Monday, June 27, 2005

Immigrants and War: French Canadians in the Civil War Era IV

NB: This is the 4th and final part of a series (Here is Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3). In short, if you don't feel like reading the other three, I guess you could be satisfied reading this post. As far as the entire 4-part series goes, it is a conflation of a traditional research paper with online links interspersed. Time prevents me from a thorough going-over, so any mistakes, misattributions or faulty citation (in short, "sloppiness") should be taken with a grain of salt. While I'm aware of some formatting inconsistencies, I ask that the reader pass over those: I'm more concerned with the content than the presentation. Nonetheless, it would be appreciated if legitimate scholarly errors or oversights were brought to my immediate attention.

PART 1  -  PART 2  -  PART 3  -  PART  4 



Prior to the Civil War, French Canadians had recognized that work at a relatively generous wage could be found in the United States. Some took advantage of this either temporarily or by choosing to settle in America. New England was particularly attractive to the poor French Canadian immigrants due its close geographic proximity, which made it a shorter and cheaper journey. At first, those who immigrated tended to settle in the states of northern New England and worked on farms, in the timber industry or in the brickworks. Just prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, the modern textile industry had begun to develop, particularly in Southern New England, and some French Canadians had begun settling in these industrial centers.

The outbreak of the Civil War caused a crash in the cotton dependent textile industry and many French Canadians returned to Canada. Some stayed in American and found jobs in other industry or returned to their old jobs when the cotton mills retooled and began processing woolens. Others enlisted in the Union Army, though the exact numbers are unknown. Some French Canadians living in Canada also enlisted, while others were impressed by trickery. Regardless of the actual amount of French Canadians who enlisted, the fact that they shared in the same hardships as their fellow soldiers is indisputable.

By 1863, the war needs of the Union Army had caused a manpower shortage and agents were dispatched to Canada to recruit French Canadians to work in the mills. This started a slow migration back to New England, which hastened at war’s end. “Petit Canadas”, no more than the French Canadian version of the ghetto, began popping up in the mill towns. French Canadians endured prejudice and jealousy from both Americans and other immigrant groups because of their reluctance to fully embrace the American lifestyle, particularly its institutions and language. This conscious decision to remain apart was made by many French Canadians who sought to preserve their heritage, by embracing the idea of la survivance.

By the late 1860’s, more and more French Canadians were simultaneously pushed from Canada by the poor economic situation and pulled to New England by the demand for cheap labor. Also at this time, French-only Roman Catholic parishes and associated parochial schools were being started and organizations, such as the Society of St. Jean Baptiste, helped to safeguard the welfare of the French Canadian people. Unfortunately, these developments tended to hurt the reputation of the French Canadians in the eyes of other Americans as it was viewed as further evidence that French Canadians wished to remain apart from the rest of American society.

By 1870, French Canadians, led by a new influx of professional-class immigrants, began to believe that accepting at least some of the aspects of the American lifestyle would be beneficial. By the second or third generation, many French Canadian children could speak both English and French and were better able to function in American society. As French Canadians successfully integrated into America, their effort to safeguard their unique culture within the borders of the larger American society lessened and the ideal of la survivance faded away.



The labor vacuum caused by the Civil War and the demands of industry in the post-war period provided an economic opportunity for the French Canadians to better their lives. They abandoned their farms in Quebec for the mills of New England and simultaneously forsook the myth of an agrarian ideal in which the French Canadian habitant had been the core. They endured discrimination, jealousy and mistrust derived from their different language, religious practices and social and cultural mores. They persevered and built strong, if segregated, communities for social and cultural support and to maintain la survivance.

The French Canadians gained tangible economic and, eventually, social benefits when they immigrated to America, and slowly accepted American culture. Their assimilation into the great American melting pot, which helped their reputation in the eyes of their fellow Americans, also led to a gradual and inexorable loss of their unique cultural identity. In the end, la survivance proved to be an admirable, but ultimately impractical, cultural ideal that did not survive in the face of the overwhelming pressure applied by the American people and their traditions and institutions.

Annotated Bibliography

Allen, James P. “Migration Fields of French Canadian Immigrants to Southern Maine.” Geographical Review, Vol.62, No.3 (1972): 366-383.
Heavily theoretical study which utilizes a lot of statistical analysis in an attempt to determine if there is a noticeable trend of members of particular French Canadian communities migrating to the same towns or cities in the United States.

Bélanger, Damien-Claude. “Canada, French Canadians and Franco-Americans in the Civil War Era (1861-1865),” 2001, < quebechistory/frncdns/studies/dcb/default.htm> (12 September 2003).
Probably the latest of only a handful of studies concerning the French Canadians during the Civil War. Convincingly dispenses with the myth of 40,000 French Canadians serving in the war and his arguments are well sourced.

Bélanger, Damien-Claude and Claude Bélanger. “French Canadian Emigration to the United States, 1840-1930,” 2000, <> (18 September 2003).
Comprehensive survey of the French Canadian migration to the United States. Understands the French Canadian mindset and the social and cultural factors that affected their outlook on life.

Brault, Gerard J. “The New England French Culture.” The French Review, Vol.45, No.4 (1972): 831-837.
Article which deals primarily with the societal underpinnings of French Canadian culture. Pays particular attention to the role of the priesthood and its sermonizing against abandoning the homeland. Also delves into the makeup of French Canadian society in general.

Chartier, Armand. The Franco-Americans of New England: A History. trans. Robert J. Lemieux and revised, edited and translated by Claire Quintal. Manchester, NH: ACA Assurance; Worcester, MA: Institut Français of Assumption College, 1999.
Updated history of the Franco-Americans in New England, which concentrates on the struggle for survivance in the 20th Century. The chapters dealing with the history of French Canadian immigration to the United States provide a good summarization of the events.

