Editor: Tom Brzezicki
The Civil War Round Table of Greater Kingston gathered on the evening of December 5, 2019 to hear a presentation by member Rod Holloway. Rod chose to look at the Civil War from north of the 49th parallel; specifically, to examine the activities of the Confederate Secret Service whose agents chose neutral Canada as a base of operations for various raids into the northern states in the latter stages of the war. As a matter of clarification, Rod pointed out that Canada, as we know it, did not exist at the time of the Civil War and would not come into political existence until Confederation in 1867. British North America is a more accurate description of the collection of colonies which included Canada East and Canada West (roughly Quebec and Ontario) along with the maritime colonies of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland.
As Rod explained, during the antebellum era many Southerners had acquired some familiarity with Canada as they would often spend the summer months in the far north to escape the sweltering heat and humidity of their own southern clime. As for Canadian attitudes towards the opposing sides in the Civil War, Rod said that our sentiments initially favoured the Union. In 1861 it was assumed that the war had broken out over slavery and Canada, as the northern terminus of the Underground Railway, supported the abolitionist cause. However, once the Lincoln administration announced that they were fighting the war to restore the Union, not free the slaves, Canadian public opinion began to shift towards a pro-Confederate stance. The South was viewed as a David figure defending itself against the Goliath in Washington, bent on extending the power of the Federal government over local institutions and state authorities.
Rod stated that the Confederacy's need for foodstuffs and other supplies resulted in an increase in trade with Canada. This, too, encouraged the growth of pro-southern feelings, particularly in the maritime colonies.
Canadian sympathies for the Confederacy were strengthened by the Union's ham-handed handling of incidents such as the Trent Affair. The Trent was a British merchant ship sailing in international waters near Cuba in November 1861 when it was stopped and searched by a U.S. naval vessel, the San Jacinto. The Trent had two Confederate envoys aboard, James Mason and John Slidell, who were seized and taken aboard the American ship. Great Britain condemned the action of the San Jacinto and Canadians shared the mother country's sense of outrage. For a time there was even talk of war between the U.S. and Great Britain until Mason and Slidell were quietly released from Union custody.
As the war progressed and Confederate fortunes faltered, the Richmond government looked for ways to strike at the Union from beyond the battlefields in the Eastern and Western theatres. It was hoped that Confederate agents operating from Canada could conduct espionage, carry out acts of sabotage, and even launch armed raids into the Northern states in order to spread fear and confusion among the public and undermine their trust in the Lincoln government. The Confederates also hoped that the Union would be forced to divert troops from the fighting front to the home front to guard the northern border. Accordingly, in May of 1864 President Jefferson Davis sent two Confederate commissioners to Montreal. These were Jacob Thompson of North Carolina and Clement Clay of Alabama. It was Thompson's responsibility as head of the Confederate Secret Service in Canada to plan, coordinate, and carry out operations against the Union.
Rod then described in some detail a few of the operations attempted or carried out in the North by Confederate agents operating from Canada. One of these was the raid on Calais, Maine, in July 1864. Calais was a convenient target as it was located near the mouth of the St. Croix River just across from the Canadian border town of St. Stephen, New Brunswick. The leader of the raid was William Collins of Mississippi who was living in St. John, New Brunswick at the time. Collins planned to have his small band of men rob the Calais bank and then use the money to bankroll similar acts of violence and mayhem across Maine and the Northeast.
Unfortunately for Collins, who apparently took no trouble to hide his Confederate sympathies, his plans became known to his brother, John Collins, who was a staunch Unionist. Collins had also attracted the attention of the U.S. consul in St. Stephen, James Gray Howard, who passed on to the authorities in Calais the information relayed to him by John Collins concerning his brother's plans. Thus, when Collins and his three accomplices walked into the Calais bank on July 18th, they were quickly apprehended. As a result of the capture of Collins and his men, a further twenty Confederate agents were identified and taken out of circulation. Rod explained that the failure of so many Confederate operations such as the Calais raid was due to the fact that they were so easily infiltrated by Union operatives and because the rebels could rarely refrain from boasting of their plans.
