Today I'm delighted to chat with Brian Martin about his nonfiction book From Underground Railroad to Rebel Refuge: Canada and the Civil War, published this week by our friends at the ECW Press. Brian's book is a fascinating look at the people who crossed the Canadian border, moving in both directions, in the years before, during and after the Civil War. Combining detailed research with a flair for storytelling, Brian's book does full justice to its complex facts and colorful personalities. From Underground Railroad to Rebel Refuge amplified my understanding of the era, the war, and the meaningful, if also artificial, line of demarcation that is the U.S./Canada border. I was also moved by its broader evocation of the diverse ways in which people seek not only refuge, but places in which their particular talents and aspirations (whether admirable or not) can thrive. Like many strong works of history, the book is at once specific to a particular period and yet also timeless, speaking both to what changes and to what remains the same in the human experience.

Brian Martin lives in London, Ontario, where he was a journalist for more than forty years, writing the stories of events and people across Southwestern Ontario. He has written ten books, two of them about true crimes, several biographies and baseball histories. During his journalism career, he sometimes wrote about the flight of enslaved Black persons to Southwestern Ontario and the communities they established. He only recently learned about the flight of former enslavers and Ku Klux Klan leaders who were among the Americans who found refuge in Canada. You follow Brian as Chip Martin on Facebook and @ChipatLarge on Twitter and buy the book on Bookshop, Amazon U.S. and its international sister sites, and through your local bookstore. All that said and with thanks to Brian for his kindness in speaking with me, here's our chat.

Q. Tell us about the book’s inception and evolution.

A friend in London who is an historian and an undertaker alerted me to the presence of more than a dozen headstones in a large London, Ontario cemetery in the city a bit more than two years ago. They were for prominent former citizens of South Carolina and their families. Two of those were members of the South Carolina legislature that voted to secede from the Union in late 1860, one of the triggers for the Civil War. These families also owned large plantations in the Charleston area that were worked by many enslaved persons. I was fascinated by their final resting place in Woodland Cemetery's “Millionaire’s Row” alongside the most prominent and wealthy families of London of the day. My research into that question prompted me to consider the bigger picture of migration to Canada before, during and after the Civil War, as well as the southbound traffic that also unfolded. The finished book is divided into three parts to address each of those aspects. 

Before the war, newcomers were primarily Black persons, both free and enslaved, who found new lives and freedom, primarily in Southwestern Ontario. During the war, London profited by selling to both sides of the conflict and its streets were filled with buyers, spies, plotters, and skedaddlers (draft dodgers) among others. After the war ended, former plantation owners like those buried in London were joined by Ku Klux Klan members. Confederate generals and others settled elsewhere, primarily in today’s Niagara-on-the-Lake. Former Confederate president Jefferson Davis lived in the Montreal area for a few years.

Q. Could you talk a bit about your research and writing process? 

My research invariably continues while I write in a bid to put more meat on the bone of my preliminary work. It was a bit more than a year between penning the first words and submitting my manuscript. I rely on books and historical documents I acquire or find online as well as online sources such as the Encyclopedia Britannica and The digitized papers on are invaluable for historical newspaper accounts.

As I went along I found so many interesting characters that I decided to feature them prominently, rather than get bogged down in an academic-style treatment of events. As a journalist my favorite stories were always human interest ones. In a book like this, they bring history alive. 

Q. I’m embarrassed to say that I knew nothing about the Canadians who went to the States to fight in the Civil War until I interviewed Bob Kroll about another ECW publication, The Punishing Journey of Arthur Delaney, earlier this year. I know it’s impossible to generalize, but could you give us a sense of some of the kinds of folks who made this choice, and why?

No need to be embarrassed. There have been more than 60,000 books published about the Civil War, covering the events, leaders, battles, etc., but relatively few have addressed the flight of some 40,000 people who made their way north along the Underground Railroad or the roughly 20,000 Canadians who crossed the border to fight on both sides of the Civil War. 