Hansen, Marcus Lee and John Bartlett Brebner. The Mingling of the Canadian and American Peoples. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1940.
Survey work that deals with how the Canadian and American people, though generally having an amicable relationship, have often come in conflict more than has been thought. The parts that deal with the French Canadians are particularly fair summarizations, but the authors rely on the inflated statistic of 40,000 French Canadian enlistments to perhaps overstate the relative contribution of French Canadian fighting men during the Civil War.

Keenleyside, Hugh Llewellyn and Gerald S. Brown. Canada and the United States: Some Aspects of Their Historical Relations. Introduction by W.P.M. Kennedy. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1952.
A complete and thorough recounting of the relations between Canada and the United States from Colonial times until the 20th Century. Provides good insight into the political history of Canada as it tried to deal with a Civil War in the United States while being a member of the British Empire. The discussion on the negative impact felt by Canada when so many Canadians left for the United States is insightful.
A narrative detailing the experience of a French Canadian author as he realizes the loss of his French Canadian heritage, but maintains hope that the next generation will reclaim it.

Lemay, Philippe . “The French Canadian Textile Worker.” Interview by Louis Pare, American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1940, No. 1801 (1938-39): 1-40.
An in depth interview with a French Canadian immigrant who worked his entire life in the textile mills. The majority of the interview deals with his life, but he also describes the lives of his family and how they were impacted upon emigrating to the United States just after the Civil War.

Lonn, Ella. Foreigners in the Union Army and Navy. Baton Rouge: Lousiana State University Press, 1951.
This work deals with the variety of ethic groups that served in the Union Army and Navy during the Civil War. Scant reference is made to Canadian, much less French Canadian, participation in the war. This is chiefly due to the author’s tendency to focus on those regiments made up entirely of a particular ethnic group, such as the Irish or Germans. No such regiment of French Canadians existed.

Lower, A.R.M. “New France in New England.” The New England Quarterly, Vol.2, No.2 (1929), 278-295.
A summary of the formation of French Canadian communities in New England. Particularly good description of the phases of immigration.

McDonald, William. “The French Canadians in New England.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol.12, No.3 (1898): 245-279.
A study of French Canadian immigration after the Civil War. Has a good grasp of French Canadian culture and society, though is given to lapsing into stereotypes. Given the date of the articles publication, the intent seems to have been to simultaneously reassure native Americans that there weren’t as many French Canadians in the United States as had been thought and that eventually, despite their reluctance to do so, the French Canadians would be “properly” assimilated into American culture and that so-called “Native Americans” had nothing to fear from them.

McGaw, Judith A. “’A Good Place to Work.’ Industrial Workers and Occupational Choice: The Case of Berkshire Women.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol.10, No.2 (1979): 227-248.
Details the women’s employment opportunities in the mills. The insight into the degree of involvement of the entire family in making employment decisions was valuable.

McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Ballantine Books, 1988.
As close to a definitive work on the Civil War as can be had. For this study, the discussion about the Union labor shortage was particularly helpful in providing context.

New York Daily Times. 30 June 1853 – 26 March 1856.
The predecessor to the New York Times. Reports from Canada appear fairly regularly, most of which dealt with the Seigniorial Tenure Bill and the question of annexing Canada to the United States.

New York Times. 20 August 1858 – 11 November 1870.
Many articles tried to determine Canadian sympathies during the Civil War and quite a few reports of French Canadian meetings in New York City and New England. Contained a good number of articles warning of the influx of French Canadian immigrants. Also reported on the annexation movement in Canada.

Podea, Iris Saunders. “Quebec to ‘Little Canada’: The Coming of the French Canadians to New England in the Nineteenth Century." The New England Quarterly, Vol.23, No.3 (1950): 365-380.
A particularly well researched article that covers the French Canadian migration to New England from the early 19th Century until well into the 20th Century. Does a good job of explaining their reasons for leaving Canada and then of the obstacles that they had to be overcome to be accepted in their new homeland.

Roby, Yves. Les Franco-Américains de la Nouvelle Angleterre, 1776-1930. Sillery, Quebec: Septentrion, 1990.
A French language study of the Franco-Americans in New England. Specifically, his New England French Canadian population figures were used to populate the Tables in this paper.

Rodgers, Daniel T. “Tradition, Modernity, and the American Industrial Worker: Reflections and Critique.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol.7, No.4 (1977): 655-681.
Article that deals primarily with the affect that the various changing characteristics of the typical factory worker had on the ability of the mill owner or employer to operate his mill.

Winks, Robin. Canada and the United States: The Civil War Years. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1960.
A thoroughly intense and invaluable treatment of the relationship between Canada and the U.S. during the Civil War. Very in depth re-telling of the political and diplomatic history during this era.

PART 1  -  PART 2  -  PART 3  -  PART  4 

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Immigrants and War: French Canadians in the Civil War Era III

NB: This is the 3rd part of a series (Here is Part 1 and Part 2). If you don't feel like reading the others, I guess you could be satisfied reading this post. As far as the entire 4-part series goes, it is a conflation of a traditional research paper with online links interspersed. Time prevents me from a thorough going-over, so any mistakes, misattributions or faulty citation (in short, "sloppiness") should be taken with a grain of salt. While I'm aware of some formatting inconsistencies, I ask that the reader pass over those: I'm more concerned with the content than the presentation. Nonetheless, it would be appreciated if legitimate scholarly errors or oversights were brought to my immediate attention.

