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We need to confront the ugly truths of our history. That means looking past the legend of the Underground Railroad to understand how the pro-slavery Confederacy found friends in the north

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Union and Confederate forces fight at Antietam on Sept. 17, 1862, still the single deadliest day in U.S. military history. The battle in Maryland killed more than 3,600 soldiers out of about 23,000 total casualties.Kurz & Allison, Art Publishers, 1888; The Library of Congress

Julian Sher is a Montreal-based journalist and author. His latest book is The North Star: Canada and the Civil War Plots Against Lincoln, from which this essay is adapted.

The myths we tell ourselves about our history say a lot: not about who we are, but who we like to think we are.

Our view of the past is not only about what kind of country we think Canada was – but what it could and should be.

One of the most enduring stories we have been taught is that during the bloody U.S. Civil War from 1861 to 1865, Canada was on the side of freedom – a “North Star” to tens of thousands of enslaved people who fled on the Underground Railroad. That’s the story I grew up learning, anyway.

History has always fascinated me. I knew when I was in high school that I wanted to be a journalist. But I decided I had to study the past to find out where we had been, before I could write about where we were going.

I majored in Canadian history at McGill University in the 1970s, and one day on a walk downtown just a few blocks from campus, I came upon a bronze plaque on the wall of the Hudson’s Bay Company department store.

“To the memory of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States, who lived in 1867 in the home of John Lovell, which was once here,” read the plaque, erected in 1957 by a group called the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

Huh? What was the leader of the slave-owning South during the Civil War doing in Canada in 1867? And why was there still a plaque honouring him?

Fifty years later, after a long career in journalism, I finally got to answer that question.

The answers are unsettling.

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In 1865, illustrator Thomas Nast envisioned the Confederacy's evils at left – including a slave auction, flogging and branding – and an emancipated future at right, with Black children heading to public school and Black workers receiving wages from a cashier.Library of Congress

Black life in the Civil War: People who escaped from slavery live in a Virginia ‘contraband’ camp in 1862, and soldiers from the 4th U.S. Colored Infantry hold their weapons in 1864. Library of Congress
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The Surrender, a painting by contemporary artist Keith Rocco, recreates the Virginia courthouse where, in April of 1865, Confederate general Robert E. Lee capitulated to his Union counterpart, Ulysses S. Grant. Lee's defeat signalled the beginning of the end for the Confederacy.Appomattox Court House National Historical Park

To many Canadians, the American Civil War can seem distant in both time and geography. But at the time it raged, it felt both immediate and perilously close – and it sparked furious debate about which side Canada should be on.

Tens of thousands of ordinary Canadians enlisted on the side of Abraham Lincoln’s Union forces. At least 29 of them earned Medals of Honour; five of them became Union generals. Many paid the ultimate price for their valour: an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 died.

An estimated 2,500 Black Canadians – many of them freed slaves or descendants of slaves – fought for the Union. Perhaps the most famous was Anderson Ruffin Abbott, the first Canadian-born Black doctor who went to Washington to work as a contract surgeon caring for Lincoln’s troops. They were, in his words, “modern crusaders fighting for a just cause.”

But many of the elites of Canada – politicians, businessmen, church leaders and newspaper publishers – lent support to the Confederacy.

Canada was still part of the British Empire back then, just a few years shy of Confederation. Like England, Canada was ostensibly “neutral” in the war.

But in reality, Canada served as a kind of northern front for the Confederacy, a safe haven from which Southern agents launched cross-border raids, laundered money and hatched plots against Lincoln.

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Abraham Lincoln at Antietam in 1862.Library of Congress

In early 1864, three years into a war they were beginning to lose, a desperate Confederacy opened up a new front, seeking to attack and undermine Lincoln’s government from where he least expected – north of the border. Confederate president Jefferson Davis authorized about $1-million (about $16-million in today’s currency) to set up a Secret Service operation in Canada.

If you could travel back in time to that moment and you asked Lincoln and Davis what they thought of Canada, you would have found that the bitter foes both agreed Canada was playing an important role in the war.

