October 27, 2014

Features | January 26, 2012
John Wilkes Booth lived here
How Montreal fell for the Confederacy
Written by Matt Herzfeld | Visual by Courtesy of the McCord Museum

“I must post myself in Canuck airs,” said John Wilkes Booth, the man who assassinated Abraham Lincoln. “For some of us…may have to settle here shortly.” Booth had been making brief visits to Montreal for some time, and he planned on fleeing to Canada after shooting Lincoln. He never made it back north.

After doing the deed at Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C. on April 14, 1865, Booth was chased through Virginia, where he was shot in a barn by a crazed soldier from the 16th New York cavalry who had been sent to capture, not kill, Booth. (The gunman, Boston Corbett, exemplified the original meaning of the phrase, “mad as a hatter;” he went insane from the mercury he used in his work making top hats and bowlers. Crazy enough to castrate himself in 1858.) Booth was found with several items on him, including a bank receipt from the Royal Ontario Bank in Montreal.

Booth’s desire – to seek political refuge in Canada – has been shared by generations of Americans, from British Loyalists after the American Revolution to Iraq War resisters. And as the newest parade of laughable candidates for President takes to the nation’s podiums, town halls, and state fairs, America will ring once again with the rallying cry of, “If so and so is elected, I’m moving to Canada.”

But Booth was part of one political migration to Canada with an oft-neglected history. During and shortly after the American Civil War, between 1861 and 1865, scores of leading Confederate politicians and agents made Montreal their home. The city harbored fugitives, offered up its most lavish hotels to the machinations of racist assassins, and fêted slave owners. Like a vine with tendrils lodged in the cracks of a great stone wall, Montreal insinuated itself into the war of its southern neighbor. And like that vine, it wasn’t too particular about which side it attached itself to.

***

Imagine you’re walking in the Old Port in 1864 (although it was quite new then, so you might have just called it “the Port”), wearing a coat sewn together from several families’ worth of beaver pelts. If you were a well-heeled southerner in the mid-19th century, Montreal would have held a lot of charm. By 1861, Montreal boasted over 90,000 inhabitants, making it not only the largest city in Canada, but also more than twice as populous as Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital. Sherbrooke, according to a contemporary account, was “scarcely surpassed by Fifth Avenue in New York in the magnificence of its buildings.” It also proudly advertised over 100 houses of prostitution.

You decide to warm up your body and wet your beak at St. Lawrence Hall, the swank hotel on St. James.

The bar this evening is busy with lingering customers and clouded with smoke. Redcoats and grey coats mingle. This is, after all, the headquarters of the British forces sent to protect the provinces if the war down south decides to creep over the border.

But St. Lawrence Hall is also the staging ground of several covert Confederate operations outside of the U.S. The place is shimmering with the accents and manners of Dixie: it is, reportedly, the only hotel in Canada that serves mint juleps.

Mostly, the Confederates in Montreal were a shambolic bunch. One of them, P.C. Martin, thwarted his own plan to burn New York City to the ground when, afraid of being found out, he closed the door of the hotel room in which he had begun the blaze, cutting off the fire’s oxygen supply so that it burned little besides the room itself. He would later sink with a ship in the St. Lawrence and never be seen again.

The family of another Montreal conspirator, Jacob Thompson, would be caricatured as one of the fallen-from-glory Compsons in William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. Indeed, not only was the Oxford, Mississippi native’s home burned down during the war, but in order to avoid charges, Thompson took over $200,000 of stolen money to France with him in order to survive at the Grand Hotel in Paris. Like Elvis, Thompson would die in Memphis.

Yet another, John Wilkes Booth, was from one of the most distinguished acting families of his generation (his brother was the famous Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth). He visited St. Lawrence Hall several times in relation to a conspiracy involving the kidnapping of Lincoln under the pretext of “oil speculations.” During one covert mission in 1864, Booth brought his entire wardrobe with him – including the costumes for Macbeth, Caesar, and Hamlet.

Clayton Gray, in his book Conspiracy in Canada, offers the following quote from Booth, by way of Lawrence Hall owner Henry Hogan: “It makes little difference, head or tail, Abe’s contract is near up, and whether re-elected or not he will get his goose cooked.”