PART 1  -  PART 2  -  PART 3  -  PART  4 

Part 3: French Canadians in New England after the Civil War


French Canadian Reputation in America

At the end of the Civil War, the old patterns of migration back and forth across the border did not return. Thousands of French Canadians who had worked in the New England textile mills before the war returned to New England and joined those who had stayed throughout the war. In 1865, the great French Canadian migration truly began, but they did not only go to New England. The abundance of farmland in the American Midwest and work in the timber industry in places like Michigan and Wisconsin was attractive to many habitants. Eastern Canadian cities were well connected to the eastern cities of the United States via railroad, which in turn connected to the American Midwest. Despite the romantic allure of life in the west, it still cost less to move to New England and most French Canadians did choose to remain close to home by settling in the “petit Canadas” of New England factory towns. [1]

Their willingness to migrate to these “petit Canadas”, despite the filth and poorly kept housing that characterized these neighborhoods, led to a reputation of being an ignorant and unclean people. “Darkness, foul odors, lack of space and air, shabby surroundings, all these were universal characteristics of tenement life, to which the French Canadians had no exclusive claim, but their quarters were repeatedly singled out as among the worst or most ill-kept in New England.”[2] The reasons for living in these ghettos were many. Economic factors were the primary reason as it was simply cheaper to pack a family into a small row house, which was often owned by their employer. Additionally, they had a natural desire to live near those who they knew and they moved to those neighborhoods in which their relatives and friends lived. Finally, they followed the tendency of most immigrants, especially those from a rural background, to want to maintain their traditional values in a new environment. Settlement in “petit Canadas” allowed them to be close to their work and also allowed them to settle in a neighborhood that closely resembled the parish that they had left. The surroundings may have been alien to them, but the familiar people and sense of community provided a cocoon that insulated them and helped them cope with the monumental differences between American society and that of their heritage.[3]

Their willingness to employ all able members of their families in the mills allowed them to survive on less than the average American family, but also caused them much ill will. A reputation of excessive frugality caused jealousy among other workers, who often referred to the French Canadians as the “Chinese of the East.” Finally, the fact that many had been brought in as strike breakers did not gain them any sympathy from their co-workers. These were but a few of the problems encountered by the French Canadians as they tried to make a living in America, but these were experienced by many immigrant groups. The French Canadian encountered more resistance than many other immigrant groups chiefly because of their apparent unwillingness to accept and be accepted into American culture. [4]


La survivance: Benefits and Drawbacks

La survivance was both a noble ideal and a stumbling block to the full acceptance by Americans of French Canadian immigrants. When the French Canadians arrived in the United States, the prospect of them staying or going back to Canada was often an open question for both themselves and Americans. At first, they didn’t seem inclined to make the U.S. a permanent home. They sought jobs in the U.S. because of poor economic conditions in Canada and hoped to earn a few hundred dollars in the mills and return to their farms to continue to aspire to the ideal of la vocation de la terr. Those who did not return to Canada immediately did send money home, which seemed to indicate the transient nature of their stay in America.[5]

Unlike European immigrants, the French Canadians in New England were geographically close to their homeland and the maintenance of family and communal bonds was facilitated through visits, reading newspapers from Canada and by sending their children to be educated in the land of their heritage. This open, dual loyalty puzzled many Americans, especially when contrasted with the attitudes of the majority of other immigrant groups. To many Americans, the French Canadian people appeared willing to reap the rewards of the economic boom while at the same time unwilling to participate in American society as a whole. This dichotomy led to much resentment, and it was the French Canadian attitude towards religion, education, and language that led to the most suspicion.[6]

The Catholic French Canadians took their faith to Puritanical New England and faced many obstacles as they attempted to practice their religion. It is true that there were already Roman Catholic parishes throughout New England, but most of these had been established by the English speaking Irish who had been established firmly in New England prior to the arrival of the French Canadians. The Irish viewed the French Canadians with jealousy and suspicion, an attitude at least partially developed from the fact that the Irish were overwhelmingly pro-union and had seen French Canadian strike breakers brought in by mill owners time after time. Misunderstandings between the two groups were exacerbated by the additional problem of the language barrier. The language problem proved especially difficult because Irish priests often led the mixed parishes of Irish and French Canadians and there were internal clashes between the two groups. A natural desire to establish their own, French speaking parishes led Bishop Goesbriand of Vermont to lobby the Church of New England for the establishment of French parishes with French speaking priests. Though initially opposed, by 1869 his request was granted and soon French Canadians throughout New England began setting up parishes of their own.[7]

Hand in hand with the establishment of the churches was that of the parochial schools, which usually taught in both French and English. This was in contrast to the public schools, which made little or no effort to provide for non-English speaking children. It was primarily for this reason that public schools were rejected by the majority of French Canadians in favor of the parochial schools. Besides serving the spiritual and educational needs of the French Canadian community respectively, the French Roman Catholic Church and parochial school provided for the maintenance of la survivance.
The maintenance of la survivance was also the primary objective of the Societies of St. Jean Baptiste, which began springing up in French Canadian parishes by the mid-1860s. The Society of St. Jean Baptiste was comprised of the leading men of the parish and greatly influenced all aspects of parish life. French was spoken throughout the society and the goals of the society were the aforementioned maintenance of la survivance as well as to serve as advocates for the interests of the French Canadian people in the United States. It is ironic that the desire to give the French Canadian people a voice in their communities, as well as in government and politics, resulted in the slow degradation of la survivance. [8]

The French Canadians initially stayed away from politics or involvement in local government. Neither political party had ever catered to them, chiefly due to the language barrier and probably because of some racial or religious prejudice. As a practical matter, many politicians probably did not want to waste their effort attempting to appeal to a group that primarily consisted of transient workers who made no attempt to speak the language or showed any inclination of making America their permanent home. Eventually, French Canadian leaders, including those in the Society of St. Jean Baptiste, came to realize that self-segregation and their apparent unwillingness to becoming participants in American society was detrimental to their reputation. They determined that naturalization of the French Canadian people was the most effective method they could use to gain acceptance. Initial interest in naturalization was less than overwhelming, but the members of the various chapters of the Society of St. Jean Baptiste persisted. They held numerous National Conventions of French Canadians in the United States to promote naturalization and these meetings also unified them in their efforts to overcome the stereotypes held by other Americans.[9]