The North cursed and the South cheered Canada for the same reason: It was seen by all sides as a base of operations and haven for Confederate operations and their murderous plots – everything from piracy on the Great Lakes to an arson attack on New York and an attempt at biological warfare by spreading the dreaded yellow fever.

Lincoln was upset enough at Canada that he used his State of the Union address in December, 1864 – his last, though no one imagined it at the time – to publicly chastise his northern neighbour “for recent assaults and depredations committed by inimical and desperate persons who are harboured there.”

The American president was referring to a daring cross-border raid two months earlier. A gang of Confederates based in Canada – led by a charismatic soldier named Bennett Young – stormed the small Vermont town of St. Albans, stole more than $200,000 from three banks and killed an innocent bystander in the process.

Lincoln threatened to scrap a reciprocity trade deal that existed back then, and his administration went on to impose passports for Canadians wishing to enter the U.S. There were also calls in the Union press to invade or annex Canada, especially after a Montreal judge dismissed the case and the Montreal police chief was found to have colluded with the Confederates and helped them retrieve the stolen loot.

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Two of the suspects in 1864's St. Albans raid wake up at gunpoint surrounded by authorities in Stanbridge East, Que. The scene was imagined by an artist from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, based in New York.

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Ringleader Bennett Young, middle front, awaits trial in Montreal with four of his fellow bank robbers and a Confederate agent, back left, sent to Canada to help. Their case was dismissed.Photos courtesy of St. Albans Historical Museum

Understandably, Jefferson Davis for his part greatly appreciated the support Canada offered his cause. Little wonder then that two years after the war, in May, 1867, when the defeated and jailed president of the Confederacy was freed on bail, the first place he headed for comfort and protection was not south to Memphis, Montgomery or Mississippi, but north to Montreal.

Davis’s wife and his children were already sheltered in Montreal. The wealthy Montreal publisher John Lovell, who had printed many pro-Confederate pamphlets and books during the war, put the family up for a short time at his mansion on the corner of St. Catherine and Union, where the Bay department store now stands.

That explained, at last, the origin of the plaque that had piqued my interest just over a century later.

I found out that soon after Davis arrived in Quebec, friends and supporters of the Confederate leader in Ontario urged “our gallant and noble chief” to come visit Toronto. Thousands greeted him upon his arrival there.

The adulation only intensified when Davis headed down Lake Ontario to Niagara (now Niagara-on-the Lake). Davis’s visit “created quite a sensation … in this little Niagara where a pleasant Confederate society is springing up,” The New York Times reported.

Davis was serenaded by the people of Niagara and their town band. “May peace and prosperity be forever the blessing of Canada,” Davis told the large crowd that had gathered to greet him, “for she has been the asylum for many of my friends, as she is now an asylum to myself.”

It was the summer of 1867. Confederation. Canada had just become a country on its own, but under the shadow cast by the Civil War and the unresolved battle against slavery.

A statue of Jefferson Davis looks out over Richmond, Va., in 2019, a year before anti-racism protesters tore it down. The eight-foot-tall statue had been unveiled in 1907 on Davis’s birthday. Jay Paul/Reuters
John A. Macdonald’s statue at Parliament Hill. He and the other Fathers of Confederation were finalizing the process of Canadian union when Davis came to visit Ontario in 1867. Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Why are we so reluctant, if not afraid, to explore this darker side of Canada’s past? Why is so little of this explored widely in our schools and media?

History should never be confined to the pages of dusty textbooks. It is something vibrant, alive – and disturbing. It is ours; it is us. Something we need to fight over, debate and dissect.

Because what we did and why we did it affects who we are as Canadians today.

We cannot deal with the colonial legacy of residential schools among Indigenous people, or police violence against racialized people, if we fail to see how racism was a sad but integral part of our country from the beginning. We do a disservice to the past and to our future by engaging in a kind of historical amnesia that seeks to conveniently forget the ugly truths in our history. It is all too easy to conveniently forget – or never learn about – the events in our past that still mark us today.

