To be sure, about 50,000 men from British North America, the provinces that now comprise Canada, fought in the Civil War, almost all on the Northern side, and almost all were white. But 2,500 men – some Canadian-born, some recent migrants from America – were black, according to the historian Richard M. Reid in his recent book “African Canadians in Union Blue.” These men served even though it was a violation of British law to enlist in a foreign army at war (though, obviously, the Union didn’t care).
These African North Americans had sought freedom, and often found it, both north of the border and upon their return to fight for the Union cause and for its promises during Reconstruction.
But true loyalty to Canada isn’t the real story of these recruits in St. Louis, or of William Stratton, who enlisted in Philadelphia, or Henry Britton, who joined the 25th United States Colored Infantry when it was stationed in North Carolina, or of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of others. They and many others falsely claimed Canadian citizenship. Why?
Lots of people lied about their identities – particularly their age – to fight, and claiming a false birthplace, before the era of photo IDs and fingerprinting, was an easy way to do that. Decades later, filing depositions in pursuit of veterans’ pensions, men often revealed that they had changed their ages to be old enough to enlist, or changed their names to keep their whereabouts a secret from those who may have opposed their choice — family members, slaveholders bent on punishment or bounty hunters.
It is unknown exactly how many men lied about their nationality to fight, but the depositions are rife with them. Thomas Floyd enlisted in the fabled 54th Massachusetts Regiment while living in Cincinnati, and gave his actual birthplace, which was Savannah, Ga. After he deserted in November 1864, however, he re-enlisted as Thomas Douglass, born in Canada, in the 31st Colored Infantry. He was paid a bounty by that Connecticut unit, which never learned the true story. (Some white Northerners also traveled to a different jurisdiction and claimed foreign birth, in an effort to fraudulently gain a bounty, rather than respond to draft notices.)
The issue was about more than money for those enslaved men escaping to join the Army now dedicated to their emancipation, however. Jesse Mitchell, “being a colored man, and a slave, ran off and changed his name to Thomas Martin for the purpose of enlistment,” an examiner later recounted, “for fear of being taken back to the South.” William T. Boyd, who enlisted as a Canadian named Samuel Smith, said he had changed his identity to avoid “former owners.” James Wilson gave his birthplace as “Kingdom of Canada” on enlistment documents for the same reason; he was from Orange County, Va.
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While the Emancipation Proclamation declared the Army’s intention to free slaves in the Confederacy, slaves held by pro-Union men in Northern slave states like Missouri, or Union-controlled areas like New Orleans, had no guarantee of freedom.
And they could not legally join the fight without the slaveholders’ permission. So even more fake Canadians came into being. William West enlisted in the 102nd Colored Infantry, a regiment recruited in Detroit that had dozens of authentic black Canadians in its ranks, and he was listed as Canadian-born. But West had been a slave in Springfield, Mo., and he escaped to join the regiment as it passed through town. Though he was discharged in Michigan and married an African-Canadian woman, he had never been to Canada before the war.
The pension records also reveal some soldiers who seem to have been enlisted as Canadians without their knowledge. In some cases, it seems to be a confusion caused by the question, “Where are you from?” African North Americans born in the United States but joining the Army after residing in British North America comprise most of the false Canadians in the rolls, with the explanation about as interesting as a clerical error. But for other enlistees, thousands of miles south of the border and with no personal experience with Canada, the answer gets more interesting.
“Were you ever in Canada?” the pension examiner asked Reuben Daniels, as he sought a pension for his service in the 31st United States Colored Infantry. “I don’t know where dat at,” a blind and nearly deaf Daniels replied, clearly frightened by the prospect of having to prove his service while denying the facts of his file.
Daniels repeated again and again what he knew of his life and his service, and was overjoyed when the pension officers finally found trustworthy comrades who could corroborate his story.
As for those men who enlisted in St. Louis in August 1864, the man listed on the rolls as Jerry Watson explained to pension officers: “I did not tell them I was born in Canada and I was not asked where I was born.” Another, John Adams, said he had been enslaved in his home state of Kentucky, and that “I ran way from there and came to St. Louis and enlisted.” So why was he listed as a foreigner?
“They had me say I was from Canada,” Adams replied. They — white substitute recruiters, paid a portion of the bounty, or perhaps even the enlistment officers themselves — seem to have coached these black men to claim foreign birth, and the advantages of a new identity for joining the Army. That could explain the strange phrase on Adams’s enlistment record: “born Canada British Prov.” — a description that doth protest too much.
With the flick of a pen, fugitive slaves could gain a connection to British North America, and lose some of the clues that would allow angry slaveholders or worried family members to track them down. Some of the African-Americans who had escaped to Canada considered the Great Lakes crossing as a new baptism, or coming under the protection of the British Lion’s paw. The experience of these soldiers as fake Canadians demonstrates how the talismanic power of Canada could extend far south of the border, to dwell in the minds of Union citizens and soldiers alike during the Civil War.