These efforts to more fully integrate the French Canadian people into America were hindered by the increasing influx of French Canadians from Canada. While headway was being made to naturalize those already in the U.S., there was a significant amount of time spent indoctrinating and orienting the successive waves of French Canadians coming across the border. The stream of rural habitants arriving in the United States also reaffirmed a negative stereotype. To the jaundiced eye of many Americans, the French Canadians seemed to repeatedly commit the same infractions against accepted American social practices. No discrimination between the recent French Canadian immigrants and those of the second or third generation was made.[10]


Increased Migration and Assimilation Begins

By 1869, the realization had set in that the emigration of French Canadians from Canada because of the poor economic conditions was not a temporary phenomenon. A reporter for the New York Times wrote of the fear expressed by many French Canadians that, after having endured an especially hard winter, they would not be able to make enough money on their farms to make it through another similarly difficult winter. They especially were disappointed by the lack of industrial jobs in their homeland, which could have employed them when the demand for farm labor was not present. In May of 1870, the Montreal Witness reported that there were between two and three thousand dwellings vacant in the city of Montreal. This was estimated to represent the loss of from ten to fifteen thousand people. It also reported that it was not unusual to see two hundred French Canadians a day leaving St. Bonaventure Station for the United States.[11]

The post-War increase in the number of rural French Canadian immigrants in the United States did not go unnoticed. Many American newspapers reported complaints concerning the influx and these complaints were supplemented by exaggerated estimates of the number of French Canadians that had arrived in America. In April of 1870, the New York Times reported that there were estimated to be 500,000 French Canadians in the United States. Recent scholarship puts the actual figure at closer to 100,000 in all of New England (refer to Table 2), which had the largest concentration of French Canadians in the United States. Given this last, it is scarcely believable that an additional 400,000 French Canadians lived in the Midwest or West. Another reporter writing for the Times also noted how the French Canadians continued to migrate southward even when they were encouraged by Parliament and were given inducements to remain in Canada.[12]

The dam that the newspapers, politicians, and religious leaders, on both sides of the border, tried to strengthen with warnings, speeches and harangues in an attempt to check the flow of French Canadians leaving Canada for America only weakened and burst. Idealistic abstractions were no match for the reality of economic hardship. The initial trickle of French Canadians who had endured discrimination, bigotry and mistrust in America showed their friends, families and communities that the rewards of working in America were well worth the trouble. Immediately after the Civil War, the trickle became a stream and by 1870 the stream became a river. The push of economic uncertainty north of the border combined with the pull of ever-growing thirst for manpower by the factories and mills south of the border proved irresistible.

For the next thirty years the immigration of French Canadians to the U.S. reached new levels. Included in this wave were a great many of the intellectual and professional classes who contributed greatly to the social and cultural welfare of the French Canadians in New England. By the second or third generation, the Franco-Americans who were the progeny of the original, unskilled habitants were being brought up bilingual and better able to participate in American society. Undoubtedly, the constant pressure from other Americans to conform to the generally accepted precepts of American life also influenced the behavior of the Franco-Americans. In the end, their willingness to accept American society as their own led to the full integration of the French Canadian people into America, though many would regret that la survivance had been sacrificed in the process.[13]

[1] Mason Wade, “The French Parish and Survivance in Nineteenth Century New England,” Catholic Historical Review, Vol.36 (Jul., 1950), 173, in Winks, 205; and Keenleyside and Brown, 304.
[2] Podea, 375.
[3] Brault, 836.
[4] MacDonald, 267; and Podea, 373.
[5] MacDonald, 267-268.
[6] Podea, 380.
[7] Chartier, 16.
[8] MacDonald, 272-274.
[9] See a variety of articles from the New York Times 1865-1869 for reports detailing the proceedings of these conventions.
[10] Podea, 379.
[11] New York Times, 28 February 1869; 28 March 1869; and 23 May 1870.
[12] New York Times, 6 April 1870 and 10 April 1869.
[13] Chartier, 15; and Podea, 379; and Denis Ledoux, La Survivance. Giving Voice to a Franco-American Experience,” Portland Monthly, (April 2000), portlandmonthly/Default5.asp> (22 September 2003).

Up Next: Part 4 - Summary, Conclusion and an Annotated Bibliography

PART 1  -  PART 2  -  PART 3  -  PART  4 

Immigrants and War: French Canadians in the Civil War Era II

NB: This is the 2nd part of a 4-part series (Here is Part 1). If you don't feel like reading the other three, I guess you could be satisfied reading this post. As far as the entire 4-part series goes, it is a conflation of a traditional research paper with online links interspersed. Time prevents me from a thorough going-over, so any mistakes, misattributions or faulty citation (in short, "sloppiness") should be taken with a grain of salt. While I'm aware of some formatting inconsistencies, I ask that the reader pass over those: I'm more concerned with the content than the presentation. Nonetheless, it would be appreciated if legitimate scholarly errors or oversights were brought to my immediate attention.

PART 1  -  PART 2  -  PART 3  -  PART  4

Part 2: French Canadians during the Civil War


French Canadians For and Against the Civil War

In 1860, relations between the British Empire and the United States were in a state of mutual tolerance. The relations between Canada and the United States were somewhat better, helped by the Reciprocity Treaty of 1854, which benefited both countries. Canadian raw materials were sold to the United States, whose manufactured goods, in turn, found a ready market in Canada. There was a strong abolitionist movement in French Canada, which had been inspired by the publication of the French language version of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1853. During the months after the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States and the ensuing acts of secession in the South, the French Canadian press remained silent. When Fort Sumter was fired upon, the French Canadian press declared it a tragedy and favored strict neutrality in the conflict.[1]
By the time of the outbreak of the Civil War the general opinion of the French Canadian populace was weighted in favor of the North, but there was also some sympathy for the South. As a minority population within the British Empire, many French Canadians could relate to the South’s effort to maintain a distinct way of life. The French Canadian press took the seemingly contradictory stance of favoring the secession of the South while at the same time being opposed to slavery. The Trent Affair of 1861 galvanized public opinion in Canada against the cause of the North. French Canadian newspapers and the Roman Catholic clergy, led by the Bishop of Quebec, supported the British position. A general panic swept Canada as the threat of war with the U.S. seemed very real. This panic was partially fed by the fear of Northern aggression that stemmed from the annexation movement that had existed in Canada, and particularly in Quebec, for some time.[2]

