Freshly defeated in the U.S. Civil War, Confederate leader Jefferson Davis came to Canada to give the newly founded country defence tips
Tristin Hopper | July 25, 2014 7:32 PM ET
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Over July and August, more than five million foreigners will come to Canada on their summer vacation. For the rest of the summer, the National Post presents this series on the revolutionaries, luminaries and criminals who have taken time out from shaping world events to pay us a visit — and how that visit shaped them. Today, the time a failed separatist was welcomed in Quebec:
It was on the spur of the moment when John Henry Hill decided to alight for freedom. In 1853, the 25-year-old Virginia slave was just about to be handcuffed and led to the auction block when he suddenly brandished a hidden knife, sent his terrified captors fleeing, and disappeared into the surrounding city.
Hill soon found himself in the care of the Underground Railroad, the secret network of safe houses ferrying escaped slaves to freedom in Canada. After a nine month odyssey, he disembarked at Toronto and took his first steps into the “Promised Land” of British North America.
Read the entire ‘It Happened in Canada’ series
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“I have seen more Pleasure since I came here than I saw in the U.S. the 24 years I served my master,” he wrote to William Still, the Underground Railroad’s main agent in Philadelphia. “Come Poor distress men and women and come to Canada where colored men are free.”
A mere 14 years later, the lands of Canada would seem just as welcoming to a man who could not have been more opposite to John Henry Hill. In fact, it was a man who had given up his political career, his fortune and even his freedom to ensure that men like Hill remained enslaved.
In May, 1867, few Canadians noticed when a train trundled into Montreal carrying Jefferson Davis, the deposed president of the Confederate States of America.
Matthew Brady/Library of Congress
Matthew Brady/Library of CongressJefferson Davis, circa between 1858 and 1860
Davis was a marked man blamed by Northerners and Southerners alike for the deadliest war in U.S. history, and after a harrowing train journey through New York — where he would have needed to avoid the gaze of war widows and crippled veterans alike — Davis was just happy to be in a country where nobody recognized him.
“My trip was so devoid of incident that like the weary knife grinder, I have no tale to tell,” he wrote in a letter to his brother.
There had been a time not too long before where Davis could have assumed that history would remember him as a second George Washington: A hesitant but duty-bound figure who had led a righteous revolution against an overbearing oppressor.
Instead, his Confederacy was under military occupation, 500,000 of his countrymen were dead, and slavery had been permanently abolished.
Davis, gaunt and weakened by two years in a military jail, had headed north to join his exiled family in a crowded Montreal boarding house and begin looking for a job.
“In mining I think there is profitable employment to be found,” wrote Davis in a hopeful letter to his brother. Mostly, though, the 60-year-old was depressed.
As Davis’ wife, Varina, would lament in a memoir, the couple had seen a generation of Southern manhood “mowed down by a countless host of enemies, overcome, broken in health and fortune … sustained only by the memory of having vindicated their honor.”
Davis had planned to use his time in Canada to pen a memoir about the short-lived Confederate Government. But, overcome by solemnity, he shelved the project, telling his wife “I cannot speak of my dead so soon.”
EDWARD LIVINGSTON/ LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
EDWARD LIVINGSTON/ LIBRARY OF CONGRESSHome of Jefferson Davis, three generations
Six years before, Davis’ doomed Confederacy had begun in a burst of parades, bunting, “Secession Balls,” and celebratory cannon fire. The ex-Southern leader was now arriving in Canada just as Canadians were preparing to do the same.
In just a few weeks, on July 1, fireworks and brass bands would usher in the first Canada Day, although Canadians would call the holiday Dominion Day until 1982.
It was no coincidence that Canadian Confederation came together just as the United States was clearing away the ashes of the Civil War.
The 2.6 million inhabitants of British North America had been rightly spooked at the sudden appearance of 2.2 million Americans in arms, and the United States was not coy about the prospect of a third U.S. invasion of Canada.
Northern troops even had a cheery marching song boasting that when they were done with the South, they would swing north to sever Canada “from Britain’s crown.”
Thus, while mid-19th-century Canadians likely disagreed with Davis’ stance on human bondage, they welcomed him as a leader who had experienced exactly what they had long feared: A ruthless, all-out invasion by the armies of the United States.
Edward Wilson/Library of Congress
Edward Wilson/Library of CongressJefferson Davis from a portrait session from his home Beauvoir, near Biloxi, Mississippi, circa 1885
So, for the few months until the chilly Canadian weather sent Davis back home to the land of cotton, he found himself feted as a celebrity.
A Montreal printer, John Lovell, allowed Davis and his family to live in his mansion. At the Theatre Royal, he was welcomed with a standing ovation and peals of Dixie, the South’s unofficial anthem. And, in July, when Davis journeyed to Lennoxville, Que., to visit his son at college, his train was greeted by cheering Canadians.
“I thank you most kindly for this hearty British reception, which I take as a manifestation of your sympathy and goodwill for one in misfortune,” he told the crowd in an impromptu speech.
Canada was only six days old then, and it would soon go on to achieve everything Southerners had hoped for the Confederacy: A nation stretching from sea to sea, a transcontinental railroad and the reassurance of 150 years of secure borders.
Davis told the crowd of new Canadians he hoped they would “ever remain as free a people as you are now.”
“I hope that you will hold fast to their British principles, and that you may ever strive to cultivate close and affectionate connection with the mother country. Gentlemen, again, I thank you.”