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.