Canadians took a keen interest in the American Civil War, avidly following events as they were reported in the daily newspapers and many of the country weeklies.
Officially, Canada’s leaders tried to maintain a position of neutrality, but the foreign policy of Canada was still in the hands of Great Britain in the 1860s.
In the 1850s, prior to the war, a number of abolitionists, both native Canadians and touring Americans, spoke to crowds in towns both big and small.
When war broke out in 1861, most Canadians sided with the North, but there was a significant minority who, for various reasons, favoured the south. Some of those people had close friends and relatives in the new Confederacy.
Others feared the growing strength and posturing of the northern states, fearing that Canada might be a target for a highly-militarized and aggressive United States.
Recruiters for the Union Army came to Canada seeking volunteers, or hiring men to take the place of drafted American young men. There was never an accurate count of the number of Canadians who joined the Union Army.
The number of Canadians who fought for the Confederacy was small, but still sizable. The percentage of southern sympathizers was probably in the range of 15 to 20% of those Canadians who took up arms.
A handful of Canadians helped the Confederacy in other ways. Locally, the most interesting was a man named Adam Robertson. He trained in Scotland as a foundryman.
After working briefly in several towns, he moved to Guelph in 1847 and established a business with a man named Inglis, who would later leave the partnership and begin his own highly successful business in Toronto making domestic appliances.
In 1852 Robertson opened his own business on Eramosa Road, not far east of the bridge that crossed the Speed River. Robertson manufactured various agricultural implements, and did a steady business making repairs to anything made of iron that broke down. He also operated a machine shop in connection with the business. Later in the decade he built a substantial house on Mitchell Street, adjoining the foundry.
By 1860 Robertson’s foundry was a well-established business in the Royal City, enjoying the patronage of a growing clientele. In 1863 Robertson’s cousin paid him a visit. Bennet Burley had become an outspoken proponent of the American South, and worked in Robertson to gain another recruit. With Burley was John Yeats Beall, another southern sympathizer, and a couple of his colleagues. Beall was the ringleader of the group.
Together, the men convinced Robertson to manufacture cannons for the south. The men planned to transport the weapons across Lake Erie, and smuggle them south through a network of southern sympathizers in Ohio and Indiana.
Eventually, Robertson agreed to take part in the plan and make cannons, cannonballs and grenades for the southern sympathizers. By then it was 1864, and the war was going badly for the Confederacy.
Eventually the group decided to use the arms made in Guelph to arm a ship on Lake Erie, which would be used to liberate a camp of prisoners of war held by the Union on Johnston’s Island in Lake Erie near Sandusky. They also planned to capture a Union warship patrolling near the island.
Robertson, it appears, made the cannon, but after that the story becomes contradictory and confused.
According to one story, the group hijacked a steamer and with Robertson’s cannon on board, they made an attack on Johnston’s Island to liberate the Confederate soldiers. Union soldiers there were waiting for them. The crew soon abandoned the attack, and scuttled the ship and its cannon. There are many variants to the details of that tale, and little in the way of solid evidence.
It appears that the men later purchased a vessel in Toronto, which they planned to outfit as a warship, using Robertson’s cannons. That plan too, it appears, was doomed.
As spies and operatives, the group of southern sympathizers associated with Robertson were hopelessly inept.
There was no attempt to disguise their activities in Guelph, and the cannon-casting taking place at Robertson’s foundry was common knowledge in the Guelph area.
Eventually, American authorities, who were rapidly developing an intelligence gathering service headed by a man named Alan Pinkerton, who would afterward operate a private detective service, were soon aware of the activities of Beall and Burley.
American authorities soon afterward got their hands on Beall and Burley, as the pair were planning further attempts to aid the Confederacy. Beall was tried and hanged for his role as the ringleader of the group.
On a request from the American government, Canadian authorities arrested Burley on a charge of robbery. He was extradited, but escaped from jail, and returned home to his native England.
Later he became a newspaper reporter for the Daily Telegraph and eventually authored nine books. None contain a word about his dubious activities involving Robertson’s Foundry or the American Civil War.
After the war ended, Robertson also became closed-mouthed. He said or wrote nothing about the attempted aid to the Confederacy. He sat on Guelph council for years, eventually serving a term as mayor in 1873.
In that office he campaigned vigorously for the Ontario Agricultural College to be established at Guelph. Robertson’s role as a factor in having the school set up in Guelph is not clear.
Over the years various embellishments have appeared concerning the cannon. One of them, supposedly based on Beall’s earlier friendship with actor John Wilkes Booth, claims that Lincoln’s assassination by Booth was to avenge Beall’s execution. There is no evidence to support that claim or any of the other stories that have appeared over the years.
Adam Robertson died in 1882, and his son Adam Jr. took over the business. In 1892 he brought one of the civil war cannons out of storage in the foundry, where Robertson Sr. had put it out of sight almost 30 years earlier.
He mounted it on a base, and put it on display in front of the old family homestead, where it caused people not familiar with the story of the cannon to scratch their heads as they passed.
Eventually, after Adam Jr.’s death in 1920 and the sale of the house, the cannon was shipped to the west to another family member, where it has continued since then to guard against enemy attack at Vancouver’s Horseshoe Bay.
Historical buffs would like to see the cannon returned to the old Robertson homestead, which still stands on Mitchell Street, looking much the same as it did in the 19th century.
It would make a tangible link to one of the more bizarre tales in local history, when a sleepy manufacturing town in Ontario played a role in the great Civil War to the south.