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Canada, French Canadians and Franco-Americans in the Civil War Era (1861-1865)

Chapter I
Chapter II
Chapter III
Bibliographical Note


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Chapter One

Franco-American Enlistments: Facts and Figures


Franco-Americans were one of the most important Catholic groups present in the Union forces. Though thousands of Franco-Americans appear to have served in the conflict the exact number is largely unclear. There are no truly reliable statistics concerning foreign enlistments in the Union forces. Consequently, the historian is forced to estimate. Many have done so, and as a result most scholars tend to claim that anywhere from 20,000 to 40,000 Franco-Americans, many of whom would have been born in the United States or had resided there for several years, served in the Union forces. Historians Armand Chartier and Yves Roby both feel that the number of Franco-American enlistments could be about 20,000. In his monumental study, Histoire des Franco-Américains (1958), French-born historian Robert Rumilly expresses doubts regarding the forty thousand enlistments claim but does not offer the reader a counter-estimate. Robin Winks, who has examined all enlistment estimates feels that "most of the forty thousand or more ‘Canadians’ who enlisted probably were third and even forth generation French-Canadian Americans." Many historians, including Marcus Lee Hansen and John Bartlet Brebner have claimed that "the standard authority on the nativities of the soldiers serving in the Federal armies (an investigation based upon state and regimental records) lists 53,532 as being born in the British-American provinces."1

What is the scientific base for these estimates? Most are indirectly derived from the text of a sermon given in early 1865 by abbé Hercule Beaudry (1822-1876) on the occasion of a Libera sung in Notre Dame Cathedral of Montreal for the souls of French Canadian soldiers killed in the Civil War. The very popular parish priest of St. Constant, Quebec, claimed that 40,000 French Canadians had fought in the Civil War and that 14,000 of these men had already been killed. Through the years this estimate was transformed into a fact in the scholarly literature surrounding the Civil War. Beaudry had a good reason to inflate the number of French Canadians in the Union forces: he wished to impress on his listeners the horrors of war with the ultimate goal of keeping French Canadians from immigrating to the United States. Other historians have extrapolated the number of Franco-American enlistments from an estimate made shortly after the war by Benjamin Apthorp Gould, who had been the actuary of the United States Sanitary Commission from July 1864 to the end of the war. He claimed that 53,532 Union soldiers were born in British North America. However, this frequently quoted figure was based on a very random and unscientific survey and has since been largely discredited by the research of American historian Robin Winks. The apparent precision of this figure seems to have given it quite a bit of credence among historians.2

Most nineteenth-century estimates of Franco-American participation in the Civil War tend to be high. During and after the war both the Franco-American and the French Canadian elite inflated earlier estimates to serve their respective agendas. In May of 1864, the Catholic Bishop of Montreal, Msgr. Ignace Bourget (1799-1885), warned the priests of his diocese that at least 25,000 French Canadians were taking part in the fighting on the Union side and that unless something was done to stop them from enlisting, more would be headed for the boucherie (slaughterhouse).3

Major Edmond Mallet (1842-1907), who had served in the Union army, felt that 60,000 French Canadians had fought in the Civil War. In 1893, at a meeting of French Canadian Civil War veterans held in Montreal, Jean-Baptiste Rouillard (1842-1908), a radical journalist and veteran of the Tenth Vermont Regiment, claimed that forty-three thousand French Canadians had served in the Northern armies. These later observers used these figures to legitimize the presence of Franco-Americans in American society at a time when, following massive immigration from Quebec, Franco-Americans were frequently accused of failing to "fit in."What better justification of the presence of Franco-Americans in the United States could there be than to show that so many had fought for the cause of emancipation and liberty in the Civil War?4

Local historians and genealogists who have painstakingly compiled lists of French Canadian servicemen offer the only possibly reliable figures on Franco-American enlistments. Some authors provide figures for individual cities: Southbridge, Massachusetts, sent thirty-nine Franco-Americans into the Union forces, Worcester, Massachusetts, thirty-six, Rutland, Vermont, twenty-nine, Waterville, Maine, sixty and Woonsocket, Rhode Island, fifty-six.5

Using these figures and comparing them with reliable estimates of the Franco-American population of the towns in question in 1860 we can figure that anywhere from four to nine percent of French-Canadians residing in the United States served in the Civil War. This figure is high but not surprising because like most immigrant groups, French Canadian men of military age were over-represented within their communities.

