Title Reviewed:
African Canadians in Union Blue: Volunteering for the Cause in the Civil War

Author Reviewed:
Richard M. Reid

Donald R. Shaffer


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 111, Issue 3, pp 336-338

Article Type:
Book Review

Download Source:

African Canadians in Union Blue: Volunteering for the Cause in the Civil War
By Richard M. Reid
(Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2014. Pp. 3, 212. Illustrations, appendix, notes, bibliography, index. Paperbound, $28.95.)

Richard M. Reid's African Canadians in Union Blue, as its title suggests, examines the Canadian men of African descent who served in the American Civil War. Reid finds that about 2,500 black men residing in what was then still British Canada—some natives and others migrants from the United States—crossed the border to volunteer for the Union army and navy. "Sympathy for the emancipation struggle was widespread in British North American black American communities," he writes, especially in Canada West (present-day Ontario), where thousands of African Americans had found refuge before the war (p. 209). Hence, although ideology was not the only factor that motivated black men in Canada to serve in the Civil War, they nonetheless identified strongly with their racial compatriots in the United States—to the point of defying British law that forbade them from joining a foreign military. In fact, given the small population of blacks in Canada in the 1860s, the author finds that their participation rate in the Civil War "was not much lower" (p. 209) than that of African Americans in the Northern states.

African Canadians in Union Blue is a well-organized book, although at times it reads like a general study of black men in the Union military. Reid emphasizes units recruited in the North—hardly surprising given that most of the Canadian residents whom he identifies served in northern-based regiments, although a small number did somehow join black Union regiments raised in the South. Reid starts by describing Canada's black communities on the eve of the Civil War, then moves on to discuss the degree to which these communities engaged in the war and how many black men in Canada ended up serving (the latter question being complicated by Union military records that reveal little about the prewar residence of army recruits and the race of navy recruits). He then goes on to study the black Canadians who joined the Union navy, finding that they were part of a long international tradition of seamen serving on foreign vessels—both civilian and military. Reid follows with chapters on discrimination against blacks in the Union army—which for a time discouraged the recruitment of Canadian-based black men—and the improving conditions over the course of the war, which encouraged more black men from north of the border to come south for military service. The author finishes with a chapter on black Canadian physicians who made notable contributions as Union army surgeons, and another chapter on the postwar lives of these men. Reid finds that many of these black men stayed in the United States after the Civil War, not only encouraged by the improved racial climate for African Americans afterward, but also following a larger historical pattern of Canadians emigrating to take advantage of the better opportunities south of the border.

While Richard Reid addresses an admittedly obscure Civil War topic, he does so in a cogent and discerning fashion. African Canadians in Union Blue will no doubt be the standard work on this topic for some time to come, and deservedly so. It also stands as a worthwhile contribution to the growing literature examining the international manifestations of this conflict.

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans (2004) and a co-author of Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files (2008). He teaches college-level history online and maintains a regular blog at: cwe-mancipation.wordpress.com/.

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.