Civil War Echoes: O Canada!

With the recent controversy involving O Canada in the NBA news, it might be of interest to our readers to note that the song is an echo of the Civil War.

The song itself dates from 1880, when it was commissioned for Ste. Jean Baptiste Day in Quebec. Its lyrics (in French) came from Sir Adolph-Basile Routhier, while the music was set by noted Quebec composer Calixa Lavallee. The English lyrics were formalized by Robert Stanley Weir in 1908, and since 1939 O Canada has been the Canadian national anthem, a status formally settled in 1980.

The Civil War echo is found in Lavallee, who lived in the United States for much of the 1860s after touring as a musician before 1861. He joined the 4th Rhode Island as a private and fought in all the regiment’s battles from 1862 until muster out in late 1864, having gained a commission as a lieutenant and developed a reputation working with the regimental band. On September 17, 1862, Lavallee was wounded at Antietam as the 4th fought against A.P. Hill’s attack late in the battle. He was one of approximately 50,000 Canadians to fight in the United States Army during the Civil War.

Few Americans or Canadians are aware of this connection between our countries, but nonetheless it makes O Canada an echo of the Civil War.

4 Responses to Civil War Echoes: O Canada!

    1. Most people have no idea there were that many. The reasons are as varied as the men themselves. Some (like Lavallee) were living in the US and were swept up in the moment. Many crossed the border for adventure, ideology, and myriad reasons. It is analogous to the Americans that go north to join the Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-17 and the Canadian/British armed forces 1939-1941.

  1. Chris
    I did not know about this connection. Thank you for publishing it. At the time of the Civil War many Canadians were American immigrants (including my own family) so retained emotional and family ties to the United States. For a history of Canadians in the Civil War read Claire Hoy, Canadians in the Civil War (McArthur & Company, 2004).

    1. Thanks very much – happy to do it. I did not realize how many Americans migrated north of the border either. I’ll have to check out that book by Hoy.

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