Montreal, City of Secrets

by Barry Sheehy with photographer Cindy Wallace

Baraka Books, 2017



The Confederate Secret Service mounted numerous operations out of Canada. This included raids on Union prisoner-of-war camps, attempts to burn major hotels in New York City, blowing up ships along the Mississippi, and finally, the infamous raid on St. Albans, Vermont in October 1864, the most northerly action of the Civil War. They also launched a successful assault on the new American currency, the “Greenback,” which nearly created a run on the dollar. This was orchestrated out of Montreal and executed right under the noses of federal authorities in New York City. The massive scheme to “short” the dollar and drive up the price of gold involved Canadian banks and American financiers like J.P. Morgan. The Lincoln kidnapping plot, which mutated into an assassination, also involved Montreal. The presence of John Wilkes Booth in Montreal in the fall of 1864 is well established historically but has never been adequately examined. Booth’s presence at Montreal’s St. Lawrence Hall becomes more intriguing when we consider who else frequented the hotel in 1864. The Confederate Secret Service is foremost on this list but the story does not end there. St. Lawrence Hall also played host to powerful American politicians, both Democrats and Republicans, including anti-Lincoln Radicals. America’s most powerful bankers, businessmen, and financiers stayed at the St. Lawrence Hall. Representatives of the War Department and the Treasury Department along with much of Salmon P. Chase’s presidential committee were also there. Cotton speculators and much of America’s nascent military industrial complex were in the city most likely to do business with the Confederate Secret Service because the British Army equipped itself and the brand new Canadian military was small. The South was where the supplies were needed and they had the means to pay for it with cotton.

What happened in Montreal in the summer and fall of 1864 was unprecedented. It was arguably the largest gathering of American political and economic power outside of Washington in the nineteenth century. Nothing like it had happened before and it would never happen again.

They left a trail of registrations at St. Lawrence Hall and Barnett’s Museum in Niagara. Many of those present, particularly the Confederates, went to Notman’s Studio on Bleury Street to have their photographs taken. All three original historical sources have survived: St. Lawrence Hall’s Guest Books in Canada’s National Archives, Notman’s Photographic Collection at the McCord Museum in Montreal, and Barnett’s Museum Guest Books recently acquired by the Niagara Falls Museums. The information gleaned from these sources and others represents part of Montreal’s secret Civil War history.

Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth registered at Montreal’s most posh hotel, The St. Lawrence Hall on Oct. 18, 1864, the day before the St. Albans raid. The plot to kidnap/assassinate President Abraham Lincoln was hatched in Montreal.

Hints of Montreal’s role began to emerge as early as the trial of the Lincoln Conspirators in June 1865, but Judge Advocate Joseph Holt’s case against the Confederates in Canada collapsed when his star witness, Montreal-based Sanford Conover (Charles Dunham), was exposed as a perjurer. Worse still, there was strong evidence this perjury had been suborned by Holt and the Judge Advocate General’s Office with the support of the War Department.

Those Americans who had been in Montreal doing business with the Confederates went to ground following Lincoln’s assassination. Lincoln’s support of cotton-for-contraband trading, if exposed, would have tainted his national deification. This transformation of Lincoln from a gifted politician into a secular saint was a self-serving, cynical political strategy driven largely by Radical Republicans who despised him in life. Their scheming to force Lincoln off the Republican Ticket, some of it taking place in Montreal, was not something they wanted discussed. Copperhead Democrats, who had been in Montreal dealing with the Confederates, were especially vulnerable to public outrage. Congressman Fernando Wood, who had plotted against Lincoln at every turn, left for an extended stay in Europe. The British Government and their colonial counterparts in Canada, faced with a victorious, militarized, and angry United States, wanted no discussion of the tolerance that had been extended to Confederate operations in Canada. After the collapse of Judge Advocate Joseph Holt’s case against the Confederates in Canada, no one on either side of the border wanted to explain what John Wilkes Booth had been up to in Montreal. And so a veil of silence descended on the subject. It has not been lifted for the past 150 years.

The concentration of American power and influence in Montreal, especially in 1864, reflected potent economic and political forces. At the time, an enormous cotton-for-contraband deal was being negotiated by Confederate Commissioner Beverley Tucker, with the tacit support of both Richmond and the White House. The value of the deal was half a billion dollars or more in 1864 currency. Lincoln was particularly supportive of this inter-belligerent trade as it slowed the drain of gold flowing out of the United States and buttressed the Greenback. The Military and many in Congress opposed this inter-belligerent trade because the contraband reaching the South, especially military supplies and food, clearly lengthened the war. This was why Montreal, located in foreign territory but linked by rail to New York and Washington, was chosen as the venue for these shady negotiations. This mega cotton deal attracted American and British bankers, businessmen, and cotton speculators in droves to Montreal. It also explains the presence of such a large contingent of Treasury Department officials in the city as the Treasury Department was supposed to regulate this inter-belligerent trade. American arms dealers and military suppliers were also present, presumably selling their wares to the Confederacy in exchange for cotton. Democrats were there collecting money from the Confederate Secret Service to defeat Lincoln in the November 1864 election. Republicans, on the other hand, are harder to explain. Some were possibly speculating in cotton, but others, especially the Radicals, were there, planning to replace Lincoln as the Republican nominee. Meanwhile, the presence in the city of important members of the War Department, especially Lafayette Baker and the National Detective Police and members of the Judge Advocate General Office, remains unexplained.

Dozens of buildings in Montreal have historical ties to the Civil War. Each site has its own history, its own story to tell.

The McCord Museum’s William Notman Collection contains a number of original photographs of Confederates who lived in or passed through Montreal during the war years. Each photograph represents a compelling story. In the intervening 150 years, most of these historically significant photographs have gone unrecognized. Prominent shots of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his family have occasionally made their way into publications but the rest have remained largely unrecognized and the history behind them untold. The combination of photographs, hotel registrations, and other supporting historical data provides a unique window on Montreal at a time when the city played a fascinating and thus far unexplored role in America’s Civil War and its immediate aftermath.

Confederate agents launched a raid on St. Albans, Vermont on Oct. 19, 1864. They were defended by the most powerful legal team that included future Canadian Prime Minister John Abbott.

From 1861 until the end of the war in 1865, clandestine activities in Montreal closely resembled what occurred in places such as spy-riddled Casablanca, Lisbon or Geneva during the Second World War. The city was alive with refugees, soldiers- of-fortune, blockade-runners, U.S. army recruiters (“crimps”), and spies; all of them afloat on a sea of illicit money flowing from Confederate bank accounts, cotton trading, blockade running, and the sale of arms, food, and equipment to Richmond.

PETINF14-QuebecReads-Favicon-32x32Written by Barry Sheehy