The story of African Canadians who fled slavery in the United States but returned to enlist in the Union forces during the American Civil War.
On New Year's Eve in 1862, blacks from across British North America joined in spirit with their American fellows in silent vigils to await the enactment of President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. The terms declared that slaves who were held in the districts that were in rebellion would be free and that blacks would now be allowed to enlist in the Union Army and participate in the civil war that had then raged for more than a year and a half.
African Canadians who had fled from the United States had not forgotten their past and eagerly sought to do their part in securing rights and liberty for all. Leaving behind their freedom in Canada, many enlisted in the Union cause. Most served as soldiers or sailors while others became recruiters, surgeons, or regimental chaplains. Entire black communities were deeply affected by this war that profoundly and irrevocably changed North American history.
Rathgeber's insider account is a reminder that something must soon give if citizens are to have confidence that the Parliament they elect will do its job. Literary Review of Canada
Award-winning Canadian author Bryan Prince has turned out another in his growing series of Underground Railroad books, this one perhaps his best yet. My Brother's Keeper portrays shared experiences of many former slaves leaving their freedom to take part in the Civil War. Underground Railroad Free Press
This work adds much to a story that, although well-told from the American side, has not yet given due consideration to the contributions of African Canadians. Ontario Historical Society Bulletin
...[an] excellent contribution to the themes of Canada and the Civil war and of the black experience in Canada. Civil War Book Review
The stirring story of African Canadians who had fled slavery and oppression in the United States but returned to enlist in the Union forces in the American Civil War.
Bryan Prince is a respected historical researcher on the Underground Railroad, slavery, and abolition. His previous books include One More River to Cross, A Shadow on the Household, and I Came as a Stranger. Bryan is in demand as a presenter throughout North America, and he and his wife were awarded the 2011 prize for the Advancement of Knowledge by the Underground Railroad Free Press. He lives in North Buxton, Ontario.
1. Prelude to War
There was an interesting letter published in Canadian newspapers by a Black man who signed his name simply “A son of Ham”*. He expresses anger at a Toronto newspaper which at one time had published articles which said that Canadians could sympathise with the North if the reason for the war was to free the slaves. However, now that President Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation that declared that the slaves belonging to rebels were to be free, the newspaper said that it was unconstitutional and barbarous!! The paper contended that blacks were far better off as slaves where they could be cared for. They were afraid that there would be a real influx of Blacks into Canada. “A Son of Ham” says that that was rubbish because why would a free person leave their birthplace in the sunny south and come to a cold and inhospitable climate of Canada. He goes on to say that if slavery is so great those at the newspaper and their friends who thought likewise should try it out for themselves. And, since Lincoln was going to take slavery away from the blacks, these whites would have a good chance for monopolizing it. “They need not fear any competition!”
Such was a prevailing sentiment in Canada - former slaves could find protection by law, but were rarely welcomed. While many prospered, there was little doubt that the emotional tie to the United States was stronger. If slavery should be abolished most agreed that the steady northern flow of humanity would immediately reverse direction.
* this name taken in reference to the biblical story whereby Noah curses the descendants of his dark-skinned, youngest son Ham, to be “servants to servants”. These descendants would populate northern Africa. Southern slave owners commonly used this phrase and this reference to further their argument that they were justified in enslaving these children of Africa.
2. Canada and the Civil War
Following the famous Battle of Gettysburg, the largest battle ever fought on North American soil, the smoke was so thick from the firing of cannons that the city of London, Ontario - some 400 miles away - had to turn on the gaslights on the street in the middle of the day. Some people, such as Patrick Brady of Raleigh Township, made their personal fortunes by providing horses for the cavalry of the Union Army. Too young to enlist, sixteen year old H. R. Williams lied about his age and told officers that he was eighteen. Sarah Emma Edmonds from Nova Scotia enlisted in the 2nd Michigan Infantry under the alias of Franklin Thompson; no one discovered her true identity or sex until a regimental reunion in 1884, almost 20 years following the war.
