It would be difficult, should the American experiment fail, for the rest of the world not to gloat. After all, Americans had so often held themselves up as the ideal republic, to be emulated by lesser nations. That was at least the feeling in much of Britain and Canada as southern states began to secede from the union in 1860 on the eve of the American Civil War. But gloating would be short-sighted, because Canada and the British would soon find themselves on the brink of entering the American Civil War against the North.
My non-scientific poll of Canadian friends reveals little familiarity with the incident I’m about to describe, as well as a level of surprise that, were Canada to pick a side in the American Civil War, its most likely position would have been to fight against Lincoln’s Union. Here’s how it went down.
First, the North became pissed off with the British very early in the Civil War, when Britain granted “belligerency status” to the Confederacy. While not equalling full diplomatic recognition, this status did give the Confederacy more than zero legitimacy and allowed them some equal rights to the Union, like the use of neutral ports for fueling and repairs.
Why would Britain extend even this level of support to the rebels so quickly? Historians tend to agree that Britain was partial to helping out the South for a couple of reasons. One, they figured secession would be permanent, and that therefore they may as well start establishing relations with this new country. Two, and related, Britain got a lot of cheap cotton from the South, and that in turn was good for their industrial economy, and who really wants to think too hard about why the cotton was so cheap, the point is that it was cheap and cheap is good.
What could go wrong? The biggest risk, writes Herman Hattaway, was “the unsettling realization that the provinces of Canada lay open, virtually undefended, should the North decide to invade in retaliation for any British aid to the Confederacy.” Another historian says that “if the United States had decided, with its enormous armies in place during the Civil War, to march against Canada, Britain would have been helpless to stop it.”
Worse, if Britain tried to reinforce Canada, the supply chain depended on a river that was full of obstacles and frozen solid much of the year. Support would also be difficult because, Hattaway continues, “the Canadians never had gotten around to finishing their interprovincial rail line.” (“Damnit! Let’s not make that mistake again,” thought Canada.)
Then on November 8th, 1861, under these already tense circumstances, a Union ship seized some Confederate diplomats who were on their way to Europe. That might not have been a big deal, except that the Confederate diplomats were traveling on a British mail ship in neutral waters, which now starts to make this look like an act of war by the Union against the British empire. (The ship was called the RMS Trent, which is why this whole incident is known to historians as the Trent Affair.)
The reaction of the British public was not positive. One American in Britain at the time hypothesized that “were the country polled I fear 999 men out of 1,000 would declare for immediate war.” But as mad as the British were, they were far away in Britain. Except for the ones in Canada. Those ones were in Canada.
So the government in Britain started planning a preemptive Canadian invasion of the northern United States, starting with an attack on a fort on Lake Champlain, the scene of so many battles from both before and after Champlain named that lake after himself. (The French were always renaming everything.)
On December 4th, about a month after the Union’s transgression, President Lincoln met with future Canadian Father of Confederation Alexander Galt. The Dominion of Canada didn’t exist yet, but the Province of Canada did (try not to get them confused, or do, who cares, it’s all pretty fluid), and Galt was Canada’s Inspector General.
Instead of being reassured, the Canadian came away from his meeting with the American President concerned that “the policy of the American Govt is so subject to popular impulses, that no assurance can be or ought to be relied on under present circumstances.”
Within weeks, on December 18th, the British started moving troops to Canada in anticipation of war with the American North. As always, the ships they sent had to dodge ice in order to make it into Canada’s mouth. Eleven ships over two weeks transported more than 10,000 troops to Canada. Many were moved further inland across, ahem, ~acres of snow~ by sled, uncomfortably close to the Maine border, since the only available railroad went through Maine itself. (This country really needs its own railroad!)
Meanwhile the streets of Toronto were full of “excited discussions” about “the probabilities of a fight with the Americans.” Canadians themselves began organizing for war, activating and training tens of thousands of militia members. Unfortunately, the Canadian militia was a lazy parody of itself, with officers literally prefacing their orders with “please” and getting underwhelming response in return.
So what happened? Ultimately the Union concluded that beginning a war with Britain, in addition to their war against the Confederate rebels, was unwise. Regardless of the military dimensions, the threat of war was hurting the economies of all parties, and the longterm ramifications of a conflict with Britain would be bad. Additionally, there were members of the Union government who weren’t convinced the removal of passengers from a British ship had been legal. To avoid war, the United States backed down and released the prisoners, which satisfied the British.
The close call left a lasting impression on Canadians, who embarked on the project of Confederation just a few years later, in large part to create a political counterweight to the expansionary re-United States. The first order of business: finish the railroad!