Canadians love to virtue signal about Civil War, but Confederates had Canada’s support


Barry Sheehy: Confederates operated with the tacit approval of Canadian authorities, who saw a divided U.S. as being in Canada’s best interests


Colby Cosh’s recent National Post column on White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and the American Civil War is an unfortunate example of Canadian virtue signalling, rooted in a selective interpretation of facts. Cosh’s suggestion that no people of good faith existed in the South because of the sin of slavery ignores the fact that state by state referendums on secession were close. In Georgia, the vote was 50,243 in favour and 37,123 against. Hardly a ringing endorsement for war.


Slavery was an American sin long before it was a Southern one. When slavery proved uneconomic in the North, slaves were sold south where the cotton gin allowed the institution to be marginally profitable. The beneficiaries of slave-grown cotton were not just plantation owners but powerful textile manufacturers in New England, as well as shipping firms and banks in New York. Northern banks and insurance companies, some still operating, were among the chief beneficiaries of slavery and the cotton trade. Even Canada’s own business legend William C. Macdonald used tobacco from slave states like Kentucky. His profits helped build McGill University.


New York, not New Orleans, was the centre of the global slave trade at the start of the Civil War. The banking and shipping behind the triangular cotton trade was all centred in New York. In 1860, the global slave trade between Africa and South and Central America was booming. The outfitting of slave ships and financing for this trade was centred in New York City.


Slavery was an American sin long before it was a Southern one


Cosh points to the presence of Confederates in Canada, but neglects to mention these Confederates operated with the tacit approval—if not outright encouragement—of Canadian authorities who saw a permanently divided United States as being in the best interests of British North America. Cosh talks of American historical myths, but what about Canadian myths? A prime example is the misconception that Canada supported old Abe and his war. In fact, Canadian authorities were alarmed by the runaway militarization of the U.S. and the evolution of a nascent military dictatorship centred in Washington. Secretary of State William Seward bragged to British ambassador Lord Lyons that he could have anyone in the United States arrested and held without trial simply by ringing a small bell on his desk. It was a shameful boast but essentially true.


Meanwhile, Lincoln shut down or intimidated into silence newspapers across the country that opposed the war. He arrested or disbanded whole state legislatures, while border states were militarily occupied and forcibly kept in the Union.


Another cherished Canadian myth centres on the Underground Railroad. Abolitionist sentiment among religious communities in Southern Ontario was indeed strong, and this is where the bulk of runaway slaves crossed into Canada. But the numbers were modest. Estimates place the figure at between 30,000 and 50,000. Support for runaway slaves tended to weaken as you moved east across Canada, with Montreal and Halifax being pronounced in their pro-Confederate sympathies. One thing is certain: had runaway slaves skyrocketed into the hundreds of thousands, Canada would have quickly closed its borders.


Another cherished Canadian myth centres on the Underground Railroad


The South’s decision to secede was certainly influenced by the institution of slavery, which was considered an important state right. In the North, where Lincoln put out a call for 75,000 volunteers to invade the South, slavery was not a priority. The key issues for Lincoln were preservation of the Union and the collection of revenue. Don’t take my word for it; just read Lincoln’s First Inaugural. He goes out of his way to state, “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery… where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.”


Even when Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation he was careful to free only those slaves not under his control. Slaves in border states loyal to the Union were excluded.


The truth is the Civil War was as much about money as principles. By 1864, the Union war effort had become utterly corrupt with large banks, arms suppliers and food providers making money from all sides; Canada was the venue for much of this illicit activity and Canadian institutions gleefully participated.


© 2017 National Post


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