Confederate prisoners of war who escaped Union prisons sometime found a safe-haven in Canada. Henry Lane Stone would write in his 1919 autobiography Morgans Men: A Narrative of Personal Experiences” that he stayed in Windsor and Kingsville for four months during the winter of 1863-1864. He wrote of Confederates who escaped from Johnson Island prison camp and taking advantage of the extreme cold and crossing Lake Erie which had completely frozen over. When Stone himself reached Windsor and signed the registry in a Hotel there, he was quite amazed to read that nearly every other signature was boldly signed by other southerners, along with their Company, Regiment and Brigade of the Confederate States Army.
According to Rev. William King, who founded the largest Canadian colony for runaway slaves, “There were a few fugitives that came into the settlement but there were quite a few of their masters came to escape the draft of the Southern army and hastened to Canada and some of them found asylum in the Elgin (also known as Buxton) settlement.” Imagine the slave owners seeking refuge from their former slaves!
White Canadians flocked across the border to enlist. Some joined because they believed in the cause. Some were opposed to slavery. Others believed that it wasnt right for the American slaves to come to Canada. Some went for adventure. Some went for money - privates could get $13. per month; $25. per month if they had a team of horses. Some answered advertisements and were paid handsomely for joining as substitutes for wealthy people that wanted to escape the draft.
In the Chatham Tri-Weekly Planet newspaper, Sept 7, 1887 there appeared a sarcastic article by an anonymous veteran who says that the young “brave” Canadian boys joined because they received a $300. bounty. He claims that he enlisted under the name “Jim Smith” “and with the price of valour in my pocket, I at once engaged in the desperate struggle - to reach the nearest Canadian town. I reached it. I enlisted again as Henry Jackson, there was then again another desperate struggle and I landed safe. My next venture was as Sam Jones and so it continued till the “Cruel War” was over. I dare say my tombstone appears in several national cemeteries.”
The Secretary of War in the United States, Edwin Stanton, gave permission to a recruiter “to raise a regiment of Negroes, partially to be filled with men smuggled from the Canadas with due regard to the Queens neutrality”. However, the Canadian Foreign Enlistment Act forbade recruiting within her borders. This law stated that no person in this province shall “hire, retain, engage or procure…any natural born subject of Her Majesty, to enlist or to serve in any warlike or military operation of any foreign power.” If convicted they were to pay a penalty of $200 along with court costs and may be committed to 6 months in the common gaol at hard labour. Ironically Canadian courts were still busy hearing these cases as the war drew to a close in the spring of 1865. However, this did not deter either the recruiting or enlisting of blacks.
Josiah Henson, who is associated with the title character in Harriet Beecher Stowes novel Uncle Toms Cabin, promised an advance of money to families to entice men in the Dawn Settlement in Dresden to join the army. Others, such as two of the most prominent black leaders in North America, Mary Ann Shadd-Cary and Martin Delany, who both lived in Chatham, were given commissions to recruit soldiers to help fill the ranks. Shadd-Cary, the first female recruiter, was an Abolitionist, Teacher, Lecturer as well as the first female newspaper editor in North America. She traveled across the northern states encouraging men to enlist and filling the ranks of the U.S. Colored troops. Delany recruited for the states of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut. He also acted as examining surgeon to make sure that the men were physically sound. Later in the war Delany met with Abraham Lincoln to discuss raising black regiments that would be commanded by black officers. Up until that time, all regiments were commanded by whites. After this meeting, the president wrote the following letter:
“February 8, 1865
HON. E.M. STANTON, Secretary of War,
Do not fail to have an interview with this most extraordinary and intelligent black man.
The result was that Delany became the first black Major of a field regiment in the United States.
Willis, Elijah Norman McRae on page 23 of “Negroes in Michigan During The Civil War” published by the Michigan Civil War Centennial Observance Commission. 1966. McRae writes “In Canada, Elijah Willis left his farm near Chatham and hurried to Detroit in order to organize a company of Negro volunteers.” McRae cite this as Burton, opinion cited p. 55
Hundreds of men volunteered to return to the country from which they once escaped to serve in the army and to fight for the freedom of others. Rev King stated that 70 men went from his settlement alone. Many went to Detroit to join the 1st Michigan Colored Infantry and others joined regiments in other states including Ohio, Indiana, Rhode Island, Tennessee and Massachusetts. The 54th Massachusetts was one of the first Colored companies formed and their story was made famous in the movie, “Glory”.
