Thursday, June 23, 2005

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  

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