While many had advocated for the annexation of Canada on both sides of the border, the Trent Affair permanently damaged the movement. One of the leading opponents of this annexation movement was the French Canadian politician George-Etienne Cartier. He viewed the crown and the Roman Catholic Church as societal stabilizers and he believed that the Protestant, democratic U.S. threatened the religious and monarchical system that he said benefited the French Canadian people. He believed in strict adherence to the law and, while he believed a Southern victory would reduce the threat of American invasion, he also believed in strict neutrality.[3]

In addition to the anti-American speeches of political leaders such as Cartier, the French Canadians heard similar views on Sundays from the traditionally anti-American clerics of the Roman Catholic Church. It was no surprise that when either the U.S. Congress or Northern press seemed to advocate annexation of Canada, French Canadians had a hard time sympathizing with a side that they felt threatened their way of life. Their opposition was further hardened by the initial refusal of Lincoln and the North to make abolition one of the goals of the war. [4]

These attitudes did not go unnoticed in the United States. Reports of a French Canadian captain operating a captured blockade-runner from Nassau undoubtedly raised a few American eyebrows. When the Confederates raided St. Albans, VT in January of 1865, the reports of French Canadians supporting, and even hiding, the raiders reinforced the widely held view in the United States that French Canadians supported the Southern cause. Other reports that placed two of the children of Confederate President Jefferson Davis in Canada also added to this perception.[5]

In truth, most people in Canada, such as Cartier, tended to view the Civil War in terms of how it affected the British Empire as a whole and were probably more anti-North than pro-South. In actuality, the St. Albans raid hurt the Southern cause in the eyes of the French Canadians who believed that their hospitality had been abused. United States Secretary of State William Seward’s observers in Canada reported that the previously anti-North merchants, newspapers and bankers began to exhibit strong support for the North after the raid. Yet, the perception of the American people was more important than the reality. The belief held by many in the North that French Canadians were hostile to the Northern cause probably contributed to the negative reception given to so many French Canadians who arrived in the United States during and after the Civil War.[6]


French Canadians in the Union Army

Despite all of the anti-Northern rhetoric and sentiment in Canada, as well as the laws prohibiting them from enlisting in the U.S. Army, many French Canadians crossed the border and did enlist. Many did so because they truly believed in fighting to end slavery, even if that wasn’t the stated goal of President Lincoln, while others enlisted out of a sense of adventure. Others joined the army to collect the lucrative bounties and some of these signed up multiple times to collect more than once. Others were victims of crimping, or being hijacked into service in the Army, and some of the most successful crimps were French Canadians.[7]

Lord Lyons, the British Ambassador to the United States, reported to Secretary of War William Seward “thirteen men, all with French names, had been brought over the border, ostensibly to cut wood but actually to be drugged and put into the Second New Hampshire Volunteers.”[8] The activity of crimping led some Canadian newspapers in Quebec to warn of the possibility of false advertisements in their own pages, hoping to warn young French Canadians of the hazards of intending to take a job in the U.S. only to find themselves wearing Union Blue. Similarly, the three leading Roman Catholic Bishops of Quebec issued letters to their parishes telling them to warn against enlistment. Despite the fact that many French Canadians did cross the border to enlist in the Union army, most French Canadians who served in the Union army did not come from Canada. [9]

That thousands of French Canadians served in the conflict is certain, but it is uncertain exactly how many of them there were and from where they came. Hercule Beaudry, a Roman Catholic clergyman from Quebec, gave a sermon in 1865 in which he claimed that 40,000 French Canadians, presumably from Canada, had fought in the Civil War and that 14,000 of them had died on foreign soil. This figure of 40,000 had been taken as fact for some time, but more recent studies have cast doubt. There are no accurate statistics of enlistment available and a study of the records would not be much help as most French Canadian recruits would not appear on the rolls under their own surname due to irregularities in spelling, pronunciation and translation. Father Thomas Oulette, who served as a chaplain for the 69th New York Regiment as Father Thomas Willet and Denis Courtemanche, who served in the Fifth Vermont Regiment as Denis Shortsleeve, are examples of surname Anglicization and translation, respectively, and exhibit how the bastardization of names occurred.[10]

Although many French Canadians who enlisted were not citizens of the United States, they often took some form of an English name at the time of enlistment. This could be taken as evidence of an effort to be accepted by their adopted country or may be more a result of the inability of their English speaking recruitment officers to properly transcribe French names. The practice of surname translation or the assumption of an entirely new, English surname by many French Canadian recruits was common. It is purely speculative to propose that they hoped to prove their dedication to their new country by taking an “English” surname. The fact that they enlisted and served at all is probably proof enough. Regardless of intent, the practical effect was that the prevalent practice of modifying French surnames was the first step toward the assimilation of French Canadians into American culture.

There is an additional difficulty of properly differentiating between those French Canadians who lived in Canada and whose families had lived in New England for one or even two or three generations. French Canadians on both sides of the border referred to themselves as Canadiens, and believed in a conception of nationality that stemmed from their ethnicity and not from any particular allegiance to country. They saw themselves as a people without borders and resisted becoming full members of American society because of the language, cultural and religious differences. This unspoken resistance evolved into the concept of la survivance, or the preservation of French Canadian culture. Because of this view of being a people without borders, French Canadians who resided in the United States did not make a concerted effort to become citizens through naturalization and were still considered French Canadian, instead of Americans, by both themselves and the army recruiters. In the end, the latest scholarship tends to support the figure of around 20,000 French Canadian men from either Canada or the United States as having fought in the Civil War.[11]

