Why would Blacks who fled slavery for a better life in Canada return to the United States to join the Union Army in the four-year American Civil War?
Canadian historian Bryan Prince recounts the stories of some of these brave men who gave up their freedom in the war that threatened British North America in his new book, My Brother’s Keeper: African-Canadians and the American Civil War.
“We hear about stories of triumph and people coming to Canada via the Underground Railroad,” Prince told Share from his Chatham residence. “But what we so seldom hear about is how the Civil War affected the lives here of not only the soldiers who went back to fight, but their families who had to struggle after their sons and husbands went off to the war as they were trying to build a new life here.
“It’s an international story and such an important part of Canadian history and certainly Canadian Black history that I just think people should know about. I have always loved that era of history, researching it and trying to know more about these people. It’s just a passion that I have. Some of these stories are so fascinating that I felt compelled to share them.”
One of Prince’s favourite stories surrounds Garland White, who came to Canada in 1860 and was a recruiter and one of the first Black commissioned officers in the United States Army.
After the war, White lived in Indianapolis briefly, serving as a trustee at the AME Church during the difficult Reconstruction period. He moved to Ohio, petitioning to work for the Freedman’s Bureau, but his request was denied. He later served as a Baptist Minister in North Carolina before passing away in 1892.
“I came across Garland when I spent a lot of time in Maryland doing research for my second book (A Shadow on the Household),” said Prince, who has authored four books. “One of the nice things about him is that he left a written trail of so many things he did. From his writings, you get snapshots of what it was like in those Black regiments. In a newspaper column he did, he wrote about the carnage of war and the men as they were going into battle knowing that they would probably be killed. They told him to let their families know that they died bravely.”
Just after the Confederate surrender that ended the Civil War, White – who was taken from his Virginia home and sold to Robert Toombs, who went on to become a prominent Georgia politician, was reunited with his mother after 25 years.
“You can just picture that scene,” said Prince, who is a descendant of slaves who came to Canada prior to the American Civil War. “That’s such a powerful story.”
While Canada provided a safe haven for fleeing slaves, Prince says he understands why many of them wanted to return to the land of the birth to fight.
“They had homes and families here and became part of the community,” he said. “To give up that freedom and return to the uncertainty of war just shows how deeply that whole institution of slavery was. You have to remember they left many loved ones behind and the United States was their home. Home is always home.”
Prince, whose wife, Shannon Prince, is a storyteller and curator at the Buxton National Historic Site & Museum, said his latest book took about a decade to complete.
“I started the project about 10 years ago, but as I kept researching, some other story would grab hold of me and not let go,” he said. “I wrote two other books in the meantime before I returned to this one on a full-time basis about two years ago.”
On February 25, Prince – who also authored I Came as a Stranger and One More River to Cross, will appear in the eh List author series at Toronto City Hall.
My Brother’s Keeper: African-Canadians and the American Civil War is available at most bookstores. The book costs $26.99 plus tax.