As monuments come down south of border, new Civil War memorial to honour Canadians who fought

The Grays and Blues of Montreal, a Civil War re-enactment group, is planning to unveil a memorial next month honouring the 40,000 Canadians who fought in the American Civil War - most of them for Abraham Lincoln's Union forces.

Grays and Blues of Montreal say around 36,000 Canadians fought for the North, 4,000 for the South

Grays and Blues of Montreal members Rob McLachlan, left, and Vince Chiarelli, right, say they don't represent the North or South, but just the Canadians who fought in the Civil War. (Vince Chiarelli/Submitted)

It's taken more than 150 years to erect a monument honouring the 40,000 Canadians who fought in the American Civil War, and Rob McLachlan is hoping next month's unveiling near Cornwall, Ont., won't be delayed by the controversies swirling around memorials to the Confederacy south of the border.

The founder of the Grays and Blues of Montreal, a Civil War re-enactment group, doesn't think the Sept. 16 unveiling will be controversial. After all, some 90 per cent of Canadians who fought in the Civil War served with Abraham Lincoln's Union forces.

"It's not propagating Robert E. Lee or the Confederacy or what have you," McLachlan told CBC News.

"It's propagating the fact Canadians were involved, and the majority were in the North. It just recognizes that historical fact."

Of those estimated 40,000 Canadians who fought south of the border, around 4,000 Canadians fought for the Southern Confederacy.

Prior to the recent deadly clash between far right protesters and anti-racist activists in Charlottesville, Va., over a statue dedicated to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, the only media paying attention to their monument on the grounds of the Lost Villages Museum in Long Sault, Ont., was the Cornwall newspaper.

Now national news media are calling to learn more about the monument — a simple 3.7-metre black granite obelisk with the bilingual inscription "40,000 Canadians enlisted and fought in the American Civil War (+7000 died)" and a depiction of a Union soldier and a Confederate soldier shaking hands.

A separate side wall lists the 29 Canadians who won the Medal of Honour, the highest U.S. award for bravery, during the Civil War.

Only Civil War memorial to Canadians

McLachlan believes it will be the only memorial in Canada dedicated to the men and women of what was then British North America who enlisted in the war that brought an end to slavery in the Southern United States, five of whom rose to the rank of general on the Union side.

An artist's depiction of the monument dedicated to the 40,000 Canadians who fought in the American Civil War. (Rob McLachlan)
"They weren't recognized by Canada because we were neutral, we weren't officially part of the war, just the same as when Canadians went to the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, and Vietnam," he told CBC News.

As the group's name suggests, the Grays and Blues of Montreal are what's called a "galvanized unit," meaning its members portray both Confederate soldiers, who wore gray, and Union soldiers, who wore blue.

Its members are united by a shared interest in Canadian military history, and the fun of a weekend spent recreating how people lived and fought 150 years ago.

"Most of the time we portray Northerners, but sometimes we portray Southerners, depending on whether or not there are enough people on the other side of the field," says Grays and Blues member Vince Chiarelli.

"Our interest is in [representing] the Canadians who fought in the war, not the politics of the North versus the South … We promote that it's a little known part of our history," he adds, pointing out that Calixa Lavallée, who wrote "O Canada," fought with a Union regiment from Rhode Island.

The Grays and Blues of Montreal dressed in the grey uniforms of a Confederate regiment. (Submitted/GBM)

On the Southern side, the group notes that the War of 1812 heroine Laura Secord's grandnephew, Dr. Solomon Secord, served as a surgeon with a Confederate unit from Georgia, where he was living when the war broke out. Other Canadians had family ties to the South, notably Acadians with relatives in Louisiana.

"What we do is try to sensitize people to the fact it was a different time period, a different ideology, and it's one of the  reasons Canada became what it did," Chiarelli said, noting how the war was a major impetus for Confederation in 1867.

No battle flags or white supremacists allowed

When portraying a Confederate unit, the group opts to fly the Confederate national flag known as the Stars and Bars over the more infamous Confederate battle flag now more commonly associated with white supremacists and the Ku Klux Klan.

"The extremists have taken that and turned it into a symbol of hate," McLachlan said.

The Confederate battle flag has become a flashpoint in the fight against symbols of white supremacy in the Southern United States. (Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images)
On the topic of extremists, both McLachlan and Chiarelli are quick to underline that the Grays and Blues of Montreal has zero tolerance for white supremacists in their ranks and makes sure they "never even get through the door."

"We're all about safety in every way, and that includes safety from being badgered because of your religion or the colour of their skin," Chiarelli said. "We're a very open society — we do this for fun."

And yet, as much as they try to keep politics out of their hobby, Chiarelli said the recent tensions over Confederate symbols is making it more difficult to escape into the past.

"We're concerned because whatever it is we do may be looked at in a different light," Chiarelli said.

"I've got my grey uniform, which I do own, I've got it squirrelled away in the back corner of my closet. Do I wear this? Should I feel ashamed of wearing this? I don't know … It's taking the fun out of the hobby."

Members of the Grays and Blues of Montreal are photographed taking part in a re-enactment on Montreal's Ile Perrot. (GBM/Submitted)
As to the controversy over the monuments, Chiarelli says the place for reminders of the Confederacy is museums.

"As a historical enthusiast, I think it's a shame that these monuments are disappearing before I get a chance to see them, but as a person of conscience, I can understand the reasoning behind why they should take them down," he said.

"But it's never really black and white — there's a lot of shades of grey."


Stephen Smith


Stephen Smith is a journalist with CBC Montreal.


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