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Montreal, City of Secrets: Confederate Operations in Montreal During the American Civil War - A Review

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Montreal, City of Secrets: Confederate Operations in Montreal During the American Civil War.
Baraka Books, 2017.

Barry Sheehy, an award-winning author of several historical works, was born and raised in Montreal, but now resides in Savannah, Georgia. His unique situation of being a Montrealer now living in the American South gives him an interesting perspective on the materials in this particular publication.

The main theme of this book is the little-known role that Montreal, and to a lesser degree, the Niagara area, played as spying posts for the Confederacy in the Civil War years of the 1860s. Even the assassination of President Lincoln may have been plotted here. Only recently, in fact, an obscure plaque on the wall of The Bay store on St. Catherine Street was finally consigned to the dustbin of politically incorrect monuments as it commemorated the location of Jefferson Davis’ house when the former president of the Confederacy lived in exile in Montreal. Very little has ever been mentioned about Montreal – and Canada’s – involvement in American affairs at this time.

Generally, we are presented as anti-slavery, pro-Union supporters of the North. This is the comfortable, modern line on this period, and is, to some extent, true for probably the majority of local people. However, throughout the Civil War, Britain was very ambiguous in policy – anti-slavery, but liking to keep connections to the cotton resources of the South – the economic “Big Oil” of the period. As well, so many fairly recent settlers in Canada were United Empire Loyalists from the New England states who did not have much sympathy for their former land of origin. It was a complex political world, and Montreal was in the midst of it.

p30b.sm_.jpgThe lavish inclusion and excellent reproduction of many Notman photographs from the McCord Museum Collection are in themselves worth the acquisition of this outstandingly researched and clearly-written history. The many shady and not-so-shady characters who lurked in the St. Lawrence Hall Hotel on St. James Street (now Rue Saint-Jacques) were obviously keen to have their pictures taken at the fashionable Notman Studio on Bleury Street. Notman appeared to be the preferred photographer of Confederate agents, commissioners, raiders, soldiers and spies visiting Montreal.

Whether or not Notman knew what these individuals were up to, and where his political feelings tended, is a mystery. We assume he photographed these Southern “visitors” in the same spirit that he photographed everybody else: take a seat (or stand), hold still (for quite a while in those days) and, please, pay up. The photos are, of course, wonderful – both the portraits of the characters that Sheehy describes in the narrative, and of the street scenes and buildings of Montreal.

This book includes extensive notes, a bibliography, an index, maps, appendices and acknowledgements. It is close to 300 pages in length and requires close attention to detail as we read it. There are many, many characters, a great deal of analysis of the military and political developments of the War, and, of course, the photos.

Sheehy has illuminated an aspect of life in nineteenth-century Montreal that has barely been touched upon by most historians. Like all conflicts, the American Civil War had effects outside of the United States, and this book shows an intriguing Canadian involvement.

*****

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Reviewed by Sandra Stock
Originally published in Quebec Heritage News
Spring 2018.

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