The American Civil War and Lessons Learned
“Though he had been part of an administration which, as early as 1858, favoured a federal union, he had always been cool to the idea because, he stated in a public address in 1861, he feared a federation would have ‘the defects in the Constitution of the United States’ – a weak central government. Macdonald had always preferred a highly centralized, preferably unitary, form of government that would not be torn by jurisdictional disputes, which, he believed, had been ‘so painfully made manifest’ during the Civil War.”
The war also presented diplomatic challenges, especially when Confederates used Canada as a base of operations against the Union. Towards the conflict’s end, judge Charles-Joseph COURSOL aggravated the already-strained relationship between the United States and its northern neighbour:
“On 19 Oct. 1864 a group of about 20 Confederate soldiers, who had gathered in Canada East, launched an attack on the border town of St Albans, Vt, looting and firing it. Pursued back across the border by a local posse, 14 of the raiders were arrested by Canadian authorities and were held in Saint-Jean (Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu) on six charges of extraditable offences. Coursol was sent from Montreal to act as the presiding magistrate when the preliminary examinations opened in the last week of October. Shortly after the trial began, Coursol changed the venue to Montreal. On 13 December, after a prolonged trial, he discharged the prisoners and most of them fled the country. Ignoring the question of the legal status of ‘raiders’ under British law, and without referring the case either to the attorney general for Canada East, George-Étienne
In response to this incident and its ensuing tensions, Macdonald strengthened the border with militia volunteers and created a small police force, later to become the Dominion Police, which operated secretly on both sides of the border. Shortly after the conclusion of the American Civil War in 1865, this force turned its sights on the threat posed by the Fenians, a group of Irish nationalists who believed that invasion of British North America would facilitate Irish independence [see The Fenians]. Gilbert McMICKEN, the force’s first commander in Canada West, reported directly to Macdonald:
“McMicken himself paid an undercover visit to a major Fenian congress in Philadelphia [in 1865]. When he discovered that a 15-man ‘Senate’ would work out details of an intended November invasion in secret, he proposed and set out to obtain ‘one or two clever women whose absolute virtue stands questioned by the censorious’ to get ‘susceptible members of the “senate” into their toils and thus as Delilah with Sampson possess themselves of their secrets.’”
To find out more about the impact of the American Civil War and Fenian raids on Macdonald’s political positions, we invite you to consult the following biographies.