History Slam Episode Fifty-Eight: African Canadians in the U.S. Civil War

By Sean Graham

The first time I learned about the American Civil War (1861-1865), it was kind of along the lines of this:

Of course any war is more complicated than a single word, but that succinct answer nicely sums up how a lot of people think of the Civil War.

And yet, since slavery was abolished in the British Empire in the 1830s, it doesn’t directly address the way in which Canada and Canadians were involved in the war. Historians like John Boyko have written about how the Civil War influenced the Canadian political landscape in the lead up to Confederation, but less is know about the people who crossed the border in order to participate in the bloody conflict. Even within that context, the story of African Canadians fighting in the Civil War is underrepresented.

In his book African Canadians in Union Blue: Volunteering for the Cause in the Civil War, Richard Reid, Professor Emeritus at the University of Guelph, addresses that under-representation by examining the men who left British North America to fight for the North. Reid highlights the various personal motivations of the soldiers and sailors who enlisted while also highlighting the seemingly universal desire to fight for freedom, justice, and equality.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Professor Reid about his book. We chat about the challenges of researching African Canadians in the Civil War, the tasks given to black regiments, and the domestic policies that shaped British North Americans’ participation in the conflict. We also examine the legacy of African Canadians fighting in the war and the historical oddity of Civil War pensions being paid into the 21st century.

Sean Graham is a historian of the Canadian broadcasting and the CBC with a PhD from the University of Ottawa. He is an editor at Activehistory.ca and host/producer of the History Slam Podcast. Like any red-blooded Canadian his ultimate dream is to be a curling champion while living on a diet of beer and poutine.

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