Rod also gave an account of another operation against the Union that the Confederates planned to carry out from Canada, the Northwest Conspiracy of 1864. This was the brainchild of a young Kentucky-born Confederate cavalry officer named Thomas Henry Hines. Hines had already acquired some experience working behind enemy lines during the early years of the war and in June of 1863 he led a small party of men into Indiana to assess the strength of the Copperhead movement in the region. The Copperheads--also known as Peace Democrats--were a section of the Democrat Party opposed to the war and in favour of coming to a peace settlement with the Confederacy. It was a perennial hope of the Richmond government that the influence of the Copperheads could be leveraged against the Lincoln administration in order to bring about a negotiated peace agreement between the North and the South that would result in the recognition of the Confederate States of America.
In any event, in January of 1864 Thomas Hines approached President Jefferson Davis with his plan to disrupt the Union war effort by causing chaos on the home front. This would be done by what we would likely call today acts of domestic terror including widespread arson attacks and engineering mass escapes from Northern p.o.w. camps, such as Camp Douglas in Chicago. Rod explained that Hines also hoped that there would be enough support for the Copperheads in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois that these three states would secede from the Union to form their own breakaway republic. The leader of the Copperheads, Clement Vallandigham of Ohio, was living in Windsor, Ontario at the time where he consulted with Jacob Thompson on plans for a Northwestern Confederacy. Despite misgivings on the part of some high-ranking Confederates, Hines was given approval to proceed with his plans.
Hines made his way to Toronto where he was joined by about sixty co-conspirators. A key component of Hines's plan was the active participation of the Copperheads, and in August of 1864 Hines and his men traveled to Chicago for the Democratic Party National Convention where Hines had been told he could expect to find 50,000 Copperheads in attendance. However, when it came to detailed planning of an actual insurrection against the Federal government, Hines found that the Copperheads, as Rod put it, were all talk and no action. So the Northwest Conspiracy came to naught.
Rod also described another plan concocted by Jacob Thompson and Clement Clay as part of their activities in Canada. This was the Niagara Falls Peace Conference of 1864. In July of 1864, Thompson, Clay, and a few other Southern gentlemen managed to persuade Horace Greeley, the well-known editor of the New-York Tribune, that it might be possible to negotiate a peaceful end to the war. Greeley traveled to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls to meet with the Confederate commissioners. President Lincoln was skeptical of this plan but told Greeley he might be willing to look at any Southern peace proposal that included emancipation and the restoration of the Union. Of course, the Confederate government was not going to agree to any such terms and the Niagara Falls Peace Conference quickly fizzled out. As Rod explained, the most that Southerners could have hoped to have gained was to portray Lincoln as being a war-mongering obstructionist at a time when the war seemed to have reached a bloody stalemate in the Eastern and Western theatres. However, Sherman's capture of Atlanta in early September gave ample evidence that the Union was gaining the upper hand in the struggle against the Confederacy, and the momentum for a negotiated settlement with the South faded away when an outright Union victory seemed to be just over the horizon.
Perhaps the most well-known Confederate operation launched from Canada against the North was the raid on St. Alban's, Vermont which took place October 1864. This was the work of a Confederate officer, Bennett H. Young, who had been captured during General John Hunt Morgan's Raid of June-July 1863. Young escaped and made his way north to Canada where he met with Confederate agents and devised the plan of launching raids against the North from Canada as a way of diverting Union troops from the fighting front to safeguard the border areas with Canada. After returning South to have his plans approved by the Richmond authorities, Young headed back to Canada East where he recruited twenty-one escaped p.o.w. Confederate soldiers to join him in a raid against the town of St. Alban's, only fifteen miles south of the Canadian border.
On October 19, 1864 Young and his band carried out their raid, robbing the three banks in St. Alban's of about $208,000 before galloping north to the safety of Canada. Young and his men were seized by Canadian authorities and held in detention in Montreal at the request of the Lincoln administration with the expectation that they would be extradited to the U.S. to face justice. However, a Montreal judge ruled that Young and his men were soldiers obeying lawful orders rather than bank robbers and so Canadian law had no jurisdiction over them. To the outrage of the North, Young and his men were released.
Rod also touched on the Confederate plot to burn New York City in November 1864 in an attempt to influence the outcome of the Presidential election. This was another plan of Jacob Thompson's to be carried out by a group of eight Confederate soldiers who had all escaped Union p.o.w. camps and made their way to Canada. The team then travelled to New York City and checked into various different hotels. The plan was to start a number of major fires in different parts of the city with the expectation that the resources and manpower of the New York fire department would be overwhelmed by the scale of the conflagration. The resulting fire and destruction, it was hoped, would strike a major blow at Union morale and constitute revenge for Phil Sheridan's fiery depredations against Virginia homesteads and farmlands in the Shenandoah Valley.
