Truly forgotten?

November 18th, 2011
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Although not appropriate for Remembrance Day itself, there is an episode in Canadian military history that is worth recalling. Worth recalling because it is little known and even less understood.

It is the involvement of Canadians or, more accurately, British North Americans as they were then known, in the American Civil War. If you were taught any Canadian history, and even remember some of it, it’s unlikely that you would have heard any mention of it. Thinking back on my own experience, there seemed often to be a consistent thread of anti-Americanism, or at least other-than-Americanism in our history instruction. The line passed from the United Empire Loyalists, through the War of 1812, to the Fenian Raids right to the National Policy. All emphasized the desire of the northern half of the continent not to be American.

How then to explain the participation of between 30,000 and 60,000 soon-to-be-Canadians in the War between the States is not easy. Perhaps that’s why it’s generally omitted altogether.

But some researchers and authors see it as worthy of study and perhaps one day it will be thought sufficiently worthy to become common knowledge.

As it is, proto-Canadians fought on both sides of that war, but predominantly on the Union side – even though mother-Britain (and France) was not-so-subtly playing footsie with the Confederacy.

I got interested in this because a good friend, through some genealogical research, found out that one of his relatives had fought, and died, in the Civil War. This Upper Canadian son of Irish immigrants left the Coburg area to enlist in the Union Army. Serving in an Illinois regiment, he was ultimately killed during Sherman’s March to the Sea.

As some websites suggest, the reasons for participation in that bloody conflict were perhaps as varied as the motivations of each participant. Thrill seeking might certainly get you to enlist, but what loyalty or emotion would cause you to fight bravely – enough to win the Medal of Honour as at least 29 “Canadians” did?

Some of the personal stories of these men are told here. I find particularly compelling the idea of Nova Scotians volunteering for the 20th Maine regiment, the unit that made the brave stand on Little Round Top during the Battle of Gettysburg. I was able to stand on that rocky hill last spring and survey the ground where the New Englanders, and Maritimers, held off repeated Confederate assaults. The daring bayonet charge that broke the backs of the rebel onslaught is one of the best known – if somewhat disputed – episodes of that war.

Unfortunately, there are several chosen narratives of Canadian history that make it difficult to process Canadians fighting and dying in the U.S. – or in Vietnam for that matter. But just as Americans volunteered in both World Wars before the U.S. entered those conflicts, Canadians felt compelled to fight – and die – for a cause beyond our borders. This is as good a reminder as any that there is not just one, approved, Canadian history following a straight path to the present and beyond. Often it is complicated and harder to explain, which is why many choose to ignore some of its inconvenient episodes.

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By John Weissenberger