This powerful film shows the incredible hardship that soldiers endured, black soldiers in particular. It tells the story of the suicidal charge of Fort Wagner, where the confederate army cut them down like “wheat before the scythe.” Although casualties were huge, and they were forced to withdraw, it was a victory because it resoundingly dispelled the popular belief that blacks would not fight. The home towns of the soldiers who fought in that regiment include Georgetown, Toronto, St. Catharines, Galt, Woodstock, Fort Erie, London, Malden (Amherstburg), Windsor, Sandwich, Chatham, Buxton.
When these men left Canada they were told that they would be entitled to the same rights and benefits as any other soldier. However, the reality was quite different. White soldiers received $10.00 per month plus $3.00/month for a clothing allowance. Blacks would receive $10.00/month minus $3.00 for clothing. It was many months before this affront was made right and as a matter of principle, despite causing a great deal of distress to their families, the men of the 54th Mass. refused to take any pay, rather than accept the lesser amount.
Another diabolical policy faced all black soldiers. When they surrendered or were captured they were often shown no quarter. Stories of atrocities abound. It has been written that after being defeated and surrendering at Fort Pillow, Tennessee, blacks were shot or bayoneted. Even more chilling, some wounded men were locked into a building while another poor soul was crucified to the wall, with nails through his wrists. The building was then set on fire. At the famous Battle of The Crater, a tunnel was dug from the Union lines to a position under the Confederate fortifications. 8,000 pounds of gunpowder were placed at the end of the tunnel. After the mammoth explosion, a crater in the earth was produced that was almost 200 feet long, 60 feet wide and 30 feet deep. The Union army charged. This included some Canadian men and interestingly also, an Indian soldier from Walpole Island, Ontario. In the confusion and in the confederate regrouping, many of the Union Soldiers became trapped in the crater and could not escape. The confederate cry was “No quarter to the blacks” and they rained down bullets and bayonets on the trapped men. A report of this states that some of the white Union soldiers were so terrified that some began to bayonet their black Union compatriots in the hope that the confederates would then show mercy to them. Those who escaped death and who were taken captive could be executed or sold into slavery.
5. “They also serve…”
Canadian Doctors, Nurses, Chaplains
Alexander Augusta from Toronto, as well as Anderson Abbott and John Rapier, who both received their education in Buxton, served as surgeons at the Freedmens Hospital in Washington D.C. Ironically, this hospital was founded on the estate of the Confederate General, Robert E. Lee. Augusta, who had written to the U.S. Secretary of War on January 7, 1863 requesting an appointment as a Surgeon to a Colored Regiment became a Major of the Cavalry and Surgeon-in-Charge of the 7th USCT at Camp Barker in Washington, D.C. which later moved across the Potomac River to Lees property.
Surviving letters from the world traveler, adventurer and officer John Rapier marvel at being saluted by white army privates. He felt that the tide was turning, and that now his race was earning respect. Anderson Abbott writes of going to a party at the White House and seeing the president. He achieved, perhaps his greatest compliment, when the widowed Mary Lincoln presented Abbott with the shawl that President Lincoln had worn to his first inauguration.
Harriet Tubman, who lived for several years in St. Catharines and who was the most famous of all Underground Railroad conductors, served as a Civil War nurse and spy.
Samuel Lowery, the son of a former slave who had purchased his own freedom, was freeborn in Tennessee. He had received a good education there and became a minister. However a local race riot in 1856 which was sparked by debates on slavery made life unsafe and several free blacks fled north. After serving as a pastor in Cincinnatti, Lowery moved to Canada to continue his ministry, settling on the Raleigh Plains of Kent County, near Chatham. When Union forces occupied the city of Nashville, thereby restoring a level of tranquility, he returned to the city and became a chaplain for the 9th U.s. Colored Artillery Battalion as well as a teacher for the 2nd U. S. Colored Light Artillery.
