American Civil War

American Civil War, 1861-65, sectional conflict between the Northern US states (Union) and the Southern states that seceded and formed the Confederacy. It was important in the development of a separate Canadian identity.

Canadian opinion was generally anti-Northern, and the Washington government, aware of this, was hostile to both Britain and British North America. Britons and Canadians, predicting a Southern victory, anticipated an attack on Canada by the Northern army, which many thought would seek territory in compensation. Resulting tension along the border led to numerous minor incidents, much misunderstanding and 4 significant crises, including the Alabama, Trent and Chesapeake incidents. The fourth, raids on St Albans, Vermont, in fall 1864 by Confederates based in Montréal, brought pursuing Northern troops onto Canadian soil. Confederates hoped to draw the North into violating British neutrality in Canada, with a view to inciting Britain to declare war on the North, but the attempt failed.

Immediately after the war a series of Fenian raids heightened tensions along the border; they likely would not have been tolerated by the Americans had there not been a legacy of hostility left between Canada and the Union, notwithstanding the enlistment of many Canadians in the Northern armies. This hostility led to the American abrogation of the 1854 Reciprocity Treaty at the earliest possible opportunity, in March 1866.

In analysing the causes of the war John A. Macdonald blamed the excessive power given to the states under the American Constitution, and he determined that the British North America Act would not repeat this flaw. He also established a border patrol, forerunner to the North-West Mounted Police. Perhaps most important, the threat of American invasion, made explicit by the aftermath of the St Albans Raid, led the British to favour Confederation of the BNA colonies for more effective defence. Thus the war contributed directly to both the timing and the form of Confederation.