The motives of that latter group were varied. Some wanted adventure, British soldiers sought greater pay and excitement in the Union Army, others wanted to practice medicine. Some Black men enlisted to fight for freedom for family members left behind. One woman was so determined to become a nurse for the North that she passed herself off as a man in order to do so. The extent of the southern migration is little known, even in Canada.

Q. As an American, I learned about the Underground Railroad but little about the lives of fugitive slaves after they found freedom in Canada. I wonder if you’d speak to that a bit: the kinds of places they ended up, the types of communities they built or settled in, the influence if any they had on Canadian culture and life?

The roughly 40,000 Black men and women who fled slavery, as well as some formerly enslaved Black people who had already gained their freedom, decided to live either in communities they established on the fertile farmland of Southwestern Ontario, or in existing white communities. Those who chose to live in Black settlements had to first clear away the dense bush before beginning to farm. Others opted to integrate into existing communities in the southwestern part of Southwestern Ontario. That was a safe distance from Detroit, which was a major crossing point, although some, including Josiah Henson, crossed at Buffalo, to the east. 

I was familiar with the successful Black communities established in the area of Chatham, roughly midway between London and Detroit. The Elgin Settlement at Buxton was more successful than the one associated with Josiah Henson at Dresden. I was not aware, however, of the controversy among Black leaders about whether self-segregation or integration was their best course of action. I found that fascinating. Mary Ann Shadd, for instance, insisted on integration into existing communities, arguing that in the long term that would speed their integration into the wider Canadian society. Henson and others argued that establishing and operating Black settlements was the better option and would reduce the chance of friction with whites. Those who settled in predominantly white communities in significant numbers faced discrimination in education and work, unfortunately, but they persevered. About one third of the population of the town of Chatham consisted of Black people who faced some discrimination. But a Black school at Buxton was so good it attracted white children and led to the closure of a nearby all-white school. 

It's hard to assess the impact Black newcomers had on Canadian culture and life, to be honest. They were generally accepted and their lives were far better than the lives they left behind. Canadians are still trying to understand the impact of those who came to Canada expecting to find Canaan, the promised land. White settlers already in Canada could have done far better in welcoming and accepting them. And further study and books need to address that more fully than I was able to in my rather wide-ranging effort.

Q. I was fascinated to read that Canada also became a refuge for onetime Confederates and Ku Klux Klan members. Could you give readers a glimpse of the latter, including how these figures were received in Canadian communities?

I learned about two leading members of the Ku Klux organization (not yet called the Klan) from northern South Carolina who were charged with murder and terrorism under Ku Klux Act of 1871. They were from the town of Yorkville (now called York). Both had served in the Confederate Army, one of them as a surgeon. The higher ranking man fled on horseback during his trial and made it to London, Ontario, before heading east to Niagara where Confederate generals had found safe haven after the war. The other, the surgeon, settled in London, where he became a well-liked doctor and high-ranking member of the Masons. Both men were well received in their communities, and both returned to the South when the political climate changed and whites were back in charge of South Carolina and other states by the end of Reconstruction. 

The departure of the doctor and his family after seven years in London prompted two large gatherings at which he was feted and his departure lamented. The former plantation owners were also accepted by London society, based on their burial amongst the city elite. I was troubled about the doctor’s stay in London and the “never mind about the murder of a Black man” mentality that apparently prevailed. But in its early days, this country needed newcomers and was generally tolerant. We accepted Black people, but also whites who killed and terrorized them.

Q. The book is packed with such vivid and diverse historical figures. Are there one or two you found particularly intriguing?

I loved the stories about the characters who deserted across the border at Niagara Falls, rather than stay and fight in the Civil War. But my favorite rogue is Bennett Young, the young Confederate who led the raid on St. Albans, Vermont, from Quebec. He announced from the front steps of his hotel in mid-afternoon that he was claiming the sleepy town for the Confederacy. Meanwhile, his associates robbed the bank and stole horses for their getaway. Young showed a remarkable amount of nerve in an act that has great cinematic possibilities. After the war, he returned to Kentucky where he was a prominent citizen and established Eastern Kentucky University.