Between 1840 and 1860, roughly 225,000 immigrants born in British North America had settled in the United States. A little less than half of these immigrants were French-speaking. Most had left the poverty of rural Quebec to find work or affordable homesteads in New England or the Midwest. Many would return to Canada after a few years. By 1860, almost a quarter of a million Americans were born in British North America. These immigrants comprised 6 percent of America’s foreign-born population and about one American in 125 was born in British North America. An overwhelming percentage of these immigrants resided in the North. Moreover, roughly nine percent of all people born in British North America lived in the United States. Canadian-born Americans were the fourth largest group of immigrants in America, behind the Irish, the Germans and the English but well ahead of any of the Scandinavian countries or Italy.6

In 1860, the population of French America would have been about 100,000. Many of these Franco-Americans were born and raised in the United States. Nonetheless, most were Canadian-born. If four to nine percent of French America’s population had served in the Union forces then the total number of Franco-American enlistments would have been less than ten thousand. However, many French Canadians crossed the border, enlisted, and returned home after their term of service. It is impossible to ascertain the extent of this phenomenon. Yet, it is probable that the number of French Canadians who joined the Union forces after simply crossing the border is larger than the total number of enlistments generated by the various Franco-American communities of the Northeast and Midwest. These French Canadian recruits should be added to any estimate of Franco-American participation.7 Moreover, after a serious slump in 1861 and 1862, French America’s population would experience rapid growth after mid-1863. Thus, it is probably safe to advance that anywhere from ten to twenty thousand French Canadians and Franco-Americans served in the Union forces during the Civil War. Twenty thousand represents an ambitious but not impossible maximum. Nonetheless, the true figure would likely be closer to the ten than the twenty thousand enlistments mark. An overwhelming proportion of these men enlisted in the army. Only a very small number of French Canadians seem to have served in the Union navy.

Nevertheless, all estimates of French Canadian enlistment and service in the Civil War, including those presented in this booklet, are inherently flawed. We will never know exactly how many Franco-Americans fought and died in the Civil War. During the first half of the war, no records were kept of the birthplace or parentage of enlisted men. When such information was at last requested, recruiting agents frequently filled in the forms with guesses or falsified information to fill state or town quotas. Moreover, Yankee recruiting officers often saw very little difference between an Acadian, a French Canadian, a Frenchman or a French-speaking Belgian or Swiss recruit. All francophones might thus end up being lumped into a large "French" group. Even among French Canadians a certain degree of confusion existed. In fact, during the Civil War era, the term Canadien français had not yet become generalized in French Canada. French Canadians continued to refer to themselves as Canadiens, a term they had used since the French Regime and which distinguished them both from les Français and les Anglais. Franco-Americans, even those born in the United States were often referred to as Canadiens des États-Unis (Canadians of the United States). This confusion was the direct consequence of the temporary nature which most French Canadian immigrants gave to their American sojourn and to a conception of nationality based not on civic allegiance but on ethnicity. A Canadien was a Canadien no matter what side of the border he lived on. During the 1860s, the sense of a Franco-American community distinct from that of French Canada had not yet emerged and the term Canadien was often used to designate French Canadians on both sides of the border. Poor and lacking the basic institutions necessary to foster a distinctive sub-culture, Franco-Americans existed, but did not yet have a strong sense of their own identity. This distinct identity would emerge in the next few decades.8

Shoddy records and confusing identities aside, even a systematic examination of regimental lists would yield little information about French Canadian enlistments because many, if not most French Canadian recruits do not appear under their real surname. Often illiterate, an important number had their names anglicized by recruiting officers on official documents. This process provides an endless source of frustration to modern researchers and genealogists, as given name and surname changes were common during this phase of French Canadian immigration and seem to almost have been the norm in the army.

Recruiting officers were not the only officials to change French Canadian names. Unable to pronounce French surnames properly, customs and immigration agents, town clerks and English-speaking priests were also frequently responsible for changes. However, the immigrant himself was sometimes the initiator of surname changes. Like many other immigrants, some Franco-Americans actively anglicized their surnames in an effort to better fit into American life. Either way, an anglicized surname was and remains one of the more tangible signs of assimilation. Later in the nineteenth century, as the Franco-American population grew, as levels of literacy rose, and as the community gained a greater institutional structure, surname changes would become less frequent.

