TORONTO — Businesses and government offices were closed in Toronto and flags flew at half-mast in response to President Lincoln’s murder, but despite the crowded churches and memorials, some Canadians refused to mourn the death of a man they had feared as a threat to their country.
On April 19, 1865, Toronto openly mourned the president assassinated on the previous Good Friday.
However, the vote by Toronto’s city council “on behalf of the Citizens of Toronto, [to] deplore the impious act that has convulsed society in the death, by violence, of Abraham Lincoln, late President of the United States of America,” was not unanimous. Though the motion expressed sympathy for the “national calamity” afflicting “a great co-operating christian [sic] power” and “in honor of the dead,” one council member, George Taylor Denison, voted no.
In the 1860s, before Canada became a nation, the British citizens of Canada West (Ontario), Canada East (Quebec) and the Atlantic provinces were divided politically by the war convulsing their southern neighbor.
“If you were pro-Liberal [Party], you were for the Union because you were against slavery. But if you were a Conservative [Party supporter], you were pro-South. Slavery wasn’t the issue. Conservatives thought it would be better for Canada if the U.S. split into two and was less powerful,” explains University of Toronto history professor Robert Bothwell.
Pro-Southern Canadians often held anti-Yankee views because their pro-British ancestors — like Denison’s — had had their property confiscated and had been driven out of the country because of their opposition to the American Revolution. Others recalled America’s military invasion of Toronto during the War of 1812.
For these Conservative Canadians, “two, weaker countries would be better than one because they might be friendlier. They might even see the error of their ways and return to the bosom of England,” the professor adds.
According to the book “Spies and Spymasters of the Civil War” by Donald E. Markle, by 1864, “Toronto was much like Lisbon during the Second World War. Everyone had spies there.” Former Ohio governor and Confederate sympathizer C.L. Vallandingham fled to Canada in 1863 and plotted to detach Ohio, Illinois and Indiana from the Union and into a Northwest Confederacy.
The book quotes a prewar letter from a Southern agent in Toronto as saying that the city’s Queen’s Hotel was “Confederate headquarters” and that its “leading newspapers” were “friendly” toward Southern independence.
Among Toronto’s newspapers, the Liberal Party-supporting Globe carried Union dispatches and telegrams from Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, while its rival Mail faithfully reproduced Southern war reporting.
The spin of the day was that “the South will not lose even though they aren’t doing so well,” and slavery, though bad, was not Canada’s concern, Mr. Bothwell says.
Indeed, the Toronto Star noted that Conservatives in Canada’s Parliament gave “a spontaneous cheer” to reports of the North’s 1861 defeat at Bull Run.
Mr. Vallandingham, a grand commander of the anarchistic and antiwar Sons of Liberty, engaged elements of his group in various Canadian-based plots against the Union, including one to send yellow-fever-infected blankets to Washington. All the plots either failed to materialize or were spectacularly unsuccessful.
An attempt to cross Lake Erie from Canada and free Confederate soldiers from a Union prison on Johnson Island, Ohio, ended when 17 of the 20 men who captured two steamboats as part of the plot mutinied.