As it turned out, the incendiary devices, called 'Greek Fire', the Confederates planned to use to ignite their hotel fires malfunctioned. The few fires that did get going were soon extinguished. The eight arsonists fled the scene and made their way safely back to Canada. One of them, however, named Robert Cobb Kennedy was apprehended trying to re-enter the U.S. at Detroit. He was charged, convicted, and executed in New York City on March 25, 1865.
These are only a few of the operations planned and sometimes carried out by Jacob Thompson, Clement Clay, and their fellow Confederate agents working from Canada. Plans to free the several thousand rebels held in the Union p.o.w. camp on Johnson's Island in Lake Erie, for example, were always high on their agenda. But as Rod explained, the activities of the Confederate Secret Service eventually resulted in a backlash against the South among the Canadian public. Thompson, Clay, and their fellow agents came to be viewed as troublemakers and provocateurs whose activities on Canadian soil were only serving to antagonize the U.S. government against its northern neighbour. It was the fear of a Union army marching into British North America to settle scores with Confederate-coddling Canadians that was to provide a major impetus for the push for Confederation in 1867.
From Jim Lighthizer, President,
American Battlefield Trust
His last full year as president: the End of an Era in Battlefield Preservation.
From his letters, here's his briefest glimpse of the Eastern Theater, by the numbers.
- ~3,000: Engagements fought in the Eastern Theater (~2,000 in Virginia alone!)
- 121,500: Union troops accompanying George B. McClellan at the start of the Peninsula Campaign
- 92,500: Confederate troops in Robert E. Lee's army when he rose to command
- 7 Days: the time it took Lee's army to drive McClellan's back from within miles of the Confederate capital once Lee initiated the Seven Days Battles
- 51,112: Casualties in the bloodiest battle of the war, Gettysburg
- 2,400: Population of Gettysburg at the time of the battle
- 1 million: Soldiers under Ulysses S. Grant's command when he was promoted to general-in-chief of the Union army
- 30,000: Casualties at the Battle of the Wilderness over 2 days of fighting.
- 20: Cigars smoked by Grant on the first day of fighting [Note that he died of throat cancer: ed]
- 23: Miles distance between Petersburg, where Grant's army effectively laid siege, and the Confederate capital at Richmond
- 292: Days the Union army besieged Petersburg before it fell, leading to the fall of Richmond
- 89,270: Confederate troops surrendered by Joseph E. Johnston in the wake of Lee's surrender at Appomattox Courthouse
"Of course, this list barely scratches the surface of the history of the Eastern Theater - let alone of the Civil War or America's founding century. In fact, that's what makes it such an apt metaphor for what you and I are trying to accomplish. No one battlefield can tell the full story of our nation's rich history,?yet every acre of hallowed ground, indeed every foot, has value as part of that bigger picture."
And in all these places and many more, 52,000 acres have been saved for preservation and interpretation. But the Trust does more. 30,000 students have experienced history through their Field Trip Fund. And hundreds of teachers have been trained to instruct their students in their military history. Thousands have participated in clean-up days as well.
Jim is also thrilled to report that for the 10th year in a row, the American Battlefield Trust has received 4 stars - the highest possible evaluation - from Charity Navigator, America's largest independent charity evaluator. This puts the Trust among the top 2 percent of United States charities recognized for fiscal responsibility and integrity.
Maybe that's why it feels so fitting to close out my last full year at the Trust and launch a new decade of battlefield preservation by reaffirming the Trust's mission to preserve every possible acre of hallowed ground across our great nation.
Everything the Trust has achieved, we have achieved because of supporters like you, who can appreciate the unique details of our history along with the big picture. Thank you for your continued support in this fight.
American Battlefield Trust
The March speaker, Paul Van Nest on Gettysburg's Fishhook Line, is overloaded in February with two 1-hour talks on the Yukon Gold Rush to QUILL and scheduling volunteers into 180 slots to staff the ten days of the Kiwanis Music Festival 19 - 29 Feb. In a magnanimous offer, the April speaker, Derek Sykes, will trade months and will be giving his talk on Sherman in March. Special thanks to Derek!