Of the many Civil War stories of Black Canadians, none is more poignant that that of Garland H. White - none is more rich in fact or in symbolism of the human experience during this conflict. White had escaped from his slave owner, Robert Toombs, who was a prominent U.S. Congressman then Senator and one who later sought the Confederate presidency. His “property” would flea to Canada where he became a labourer as well as a Minister with the black British Methodist Episcopal church. After war was declared, he became a recruiter and later a Chaplain in the 28th Colored regiment from Indiana. He comforted dying soldiers at occasions such as the Battle of the Crater and served as a newspaper correspondent to the larger North American black communities. He was present at the fall of Richmond, Virginia, which signalled the end of the war.
President Lincoln and General Grant would both be present at Richmond that April day in 1865. The streets would be full of people rejoicing - many of them now former slaves. However, for many the experience was bittersweet as they searched for loved ones who had been sold away from them. In that crowd was an old woman named Nancy - Whites mother who he had not seen in twenty years.
Canadian blacks would fight in many major battles.
Canadian men participated in one of the bloodier battles of the Civil War - the Battle of Olustee, Florida - in which there would be nearly 3000 casualties. The northern manoeuvre had the objective of cutting off confederate supply lines and to find slave recruits for the black Union forces. Following this confederate victory an observer wrote that the casualties of Colored Troops were so severe as to be called a slaughter.
Later that same year, in November of 1864, Union forces in South Carolina would attempt to cut the Charleston and Savannah railway. A force of 5500 men would board federal gunships and eventually make their way to a small ridge known as Honey Hill where 1400 confederates had dug in. Although they had vastly greater numbers, the Union forces could not defeat their entrenched foes and nearly 800 of their number were either killed or wounded in the attempt.
The most famous of all of the battles in which Canadian blacks participated was the Battle of Fort Wagner on Morris Island, South Carolina in July of 1863. The black regiment, the 54th Massachusetts, led the assault force. Hundreds were killed and wounded in the rush toward the fortifications and many more in the hand-to-hand combat on the encampment walls. Nearly all of the officers were killed and nearly 1600 soldiers were casualties.
Canadians would follow the 54th Mass. with particular interest. Casualties from the Chatham, Ontario area alone were significant:
-Silas Garrison, a painter from Chatham, Canada West, wounded and missing on assault on Fort Wagner, S.C. July 18, 1863; supposed killed
-James Nelson, Chatham, cook, 24, died of disease March 15, 1865 at Charleston, South Carolina
-Nathaniel Sparrow, carpenter, Chatham, 34, discharged Nov. 10, 1864 for disability at Boston, Mass.
-Franklin Willis, Chatham, farmer, 33, enl. Mar. 27, 1863, killed at Fort Wagner, July 18, 1863 as Corporal
-John Weeks, Chatham, cook, 19, missing after Ft. Wagner, supposed killed
-Benjamin Grinnidge, Canada West, farmer, 18, wounded at Ft. Wagner, died Nov. 16, 1863 of wounds at Morris Island, S.C.
-Elias S. Rouse, Chatham, labourer, 22, wounded Ft. Wagner.
7. The War at Home
The residents of North America both in the U.S and in Canada followed the war with an intense interest. Many of the fugitive slaves and free blacks that had followed the North Star to Canada and to freedom had left family and other loved ones behind. A resident of Battle Creek, Michigan observed that there continued to be a constant flow of runaway slaves passing through that town enroute to Canada in 1861. Some had fled because of southern rumours that slaves would be placed in the front lines of battles to take the Union fire. Others were fearful of the ill treatment that they had received from invading northern armies.
But even during these very tragic years, as you can imagine, life did go on…
20 year old Benjamin Mathews lived in Buxton in a log house with his 5 yr old brother Abraham. Benjamin was born in Adams County, Mississippi but had came to Canada, along with his parents and their family. He also became a sailor on the Great Lakes. Nancy Jane Johnston, of Dresden which was known as Dawn Settlement and home of Uncle Toms Cabin, was a young lady who caught Benajmins eye.
