The tale of Confederate operations and intrigue in the Canadas in the 1860s has been told before, by Horan, Kinchen, and the late Robin Winks. If King Cotton diplomacy was the centrepiece of Southern foreign policy from 1861 to roughly midway through the Civil War, the situation as of 1864 was more desperate. After Gettysburg and Vicksburg the momentum swung in favour of the Lincoln government. Hence the well-funded mission to neutral Canada of Jacob Thompson and Clement Clay, aimed at destabilizing the Union war effort in the Midwestern states.
Adam Mayers has produced an entertaining account of that mission, which involved planning attacks on Northern cities and encouraging antiwar sentiment. The tone is more popular than academic, yet the author ably provides the wider context of the era, including an interlocking narrative on the road to Canadian Confederation. He also blends secondary and primary sources, the latter including the papers of Clay, John A. Macdonald, and George Brown, the correspondence of the governor [End Page 830] general, the British army commander and the US consuls, newspapers, and the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies.
Jacob Thompson, a Mississippi planter and former member of President James Buchanan's cabinet, and Clement Clay, a lawyer and former senator from Alabama, ran the blockade out of North Carolina in May of 1864, headed for Bermuda, Halifax, and on to the United Canadas. Confederate President Jefferson Davis, taking Southern press accounts of Northern antiwar sentiment too literally, dispatched the pair for 'secret service' duties in the British colonies. These would include far-fetched plans to mobilize 'thousands of men who belonged to the secret societies in the Midwest' and to forge a guerrilla force from escaped Confederate prisoners and Southern refugees. The Confederates hoped that antiwar Copperhead Democrats in states such as Illinois, Ohio, and Missouri would rise up and force the Union out of the war. The results were amateurish, uncoordinated, and somewhat naïve, and if anything backfired when they forced the Canadian authorities, in the face of Northern protests and retaliatory policies, to pass an Alien Act in 1865.
In Canada the unlikely spies found a lightly guarded border and a population that was somewhat sympathetic to the Southern underdogs. Prominent Canadians such as George T. Denison of Toronto extended sympathy and other forms of assistance to the Southern cause. Confederate expatriates were found in Montreal, Toronto, and towns such as St Catharines. They included Dr Luke Blackburn - associated with the notorious yet ultimately harmless 'yellow fever plot,' an early attempt at biological warfare - Professor James Holcombe, and John Castleman and Tom Hines, who attempted to foment rebellion in the Midwest with fewer than fifty men. Another colourful Southerner operating out of Canada was George Sanders, who attempted to disrupt Lincoln's re-election campaign by setting up and then exposing 'secret' peace talks. Typical of much Confederate 'secret service,' Sanders had no official instructions or position, but merely acted on his own initiative. Thompson seemed more honourable than Clay in connection with the St Albans affair, yet the former ended up appropriating more than $100,000 from the rebel government.
Episodes associated with the Confederate mission included a scheme to liberate 2500 Confederate prisoners in Michigan that ended in the capture and sinking of two small Northern steamers and failed plots to firebomb Northern cities with 'Greek fire.' The best-known incident was the raid on the Vermont border town of St Albans, where Confederates killed one citizen, wounded a second, and robbed three banks. The handling of fourteen arrested raiders by the Canadian courts and authorities led to a diplomatic crisis involving the North, Canada, and [End Page 831] Britain. The North suspected a Canadian connection to the Lincoln assassination plot because actor John Wilkes Booth, the killer, had visited Montreal in 1864, and fellow conspirator John Surratt was a Confederate courier to Canada.
Mayer joins a handful of authors who remind us that the Civil War was an event of North American significance, even if his...