Instruments of War: A Canadian Musician in a Rhode Island Regiment

By Ryan Nadeau ’16

Canada! America’s hat! Our friendly little brother to the north. The home of hockey and Tim Horton’s and your home, too, when that other political party elects their crazy candidate. All jokes aside, the United States has long had a close relationship with our northern neighbor, and the Civil War proved no exception. An estimated 30,000 to 50,000 Canadians fought during the war, typically on the side of the Union due to their geographic proximity and cultural sympathies. Of that number, approximately 5,000 were killed.

Of course, not all Canadians who partook in the war were there to fight. Among the number who volunteered in the Union army was a young musician by the name of Calixa Lavallée, who some two decades after the war became responsible for one of the most enduring symbols of Canada (at least as we perceive it here in the United States): the music of their national anthem, “O Canada.” Born in Quebec to parents of French descent, he was only sixteen when he traveled to the United States for the first time to join a traveling minstrel show based out of Rhode Island. Already an extremely versatile musician, he journeyed across the politically-tense nation to cities like New Orleans, Vicksburg, Richmond, Washington, Philadelphia, and New York to perform on tour. On 19 January, 1861, Lavallée and his troupe were in Atlanta when Georgia seceded from the Union.

Calixa Lavallée in his later years, defying typical post-war facial hair trends. Photograph via Wikimedia Commons.
Calixa Lavallée in his later years, defying typical post-war facial hair trends. Photograph via Wikimedia Commons.

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