10,000 Nova Scotians fought against slavery

Shunpiking Magazine No. 38

Much has been written about the Under- ground Railroad bringing slaves to the Canadas, less about its terminus in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, but virtually nothing about the participation of Nova Scotians, white and black, in the blood spilled in the US Civil War, and the motives impelling so many to make such sacrifices.

This historical amnesia has led to public ignorance today about our own history. This history reveals that the flying of the Confederate flag in Nova Scotia today is, among other things, a despicable insult to the sacrifice of Nova Scotians.

Yet this history is omitted by Harry Bruce in his award-winning An Illustrated History of Nova Scotia, sponsored by Communications Nova Scotia. Neither does our public history - the monuments to war veterans throughout Nova Scotia, museums and historical markers - tell the story.

Bruce, for instance, romanticizes the profits made from the Civil War; it "was a magnificent bonus"[201] and "good to Nova Scotia"[203]. Bruce Nunn - "Mr. Nova Scotia Know-It-All" - reflects this historical amnesia too when he writes ambigiously that some 50,000 Canadians went to fight for the North "for many different reasons".

The issue is not this or that author, but to illustrate how contemporary writers shy away from representing the strong and moral stand of Nova Scotians. History is simply "forgotten".

Bruce often cites Author Thomas H. Raddall's Halifax: Warden of the North in his tale. Yet Raddall writes very clearly : "One 'Highland' regiment raised in Boston in 1861 consisted almost wholly of Nova Scotians, some of whom were members of the Halifax militia; and their tales of battle appearing in letters to home newspapers were followed with all the avidity of a people at war."

In Nova Scotia in the 1860s general public opinion sympathized with the North. But society was divided. Part of the aristocracy openly supporting the southern slavocracy and Britain.

Yet on May 13, 1861 - in response to the blockade of the Confederate ports declared by the United States in April - Queen Victoria issued a proclamation of neutrality in the war between the Northern and the Southern states. It stated that the blockade of the South would be approved only if it were effective. At the same time it recognized the right of the Confederates to seize Federal ships on the high seas. Britain recognized the belligerent status of the Confederacy in fact.

Transports packed with troops and war materials were rushed to Canada (the ports of Halifax, Saint John and Rimouski); 5,000 British troops swarmed Halifax, the old defence works of the port were recast and, by 1865, some 60,000 Nova Scotians had been trained for the militia.

"Thus, there was a little War between the States in Halifax itself, each with its own ardent group of Haligonian supporters," Raddall observes.

"It was said that by the war's end not less than 10,000 Nova Scotians had fought in the blue ranks of the North… The general sentiment against slavery gave a majority for the North..."

Similarly, various anti-slavery societies appeared in the Canadas with the goal of aiding escaped slaves from the United States who sought refuge in Canada - the Underground Railroad.

It was mainly by small farmers and fishermen, traders and artisans from rural Nova Scotia who enlisted, But the benefits of the conflict went to "Haligonian South Enders." War is an enormous source of profit. "By 1862 one third of the ships entering the port of Boston were windjammers from Nova Scotia... Halifax was as prosperous as never before in all her boom and bust history. The city was glutted with money."

An important element of the aristocracy, including descendents of slave-owning Loyalists - the Ritchie family, Keiths and others - sided with the South, providing new ships, smuggling and the new business of blockade-running, and giving hospitality to Confederate agents and legal support to captains of captured naval ships.

"In Halifax, the pro-South sentiment was strong," Raddall writes. Says one eyewitness… "The town was filled with Southern agents ... (who) with the official classes and the military and the navy to win over, put no restraint on their lavishness."

Nietzsche spoke of "creative forgetfulness" as essential to historical memory. But what is not memorialized tells us as much about a society's sense of the past as it does about its present.

- Tony Seed, based on an article which appeared in shunpiking's Black History Supplement, 2000

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