Did you know, for example, that most Canadian newspapers during the American Civil War were friendlier to the slave South than they were to Lincoln’s North?

“All white men, who are planters, are necessarily slave-owners, and of course, interested in the preservation of their lives and property,” one commentator wrote in the Montreal Gazette, while another wondered fearfully if “the blacks be permitted to rise and massacre their masters and their families.”

The leading French paper in Montreal, La Minerve, was proud to praise the Confederacy for fielding one of “the most intelligent armies we have known in America.” lauding the bravery of Southern troops.

In Ontario, the voices against Lincoln and the North were even more shrill. The Niagara Review denounced Lincoln as a “mad, blood-stained despot at Washington.”

In the week that the Civil War started, the Toronto Leader, arguably the most consistently pro-Confederate paper in the country, praised Southern soldiers for being “hearty in their cause” and warned that “innocent women and helpless children are to be butchered” by armed slaves.

Indeed, when the Confederacy sent an emissary to Canada to gauge public opinion, he was thrilled to conclude that “the South’s only adversary in the Canadian press” was a single newspaper.

But it came with a loud voice.

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George Brown in the 1850s, a decade after he founded The Globe.Toronto Public Library

George Brown, the outspoken founder and publisher of The Globe, was a staunch abolitionist and an avid supporter of Lincoln. As early 1851, hundreds of people had gathered at City Hall in what The Globe described it as “the largest and most enthusiastic meeting we have ever seen in Toronto” for the establishment of the Anti-Slavery Society of Canada.

The paper’s enthusiasm was understandable: George Brown was one of the organization’s founding leaders. “The question is often put: What have we in Canada to do with American slavery? We have everything to do with it,” Brown proclaimed. “We are alongside of this great evil.”

But Brown was an exception among the ruling classes of the country he loved. Today we honour the so-called “Fathers of Confederation” who created Canada as a country back in 1867 – all of them men, of course, and naturally all of them white.

But at least six Fathers of Confederation, as well as other top founders of Canada, had demonstrated sympathies with or had connections to the Southern cause.

Three years before he would become Canada’s first prime minister, John A. Macdonald spoke eloquently to the delegates at the 1864 Charlottetown Confederation Conference about “the gallant defence that is being made by the Southern Republic.” “At this moment they have not much more than four millions [sic] of men,” Macdonald said, “yet what a brave fight they have made.”

That same year, John Abbott, who was elected to the House of Commons in 1867 and went on to serve as the country’s third prime minister, had made a name for himself successfully defending the St. Albans raiders that so enraged Lincoln.

As it turns out, John Wilkes Booth, one of America’s most famous actors and a most ferocious sympathizer of the South, was in Montreal in October, 1864, when news of that Vermont terror raid filled the newspapers. During his two-week stay in the city, which became a sort of Casablanca during the war as a nest of spies and scoundrels, he stayed at the largest and most luxurious hotel, the St. Lawrence Hall.

Its owner proudly admitted that during “the exciting times during the Civil War … the St. Lawrence Hall was the headquarters of the ‘Confederate Junta.’”

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John Wilkes Booth shoots Lincoln at a Washington theatre. Also present, from left, are soldier Henry Rathbone and his fiancée, Clara Harris, with Lincoln's wife, Mary Todd.Currier & Ives, 1865/Library of Congress

Booth met with several Confederate agents while in Canada – and most importantly, got letters of introduction to a network of Southern supporters near Washington who would end up helping him escape when a few months later he assassinated Lincoln in April, 1865.

The shock and sadness over the killing were widespread among many in America and Canada. “The bells are tolling mournfully,” The Globe reported in its first edition after the news of Lincoln’s assassination broke. “Strong men weep in the streets. The grief is widespread and deep.”

Yet some newspapers in Canada had no shame in declaring that the slain president had it coming.

“It must be remembered that as atrocious as was Booth’s deed, his ‘sic semper tyrannis’ was literally justified by the facts,” argued the London Examiner, referring to the Latin slogan “Thus be to tyrants” that Booth shouted after he shot the president. “The man he killed had murdered the Constitution of the United States.”

