What did Canada do during the American Civil War of 1861-1865

The online Canadian Encyclopedia has a great article identifying Canada's involvement in the US Civil War of 1861-1865. This is a summary of that article. The link to the full article is at the bottom of this post. 

The war occurred just before Canada was Canada as a country. At the time of the Civil War there was the Province of Canada which consisted of Canada West, (later Ontario), Canada East (later Quebec) and the Maritimes Colonies: Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland. These four are now known as Atlantic Canada. Canada East and Canada West were the . When the article refers to Canada it is referring to Canada East and Canada West. When the article refers to Maritimes it is referring to the four maritime colonies. 

You probably have heard of the Underground Railroad which was set up to help slaves from the south come to Canada to be able to live free without worrying about being caught. This had been going on for many years before the war. This didn't make southern United States happy. 

The newspapers in Canada and the Maritimes favoured the south during this conflict because it was a little "guy" standing up to a big "guy" who wasn't protecting its interests. Canada and the Maritimes felt that way with Britain and were discussing becoming its own country. Many felt being a country would help prevent the U.S. Manifest Destiny of owning all of North America. Canadians were worried about being forced to be American. 

About 40,000 Canadians and Maritimers fought in the war but most of them fought for the Union (North) not the Confederates (South). Many Canadians had businesses in northern United States that they were most likely protecting. 

"Canadian and Maritime soldiers and sailors fought in nearly every battle of the American Civil War. By the war's end, many had become officers and 29 had won the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest military honour in the United States." 

During the war, there were also cross border conflicts. The Trent Affair, Chesapeake Affair, St Albans Raid as well as Confederate President Jefferson Davis sending troops to Canada to fight the North from the north. 

If you have Irish ancestors then you may have heard of the Fenians. The Brotherhood was started in United States in 1858 and were very active fighting in the U.S. and Ireland for Irish freedom from Britain. They came to Canada in 1866 in an attempt to "take Canada hostage and trade it for Ireland's independence from Britain." Their riots inflicted much damage. This makes me laugh knowing how big Canada was even back then but it helped convince Canadians to form the Confederation because it proved that U.S. was a threat. July 1st 1867 Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick formed Canada. 

Many Americans were upset with Canadians because of their role in the civil war and that many Confederate generals and President Davis fled to the Province of Canada after the war. Britain helped the Confederacy and when they lost the war, negotiations of compensation began between Britain and United States. One idea discussed was giving U.S. a part of Canada as Britain's payment. The Treaty of Washington in 1871 stopped this idea. Instead, Britain, paid Canada for the much damage caused by the Fenian raids done by Americans. In this way, this "was the last battle of the American Civil War and an early recognition of Canada's independence." 

Notable Canadians 
In September 1831, Caliza Lavallee, who composed the music for "O Canada", enlisted in the Union Army.

Edward P Doherty, led the detachment that found and killed Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth. 

Anderson Abbot was the first Canadian born Black person to graduate from medical school. He was a civilian surgeon for the Union Army in Washington, D.C.

This is my favourite. Sarah Edmonds, shown on the right, disguised herself as a man to serve as a male nurse in the Union Army. Her autobiography Nurse and Spy in the Union Army, states she conducted numerous spy missions behind the Confederate line. She went by the name Franklin Thompson. 

Do you have any Canadian ancestors who fought in the American Civil War? 

Article Source 

More resources

FamilySearch: Canadians in the U.S. Civil War

Wikipedia: Canada and the American Civil War

Library and Archives Canada: Influence of the American Civil War

Ontario Government: Documents from the Front: The American Civil War and Fenian Raids in the 1860s

Photo source: Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sarah_Emma_Edmonds 


  1. I didn’t know a lot of what you have written, thanks for sharing. I did have a relative who fought and was taken prisoner and escaped. I found the story in his pension papers, his name was Edward McMahon, he was born in Co. Clare, Ireland and he fought for the Union.

  2. My children have Canadian ancestors on both my side and their father's side who served in the Union during the Civil War.