Q. I’m hard-pressed to pick a favorite myself, but I certainly enjoyed “meeting” Josiah Henson, whose life helped inspire Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Could you talk briefly about the real Henson?

I have been told by a couple of historians that I avoided the trap of overstating Henson’s accomplishments and character. He was a determined and successful man, but he was also rather vain and failed to provide the dynamic leadership needed by the Dawn Settlement at Dresden. Yes, he was received by Queen Victoria and by American President Rutherford B. Hayes, who recognized his contributions. The impact of Stowe’s book cannot be underestimated. It seems to have inspired Abraham Lincoln while he developed the Emancipation Proclamation. Stowe hinted that Henson was her model, but her story of Uncle Tom and his life is at odds with that of the real Henson, who himself wrote several autobiographies. 

Q. If you had to sum up the role Canada played in the titanic struggle that took place just beyond its border, how would you describe that?

Sometimes called "America's attic," Canada was a safe refuge during the troubled times of its great neighbor as the States grappled with slavery, war, and then the task of rebuilding a shattered nation. Because of its proximity and its need to attract newcomers, it was in a unique position to provide many things by Americans on both sides of the Civil War sought. But as I've mentioned, the border was also a two-way street. Given that only a few books have explored the stories of the people who crossed that divide and their reasons for doing so, I hope that my book will help open eyes on both sides of the border.

Q. What are you working on now? 

Thanks for asking. I'm 40,000 words into a book about a man known as Klondike Joe Boyle. He is a fascinating character who became wealthy during the Klondike Gold Rush and then tried, but failed, to bring his energy, creativity and drive to help the Canadian military during the First World War. 

Rejected as too old to serve in the army, he responded by raising, training and equipping a battalion of Yukon miners as a machine gun regiment to serve in the conflict. In response, Boyle was given the honorary rank of Lieutenant-Colonel in the Canadian militia. Boyle then parlayed that ceremonial rank into action, working first with Americans, then with Russians and Romanians to keep the latter two countries in the Allied war effort by unsnarling their tangled transportation systems. He succeeded admirably and also managed to rescue the Crown jewels of Romania and its archives from Moscow, winning the gratitude and affection of the Queen of Romania, a grand-daughter of Queen Victoria. 

Boyle became an intimate of European royalty and worked with both the provisional Russian government and the Bolsheviks. He insisted on wearing a Canadian military uniform adorned with “Yukon” in gold despite his government telling him he was not authorized to wear a uniform or act as a regular army soldier. 

After the war, Boyle—who had served without pay—finally relented and reverted to civilian clothing. Upon being received by King George in England soon afterward, however, the king demanded to know why Boyle was in civilian dress. When Boyle explained, the king ordered him back into uniform, noting that if challenged by anyone, he should simply say that he was wearing it by direct order of the king himself. Soon afterward, George awarded him the DSO medal, an award intended for military officers. It was one of eight medals bestowed on Boyle for his service by four countries, England, France, Russia and Romania. 

In Canada, however, Boyle was considered a problem, because he wouldn’t follow orders or explain what he was doing during the war effort. He died, burned out, in England in 1923. Queen Marie of Romania provided the headstone, urn and flowers for his grave and ensured that the grave was tended for many years. In 1983, the Canadian government and military belatedly repatriated his remains to his hometown of Woodstock, Ontario. Sixty years after his death, Boyle finally received the honors befitting a national hero. The project doesn't have a publisher yet, but I'm looking forward to finding a house willing to help me share Joe Boyle's amazing true life story. 

"Underground" routes to Canada, showing the lines of travel of fugitive slaves.
Illustration to Wilbur Henry Siebert's 1898 book, The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom.
Color-adjusted for clarity from original in the New York Public Library's Digital Collections.