At the time of this young couples wedding, the 1st Michigan Colored Troops, later to be known as the 102nd US Colored Troops, were being mustered into service. In Buxton, Rev King who was the founder of this fugitive slave settlement, called a community meeting and encouraged the men here to do there duty and to return to the United States, from where they had once fled, and enlist. Many of these men were already trained in the local militia. Benjamin Matthews and 69 other men from here did just that. - many of them to the 102nd.
Within four weeks of the wedding, Matthews who was described as a robust and hearty man, enlisted at Detroit. Within two weeks he was promoted to the rank of corporal. As winter approached and before barracks were built, the men were put into a decrepit old building. They had neither blankets nor bed and there was snow on the ground. Matthews was seized by cold so severe that he had to be carried from his bunk by his friend. He was left behind when the regiment moved out to the front. His father came to Detroit and received a furlough for his son and took him back to Canada where he soon died of consumption. His fellow soldiers received word of his death while the regiment was in Hilton Head, South Carolina. It would be eight years before his impoverished young widow would receive his back pay.
Confederate prisoners of war who escaped Union prisons sometime found a safe-haven in Canada. Reports circulated that there were many in Windsor. Alvin Armstrong, a Harwich township historian wrote that “To escape army draft, some young Americans fled to Canada. A number of these got work in the Troy sawmill… The proprietor built a house to accommodate them, but in the local community they were known as the “skedadlers.” . The “negro shanty-town” in Oil Springs was destroyed and burned by a mob reported to be between 80 and 100 people. Newspaper reports of 1863 placed the blame on some of these American draft dodgers who had brought their racial hatred north with them. The streets of Chatham, Ontario filled with Confederate draft deserters. Places like Montreal, Niagara and London were gathering hotbeds for confederates and for pro-south sympathizers.
However, as the war progressed, many Canadians expressed their support for Lincoln and his policies, as witnessed by a letter to the president dated November 8th, 1864 and signed by 100 people from Hamilton:
“We can assure your Excellency that the best and most intelligent people of Canada are this day earnestly praying that success in this Electoral struggle may attend the efforts of yourself and your friends. We believe that their prayers will be favourably answered - and on your re-election that you will unwaveringly pursue the course you have already adopted by means of which American freedom - freedom in the true sense of the word - shall be permanently secured not only to the white man but to every enslaved child of Africa”
8. The Freedmen's Enquiry Commission (also known as The Howe Commission)
In 1863, the Abraham Lincoln administration sent 3 men to Ontario to study the progress of fugitive slaves in Canada. They traveled across the province to most of the areas that had sizeable black communities - including Toronto, the Niagara Peninsula, Hamilton, London, Galt, Queens Bush, Kent and Essex Counties. The hope of the United States government was that by studying Black communities and individuals, they could garner information that would be useful to them as they prepared to deal with the issue of how to handle the situations that would arise when millions of slaves would suddenly become free at what they hoped would be following a Union army victory at the conclusion of the Civil War.
The Commission published a small book with their findings at that time. It includes segments of interviews taken from former slaves and free blacks. There are also segments from white men of prominence from across Ontario who give their observations on blacks living here. Topics discussed are the character of blacks; existing prejudice between the races; crime; health issues related to the mixing of the races; successes and shortcomings of black communities; education and religious issues, etc. Some of their report is written with almost poetic admiration:
Buxton is certainly a very interesting place. Sixteen year ago it was a wilderness. Now, good highways are laid out in all directions through the forest, and by their side are about two hundred cottages, all looking neat and comfortable. Around each one is a cleared space, which is well cultivated. There are signs of industry, and thrift, and comfort, everywhere: signs of intemperance, of idleness, of want, nowhere.
Most interesting of all, are the inhabitants. Twenty years ago, most of them were slaves, who owned nothing, not even their children. Now they own themselves; they own their houses and farms; and they have their wives and their children about them. They have the great essentials for human happiness; something to love, something to do, and something to hope for.