Another conspirator in Lincoln’s assassination, John Surratt, Jr., was also a frequent visitor to Montreal, where he would briefly hide out after Lincoln’s death. Surratt spoke fondly of Montreal – it was there that he bought his prized “Garibaldi” jacket, which he was often seen wearing around town. Though while on a public lecture tour some years later Surratt would eventually admit his involvement in the scheme to kidnap Lincoln, he would not be charged with conspiracy. (Surratt’s mother was charged, and became the first woman executed by the US government.) In his diary, Surratt mentions attacks being planned from Canada on “frontier towns” and planned fire-raids on northern cities, including Boston and New York.

These were part of a larger scheme intended to paralyze the North while the armies of the South regrouped. On October 19, 1864, a band of Confederates led by Bennett H. Young set out from Montreal and ambushed the border town of St. Alban’s, Vermont, killing people and livestock, ruining property, and stealing $208,000 from banks. The raid and the sensational trial that followed caused a major stir in both the Canadian and American press, with New York papers and several Anglophone news outlets calling for war between Canada and the Union. The raid had been planned in the rooms of St. Lawrence Hall.

When Young was denied re-entry into the states by Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s successor as President, he moved back to Montreal briefly. Colonel Young came back in 1911, staying at the Ritz Carlton, where he was greeted like a celebrity, visited by droves of people. Among them was Jack Abott, whose father John had defended Young in the St. Alban’s trial, and then become Canada’s third prime minister.

***

If you lived in Canada, and particularly in Montreal, during the Civil War, there was a surprisingly good chance you were rooting for the South to win. Of course, many supported the North because they felt it stood for the end of slavery. But much of the Anglophone press whistled Dixie during the war: the Montreal and Ottawa Gazettes were most vocal in their support for the Confederacy, and The Toronto Leader was pro-slavery until 1862, when a new editor took charge. Then there are the numerous reports of Confederate bigwigs, such as Bennett H. Young, being fawned over by polite, Anglo Montreal society.

A strain of sympathy for the Confederacy ran through French Canadian public opinion at the time, too. Only about half of the French-speaking population was literate, and, as historian Preston Jones makes clear, once the Catholic church advocated a view, it was largely adopted by the French-speaking population. The Church, and therefore the masses, was distinctly anti-American.

For many conservative French Canadians, America, with its Mormon polygamists and high crime rate, was a kind of modern Gomorrah. Abraham Lincoln, meanwhile, was seen as an evil dictator. Following his assassination, The Canadien, though mildly praising the American president’s fortitude amidst adversity, remarked that, “today, carried away by grief and an exaggeration particular to the American spirit, [Americans] don’t hesitate to place Mr. Lincoln alongside Washington, and they even go so far as to compare him to Moses.”

On the other hand, influential outlets like the Gazette des Campagnes were writing about the south that it embodied the principles of “learning, the art of war, liberty, patriotism and…honor.”

The French Catholic church saw the growing Americanization of Francophones as corrupting, and strictly forbade any involvement in the war. Thus, for these deeply religious people, enlisting amounted to heresy. In his study of the Civil War and French Quebec, Preston Jones notes that, according to the Gazette des Compagnes, “the American Civil War was part and parcel of a global unholy war being waged against Catholicism; as in Mexico and revolutionary France, an anti-Catholic gangrene was working destruction in America.”

If the word of the Church wasn’t enough for you, enlistment in the Union cause was also illegal, per the British Foreign Enlistment Act of 1861.

In some ways, it isn’t hard to see why many French Quebecois bore a grudge against the Union. Thousands of their sons and husbands enlisted in what was seen as a Protestant army which, many feared, would invade British North America as soon as they were done handling the Confederacy. This wasn’t crazy – the New York Herald called for the annexation of Canada in 1861, and, in 1858, the abolitionist John Brown said the Union should overthrow the “Priestocracy” of French Canada.

And often when Americans were searching for easy recruits, they preyed on French Quebecois, leading to a widespread impression that Northerners were a deceitful bunch.

