In the years immediately before Canadian Confederation, the United States was torn asunder by a Civil War that took an estimated 750,000 lives. It had more casualties than all other U.S. conflicts combined.
An unknown number of citizens of what was then British North America – estimated at 35,000 to 55,000 – also joined the fight. Most of these Canadians enlisted with the Union armies while a few hundred fought for the Confederacy, in a war waged both to preserve the union and defend slavery.
It was inevitable that some of them would join up from Sarnia – a border town. We may never know how many, but we do know that one local man became one of the last surviving veterans of the American Civil War.
James Rooney was born in Toronto on Halloween in 1844. The family moved to Sarnia Township 10 years later, settling on Lot 7, Concession 6.
At age 17, lured by the call to adventure even if it meant serving in a foreign army, Rooney travelled to Buffalo, New York to sign up with the Union army. He became a private under Captain Irwin M. Starr’s Company “F” of the 4th Provisional Regiment — a New York cavalry unit.
Rooney and his New Yorkers fought in some of the Civil War’s most brutal campaigns. He took part in the three-day victory over the Confederates at Gettysburg in July, 1863 – one of the pivotal battles.
In the Battle of the Wilderness eight months later Rooney fought in an area of dense woods in Virginia — the first campaign of future U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant.
And Rooney was there at Appomattox Court House in 1865 to witness the surrender of General Robert E. Lee.
When the war was over, James Rooney returned to Sarnia, where he settled down with his mother and sister on a farm on London Road. In 1911, when he was 67, Rooney retired from farming and moved into the city itself. He lived in Sarnia for another 33 years.
In 1938, Rooney became ill and was admitted to Sarnia General Hospital. Though he recovered somewhat and wasn’t bedridden, he remained at the hospital another six years until his death on March 12, 1944. He was 99.
Rooney was a lifelong bachelor, but left behind a brother in Minnesota as well as nieces and nephews from Windsor and Detroit to California and Oklahoma.
The passing of a Sarnian who was there to witness both Gettysburg and General Lee’s surrender was front-page news in the March 13 edition of the Sarnia Canadian Observer.
Rooney’s funeral at Our Lady of Mercy Church was followed by his burial at Our Lady of Mercy Cemetery.