- African Canadians in Union Blue: Volunteering for the Cause in the Civil War by Richard M. Reid
In historical literature dealing with the American Civil War, black Canadians’ contributions to the Union military effort have been a largely forgotten chapter, typically meriting only an occasional line or perhaps a footnote. Richard M. Reid’s latest work is thus a welcome addition. Drawing extensively on regimental and pension records, nineteenth-century newspapers, and a range of other archival sources culled from libraries and heritage sites in the United States and Canada, he breaks new ground and puts British North America’s black volunteers on centre stage. Focusing on these remarkable Canadians’ contributions, motivations, and valour, he adeptly writes them into the grand narrative of America’s devastating sectional conflict. He also provides a lens on fascinating life stories of long-overlooked nineteenth-century blacks and reveals much about the local communities from whence they came. Exploring decisions of black residents in the Maritimes, Canada East, and Canada West to enlist in the Union army or navy, he uncovers the complex interplay of ideological, family, and economic concerns that shaped volunteers’ choices. In doing so, he sheds light on how race prejudice and wage discrimination in Union ranks, along with Confederate threats to mistreat black prisoners, influenced patterns and timing of enlistment. Reid argues that African Canadians interpreted the Civil War as “a fight for universal rights and equal justice” (p. 38). For them, Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation transformed the conflict into a war of liberation; it became a struggle to establish “civic membership for black Americans” (pp. 38–39). [End Page 599]
Stressing the ideology and worldview of British North America’s black volunteers, Reid highlights their transnationalism and agency, unveiling their unrelenting commitment to bring down slavery and willingness to put their lives on the line to emancipate their brothers and sisters still enslaved in the South. Noting that ratios of African Canadian recruits to total black populations in both Canada East and Canada West exceeded corresponding ratios in some Northern states having much larger black populations, notably New York and New Jersey, Reid urges academic historians to recognize the “transnational ideological involvement of black communities outside the United States” in the Civil War and that the struggle for Emancipation resonated across borders (p. 39). Estimating that nearly 2,500 African Canadians enlisted in the Union army or navy, Reid searches carefully for factors, including employment and kinship ties, which shaped decisions of recruits. In this regard, he contends that local conditions also “significantly influenced” the choices men made (p. 53). His research on Canada West, including the involvement of the legendary black community leader Josiah Henson, certainly supports this view. Looking at differences in enlistment patterns between Canadian and American-born recruits, he describes the impact of the British Foreign Enlistment Act that prohibited British subjects from engaging in foreign wars and recounts how Arthur Rankin of Windsor and Lucien Boyd of Buxton were charged under the legislation.
Reid’s work on British North American blacks in the Union navy provides information on individual sailors, their families, economic conditions in Canadian ports, and wartime experiences. Building on the recent findings of the Civil War African American Sailors Project, Reid documents the regional breakdown and timing of black Canadian enlistment, dealing with compensation issues as well as describing sailors’ tasks on ships involved in the Union blockade of Confederate ports or on smaller vessels plying rivers in the South and bays along the coast. Tales of Canadian blacks who shared in prize money from capturing blockade-running Confederate schooners provide fascinating lore that will pique the interest of general readers and historians alike. Most disturbing are Reid’s accounts of unscrupulous recruiters in Digby, Quebec City, Niagara Falls, and other British North American towns impressing young blacks, sometimes by drugging, into the Union navy. Such sordid activities, casualties on ships or battlefields, and impoverished widows and orphans at home, reflect...