There was no unit comprised solely of French Canadians (the few attempts to make such units failed), though quite a few units from northern New England had so many French Canadians in their ranks that French was the unofficial language. For the most part, French Canadians were dispersed throughout the Union army and had the same general experiences as their American comrades throughout the war. They fought as hard and died in equal proportion to their American born comrades. These shared experiences proved to be a major contributor to the assimilation of thousands of French Canadians into the main stream of American culture. [12]


French Canadians Fill the Labor Void

By 1863 the mills that had shut down due to the cotton shortage had retooled and begun manufacturing woolens or other goods. The Union army had absorbed the surplus manpower that existed at the beginning of the war and “the booming war economy had shrunk the number of unemployed men to the vanishing point.” [13] Women and other immigrants, including French Canadians, were in demand. The French Canadians who had remained in New England informed their relatives and friends in Canada of the labor shortage and the mills resumed recruiting in Canada.
Usually one or two family members made the journey to New England to work and assess the situation. When they discovered the plethora of job opportunities and the money that could be earned, they summoned the rest of the family to follow. This became known as l’émigration en chaîne, or emigration based on familial or communal connections. One of the results of l’émigration en chaîne was the migration of many people from the same parish or region in Canada to a particular New England town or industrial region. This helped to lessen the emotional and cultural loss associated with immigration. As an example, it was discovered that Woonsocket, Rhode Island was the destination of twenty-one of the fifty-one families that had left St. Prosper parish in Champlain County between 1879 and 1892. In essence, the “petit Canada” in Woonsocket could have just as accurately been called “petit Prosper.” [14]

The immigration of French Canadians hastened in the summer of 1863 and reached new highs in 1864, with New England the most desired destination. The majority of French Canadians sought employment in the factories of southern New England and Massachusetts became the state with the largest French Canadian population in America. By the end of the Civil War, the pattern of migration to New England had been firmly re-established and re-defined. No longer did the French Canadians content themselves with remaining relatively close to home and toiling in the farms and woods of northern New England. Instead, they sought the higher wages that could be found in the textile mills of Southern New England. [15]
Table 2
French Canadians in New England 1860-1870
Source: Yves Roby, Les Franco-Américains de la Nouvelle Angleterre, 1776-1930, (Sillery, Quebec: Septentrion, 1990), 47.


Obstacles to Emigration

While this exodus of French Canadian manpower continued to bleed Canada, many in Canada took notice and some began to warn of dire consequences. Newspapers, such as the Journal de St. Hyacinthe reported that many young men had left the town and the surrounding countryside for the United States, which had a market for their labor. Other newspapers, such as the Montreal Transcript, showed concern over the draining of Quebec of its men who had gone to America to take jobs formerly held by American men who had gone off to war. Alternatively, at least one writer, in the Quebec Chronicle, “stated that he personally was not aware of emigration to such an extent as was claimed.”[16] 

Despite the differing reports, the Roman Catholic clergy believed that too many of their parishioners were leaving for the United States and did their best to stem the flow southward. They began to cultivate a myth, la vocation de la terr, or the idea that, according to God, Canadians were supposed to be farmers.[17] The clerics painted the picture “that the early habitants (‘nos aieux’) were devout, hard-working farmers with large families, toiling in peace and harmony, and benevolently watched over by the wise old parish priests.”[18] According to the priests, to have so many habitants depart their homeland for jobs in industry was a betrayal of the covenant with God and a disruption of the utopian agrarian paradigm. While many French Canadians heeded these warnings, the migration southward continued. Many immigrants carried the imagery of the idyllic French Canadian farming society with them to New England. No doubt, this ideal was present in the minds of many habitants who abandoned their mill jobs each summer and returned to Canada with the hope reestablishing the profitability of their abandoned farm. [19] 

Regardless of the societal pressures, French Canadian immigration to the U.S. increased towards the end of the war. It is a measure of the degree of economic desperation felt at home by the French Canadians that they were willing to jump cultural, social and political hurdles to migrate to a country immersed in the middle of a civil war. Thousands throughout Quebec contracted fievre des Etats-Unis,[20] and rushed across the border. By the end of the Civil War, the machinery of the Industrial Revolution, modernized in the 1850’s and made more efficient by the war, was ready to run at full speed. When the rush of manpower injected into the workforce by the soldiers returning from the war did not sufficiently meet the factories’ labor demands, immigrants, like the French Canadians, were more in demand than ever. They were willing to work and willing to uproot their families for a chance at the seemingly endless opportunities available in America.

[1] Damien-Claude Bélanger, “Canada, French Canadians and Franco-Americans in the Civil War Era (1861-1865),” 2001, > (12 September 2003); and Quebec Le Canadien, April 17, 1861, in Robin Winks, Canada and the United States: The Civil War Years. (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1960), 20.
[2] Winks, 84; and New York Daily Times, March 26, 1856, for more on the annexation of Canada movement in both the U.S. and Canada.
[3] John I. Cope, “The Political Ideas of George Etienne Cartier,” Canadian Historical Review, Volume 23 (Sep., 1942), 286-293; and Edward Watkin, Canada and the United States: Recollections, 1851 to 1886, (London, 1887), 65, in Winks, 239-240.
[4] Belanger, “Canada, French Canadians and Franco-Americans in the Civil War Era (1861-1865),” 2001.
[5] See the New York Times, 15 September 1862 for a report regarding the capture of the bark Fanny Lowery; the Times, 2 January 1865, for a typical report of the French Canadian reaction to the St. Albans raid; and the Times 25 October 1865, for the report on Jefferson Davis’ children.
[6] See Winks, 209-210 for discussion of support for South versus dislike for North; and Winks, 306, for mention of reports to Seward.
[7] See James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. (New York: Ballantine Books, 1988), 605-606 for a discussion on the bounty system; and Winks, 197 for some examples of crimping.
[8] Ella Lonn. Foreigners in the Union Army and Navy. (Baton Rouge: Lousiana State University Press, 1951), 460.
[9] Lonn, 461-462; and Winks, 184.
[10] Lonn, 311; and Belanger, “Canada, French Canadians and Franco-Americans in the Civil War Era (1861-1865),” 2001, for this and more examples of French Canadian surname changes.
[11] See Belanger, “Canada, French Canadians and Franco-Americans in the Civil War Era (1861-1865),” 2001, for a more comprehensive discussion; and Winks, 180, for the theory that most of the enlistment statistics cited by Beaudry probably included third or fourth generation French Canadians from New England.
[12] Belanger, “Canada, French Canadians and Franco-Americans in the Civil War Era (1861-1865),” 2001; and Marcus Lee Hansen and John Bartlett Brebner, The Mingling of the Canadian and American Peoples. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1940), 146.
[13] McPherson, 600.
[14] James P. Allen, “Migration Fields of French Canadian Immigrants to Southern Maine,” Geographical Review, Vol.62, No.3 (Jul., 1972), 370.
[15] Belanger, “Canada, French Canadians and Franco-Americans in the Civil War Era (1861-1865),” 2001.
[16] Lonn, 462.
[17] Gerard J. Brault, “The New England French Culture,” The French Review, Vol.45, No.4 (Mar., 1972), 844. Horace Miner has researched the impact of this myth on the psychology of the average French Canadian with his study of a traditional French Canadian community. See Horace Miner, St. Denis. A French-Canadian Parish, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1939; report 1963), 249-253, in Brault, 834;
[18] Ibid., 843.
[19] Daniel T. Rodgers. “Tradition, Modernity, and the American Industrial Worker: Reflections and Critique,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol.7, No.4 (Spring, 1977), 666.
[20] Podea, 368.

