Historicist: Colonel Rankin's Lancers

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Historicist: Colonel Rankin’s Lancers

Colonel Arthur Rankin is arrested at the Rossin House Hotel for inviting Canadians to the American Civil War.

Recruitment poster. Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 513926.

In October of 1861, Colonel Arthur Rankin, the sitting member of parliament for Essex, paid a visit to the city of Toronto, staying at the Rossin House Hotel at the corner of King and York. It was there on the evening of Sunday, October 6 that Rankin found himself under arrest. The charge: attempting to recruit a regiment of lancers to fight for the Union in the American Civil War, thereby violating the Foreign Enlistment Act of 1819.

When the American Civil War broke out in April of 1861, Great Britain declared itself politically neutral in the conflict. The official position of neutrality was supported by the colonial governments in the Canadas and Maritimes, although members of the public—and especially the press—were often vocally opinionated, with considerable support evident for both sides. In many cities, local newspapers were divided on the war; in Toronto, George Brown‘s Globe supported the North while its rival daily, The Leader, supported the South.

Reasons for supporting one side or the other were considerably varied (much like they were in the United States itself), and could include personal connections, economics, political ideals, and the abolition of slavery. With the idea of a politically independent Canada already emerging, some saw the United States as a potential political ally and thus supported the Union cause. Others were concerned about a potential invasion of Canada by the U.S.; relations between the United States and the Province of Canada had been strained over the previous decades. Historian John Boyko notes that “many Northern newspapers published damning stories and editorials that openly promoted a hatred of Canada and Canadians, while frequently advocating for invasion. Many of the anti-Canadian rants were reprinted in Canadian papers… Those struggling [in Canada] through the Civil War years bore memories not of Canadian-American friendships and economic and cultural integration but of more than a century of suspicion, hatred, and bloodshed.”

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(Right: Col. Arthur Rankin. Frederick Neal. The Township of Sandwich, Past and Present. Record, 1909: Windsor.)

Of the thousands of Canadians who chose to fight in the war, it is believed that most fought for the North. In addition to political and ideological motives, many likely enlisted for more personal reasons, including a financial bounty that recruiting officers offered as an incentive. Historian Robin W. Winks writes that “some undoubtedly fought for the love of adventure, some fought as a private crusade against slavery, some fought because they originally had enlisted for the bounty and found that they liked the life, [and] some fought because they had nothing else to do…” Amongst those in Canada who fought for the Union in the American Civil War was Calixa Lavallée, who would later compose the music for O Canada.

The Foreign Enlistment Act of 1819 declared it illegal for British subjects to enlist with either side. In the early months of the conflict, however, few civilians paid much attention to this law, and authorities found it extremely difficult to enforce. The border between the United States and the Province of Canada was relatively fluid, and there was little to stop someone from going south into a Northern state and enlisting. In the early months of the war, Canadian newspapers reported not only rumours of Canadians crossing the border to enlist, but reports of American recruiters visiting Canadian cities. Governor General Edmund Walker Head responded by distributing copies of the Foreign Enlistment Act throughout the colonies, to be reprinted in newspapers or otherwise displayed in public. Nevertheless, the Act was largely ignored in the early months of the war, until reports emerged of Colonel Arthur Rankin’s scheme.

Rankin was a businessman, militia officer, and politician who spent most of his adult life in and around Windsor. As party politics began to develop in Canada West, Rankin continued to operate as a political independent, reluctant to forge alliances with other politicians as he believed that doing so would sacrifice his principles. This generally worked to his detriment, as it limited what he could accomplish and likely contributed to some minor scandals. In assessing Rankin’s career in a political biography, John E. Buja notes that Rankin was often obsessed by personal rivalries, and that “Rankin’s behaviour often appeared erratic and unstable.”

By 1861, his political career was already somewhat chequered. In 1857 Rankin was exposed in a railway scandal, and lost his seat following accusations of corruption. Nevertheless, he returned to elected office in 1861, while also continuing to serve as commander of the 9th Military District.

July of 1861 saw a Confederate victory in the First Battle of Bull Run, generally considered the first major battle of the war. Thinking that the Union might appreciate some support, Rankin made contact with officials in Detroit, suggesting a regiment made up of soldiers from the Province of Canada. Finding support in Detroit, Rankin was soon in Washington, meeting President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward to develop the idea. On September 11, Lincoln granted Rankin the necessary regimental warrant. Rankin returned to Canada West, applied for a temporary leave of absence from his duties with the 9th Military District of Canada, and commenced operations to recruit 1,600 men to compose the First Michigan Lancers.

