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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 Two

Factors Motivating Franco-American Enlistments and Life in the Union Forces

Why did thousands of French Canadians fight and die in a war that, for the most part, did not concern them? This question, like its answer, is universal. Indeed, the reasons that motivate young men to fight in foreign conflicts are always the same, and can be divided into four distinct categories: idealism, adventure, profit or coercion.

Today many people portray the Civil War as a conflict of ideals. Indeed, idealism embraced two clear-cut objectives during the war: the preservation of the Union and the liberation of the slaves. Slavery, which was unsuited to Canadian agriculture in any case, first fell into disuse, as Courts refused to be involved in the pursuit of fugitives, and was officially abolished in the British Empire in 1833. As a result, there was a strong abolitionist sentiment in French Canada by the mid nineteenth-century. For example, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s (1811-1896) celebrated 1852 novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was quickly translated into French and published in 1853 in Montreal under the title La case du père Tom, ou, Vie des nègres aux États-Unis. It enjoyed a wide circulation in French Canada. Louis-Antoine Dessaulles (1819-1895), a prominent annexationist and radical, felt that the Civil War had been caused by slavery, a system that was "the practical negation of Republican institutions." Given these views, some idealistic young men, like Henri Césaire Saint-Pierre (1844-1916), who later became a judge and jurist in the Superior Court of Montreal, seem to have enlisted out of a desire to put down slavery. Saint-Pierre served in the Seventy-sixth New York Regiment and was active in the G.A.R. after the war. He felt that he and his comrades:

[…] were Christian soldiers fighting for a holy cause and like the crusaders of old, who wielded their violent swords in their efforts to free their enslaved brethren moaning under the foot of a ruthless conqueror; we devoted all our courage, summed all our energy in the task of breaking to pieces the shackles by which three millions of human beings were kept in bondage.

Other French Canadians who were born in the United States or had resided there for a good deal of time, may have enlisted out of patriotism and a desire to preserve the Union. In French Canada, where some radical Republicans were proponents of Canada’s annexation to the United States, a few men may have fought to save a nation that they considered a model of democracy and freedom. Indeed, Saint-Pierre claimed to have enlisted not only to liberate the slaves but also help preserve "the birth place of democracy":

We fought also for the preservation of that sacred compact by which the founders of the Republic had pledged [themselves] to the maintenance of a government of the people, by the people and for the people.1

Certainly, French Canadians were not above serving in foreign conflicts if they felt that the cause was just. In the mid 1860s, several had gone to Mexico to join the French forces defending the Catholic empire of Maximilian. A few years later, over five hundred ardent Catholics went overseas to defend Pope Pius IX against Italian unification. In 1890, a few even volunteered to join a proposed French military expedition to help suppress slavery in Africa. However, it is unlikely that idealism was the primary motivating factor behind most French Canadian or Acadian enlistments in the Civil War. Indeed, while most French Canadians were sympathetic towards abolition, they were also somewhat pro-Southern in their outlook. Paradoxically, the conservative and Catholic press in French Canada proclaimed itself in favor of secession but opposed to slavery. Conservative elements within French Canada claimed that the Civil War was the logical consequence of egalitarianism, democracy and Republicanism. Any government founded on the principle of popular sovereignty was destined to collapse in a fiery holocaust. Overall, the Civil War seemed a vindication of the traditional anti-Americanism of French Canada’s conservative and clerical elite. Moreover, as a minority, French Canada did feel a degree of sympathy for the South’s desperate struggle to maintain its distinct identity. Some, like abbé Beaudry, saw God’s vengeful hand at the root of the conflict. The United States was a society built on "lies, corruption, blasphemy, immorality, fraud and impiety" and was being punished for its sins. He reminded his flock that "religion is the only solid base for a political system." American political institutions were an insult to God’s will because they were too democratic and egalitarian. Consequently, Americans suffered from a general lack of respect for authority, especially religious authority. Beaudry warned that the thousands of French Canadians who had already died in the Civil War might be a prelude to God’s wrath being unleashed on Canada. As in the United States, war would be the punishment for Canada’s sins.2

Beaudry was not the only Canadian to see war coming to Canada. Indeed, the anti-Northern stance adopted by most Canadians was largely a result of the North’s belligerent attitude towards the British Empire. Fearing that a victorious North would turn on British North America after defeating the Confederacy, many Canadians hoped for a Southern victory. Others felt that American expansionism and manifest destiny, always a threat to Canada, would be checked by a permanently severed Union.

