BOYKO: Blood and Daring (2013)

Blood and Daring: How Canada Fought the American Civil War and Forged a Nation by John Boyko. Knopf Canada, 2013. Cloth, ISBN: 0307361446. $24.86.

Like a traveler without a passport, John Boyko’s Blood and Daring: How Canada Fought the American Civil War and Forged a Nation finds itself intellectually detained at the border. Solid enough on the Canadian, nation-forging side of the frontier, the author’s apparent lack of familiarity with American history and uneven research ultimately result in a deeply flawed volume when it comes to the American Civil War.

Previously a historian of 20th-century Canadian politics and race, Boyko lays out the nation-building parts of his tale in a workmanlike if familiar manner. “Canada,” he reminds readers, was little more than an idea in 1861. Several distinct British governments operated north of the border, but while Canada East (modern Quebec) and Canada West (present-day Ontario) at least shared an extraregional government, the four Maritime provinces especially went their own way. One contrasting push factor uniting most Canadians culturally was spread-eagle American expansionism. In an era of Anglo-American enmity, Canadians had been painfully aware since the 1770s that their neighbor to the south desired annexation. A host of war scares followed on the heels of the War of 1812, right up to the one that the author curiously neglects to mention, the so-called Pig War of 1859, instigated in British Columbia by none other than George Pickett. Canadians were justifiably wary of Brother Jonathan. Antislavery further united most Canadians morally. Boyko effectively uses the case of John Anderson, a Missouri slave who finally found freedom in Canada on a legal technicality, to illustrate both Canadians’ distaste for slavery and their growing determination not to bullied by either Washington or London.

These two motivating spurs, antislavery and anti-Americanism, coupled with more local concerns, called forth seemingly contradictory responses in the spring of 1861. Boyko estimates that 40,000 Canadians crossed the border after Fort Sumter to fight, nearly all for the Union. His questionable choice of the exceptional Sarah Edmonds as his “guide” (xx) to Canadian soldiers in America’s war does not undermine their overall importance to many regiments. Other Canadians meanwhile hoped that a divided United States would prove less of a threat to Canadian security, and accordingly offered succor to a motley crew of Confederate agents. Already an aggressive anglophobe, William Seward—consistently if inexplicably shorn of his Henry in this telling—ratcheted up international tensions with a constant barrage of bellicose threats. Seward’s hectoring increasingly convinced Canadian leaders that maintaining independence meant shoring up ties with Britain while uniting politically in anticipation of American invasion. Events such as the St. Albans Raid into Vermont, subsequent American retaliation north across the border, and Jacob Thompson’s various schemes for liberating Confederate prisoners and burning down northern cities continually dialed up tensions. So did John Wilkes Booth’s mysterious links to Montreal. Union victory then seemingly freed a massive army for a new expansionist war. After Appomattox, Seward did little to constrain the Fenians, militarized Irish nationalists, many of them Civil War veterans, who eyed Canada as a soft target within the British Empire. The short-lived Fenian invasion, launched from American territory in the summer of 1866, provided the final incentive for Canada’s worried nation builders, who finally overcame regional, party, and personal divisions to achieve confederation in 1867 and expansion west in the 1870s.

Boyko’s overall narrative of these events is decidedly Whiggish, confederation as a triumph of Canadian virtue. As a storyteller he too often falls back on convenient narrative cliché, whether in the case of the ostensible villain, the “rapciously ambitious, cigar-chomping” William Seward (10), or hero John A. Macdonald, perpetually pulling himself together after yet another drunk to once again save Canada. Western Canada remains an afterthought throughout. Yet to the extent that the author calls Civil War readers’ attention to those two intertwined paths to nationhood, Boyko still makes a measured contribution to period studies.

Things go south, unfortunately, when Boyko’s narrative goes south. Simply put, the author’s obvious lack of familiarity with the Civil War leads to a litany of errors, incomplete descriptions, and misstatements, especially in the book’s first half, that taken together undermine the whole. His definition of “abolition,” for example, is too broad to be useful. Boyko’s explanation of slave surnames is off-base, while his description of Underground Railroad conductors as “sympathetic white people” is passé (22). The author misunderstands Manifest Destiny, conflates the Compromise of 1850 with the Fugitive Slave Law while having Millard Fillmore sign Henry Clay’s Omnibus Bill, and implies that Samuel Gridley Howe was with John Brown at Harpers Ferry. Matters do not improve with the coming of war. Lincoln calls for volunteers “on the afternoon of Sumter’s fall,” after which Robert E. Lee “offered his services to Jefferson Davis, who accepted without hesitation” (71). The author stumbles even more egregiously when he attempts to explain both the second wave of secession and the first battle at Manassas, which also was not fought on July 12, 1861. Other timing issues create similar confusion, as when Boyko seemingly mixes up Seven Pines with Gaines’ Mill. No, George B. McClellan and the Army of the Potomac did not fight at Second Bull Run. No, Vicksburg is not in Tennessee. No, William Tecumseh Sherman did not march to the sea across South Carolina. And so it goes, until the exasperated reader wants nothing so much as to put down the book and mimic John Macdonald.

Apparently part of the problem is that the author’s research did not adequately supplement prior lack of knowledge. Here the qualifier “apparently” is appropriate because unfortunately it is sometimes impossible to determine what sources the author actually did use. To be fair, trade presses routinely frown upon scholars’ methodological zeal to footnote fully, yet too much specific information in Blood and Daring goes uncited. Moreover, the secondary works that are referenced frequently are often older volumes, such as Douglas Southall Freeman’s Lee and even Carl Sandburg’s Lincoln, or else popular histories, notably Amanda Foreman’s A World on Fire (2011), and, inevitably, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals (2005). No American archives are listed in the bibliography, although the author extensively mined Canadian repositories.

One of the most welcome trends of the current sesquicentennial has been a growing interest in placing the American Civil War in world context. The interlacing events of Canadian and American nationalism need to be a significant part of that reevaluation. Unfortunately, Blood and Daring in the end muddies as much as it explains.
Kenneth W. Noe is Alumni Professor and Draughon Professor of Southern History at Auburn University, and most recently the editor of The Yellowhammer War: Alabama in the Civil War and Reconstruction, forthcoming from the University of Alabama Press.

Leave a Reply

LONGACRE: J.E.B. Stuart (2024)

With a firm and even hand on the tiller, Edward Longacre supplies a fresh and highly recommended account of Lee’s purple plumed cavalryman.