Boyko is too clever to simply give a chronological accounting of what was happening in what was then known as British North America during the Civil War era. He makes his account much more interesting by wrapping the story of the wartime relationship between the two peoples around a weaving in of accounts of six interesting contemporary figures whose lives were engrossed in that relationship. These include John Anderson, a fugitive slave at the center of an important and pivotal legal proceeding in Canada over the issue of whether runaway slaves would be returned from Canada, an issue that heated up cross-border political tension. William Seward, Abraham Lincoln's Secretary of State was a man whose vision of manifest destiny included a dream of annexing Canada to the United States. Sarah Emma Edmonds was a woman who served in the Union Army disguised as a man, and who was among the tens of thousands of Canadians who joined one of the two warring armies. Jacob Thompson was a southerner ensconced in Canada who tried to organize attacks on the north, some of which were more successful than others. Canadian political leaders John A. Macdonald (who would become Canada's first Prime Minister) and George Brown showed remarkable foresight and leadership in first realizing the necessity of unity among the British colonies in Canada, and then in working together to create a new nation, in spite of being bitter political adversaries. Around the stories of each of these fascinating subjects, Boyko tells the story of the Civil War and its aftermath not only as it unfolded on the battlefield, but also about the crucial issues and occurrences involving British North America which affected the course and outcome of the conflict.
Many books have been written about the war and its many aspects, and yet Boyko is able to offer a new perspective and tell us things about this time that are rarely mentioned, if ever, by other chroniclers of the Civil War. These include the trial of John Anderson, the St. Albans raid and the fate of the raiders, Confederate espionage operations centered in Canada, the number of Canadians who participated in the conflict, the American designs on British North America, Fenian raids on Canada from the US, and the huge impact that fear of American takeover played in bringing about Canadian Confederation.
The combination of the author's literary ability and the fresh and unique perspective on the common historic subjects of the Civil War and the birth of Canada combine to make this an exceptional book, among the best, if not the best work of history from 2013. I keep asking myself, why did I wait so long to get around to reading this? The stories told in this book deserve a Ken Burns style miniseries. John Boyko has established himself to be in a class with such wonderful historians as Doris Kearns Goodwin or H. W. Brands. This is a must read for history geeks, but regular folks will also find it very enjoyable reading.