Samuel Gridley Howe was the leader of the Commission. He was a very prominent anti-slavery activist in the United States and was involved in several very high-profile and celebrated fugitive slave rescues. He was also one of six main supporters of John Brown and his bloody insurrection at Harpers Ferry. (Howe was forced to flee to Canada for a short period following Harpers Ferry to hide from U.S. authorities.) He was also the husband of Julia Ward Howe who gained fame for writing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”.
To my knowledge this Commissions report has never been extensively studied. Their published report includes only small segments of the interviews that were conducted. Much more detail exists in the full transcripts of the interviews which are held in the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Most intriguing of all is the question - how did the findings of the Commission on Canadian blacks impact on U.S. policy on dealing with the issue of Emancipation? I do not know of anyone who knows that answer to that question. The answer would have a broad North American appeal.
9. The Wars End
Just as Canada had been the Underground Railroads end for thousands, the Civil War would permanently signal that railroads end for all. There was a major exodus of Canadian blacks back to the USA. They were filled with optimism that they would be reunited with loved-ones and that the country of their birth would now extend to them the rewards of citizenship that so many of them had recently fought and died for.
The words of Samuel Gridley Howe of the Freedmens Inquiry Commission would elegantly support that optimism. There was an argument put forward at the time that his Commissions information would be of little use because those people that could successfully escaped to Canada were superior from those that remained in slavery. They were referred to as “picked men”. This, so the argument went, was proven by virtue of the ingenuity and courage that they displayed by making that escape. However Howe rejected that argument. He concluded:
“No, the refugees in Canada earn a living and gather property; they marry and respect women; they build churches, and send their children to schools; they improve in manners and morals, - not because they are ‘ picked men, but simply because they are free men.”
Reverend King would write with pride of the accomplishments of some of those free men who after the war would return to the United States:
“Most of these young men and women who were qualified to teach went south and got good situations as teachers in the schools for freedmen where they are now doing good service. Some of them who had received a classical education at Buxton took advantage of the University established at Washington for freedmen to prepare themselves for the practice of law and medicine…
Among those who received their early education at Buxton may be enumerated five doctors of medicine and divinity, two state senators, one member of congress, two surgeons U.S. Army, one speaker of a state legislature, two judges, six lawyers, one president of an University, twelve principals of public schools, three editors of race papers.”
…The abolition of slavery in the United States has opened up for the educated class in Canada fields of usefulness, and many of them have gone there since the war, and are now filling places of employment with credit to themselves and honour to their race.”
10. Wars Aftermath
November 5, 1865 letter from teacher and Civil War Chaplain who quickly realizes that the end of slavery in the United States did not ensure a quality of life. Disillusioned, Samuel Lowery wished to return to his farm and to his three-room frame house in Canada.
Source - The Township Papers, Raleigh
Thousands of other blacks would agree with Lowerys sentiments “to Return to the Land of my Adoption and enjoy the freedom of British Law and Liberty” in Canada.
Anderson Abbott would use the skills that he honed as an army surgeon as he practiced medicine in Chatham, Dundas, Oakville and Toronto. While in Chatham he was also the president of the Wilberforce Educational Institute for black students and later the coroner for the County of Kent. Twenty-five years after the war ended, Abbott was elected a member of the Civil War veterans society James S. Knowlton Post No. 532 Grand Army of the Republic.
Most veterans would return to a less celebrated life. They would resume their lives as farmers, as merchants and as labourers. They would raise their families and be important parts of their communities. They would live very ordinary lives, similar to their neighbours - but to a people very new to freedom, it was quite extraordinary. Those who had been wounded or who had suffered long-term ill effects from their involvement in the war could apply to the U.S. government for a pension to help support them in their old age. Those records, which are available at the National Archives in Washington D.C. are among the richest historical collections documenting the lives of those individuals and the times in which they lived.
Scattered throughout some Canadian cemeteries, are the markers which were supplied by the U.S. government, to honour those men who did their part to save the Union and to finally put an end to slavery.
Civil War tombstone in North Buxton, Ontario for William Hooper, 1839 - 1928 Company H, 14th United States Colored Infantry.
Appendix list of black Canadians who were in the Union army, their regiment, age. Notes will accompany some of the names i.e. killed in battle or died of disease