Sunday, July 22, 2018

Just Finished Reading - My Brother's Keeper: African Canadians and the American Civil War

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 ensured a significant migration of African Americans who had earned their freedom by absconding from their former owners in slave states by fleeing to British North America. Remaining in the free states no longer proved safe for them with a strengthened fugitive slave law. However, long before 1850, fleeing slaves had sought refuge in Canada, beyond the reach of United States laws. 

Those individuals and their children often felt a strong calling to aid those of their race, both still enslaved toiling unrequited, as well as those freemen seeking an opportunity to prove their worthiness for U.S. citizenship and equal rights. Despite it being illegal for Canadian citizens to join in fighting for a foreign power, thousands still went to fight in the Civil War. Many African Canadians realized from the beginning that even though President Lincoln claimed it would be a war for the preservation of the Union, they saw it as an opportunity to at last strike a blow for freedom. 

Like large numbers of African Americans, African Canadians, too, eagerly anticipated the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation, and thus the opportunity to provide military service to the United States. Prince makes fascinating examinations of several aspects of his broad title. 

Chapters of the book look at different roles that African Canadians played in the Civil War. He discovers plenty of soldiers and sailors, many of whom fought in some of the most famous black regiments, like the 54th and 55th Massachusetts, and 6th USCI. He also examines the important role that both black men and women, many too aged for active service, played in recruiting efforts for the Union army. In addition, a chapter is devoted to the doctors, nurses, and chaplains with Canadian connections who served and supported the men in the fight. A chapter on the Freedmen's Inquiry Commission, who sought to ask both black and white Canadians about race related issues is particularly interesting. While some of those polled answered questions with prototypical mid-19th century racist responses, reading the diversity of responses reminds us that, like today, not everyone thought the same way 150 years ago either. 

One of the main strengths of the book in my opinion are the individual stories that the author tells throughout the work, particularly the one in the initial chapter. Similarly, the author incorporates a number of photographs and images that help the reader better visualize the people and issues he covers. As far as weaknesses: while the author does provide fairly consistent citations for the quotes he incorporates in the work, there were some that I was unable to locate in the book's end notes. 

Bryan Prince's My Brother's Keeper: African Canadians and the American Civil War fills a scholarship gap. Black Canadians influenced the Civil War in many ways previously underappreciated. Prince's book recognizes a number of these people and shed's needed light on their sacrifices and contributions to ultimate Union victory.

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