Up Next: Part 3 - French Canadians after the Civil War

PART 1  -  PART 2  -  PART 3  -  PART  4  

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Immigrants and War: French Canadians in the Civil War Era I

In "Non-Natives, the Military and 'Empire'," I wrote an elaborative commentary on a piece by Max Boot in which he proposed that illegal immigrants should be recruited for military service and in which he referred to some claims that mercenaries had caused the "fall" of Rome. I also mentioned another bit of Boot's "call to history," in which he wrote:

In the past, the U.S. military had many more foreigners than we do today. (During the Civil War, at least 20% were immigrants. Now it's 7%.) The British army, among many others, has also made good use of noncitizens. Nepalese Gurkhas still fight and die for the Union Jack despite not being 'culturally bonded' to it. No doubt they would do the same for the Stars and Stripes.
As it happens, I have done research on the French Canadian immigrants to New England during the Civil War era. Thus, prompted by a historian's natural desire to offer a historical example to compare and contrast with contemporary issues, I have decided to post my research in a series, beginning today.
What follows is a conflation of a traditional research paper with online links interspersed. Time prevents me from a thorough going-over, so any mistakes, misattributions or faulty citation (in short, "sloppiness") should be taken with a grain of salt. However, while I'm aware of some formatting inconsistencies, I ask that the reader pass over those: it's about the content, not the presentation. Nonetheless, it would be appreciated if legitimate oversights were brought to my attention. A final note: Boot wrote about illegal immigrants. To my knowledge, there was no such delineation between a "legal" and an "illegal" immigrant in the Civil War era. However, this is not to say there wasn't an idea of "desirable" versus "undesirable."
I will start today with a brief Introduction and Part 1: French Canadians in New England Before the Civil War. Parts 2 and 3, which deal with French Canadians in New England during and after the Civil War, will follow in the next few days.

PART 1  -  PART 2  -  PART 3  -  PART  4 


Many French Canadians entered the United States to find work during the years before the Civil War. This first wave of immigrants became acquainted with American culture and society, which some of them embraced and some resisted. New England was particularly attractive to the French Canadians because of the availability of relatively high paying jobs and its close proximity to their native Canada, which facilitated the maintenance of social and cultural ties between the French Canadians working in New England and their families and communities in Canada. When the Civil War erupted, many French Canadians stayed in the United States and some from both sides of the border volunteered to fight for the Union. Towards the end of the war, and in the years after, the number of French Canadian immigrants increased as they sought to escape the economic hardship of Canada by working in the more industrialized United States. They encountered cultural and social resistance from both Canada and America in their pursuit of economic security. Their attempt to maintain their culture and society, an ideal called la survivance, as distinct within the greater American society proved difficult. Over time, the effort to maintain la survivance diminished and was surpassed by the desire of succeeding generations to take part in American society to the fullest degree.

Part 1: French Canadians in New England before the Civil War


Economic and Social Conditions in Quebec

The French Canadians in Quebec had an agrarian dominated society that suffered from a variety of poor economic and agricultural difficulties throughout the nineteenth century. There was no systematized program to educate the French Canadian farmer, or habitant, in the modern scientific and technical developments in farming and this lack of familiarity with modern agricultural techniques led to a decline in soil quality and concomitant low crop yields. With insufficient means to generate an adequate income, the habitant needed to borrow money to pay taxes and parish charges as well as to feed his ever-growing family. Already suffering from poor credit with more reputable financial institutions and having received no help from the government, the habitant was often forced to turn to usurers and borrow at high interest rates to pay off his debts. Additionally, the subdivision of farms to provide for the inheritance of the children of the large French Canadian families resulted in the unfortunate paradox of less land to feed more people.[1]

Large tracts of arable farmland did exist, but the land tenure system known as seigneurialism and the centralization of property ownership by English landowners made this land inaccessible to the poor habitant. Attempts were made by the government to prompt colonization of the Eastern Townships of Quebec, but expansion into that region was thwarted by the exceedingly high land prices being charged by speculators. In a perpetual state of poverty and having nowhere else to turn, the French Canadians were either pushed off of their lands or were forced to search for sources of supplementary income. Some turned to the timber trade, particularly in the more remote regions of Quebec, while others turned to industry. Unfortunately, while industry was growing in Canada, the population was growing at a faster rate, which led to a surplus of workers.[2]


