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 

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