Rankin’s Lancers. Harper’s Weekly. December 21, 1861.

As the name implies, Rankin’s lancers were to be mounted units armed with lances. Although generally associated with a much earlier era, lances had made a brief return to European warfare in the early nineteenth century after they were used effectively by Napoleon; a company of lancers could be effective against troops armed with early muskets. By the time of the American Civil War, however, lances were once again antiquated. Whereas Napoleon had used lances against soldiers who might only have time to fire one accurate musket shot before a charging company of lancers arrived, subsequent improvements in rifle technology now meant that a line of infantry could fire several accurate shots at a line of charging lancers, thereby making the lancers easy targets. This was not yet apparent at the start of the war, however, and there were several efforts at raising lancer regiments near the start of the conflict. The most noted lancer unit during the war was the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry, which employed nine-foot lances during several skirmishes in the early years of the war. In his book Civil War Curiosities, Webb Garrison writes that the “heavy and awkward lances, not known to have accounted for a single Confederate death, were discarded in May 1863 as ‘unfit for the wooded country of Virginia.'”

Plans for Rankin’s regiment appear to have been made public on September 12, when an announcement appeared in the New York Daily Tribune. The Tribune reported that the 1,600-strong unit would be armed with “sabre, carbine, pistol, and a lance, the shaft of which is to be sixteen feet long, and blade fourteen inches.” The article also stated that “they will be in the field by December, and commanded by experienced officers.” This item reached Toronto and was published in the pro-North Globe the next day. The pro-South Leader, however, found the initial report incredible, writing “…It is not probable that a member of the Provincial Legislature has consented to be a party, directly or indirectly to the violation of the Foreign Enlistment Act.”

Toronto in 1856, looking northeast from the roof of the Rossin House Hotel. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1498, Item 19.

Over the next few weeks, posters began appearing in several cities in Canada West, as Rankin and his agents began recruiting for the regiment. Several Canadian papers condemned the recruitment campaign, including the Hamilton Spectator, which wrote on September 25 that “it is a pity that any British subject should be so foolish and wicked as to interfere in a quarrel that does not concern them… It shows that Rankin has already commenced his operations to recruit in this Province, and the proper authorities ought, therefore, to look after him at once.” The most persistent opposition, however, came from Toronto’s Leader, which took the opportunity to reprint the relevant sections of the Foreign Enlistment Act, demanded Rankin lose both his Canadian rank and his political seat, and called for criminal prosecution.

Rankin responded to the Leader‘s editorial by writing a letter, printed in both the Leader and the Globe, insisting that he had done nothing wrong, claiming the law specifically applied to the British government and not to its individual citizens. He also noted previous examples of British involvement in other civil wars, writing, “Why then should it be treated as a crime for Canadians to enter the American service?… Is not the cause of the United States the cause of civilization and free government? Has any struggle so largely affecting the welfare of mankind in general taken place in any country upon the face of the earth within the present or in any former age?”

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(Left: George Brown. Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 3213212.)

The Globe, initially, said little about Rankin’s operations, perhaps because editor George Brown had not yet decided where he stood on the matter. Although supportive of the Union side in the conflict, Brown had been a critic of Rankin’s mercurial political opinions in the past. While the Leader condemned Rankin’s involvement with the Lancers, the Globe‘s only apparent say on the matter was to reprint a piece from the Milwaukee Daily Wisconsin, which reported that “volunteers are flocking in rapidly from Canada,” and which expanded in some detail about the potential effectiveness of the Lancers: “A charge at full gallop of such a brigade upon infantry must be terrible – irresistible! The soldier, with his revolver in his left hand, his sabre in his right, guiding his lance mainly with his leg, and horse in good training, can deal out death upon the front and each flank at the same time.”

Soon after the Leader demanded Rankin’s arrest, Rankin came to Toronto, reportedly on business. While in the reading room of the Rossin House Hotel, Rankin was arrested by Sergeant-Major McDowell of the Toronto Police, who was armed with a warrant signed by police magistrate and former Toronto mayor George Gurnett. Upon his arrest, Rankin demanded to know the identity of his accuser; according to the Globe, McDowell proceeded to take Rankin to Gurnett’s residence, where he was informed that his accuser was John Wilson, a confectioner living on Church St., whom the Globe added was “better known as ‘Sugar John.'” The Globe reporter, however, claimed to recognize the handwriting on the original complaint as that of George Sheppard, who was “acting as editor of the Leader for the past two months, and was before that a ‘Southern sympathizer’ in Washington and Richmond.”