The Allure of New England

Meanwhile, New England had been transforming from an agricultural to an industrial economy at a much quicker pace than its northern neighbor. From the establishment of Slater’s Mill in Pawtucket, Rhode Island to about 1844, New England had emerged as the cradle of the Industrial Revolution. For example, by this time ninety-four factories were located along the Blackstone River valley between Worcester, Massachusetts and Pawtucket, Rhode Island by way of Woonsocket, Rhode Island. By the 1850’s, the attractiveness of New England as a place to earn a decent wage had become obvious and the comparatively high wages paid there were well known. Factories were not the only, or even primary, employers that attracted French Canadians. Employment as farmhands throughout rural northern New England as well as in the lumber camps of Maine or in the Vermont brickworks proved to be the most attractive. Before the railroads, the French Canadians traveled to New England via waterways or in wagons, which could take a long time. Time spent in transit was time not earning wages, so speed and distance were important factors for the French Canadian to consider prior to moving. The geographic proximity of northern New England made the fiscal cost of moving less prohibitive.[3]

By the start of the 1860’s, the railroad had become well established, but the trip could still take a relatively long time. It took one family four days to go from St. Ephrem d’Upton, Quebec to Lowell, Massachusetts via railroad. Nonetheless, the speed of railroad travel coupled with the close proximity of northern New England resulted in an immigration pattern that favored Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. Additionally, the social cost of separating from their native culture was reduced when they moved to the geographically closer states of northern New England. This close proximity to their homeland enabled them to more easily maintain their family and community ties.[4]

Table 1

French Canadian Population Distribution in New England by 1860

New Hampshire - 1,780

Vermont - 16,580

Massachusetts - 7,780

Rhode Island - 1,810

Connecticut - 1,980

Maine - 7,490

Total - 37,420

Source: Yves Roby, Les Franco-Américains de la Nouvelle Angleterre, 1776-1930, (Sillery, Quebec: Septentrion, 1990), 47.

The Attractiveness of Factory Work

In southern New England, especially Massachusetts, the small factories had begun to evolve into huge enterprises. Though other goods were produced, such as chairs, shoes, axes and leather goods, the textile industry was the prime mover of the economic expansion in southern New England. As the booming pre-Civil War economy fattened the wallets of the factory owners, it also did the same for the wallets of the American and Irish factory workers. The modernization of the factory processes also resulted in the creation of repetitive jobs that could be filled by unskilled labor. These jobs were unsatisfying to many American and Irish workers who left the factory floor for supervisory jobs or left the factory altogether.[5]

The ever-growing number and size of factories combined with the increasing difficulty of keeping workers led to a worker shortage. Immigrants were an attractive source of labor as they were willing to work for less than American workers, and the mill owners turned their eyes to the north and sent recruiting agents among the French Canadians. The recruiting agents were most successful at hiring young, single workers and recruiting was made easier when these young French Canadian men returned home flashing gold watches and dressed in the latest fashions. Such overt exhibitions of prosperity served to whet the appetite of many French Canadians, especially the habitants.[6]

Temporary employment in the mills of New England soon became an attractive way to earn supplemental income for the habitants. They went to America, leaving their families behind, and hoped to make enough money to pay off debts and get the farm back home up and running. Soon, many of them realized that “a few years of toil in the textile mills for Pierre, and of domestic service in a New England family for Marie, and enough money would be saved to return in state to Canada, or to found a family in Massachusetts or Vermont.”[7] They also realized that the jobs they were doing in the textile factories required no real skill and that almost anyone, including children, could find work. Child labor was not taboo in French Canadian society and their Roman Catholic faith encouraged large families. These two facts combined to make factory work extremely attractive as the habitants realized that the more children they had, the more they could earn. Many habitants sent for their entire families with this in mind.[8]

As the French Canadian immigrants were beginning to establish their own communities, called “petit Canadas”, in the mill towns throughout New England, the Civil War began. Worse yet, Southern cotton, the essential resource required by the textile industry, became almost unobtainable and the large textile mills were forced to shut down, some permanently and some to retool. The lack of jobs and the uncertainty of life in a country in the midst of a civil war worried the French Canadians and many returned to their farms and homes in Quebec.

[1] William McDonald, “The French Canadians in New England,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol.12, No.3 (1898) 246; Armand Chartier, The Franco-Americans of New England: A History, trans. Robert J. Lemieux and revised, edited and translated by Claire Quintal. (Manchester, NH: ACA Assurance and Worcester, MA: Institut Français of Assumption College, 1999), 6-7; and Iris Saunders Podea, “Quebec to ‘Little Canada’: The Coming of the French Canadians to New England in the Nineteenth Century," The New England Quarterly, Vol.23, No.3 (1950), 267.
[2] Chartier, 9; and Belanger and Belanger, “French Canadian Emigration to the United States, 1840-1930,” 2000.
[3] Philippe Lemay, “The French Canadian Textile Worker,” interview by Louis Pare, American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1940, No. 1801 (1938-39): 3; and Belanger and Belanger, “French Canadian Emigration to the United States, 1840-1930,” 2000.
[4] Chartier, 7; and Damien-Claude Bélanger and Claude Bélanger, “French Canadian Emigration to the United States, 1840-1930,” 2000, <> (22 June 2005).
[5] Chartier, 11.
[6] Podea, 368; Chartier, 12; and A.R.M. Lower, “New France in New England,” The New England Quarterly, Vol.2, No.2 (1929), 284.
[7] Hugh Llewellyn Keenleyside and Gerald S. Brown, Canada and the United States: Some Aspects of Their Historical Relations, Introduction by W.P.M. Kennedy (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1952), 307.
[8] See Lower, 284; McDonald, 246; and Judith A. McGaw, “’A Good Place to Work.’ Industrial Workers and Occupational Choice: The Case of Berkshire Women,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol.10, No.2 (1979), 236.
Up Next: Part 2 - French Canadians and the Civil War

PART 1  -  PART 2  -  PART 3  -  PART  4