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Although the American Civil War occurred more than one and a half century ago (12 April 1861 – 9 May 1865), the issue of its commemoration remains current and controversial among the American population. It is estimated that about 2.75 million soldiers fought in the Civil War – 2 million for the North and 750,000 for the South. However, it is not well known that there were over 40,000 Canadian (British North American) veterans who volunteered and fought during this war, with about 36,000 who served with the Union forces and about 4,000 who served with the Confederate forces. Some 7,000 Canadian veterans were killed or died of wounds during the war. These Canadians – who made up about two percent of the total military forces – came from from Ontario, Québec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and travelled to various northern or southern U.S. cities to enlist in the Federal, or Confederate, army or navy. This number of Canadian volunteers is significant as the total 'Canadian' population at the time was only three million people.
Another little known fact is that there were 29 Canadians that were awarded the U.S. Medal of Honor – the equivalent to the British and Canadian Victoria Cross – for having distinguished themselves in battle during the Civil War (out of a total of 1,522 recipients). Eighteen were earned while serving with the U.S. Army and eleven while serving with the U.S. Navy. As weIl, five of the Canadian enlistees rose to the rank of general. There were of course, many other Canadians who became notable either during or after the war. For example, Calixa Lavallée (1842-1891) born in Verchères, Québec was an infantry lieutenant in the Union Army when the war began. He served in the 4th Rhode Island Regiment as a musician and was wounded at the Battle of Antietam in September 1862. It was eighteen years after his release from US military service that in 1880 Lavallée composed the music for "O Canada", Canada's national anthem which was first performed in Québec City during that year's Saint-Jean-Baptiste festivities. Another officer of note was Union Cavalry Lieutenant Edward Paul Doherty (1838-1897) of Montréal, Québec where his claim to fame is that he was the officer who formed and led the detachment of soldiers that captured and killed John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln. For this, he was promoted to captain and given a $5,250 reward. It should not be surprising that there were tales of women who disguised themselves as men in order to fight in the war. This include Sara Emma Edmonds (1841-1898) from Moncton, New Brunswick when she enlisted with the 2nd Michigan Volunteer Infantry Regiment under the name "Franklin Flint Thompson" where she served as a soldier, nurse and spy in the Union Army. In 1897, she became the only woman admitted to the Grand Army of the Republic, the Civil War Union Army veterans' organization. Another notable Canadian is Anderson Ruffin Abbott (1837-1913) who was born in Toronto, Ontario and was the first Canadian-born person of colour to graduate from medical school and served as a civilian surgeon with the United States Colored Troops (U.S.C.T.) at hospitals in Washington, D.C. and Arlington, Virginia. Dr. Abbott attended President Lincoln on his death bed. Another famous surgeon is Dr. John Lang Bray (1841-1915) – born in Kingston, Ontario – who served as a Confederate Army surgeon and was responsible for administering to thousands of sick and wounded patients in Libby Prison, a Confederate prison in Richmond, Virginia and later, in 1891, became president of the Canadian Medical Association. Lastly, let us not forget Private Oliver Ar-Pe-Targe-Zhik (c.1844-1864), an indigenous soldier who was born at Walpole Island, Ontario. It is known that he enlisted at age nineteen on 17 June 1863 at Dearborn, Michigan for a period of three years with Company K, 1st Michigan Sharpshooters. He died on 9 July 1863, Washington, D.C. of wounds received in action at Petersburg, Virginia on 17 June 1864 and is buried in the National Cemetery at Arlington, Virginia.
These notable Canadians are only but some of the thousands who served during the war and their service is well recognized as part of the thousands of memorials that were erected across the United States but few such vestiges can be found above the 45th parallel. Essentially, all that remains are a few rare American Civil War historical/commemorative plaques found in the provinces of Québec and Ontario, some official military headstones in cemeteries of war veterans who returned to their Canadian roots at the conclusion of the war, and most recently, the inscription of the names of seven local residents who served during the American Civil War onto a memorial unveiled in November 2016 in Souris, Prince Edward Island. Ten months later, on 16 September 2017, after two years of research, planning and fundraising, a 'National Memorial in memory of Canadians who served during the American Civil War' was officially unveiled at Long Sault, Ontario. This was a joint-project at the initiative of Lieutenant-Colonel Robert McLachlan – President of the Grays and Blues of Montreal (Québec), a Civil War re-enactment group – and Honorary Colonel Jim Brownell – President of Lost Villages Historical Society at Long Sault, Ontario. This is the only monument that is solely dedicated to all of the Canadian volunteers who fought and served on both sides in the American Civil War. Dubbed Canada's 'national memorial' to the cause, it comprises a three-metre black granite obelisk as the memorial's centre piece, two commemorative walls – one listing recipients of medals and honours and another for donors' names – as well as two stone memorial benches.
On this day, 16 September 2021, we commemorate the 4th anniversary of the National Memorial in memory of the 40,000 Canadians who served during the American Civil War and mark more than 156 years since the end of the American Civil War.
André M. Levesque