Canadians In The American Civil War

Canadians in the Civil War

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History records that approximately 50,000 Canadians served in the American Civil War. Four men attained the rank of General in the Union army. 29 men won the Medal of Honour. A Canadian who served in the Confederate Army is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. A Canadian is reported to have shot C.S. Cavalry General J.E.B. Stuart. Laura Secord's great-nephew served a Georgia Regiment as a surgeon. This portion of the Southwestern Ontario Civil War Roundtable site will be devoted to the ongoing study of the men (and women) who traveled south to serve on both sides of the American Civil War.


It could be argued that with 50,000 Canadians serving in the American Civil War, there were probably 50,000 reasons why they served. For some it was money. Rich Americans who did not wish to serve in the ranks of the Union or Confederate armies could hire themselves a substitute. In addition, the United States government offered bounties for those who enlisted. Canadians could make as much as $402 (in the case of the 2nd Michigan) to serve.

For some, it was a chance to fight against slavery. With homes in both Upper and Lower Canada serving as stops on the Underground Railroad, many Canadians had strong feelings about the institution of slavery and many were willing to join the Union army in order to take up arms in defence of their beliefs. In addition, many of the United States Colored Regiments found their rosters bolstered by free Negroes from Canada.

For others, having left Canada in the years prior to the war, they felt duty-bound to serve in the armies that defended their new homes, just as their friends and neighbours did. For example, many French-Canadians living in New Orleans enlisted in the Confederate army, so as to join their friends who enlisted. Foreigners in both armies were not uncommon. The 10th Louisiana Infantry became known as "Lee's Foreign Legion" because of the number of foreign-born soldiers who served in the unit.

Some were forced into service for the armies of both sides. Many young Canadians were kidnapped and taken by force into the armed service. More than one story is told of a Canadian leaving a bar or pub, being hit over the head, and waking up to find themselves serving Union or Confederate naval vessels.

For many, as countless young men have done since the beginning of time, Canadians crossed the border in search of adventure. They saw the coming of the American Civil War as a reason to leave their farms and homes and see some action. The prevailing feeling was that the war would be over after the next big battle.

Of the approximately 50 000 Canadians who served in the American Civil War, New York tops the list of states in which they served with approximately 10 000 men. Michigan regiments, the U.S. Army Regulars and the U.S. Navy each saw approximately 4000 Canadians serve their ranks. Maine regiments had Canadians number about 3000 men, with Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Minnesota, Vermont, New Hampshire and Wisconsin each having over 1000 Canadians serving in their units.

John McNeil

Born in Halifax, Nova Scotia on February 14, 1813, McNeil was a hatter, a politician and an insurance company president before the American Civil War broke out. He had lived in St. Louis since 1849 and in May 1861, was made Colonel of the 3rd Missouri and, in June, was transferred to command of the Missouri State Militia Cavalry.

In 1862, McNeil clashed with Confederate Colonel Joseph C. Porter, whose command of 2500 men was systematically destroyed by McNeil's Union troops. However, during Porter's rampage through Missouri, his men captured and, it is believed, killed a pro-Union civilian, Andrew Allsman. McNeil threatened to have 10 captured Confederates killed if Allsman was not produced in short order. When the Union man was not found, McNeil made good on his threat. It was a move that both U.S. President Abraham Lincoln and Confederate President Jefferson Davis condemned.

Despite the controversy, McNeil was made Brigadier General of Volunteers in November 1862. After the battle of Westport, however, he was relieved of command by Alfred Pleasanton for not attacking under orders. McNeil would later go on to command the Department of Central Missouri and was made a Major General of Volunteers at war's end in April, 1865. After the war, McNeil was a county clerk, a county sheriff, a postal official and an inspector of Indian Services.

John Franklin Farnsworth

Farnsworth was born in Compton City, Quebec in 1820. Moving to Michigan, he became a lawyer and was elected to Congress in 1856 as a Republican. Farnsworth became a close friend to fellow Republican, Abraham Lincoln, advising him during the Lincoln-Douglas debates and nominating Lincoln for President.

In September 1861, Farnsworth was made Colonel of the 8th Illinois Cavalry, serving in the Peninsula and Maryland Campaigns. In November, 1862, he was promoted to Brigadier General of Volunteers, and led the 1st Brigade of Pleasanton's Cavalry during the Battle of Fredericksburg. In March, 1863, he resigned his commission to return to Congress where he served until 1872.

Farnsworth was the uncle of Elon J. Farmsworth, the young cavalry general who was killed at Gettysburg, performing Judson Kilpatrick's order to lead a reckless charge against Confederate lines.

