NOVA SCOTIANS IN THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR (October 6/00)

It may surprise some that Nova Scotians were involved in and deeply affected by the American Civil War. The “bloodiest conflict in American history” had long reaching consequences in this and the other Maritime provinces. Historians estimate that at least 10,000 Maritimers served with the Union and Confederate forces during the Civil War. Many of these men, and in at least one case a woman, were Nova Scotians.

The Maritime Provinces’ involvement in the Civil War is told in detail by Greg Marquis in his book, In Armageddon’s Shadow, which was published in 1998 by McGill-Queen’s University Press. Prof. Marquis’ book is available through the Annapolis Valley Regional Library and I recommend it to anyone interested in the Civil War and Nova Scotia’s involvement. Canada was about to become a nation when the Civil War raged and Marquis presents an interesting view of Nova Scotia’s waffling on the issue of joining Confederation.

With Prof. Marquis’ permission, I’ve taken excerpts from his book that refer to Nova Scotia and in particular, the Annapolis Valley. Chapter three (The Race Question) has a reference to a black Nova Scotian who served in the Union navy.

“One Afro-Nova Scotian who served for the Union was Ben Jackson, from Lockhartville…. Using the name Lewis Saunders, Jackson joined the U.S. Navy in 1864… He first sailed on the brig Chalerdonia from Horton at the age of sixteen in 1851. During his stint with the navy, ‘Lewis Saunders’ served on the frigate USS Potomoc, the Richmond, and the Carolina. He saw action in the attack on Fort Morgan and was wounded while posted to the Richmond during an attempt to remove an explosive mine from the Mississippi. He appears to have served as a gun captain in the 2,700-ton steam sloop. This Bluenose sailor was treated at Pensacola, Florida, and at Brooklyn naval base hospital before his honorable discharge in 1865. He returned to Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley, where a road outside Hantsport bears his name.”

A Nova Scotian won America’s highest award for valor, the Congressional Medal of Honour, during the Civil War. Marquis writes that the award was won by Halifax’s Charles Robinson while serving as boatswain on the gunboat Baron de Kalb in the western theater. Robinson was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honour for bravery in 1862. Robinson returned to Halifax where after a career as a policeman and storekeeper, he died in 1891. On his death, Marquis notes neglected to mention his Civil War service and his rare achievement.

Other Annapolis Valley references in the book include one with a Kentville connection. “Walter Wile of Kentville remembers family tales based on a series of old letters sent to his aunt from his four uncles, all of whom were in the Union regiments,” Marquis notes. A Kings County resident, Hugh Munro, served in a Maine regiment. Wounded at the siege of Charleston, Munro was mustered out in 1864 “and received his pension in later years at Welsford.” On page 221 mention is made of the infamous Confederate raider Tallahasse capturing a Boston-bound ship loaded with wood from Kentville.

Prof. Marquis discusses the commercial climate during the Civil War and several references to shipbuilding illustrate its importance here in the 19th century. “Maitland at the mouth of Nova Scotia’s Shubenacadie River was a beehive of activity with twenty vessels on the stocks at one point in 1863. ‘From Canning upwards to Truro,’ a journalist reported, ‘the whole shore is speckled with shipyards.’ The Minas Basin shore from Noel to Five Mile River built thirty-five vessels… in 1863 and 1864.”

A former lecturer at Saint Mary’s University, Prof. Marquis now teaches history at the University of New Brunswick.

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