The Toronto leader opined that “it should not be forgotten that [for] all such deeds there is some cause,” blaming Lincoln for the harsh treatment of “the oppressed people of the South.”

When Le Canadien published a special edition the day after the assassination, its first worries were for “the terrible reprisals against the south that could come.” It went on to chastise those “creating a pedestal for the deceased President … [when] just a few days ago he was but a mediocre man.”

George Brown’s Globe, typically, struck a decidedly different tone.

“He was sagacious, patient, prudent, courageous, honest and candid,” Brown wrote in an editorial. “He is dead, but his principles live after him.”

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The Globe from April 15, 1865, reports on the attacks on Lincoln and secretary of state William Seward (who was initially feared dead along with his son, but both survived).

Well, maybe.

Lincoln’s principles certainly did endure. But if Lincoln had won the war, he and his followers lost the peace. His successors allowed the South to reinstitute servitude and segregation under other names.

For decades, what racist Jim Crow laws could not do, the Ku Klux Klan accomplished with terror well into the 20th century.

History, as the saying goes, is written by the victors. Except in the case of the Civil War. The Confederates and their supporters got to remake and rewrite history to their own liking.

Bennett Young, the leader of the St. Albans raid that so embarrassed Canada, was a leading proponent of what became known as the Lost Cause movement – that the Civil War was just an unfortunate but glorious dispute with valour and honour on both sides.

Young became the commander-in-chief of the United Confederate Veterans. His crowning achievement was to be the keynote speaker – alongside then-U.S. president Woodrow Wilson, no less – when in 1914 an imposing Confederate Memorial was unveiled at the Arlington National Cemetery in Washington. The “lost cause” of the slave South, read the inscription, “was pleasing to the gods.”

Young brought that same message to Canada the following year when he returned to Montreal for a sort of hero’s welcome, as the honoured guest at “an extraordinary function” in the swank Ritz Carleton Hotel. As the Montreal Gazette put it, “the old sores of the Civil War are healed.”

Not, of course, if you were Black in America, or in Canada for that matter.

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An anti-racism sign hangs from the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Va., in 2018.Brian Snyder/Reuters

For years, the mythology of the glorious Lost Cause has endured in popular discourse and culture. But in recent times, sparked by a wave of police killings of young Black men and the Black Lives Matter movement, the U.S. has been forced to reconsider its Civil War legacy as never before. Hundreds of Confederate statues and monuments have come down. Debates on how to teach history in American schools are erupting.

Which brings us back to that plaque honouring Jefferson Davis in Montreal.

In the summer of 2017, during the protests against Confederate memorials that was sweeping the U.S., I was sitting at my desk at the CBC in Toronto, where I was working at the time. I called my daughter, who was then also with the CBC in the local television newsroom in Montreal, and told her about the infamous plaque I had spotted decades ago.

Was it still there?

Sure enough, it was – and after some embarrassing calls by journalists, that same day the Bay was forced to unceremoniously remove the plaque that had adorned its flagship Montreal store since the 1950s.

It was hard to decide what was more unsettling: that an avowed Confederate group had been allowed to honour its leader almost 100 years after a bitter war to end slavery, or that a major corporate empire in Canada had kept that memorial on its wall for another 60 years.

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A member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy collects flags after a memorial in Charleston, S.C., in 2011.Grace Beahm/The Post And Courier via AP

And here’s another indication that “the past is never dead,” to quote the Southern writer William Faulkner: The United Daughters of the Confederacy – which put up the plaque and over the years supported everything from the Ku Klux Klan to segregation – is still very much alive and active to this day.

Its headquarters – appropriately, in Richmond, Va., the former capital of the slave South – was attacked and partly set ablaze by angry protesters in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in 2020.

Removing that group’s controversial plaque on a Canadian department store was not hard. Engaging meaningfully with the legacy of Canada’s dubious role during the war against slavery will not be as easy. Nor should it be.

“History is not history unless it is the truth,” Abraham Lincoln once said.

Even – no, especially – when that truth makes us uncomfortable.