The Union Army’s false Afro-Canadians

Via my Twitter feed, I see that my host for the Past Present talk last week has an interesting article in the New York Times‘s blog on the Civil War, Disunion.  Adam Arenson, who is headed to Manhattan College later this year, has discovered a number of false Canadian volunteers for the Union Army.  After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, it was no longer sufficient merely for runaway slaves to cross into a free U.S. state, as Eliza did in Uncle Tom’s Cabin in her desperate bid to cross the semi-frozen Ohio River with her little boy from Kentucky to Ohio.  The Fugitive Slave Act effectively denied that there was any such thing as a free state, so escape to Canada was the only sure means to escape the grasp of the U.S. slaveocracy.  The result, according to Arenson?  Fake Canadian volunteers!

As for those men who enlisted in St. Louis in August 1864, the man listed on the rolls as Jerry Watson explained to pension officers: “I did not tell them I was born in Canada and I was not asked where I was born.” Another, John Adams, said he had been enslaved in his home state of Kentucky, and that “I ran way from there and came to St. Louis and enlisted.” So why was he listed as a foreigner? “They had me say I was from Canada,” Adams replied. They — white substitute recruiters, paid a portion of the bounty, or perhaps even the enlistment officers themselves — seem to have coached these black men to claim foreign birth, and the advantages of a new identity for joining the Army. That could explain the strange phrase on Adams’s enlistment record: “born Canada British Prov.” — a description that doth protest too much.

With the flick of a pen, fugitive slaves could gain a connection to British North America, and lose some of the clues that would allow angry slaveholders or worried family members to track them down. Some of the African-Americans who had escaped to Canada considered the Great Lakes crossing as a new baptism, or coming under the protection of the British Lion’s paw. The experience of these soldiers as fake Canadians demonstrates how the talismanic power of Canada could extend far south of the border, to dwell in the minds of Union citizens and soldiers alike during the Civil War.

Adam blogs at, and he’s on Twitter too at @adamarenson.

My next question:  when in recent history did it become fashionable for U.S. Americans to claim to be Canadians when traveling outside of North America?  I’m guessing the Vietnam War era, when so many U.S. Americans slipped over the border to evade the draft.  (A new friend of mine and a modern U.S. historian is the daughter of an illegal immigrant U.S. draft resister dad and a Canadian mum.)  Oh, those useful neighbors to our north!

6 thoughts on “The Union Army’s false Afro-Canadians

  1. Thanks for this!

    I found the fake Canadians while looking for those who really came south to fight in the Civil War and claim the promises of Reconstruction; I wrote about them as well for the NYT Disunion series, last year: There were white deserters in Canada during the Civil War as well, FYI.

    As for the tradition of “Buy a giant backpack / sew a flag on the back,” as the Canadian boys in Barenaked Ladies suggest, I think it was a Canadian response to being confused with The Ugly Americans, and some Americans have taken a free-rider option to join them. When I visited the Great Pyramids in 1998, my companion and I agreed to respond to every language with a look of confusion, and the souvenir-hawkers tried, in turn, English, French, Spanish, Japanese,…


  2. Canada loomed over the imaginations of my entire generation of American (college age) men, if your draft lottery number was anywhere below, say, 197, the first year they did that. Mine wasn’t, but I did a sort of valedictory loop from Winnipeg to Toronto on a trip during the summer after my first year in graduate school.


  3. When I was in the UK in the 70s, people thought I was Canadian, I think partly because my accent is not easily defined as a regional one, and maybe because I wasn’t rude. I wouldn’t always disabuse people, but when I did, they were surprised. Europeans tend to have a tourist bête noir of the moment, and the Americans then were it. (Now it’s the Chinese.). So while I’m sure Vietnam contributed, it was also the sense that Americans lacked culture. So if you seemed educated, polite, cultured, you were Canadian.


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