Examples of surname changes abound. Typically, they followed one of three established patterns:

Phonetic surname changes: The name was spelled phonetically so that an English-speaking person could pronounce it. Thus, the abbé Thomas Ouellette, who was the chaplain of the Irish Sixty-ninth New York Regiment, was known as Father Thomas Willet. He served with his regiment at the battles of Antietam and Fredericksburg. Joseph Bérard of Woonsocket, Rhode Island, served in the Union army under the name Jerry Berry. The phonetic name change was probably the most common and could be more or less direct (Bigraw for Bigras, Ducett for Doucet, Dubay for Dubé, Dupry or Du Pray for Dupré, Eno for Hénault, Favro for Favreau, La Bounty for Labonté, Lamar for Lamarre, Ledue for Ledoux, Legassey for Lagacé, Maynard for Ménard, Rondo for Rondeau, or Tebo for Thibault), or more approximate (Brother for Brodeur, Dawiran for Dorion, Francu for Francoeur, Friezy for Foisy, Gubby for Gobeil, Jefferson for Geoffrion, Leberdee for Labadie, Perquins for Paquin, Scambo for Archambault, or Shapeal for Lachapelle).

Translated surnames: This pattern, whereby the original French Canadian name was simply translated into English, was common among those whose surnames expressed an emotion (Lovejoy for Lajoie, or Happy for Content or L’Heureux), a profession (King for Roy, or Wright for Charron), an object (Stone for Lapierre, or Wood for Dubois), an animal (Beef for Leboeuf), or any other translatable term (Forest for Laforest, Rivers for Larivière, Luck for Lachance, or Small for Petit). Jacques Papillon of Rutland, Vermont, served in the union army under the name James Butterfly, while Denis Courtemanche of Burlington, Vermont, served in the Fifth Vermont Regiment under the name Denis Shortsleeve.

Complete surname changes: The changed surname bore no resemblance, either phonetically or through translation, to the original French Canadian surname. Examples of this type abound and do not follow any pattern (Young for Lemoyne). Thus Louis G.-A. Fauteux, born in Concord, New Hampshire, in 1848, served in Company D of the Second Massachusetts Cavalry from February 1864 to June 1865 under the name George H. Sanford. He died in Boston in 1899.9

When French Canadian migrants returned permanently to Canada, some kept their anglicized surname. Today, a quick look in any phone book in the Province of Quebec will provide examples of some of the name changes listed above, especially the phonetic ones.

Acadians do not appear to have participated in the Civil War in any significant number. A peaceful people, they have traditionally shunned military pursuits. Moreover, in the early 1860s, Acadians had not yet begun their large-scale immigration to New England. Indeed, most Franco-Americans in the Union forces hailed from Quebec or from the Franco-American communities of New York, New England or the Midwest. The Acadians of Aroostook County, Maine, whose inhabitants had become Americans after the Ashburton-Webster Treaty of 1842 transferred their half of the Madawaska Valley to the United States, did contribute roughly 150 soldiers to the Union forces. However, when the 1862 draft went into effect, the county failed to supply its quota of men, and fifty potential recruits fled to New Brunswick. By 1863, the whole Madawaska Valley was said to be a haven for deserters and copperheads. The geographic and cultural isolation of the Acadian populations of Maine, Gaspesia, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and of Prince Edward Island contributed to their low participation rates. In fact, in the Atlantic colonies, interest and participation in the Civil War seems to have bypassed many locales and internal minorities such as the Acadians. In Aroostook County, which was the most distant point in the United States from the theater of war, rumors swirled during the whole conflict. In early 1865, the Acadians of St. Bruno, Maine, built barricades, dusted off outdated muskets and prepared to repel a reported Confederate invasion of Maine. Such a seemingly alarmist reaction may seem absurd to the modern observer. However, in the wake of the Confederate raid on St. Albans, Vermont (1864), it was not wholly irrational to imagine that Confederate agents operating in Canada might launch a desperate assault on Northern New England.10

© 2001 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College