St. Lawrence Hall, ca. 1859. Courtesy of the Toronto Public Library. (The sign reading “St. Patrick’s Hall” refers to the name then given to the third floor of the building.)

During the trial, the Globe and Leader feuded bitterly over the Rankin issue, putting forth their positions and regularly condemning their media rivals. In one editorial the Leader specifically called out George Brown for supporting Rankin’s violation of the law, writing, “this defence of foreign enlistment fixes upon Mr. Brown the stigma of having sold himself to the authorities in Washington.” Brown was extremely harsh in his treatment of the Leader’s position, at one point writing, “The conduct of the Leader people has been as bad as it well could be during the whole course of the Rankin prosecution, but yesterday the head of the concern reached the climax of baseness.”

Rankin’s trial was held in the old Board of Trade room in St. Lawrence Hall. The prosecution’s case leaned heavily on the Foreign Enlistment Act and called several witnesses, several of whom were in fact employees of the Leader, who testified that Rankin had shown them incriminating evidence. Rankin maintained his innocence, stating that there was no evidence that he had been personally active in recruitment, and dismissing the charges as “trivial.”

After three days, Magistrate Gurnett concluded that there was enough evidence to prove that Rankin had violated the Foreign Enlistment Act, but believed he lacked the authority to make a ruling on the case, referring the case to a higher court. In his political biography of Rankin, Buja explains that, “as an offender against an imperial statute, he could only be tried at the Queen’s Bench in England. Since Canadian courts had no authority to have Rankin bound over to appear in England, the Crown was forced to drop its case.”

Toronto in 1856, looking northwest from the roof of the Rossin House Hotel. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1498, Item 15.

Rankin was dismissed from the Canadian militia following the trial, but continued to help organize the unit over the next few months. In fact during the furor of the trial enlistment had continued, with Rankin’s associates continuing to populate the regiment. The Leader published a brief, facetious item during the trial: “We have a special report from Detroit, informing us that at the latest accounts Major Clark, of Mr. Rankin’s regiment, was lying in bed studying military tactics, whilst Captain Peter McCutcheon, with a fellow hero, was practising the sword exercises with his umbrella.”

The December 21 issue of Harper’s Weekly includes an illustration of the regiment and reports that the Lancers were still expected to be ready later that month, but this appears to be largely a rehash of the early announcements about the regiment’s formation. Rankin remained involved with the unit for several months following the trial, but resigned his American commission in December in light of the Trent Affair, when it seemed possible that Canada could end up at war with the Northern forces. The regiment faltered without Rankin to organize it, and within a few months the men were distributed amongst other units.


Additional material from: John Boyko, Blood and Daring: How Canada Fought the American Civil War and Forged a Nation (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013: Toronto); Robert P. Broadwater, Civil War Special Forces: The Elite and Distinct Fighting Units of the Union and Confederate Armies (Praeger, 2014); John E. Buja, Arthur Rankin: A Political Biography, (1982), University of Windsor Electronic Theses and Dissertations; The [Hamilton] Daily Spectator and Journal of Commerce (September 25, October 18, 1861); Webb Garrison, Civil War Curiosities: Strange Stories, Oddities, Events, and Coincidences (Rutledge Hill Press, 1994: Nashville); The Globe (September 13, October 5, October 7, October 8, October 9, October 10, October 11, October 12, October 14, October 15, October 16, October 21, 1861; January 1, Febuary 7, 1862); Harper’s Weekly (December 21, 1861); Claire Hoy, Canadians in the Civil War (McArthur & Company, 2004: Toronto); The Leader (September 13, October 3, October 5, October 7, October 8, October 9, October 10, October 11, October 12, October 14, October 15, October 16, October 18, 1861); New York Daily Tribune (September 12, October 8, October 9, October 18, 1861); Richard M. Reid, African Canadians in Union Blue: Enlisting for the Cause in the Civil War (UBC Press, 2014: Vancouver); Robin W. Winks, The Civil War Years: Canada and the United States, 4th ed., (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1998: Montreal & Kingston).


Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.


CORRECTION: November 8, 2014, 3:15 PM The caption for the second photograph depicting a view from the Rossin House Hotel originally stated that it offered a northeast view, when it’s actually facing northwest.

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