Jacob Cox

Born in Montreal on October 27, 1828, Cox moved to Oberlin, Ohio where he taught at Oberlin College, even marrying the College president's daughter, Helen Finney. Later he became a superintendent of schools in Warren, Ohio before taking up law, being admitted to the bar in 1853.

With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Cox was made a Brigadier General of Ohio State troops. He first served in West Virginia in 1861 before being given command of the Kanawha region from the spring to August, 1862. In September, Cox and his troops were ordered to Maryland, where they saw action at South Mountain and Antietam as part of Burnside's IX Corps. After heading up the Department of Ohio for the majority of 1863, Cox took part in the campaigns for Franklin, Nashville and Atlanta. Promoted to Major General in 1864, Cox was placed in command of XXIII Corps during the latter part of those campaigns.

A state senator for Ohio before the war, in 1866, Cox was elected the 28th Governor of Ohio, serving until 1868. In March 1869, President Grant appointed him Secretary of the Interior, although he resigned after eighteen months, upset over government practices. He served in Congress and a variety of other posts, including the president of the Toledo and Wabash Railroad Company. As well, he wrote several histories on the American Civil War before his death in August, 1900.

Please keep in mind: these simply samples of Canadians who won the Medal of Honor, and not the entire list.

Charles Asten

Born in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1834, Asten was a Quarter Gunner on the USS Signal. In May of 1864, as the Signal patrolled on the Red River, it engaged shore batteries and sharpshooters until it was totally disabled, at which time it raised the white flag. Although on the ship's sick list, Asten served out his duties, for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor.

Frank Bois

Bois was listed as being from Canada, although an exact place was unknown. On May 27, 1863, he was serving as a signalman and quartermaster on the USS Cincinnati during the naval siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi. Having taken fire, the Cincinnati was destroyed by the shells of the Confederate shore batteries. With all of the ship's staffs shot away, Bois, noted for his coolness under fire, nailed an American flag to the ship's forestall so that the ship would go down with its colors flying.

Robert F. Dodd

Born in Canada in 1844, Dodd served as a private in the 27th Michigan Infantry. During the battle of Petersburg, he served as an orderly, but volunteered to assist the wounded in front of the Crater, coming under heavy fire as he did so. He was killed at Petersburg on July 30th, 1864, but was awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroic deeds.

Thomas J. Higgins

In May, 1863, the Canadian-born Higgins was a Sergeant in the 99th Illinois Infantry, serving at Vicksburg. During one assault on the Confederate lines, his unit was repulsed and driven back. Higgins continued on, making it to the Rebel defenses. He placed his flag in the parapet, only to be captured.

Sarah Emma Edmonds

Stories of women serving in the armies engaged in the Civil War are not unusual. In addition to working as nurses, history is filled with incidents of women masquerading as men in order to take up arms with their male counterparts in the rank and file of both the Union and Confederate armies. Sarah Edmonds was one of them. Born in New Brunswick, she ran away from home in 1850 to avoid an arranged marriage. She sustained herself by selling bibles, disguised as a man and using the pseudonym of Frank Thompson. At the outbreak of the American Civil War, Edmonds was living in Flint, Michigan. As Thompson, she enlisted as a private in the 2nd Michigan Infantry and was present at the Battle of First Bull Run and the Peninsular Campaign. At the battle of Fredericksburg, she was the aide to Colonel Orlando M. Poe and, on at least two occasions, crossed Confederate lines, "masquerading" as a woman and, more surprisingly, as a Negro.

In 1863, the 2nd Michigan was sent to Kentucky. There, Edmonds contracted malaria and, fearing that her true sex would be discovered, deserted. Later she worked as a nurse for the United States Christian Commission, even publishing a popular fictional account of her experiences as a nurse and spy. After the war, she married a fellow Canadian, L.H. Sleeve and raised three children, while living in Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, Louisiana and Kansas. She fought for and finally received a pension. Shortly before her death in 1898, she became the only woman to be mustered into the Grand Army of the Republic as a regular member.

John A. Huff

Huff was born in Holland's Landing, Upper Canada, where he was born in 1816, but later moved to Michigan. He began the war serving with Borden's Sharpshooters but later transferred to Company E of 5th Michigan Cavalry. The unit was involved at the battle of Yellow Tavern and it was there that famed Confederate cavalry leader, J.E.B. Stuart, was killed. A crack shot from his days in the sharpshooters, Huff was given credit for falling the great general.

Huff himself did not survive long after the battle. Wounded at the battle of Haw's Shop, Virginia on May 28, 1864, Huff died of those wounds sometime later.

George Fairweather

Born in Canada in 1838, Fairweather served in Company A of the 4th Maine Infantry and, later, the 19th Maine, seeing action at First and Second Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg and the Wilderness. After the war, Fairweather becoming one of approximately 100 Civil War veterans that, it has been discovered, emigrated to Australia and, dying in 1908, is buried on Australian soil.

