Dixie & The Dominion looks at how the U.S. Civil War, North America’s most bloody and costly conflict, was a shared experience that shaped the futures of Canada and the United States.
The Celebrated Stranger
“May peace and prosperity be forever the blessing of Canada, for she has been the asylum of many of my friends, as she is now an asylum for myself…May God bless you all.”
– Jefferson Davis, June 1867
Toronto, Niagara-on-the Lake, Ontario May 30, 1867
The slap of the Champion’s paddle wheels was heard long before she was seen, though the steamer eventually slid out of the Lake Ontario fog at about 10.45 a.m. As she drew along side Milloy’s Wharf in Toronto’s harbour, thousands of people waited in anxious agitation.
The papers that day were filled with the news that Queen Victoria had given royal assent to the British North America Act. On July 1, the five colonies that made up Britain’s possessions on the continent would become the Dominion of Canada. But the papers had been full of Confederation news for months. A Confederate of a different sort had brought a crowd of a thousand or more to the waterfront.
The rumor had spread that Jefferson Davis, president of the late Confederate States of America, would be among the passengers. The papers had followed Davis’ release from prison and his journey by train through Washington to New York and from there Montreal where his family had lived for the past two years. Now Davis was coming to Toronto on a mission he would later tell Gen. Robert E. Lee probably saved his life.
As the Champion hove to, Davis appeared on deck. He walked slowly, with a cane. His jacket and trousers were black and his coat collar was turned up against the chill. On one side stood the massive, athletic figure of James Mason, former U.S. senator from Virginia and the Confederacy’s ambassador to Great Britain. On the other stood Major Charles Helm, former Confederate consul in Havana.
For some, the sight of Davis’ frail and emaciated frame was a shock. Lt. Col. George T. Denison, a Canadian officer and southern sympathizer, stared in disbelief at the change prison and defeat had wrought on Davis.
Denison scrambled to the top of a pile of coal and began to cheer. The crowd took up his cry as Davis moved carefully down the wharf. Davis seemed stunned by the reception and paused to shake outstretched hands. The papers reported that Davis bowed repeatedly, saying: “Thank-you, thank-you, you are very kind to me.”
Police cleared a way to a waiting carriage and from there it was a short ride to Helm’s home. About two hours later, they boarded the Rothesay Castle bound for the town of Niagara-on-the-Lake. As the party walked up the hill from the wharf, Davis turned and for a moment stared across the Niagara River to Fort Niagara where an oversized Stars and Stripes fluttered in the breeze.
“Look there Mason,” he said, “there is the grid iron we have been fried on.” And then he continued up the hill.
After dinner, the local band came to Mason’s brick cottage and struck up Dixie. Davis came out onto the verandah. There was brief applause and then silence.
“I thank-you for the honor you have shown me,” he said. “May peace and prosperity be forever the blessing of Canada, for she has been the asylum of many of my friends, as she is now an asylum for myself…May God bless you all.”
It was a rousing start to an extraordinary five-month Canadian visit; a journey that allowed Davis to restore physical and mental equilibrium after two years of prison and four more of civil war.
The railway coach in which Davis had traveled to Canada had been pelted with fruit and crowds had jeered as he passed. In Canada, he was hailed as a tragic, even noble fallen hero. Yet, on Davis’ orders in the spring of 1864, a team of guerrillas had used Canada as a base to launch raids against the Union. If these plans had succeeded, Canada would have been drawn into the war, as a pawn a larger Confederate game to gain peace at any price. Instead, three years later Davis was tormented by his failures and mourning his lost cause. These Canadians, these British Americans who greeted him with such affection on the other hand, were making a peaceful and proud transition from colony to country.