- African Canadians in Union Blue: Volunteering for the Cause in the Civil War by Richard M. Reid
Richard M. Reid’s book is a gem. Sponsored in part by the Canadian War Museum as part of its Studies in Canadian Military History series, it tells a crucial yet little-known chapter in African-Canadian (and African-American) history while it diversifies and complicates our understanding of Canadian military histories. This book is a study of African-Canadians who, though they benefited from freedom from enslavement and formal legal equality in Canada, decided to leave their contested Canadian “haven” to become embroiled in the American Civil War. In the tradition of those before them who had fought in earlier conflicts on the North American continent, such as the American Revolution and the War of 1812, black Canadians across the five British colonies that made up British North America decided to don military uniforms and fight for the freedom of their brethren who remained in bondage. Their conscious decision to fight in the Union Army to put an end to the institution of slavery in that country was a quintessential expression of their “agency.” And while one may quibble that a little too much analytical weight rests on a concept that historians have often too eagerly and somewhat imprecisely imported from E.P. Thompson and certain branches of sociology, Reid’s work nonetheless foregrounds the important role of African-Canadian Union soldiers as historical actors.
African-Canadians’ agency and their willingness to exercise it across a “permeable border” as a mark of their “transnational values” is the crux of Reid’s argument. The central themes of agency and movement are unpacked over seven well-crafted chapters. Chapter one provides a historical overview of the “Glory Land” that black communities had carved out (and that was carved out for them) in British North America, and chapter two is an analysis of the military records to determine how many African-Canadians enlisted in the Union Army but, more importantly, what can be inferred about the complex motivations behind these men’s decision to enlist. Chapters three to five explore various aspects of African-Canadians’ involvement in the Navy and Army between the years of 1863 and 1865. Chapters six and seven deal with the history of black Canadian doctors’ enlistment and the theme of continuity and change in post-war life. In an appendix the author highlights the “data linkage methodology” that was used to locate black British war veterans. This methodology can well serve as a model for researchers doing archival research on other subjects in black Canadian history for working through what I would argue are the tensions between blacks’ lived experiences of colour-based oppression and an official documentary record that often renders them invisible owing to Canada’s heavy (but not [End Page 557] absolute) historic investment in what Constance Backhouse has called “racelessness.” These methodological insights are among the book’s many strengths, including its adept use of the military and other manuscript sources (digitized and non-digitized) and the ways in which it cautiously approaches the question of the motivations of the actors at the centre of its narrative (by carefully interrogating some of the standard interpretations of the reasons behind blacks’ military service). These elements make for an impressive book. It is also written in a highly engaging and readable style that should give it considerable appeal outside of specialized academic audiences. At the same time, this would be a welcome text in an advanced graduate research and methods seminar, and I am indeed quite looking forward to sharing this superb book with my students.