William Winer Cooke

Cooke was born in Mount Pleasant, Upper Canada (near Brantford) and at the age of 17, enlisted in the 24th New York Cavalry. At first he served as a recruiter with the rank of 2nd Lieutenant but saw action at Petersburg where he was wounded in June, 1864. After being released from the hospital, he served at a commissary depot. By the time he returned to front-line duty in March 1865, he held the rank of 1st Lieutenant, having been promoted in December, 1864. On April 2nd, he was breveted to Captain and three days later, was breveted to Major at Dimwiddie Court House, Virginia. His time as a Major was only a matter of hours, as he was breveted to Lieutenant Colonel that same day at Saylor's Creek. Although his time of service ended in June, 1865, he reenlisted a year later in the U.S. Cavalry. In 1876, Cooke, a member of the U.S. 7th Cavalry, died at Custer's Last Stand at the Battle of Little Big Horn. His body was later recovered from the battlefield and buried in Hamilton, Ontario.

Dr. Solomon Secord

Secord, the great-nephew of Laura Secord, left his home in Kincardine, Ontario, several years before the outbreak of the Civil War and was living in Georgia. An outspoken abolitionist whose views on slavery nearly got him lynched, Secord wasn't the most likely person to serve the cause of the Confederacy. However, serve he did, as a surgeon in the 20th Georgia Infantry.

Dr. Secord was captured at the Battle of Gettysburg and imprisoned in Maryland. He soon escaped however and returned to his regiment. In October, 1864, he left Georgia and returned to Kincardine.

In 1910, a statue was dedicated to Secord in his hometown of Kincardine. It is believed to be the only statue in Canada dedicated to a Confederate officer.

Lester E. Alexander

Alexander was born in St. John, New Brunswick. He served as a private in the 2nd Maine and was one of nearly 300 men who was charged with desertion when the enlistment papers of the majority of the 2nd Maine ran out. He was transferred to the 20th Maine just prior to the battle of Gettysburg. Alexander was killed serving with the 20th Maine on Little Round Top on July 2nd, 1863.

Calixa Lavallee

Lavallee was born in Vercheres, Quebec in 1842 but moved to Rhodes Island in 1857. When the American Civil War broke out, he enlisted in the 4th Rhodes Island Regiment and served as a musician. By the fall of 1862, he had risen to the rank of Musician 1st Class (some sources list him as being a lieutenant) and was the Regiment's principal cornetist. Wounded at the battle of Antietam, he was given a full discharge.

But while Lavallee would not be entered into the history books for his battlefield efforts, he would be remembered in Canadian history as the man who, in 1880, composed our national anthem,"O Canada".

John Lang Bray

Bray was born in Kingston, Canada West (now Ontario) in 1841 where he graduated from Queen's University in 1863. He travelled to Richmond to serve as a Surgeon in the Confederate Army Surgeon Corp in Richmond, Virginia for two years. Returning home, Bray became a prominent medical practitioner, and was later named President of the Canadian Medical Association. When he died on November 24, 1915, he was buried in Maple Leaf Cemetery in Chatham, Ontario.

Joseph Vallor

Vallor was a farmer from Toronto and joined the 42nd Illinois Infantry, in Chicago, on August 1, 1861 at the age of 25. Two months after enlisting, Vallor made Corporal and in April 1862, was made Quarter Master Sergeant. He was nominated to the Army of the Cumberland's Roll of Honor on March 2, 1863, likely for his actions at the battle of Stones River (Murfreesboro).

Jerry Cronan

Born in Canada, Cronan served the Confederacy and was killed at the Battle of Spotsylvania. He was buried in Arlington Cemetery, shortly before it became a cemetery for Union soldiers, thus having a double distinction of being a Canadian and a Confederate buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Canadians at Gettysburg

Forty-nine Canadians served in the 24th Michigan and saw action at McPherson's Woods on July 1st. Over half of them were killed, wounded or captured in the day's fighting. Three men, all from New Brunswick, died while defending Little Round Top on July 2nd as members of the 20th Maine, including: Alexander Lester, age 18, Aaron Adams, age 27, and George Leach, age 25. In all, at least two dozen Canadians are known to have been killed or wounded as a result of the three days at Gettysburg.

In January 2001, several members of the Southwestern Ontario Civil War Roundtable were invited to speak to the Glencoe and District Historical Society about Canadians who served in the Amercian Civil War. David Ward, introduced by Brian Angyal, served as the guest speaker while Ken and Elsie Fisher helped with the question period.

Jesse Voce of Woodgreen and Daniel Eddy of Ekfrid were two of the men from the area who served during the Civil War. Eddy was killed at the Battle of Nashville.


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