Despite the temptations of escape from the miseries of army life in a gruesome war (some 600,000 Americans died in the Civil War), desertion was incredibly dangerous. In a letter from his base in Richmond that was reprinted in a French-language newspaper, one enlisted Quebecois described a scene where, “one of [his] compatriots was shot…he was accused of desertion.” That same soldier remarked that in a two-month span, seven or eight soldiers suffered the same fate. As far as the Canadian soldier could tell, the Yankees saw Canadians as mere “cannon fodder.”

And if soldiers were not wounded or killed in combat, they faced the perils of disease, which were increased by the frighteningly bad sanitation standards of the time. One Quebecois soldier, Eusèbe Ouimet, fell ill in a Union camp, and without proper treatment, died shortly thereafter of consumption, after receiving rushed last-rites from the Archdiocese of Montreal.

Nevertheless, almost all of the French Canadians who enlisted in the American Civil War did so with the Union side, for obvious geographic reasons. A recent study by historian Tom Brooks, for example, found French Canadians enlisted in 500 Union regiments but only 46 regiments for the Confederacy. All in all, about 50,000 people from the area that is now Canada fought in the American Civil War, with about 40,000 fighting on the Union side.

The disparity was, for the most part, not driven by moral scruples. Yes, many French were morally opposed to slavery, and the publication of a French translation of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin increased abolitionist sentiment amongst the French in Quebec. But their stance could best be described as indifference. They just weren’t confronted with the issue of chattel slavery on a regular basis. The practice was never prevalent in Canada, being completely outlawed in British colonies by 1833. Furthermore, the black population of Quebec was nearly non-existent: 18 in 1851, all the way up to 190 in 1861. And even though Canada was the endpoint of the Underground Railroad, Quebec was known to offer bounties for captured fugitive slaves.

***

Fugitive slave-owners, meanwhile, had an easier time coming across the border. The family of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, was sheltered in Montreal during and after the Civil War. Anyone who goes to McGill has likely passed the place where the Davis family lived, on Union. (The irony of the street name could not have been lost on the man who had worked to dissolve his country’s Union for the previous five years). The Davises lived with the family of John Lovell, a Montreal publishing baron. His house was on the same block as William Osler’s, Sir Thomas George Roddick’s, and William Molson’s, all familiar names to McGill students.

Lovell, who owned the most prominent printing press and publishing house in Montreal (and now the oldest – it is still run by the Lovell family in the same Old Port building), was very popular among Montreal’s social and political elite. Among Lovell’s close friends were politicians and Confederation activists Thomas D’Arcy McGee, John A. MacDonald, and George Etienne Carter. (Not to be confused with Confederates, Confederationists were calling for the creation of a separate Dominion of Canada.)

Two years after the war, a time in which he faced incarceration in the US, Jefferson Davis escaped to Canada, partly to join his family and partly because his secret papers regarding the Confederacy were hidden in the vaults of the Bank of Montreal in Place d’Armes, where his sister-in-law had left them after smuggling them into the country.

Canada greeted him like a hero. One account of his arrival in Ontario describes a scene of thousands of people in the streets eagerly awaiting a glimpse of the fallen figure.

After arriving in Montreal, Davis attended a performance at the Royal Theatre on what was then Cote St. (at the back of St. Lawrence Hall). When, midway, through the performance people realized he was in the theatre, a wave of whispers spread through the fashionable (and largely Anglo-Protestant) crowd. Soon, people were applauding and tossing their hats in the air. “Dixie! Dixie! Dixie!” they cried. Describing the scene in the New York Times on August 4, 1867, a correspondent wrote, “such a unanimous tribute never greeted a monarch as that expressed for Mr. Davis.”

Eventually, he settled into a house at what is now 1181 Montagne (a house paid for by Confederate sympathizers in town) and worked on his famous defense of the Confederacy, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government. He would spend two years there. In a 1960 Montreal Gazette article, an elderly woman recalled Davis’ living nearby and his several “negro servants” frequently entering her father’s general store for supplies.

In the fall of 1867, the Davis’ moved to Lenoxville, QC, near Sherbrooke, where his son attended Bishop’s College. Davis would have spoken at convocation had he not taken a fall on the front stairs of their home.

When Davis became very ill, his medical advisor, D.C. MacCallum of the McGill Faculty of Medicine, urged him to “go to a milder climate.” Montreal, which had welcomed him and his compatriots so warmly, had finally gotten too cold for this consummate man of the south.

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