the time of the American Civil War, Canada did not yet exist as a federated nation. Instead, the territory consisted of the United Province of Canada (parts of modern southern Ontario and Quebec) and separate colonies of Newfoundland, New Brunswick, PEI, and Nova Scotia, as well as and crown territory administered by the Hudson's Bay Company. Britain and its colonies were officially neutral for the duration of the American Civil War. Despite this, tensions between Britain and the United States were high due to incidents on the seas, such as the Trent Affair and the Confederate commissioning of the CSS Alabama from Britain.

Canadians were largely opposed to slavery, the preservation of which was main goal of the Confederate States of America, and Canada had recently become the terminus of the Underground Railroad. Close economic and cultural links across the long border also encouraged Canadian sympathy towards the Union.

French Canadians were somewhat pro-South in their outlook. The conservative and Catholic press in French Canada supported the secession and ridiculed the Yankees as lacking in morality.[1]

There was talk in London in 1861-62 of mediating the war or recognizing the Confederacy. Washington warned this meant war, and everyone realized Canada would quickly be seized.[2]

Trent Affair[]

In November 1861 tensions escalated between Washington and London when an American warship stopped the British mail ship "Trent" on the high seas and seized two Confederate diplomats. London demanded their return and an apology, and to signal its intention to defend its possessions sent 14,000 combat troops to Canada, while the colonials planned to raise 40,000 militia. The crisis ended when President Abraham Lincoln released the diplomats; he did not issue an apology. The British decided that colonial union was now a high priority, as it would relieve London of the need to defend Canada.[3]

Confederate activity in Canada[]

File:Civil War Union Armored train.jpg

Rising concerns over the security of railways in Canada while the Civil War raged in the United States led to the 1862 creation of the Grand Trunk Railway Brigade. This unit of Canadian Volunteer Militia recruited amongst railway employees had infantry and artillery companies deployed along the railway lines in Canada East and Canada West.

Because of Canada's location and some sympathy for the Southern cause, Confederate operators secretly used Canada as a base, in violation of British neutrality, particularly in Canada East. In December 1863, the Confederates captured the Union ship Chesapeake and took it to Halifax harbour. The Union forces then launched an operation to retake the ship, in Canadian waters, and captured two Nova Scotians aboard it.

St. Alban's raid[]

The most controversial incident was the St. Albans raid. Montreal was used as the secret base for a team of Confederates attempting to launch covert and intelligence operations from Canada against the U.S. To finance their cause in October 1864, they robbed 3 banks in St. Albans, Vermont, killed a citizen, and escaped back across the border with $170.000. They were pursued by Union forces over the Canadian border, creating a diplomatic incident. The Canadians then arrested the Confederate raiders, but the judge ruled the raid was an authorized Confederate government operation and not a felony which would permit extradition via the Webster-Ashburton Treaty.[4]

Canadians in U.S. Army[]


Grave of a Canadian Soldier who fought in the American Civil war. Grave is located at the Old St. Thomas Church in Canada.

The best recent estimates are that between 33,000 and 55,000 men from of BNA served in the Union army, and a few hundred in the Confederate army. Many of these men already lived in the U.S.; they were joined by volunteers signed up in Canada by Union recruiters.[5]

Canada refused to return 15,000 American deserters and draft dodgers.[6]

Edward P. Doherty was a Union Army officer who formed and led the detachment of Union soldiers that captured and killed John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of Lincoln, in a Virginia barn on April 26, 1865, twelve days after Lincoln was fatally shot.

At least twenty-nine Canadian-born men were awarded the Medal of Honor.[7]

Economic effects[]

The Civil War period was one of booming economic growth for the British North American (BNA) colonies. The war in the United States created a huge market for Canada's agricultural and manufactured goods, most of which went to Union.

Political effects[]

The American Civil War had decisive political effects on the BNA colonies. The tensions between the United States and Britain, which had been ignited by the war, led to concern for the security and independence of the colonies, helping to consolidate momentum for the confederation of the colonies in 1867.[8]

In this regard, the conflict also had an important effect on discussions concerning the nature of the emerging federation. Many Fathers of Confederation concluded that the secessionist war was caused by too much power being given to the states, and thus resolved to create a more centralized federation.[9] It was also believed that too much democracy was a contributing factor and the Canadian system was thus equipped with checks and balances such as the appointed Senate and powers of the British appointed Governor-General. In reaction the a guiding principles of the legislation which created Canada - the British North America Act was peace, order, and good government. This remains an important element of Canadian collective self-identity.

See also[]

Britain in the American Civil War
Bahamas in the American Civil War


  • Adams, Ephraim Douglass. Great Britain and the American Civil War (2 vol. 1925) online edition of 1958 reprint
  • Bourne, Kenneth. British Preparations for War with the North, 1861-1862. The English Historical Review Vol 76 No 301 (Oct 1961) pp 600–632 in JSTOR
  • Bovey, Wilfrid. "Confederate Agents in Canada During the American Civil War," Canadian Historical Review 1921 Vol. 2, Number 1 Pages 46-57
  • Ferris, Norman B. Desperate Diplomacy: William H. Seward's Foreign Policy, 1861. (1976) 265pp.
  • Hubbard, Charles M. The Burden of Confederate Diplomacy (1998) 271pp
  • Jenkins, Brian. Britain and the War for the Union. (2 vol 1974), by a Canadian scholar
  • Jenkins, Danny R. "British North Americans who fought in the American Civil War, 1861-1865," (MA thesis, U. Of Ottawa, 1993), online edition.
  • Jones, Howard. Abraham Lincoln and a New Birth of Freedom: the Union and Slavery in the Diplomacy of the Civil War, (1999)
  • Jones, Preston. "Civil War, Culture War: French Quebec and the American War between the States," Catholic Historical Review. Volume: 87. Issue: 1. 2001. pp 55+ online edition
  • Kazar, John D. "The Canadian View of the Confederate Raid on Saint Albans," Vermont History 1964 (1): 255-273,
  • Macdonald, Helen Grace. Canadian Public Opinion and the American Civil War (1926)
  • Morton, W.L. The Critical Years: The Union of British North America, 1857-1873‎ (1964)
  • Owsley, Frank Lawrence. King Cotton Diplomacy: Foreign Relations of the Confederate States of America (1931)
  • Stouffer, Allen P. "Canadian-American Relations in the Shadow of the Civil War," Dalhousie Review 1977 57(2): 332-346
  • Wilson, Dennis K. Justice under Pressure: The Saint Albans Raid and Its Aftermath (1992). 224 pp.
  • Winks Robin W. Canada and the United States: The Civil War Years. (1971).


  1. Jones, Preston. "Civil War, Culture War: French Quebec and the American War between the States" (2001)
  2. Bourne (1961)
  3. Morton (1964) 102-3
  4. Dennis K. Wilson, Justice under Pressure: The Saint Albans Raid and Its Aftermath(1992).
  5. Danny R. Jenkins, "British North Americans who fought in the American Civil War, 1861-1865," (MA thesis, U. Of Ottawa, 1993), online edition. Note that Robin W. Winks does not make any estimates in his "The Creation of a Myth: 'Canadian' Enlistments in the Northern Armies during the American Civil War," Canadian Historical Review 1958 39(1): 24-40.
  6. John Herd Thompson and Stephen J. Randall, Canada and the United States (4th ed. 2008) p. 37
  7. Canadian MoH recipients of the American Civil War
  8. "American Civil War" The Canadian Encyclopedia.
  9. "American Civil War" The Canadian Encyclopedia.

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fr:Rôle du Canada lors de la guerre civile américaine