Following the Trent affair of 1861, panic swept through British North America as the possibility of an Anglo-American war where Canada would be the battleground became very real. After an all-time high in the late 1850s, Canadian-American relations now had reached a fifty-year low. Indeed, the Civil War would poison relations between Canada and her neighbor for several years and leave a legacy of fear and mistrust north of the border.3

As the Confederacy tried in vain to draw Britain and France into the conflict, the British army rushed thousands of reinforcements into British North America to fend off an apprehended American invasion force. The American Secretary of State, William H. Seward (1801-1872), was a notorious proponent of annexation, and hostile rumblings were heard throughout Washington as the urge to retaliate against Canada to punish Great Britain gained momentum. At the conclusion of hostilities, Seward was among those who felt that a foreign war would be the quickest way to unite the North and South. In the House of Representatives, abolitionist Owen Lovejoy (1811-1864) of Illinois, who was close to Lincoln, threatened that when the war was over the United States would aid the Irish rebels, and foment a revolt in French Canada. Indeed, toward the end of the war many Americans did fund and support the Fenian Brotherhood. The Fenians were American-based Irish nationalists who sought to harass the British by launching periodic raids or "invasions" into British North America. Poorly planned and badly led, the Fenian raids were easily repelled by the Canadian Militia. Nonetheless, the unofficial American support of Fenianism was a direct consequence of the diplomatic friction generated by the Civil War. Many members of the Fenian "army" were veterans of the Union army and their goals, as expressed in one of their marching songs, were both belligerent and pathetic:

We are the Fenian Brotherhood, skilled in the art of war,

And we’re going to fight for Ireland, the land that we adore.

Many battles we have won along with the boys in blue,

And we’ll go and capture Canada, for we’ve nothing else to do.

Rumors began to fly and exacerbated the situation. The most widely circulated rumor claimed that the North, realizing that it could not conquer the South, was ready to take Canada as a replacement. In diplomatic circles, it was rumored that General Winfield Scott had been empowered to offer French Canada to France if she would support the United States in a war with the British Empire. Throughout the Union, troops could be heard singing a new version of Yankee Doodle:

Secession first he would put down

Wholly and forever,

And afterwards from Britain’s crown

He Canada would sever.

Canadians serving in the Union forces began to fear that they would soon be ordered to invade their own country. A group of Canadian-born soldiers went so far as to petition Lincoln not to declare war on Great Britain.4

In Canada, the militia was strengthened. In 1862, Canadian Premier John A. Macdonald (1815-1891) introduced a bill in the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada to establish an active militia force of 50,000, to be selected by conscription if necessary. The bill’s defeat brought about the fall of the government but subsequent bills would shore up the defense of Canada. Meanwhile, the British government moved to prohibit the export of military material to the United States while the bishops of Canada East (Quebec) launched a preparedness campaign. They urged all Catholic men to join the Canadian Militia and prepare to defend their patrie (country) against invasion. In December 1861, during the height of the Trent affair, the Bishop of Montreal, Msgr. Bourget, called on all the priests of his diocese to remind their parishioners of the bravery of the French Canadian heroes of the battle of Châteauguay, who had defeated a large American invasion force in 1813.

War fever gripped Canada. When rumblings were heard in the halls of Congress or in the popular press in favor of annexation, it became hard for Canadians to sympathize with a cause that, while just, was also a threat to Canada. Moreover, both French and English Canadians were disappointed when, early in the war, Lincoln failed to identify abolition as one of his war goals. Canadian hostility to the North reached its zenith in 1861-1862, then subsided somewhat after the Emancipation Proclamation. In fact, Canadian opinion evolved during different stages of the war. Lincoln’s assassination did unleash a torrent of sympathy in Canada. On the whole, because of Union belligerence towards Canada and the rest of the British Empire, Canadian opinion was more anti-northern than pro-southern per se.5

Remarkably, fear and hostility towards the North did not stop thousands of French Canadians from crossing the border and enlisting. Indeed, many enlisted out of a sense of adventure or for money. Undeniably, the call to arms coupled with the allure of uniforms, of action and of far away places has always had a great effect on young men. Contemporary accounts place a great deal of importance on adventure as a motivation for enlistment. At the time, many believed that French Canadian youths suffered from a particularly adventurous spirit that they had inherited from the days of the fur trade. In the annual report of the Province of Canada’s Ministry of Agriculture to the Governor General, the commissioner of public works and future father of Confederation, Jean-Charles Chapais (1811-1885), agreed:

Who cannot call to mind the voyageurs des pays d’en-haut, and remember that these bands of gay and intrepid adventurers were recruited almost entirely from the French Canadian youth? This inclination of our ancestors still exists as strongly among their children, and contributes in no small degree to draw away from agricultural pursuits numbers of our young men, who, strong and robust, might do important service in opening up the country. How many hundreds of these are this day to be found at the mines of California and Australia, engaged in the pursuit of treasures, often in vain, and which, when they do find, they expend in useless, often indeed in criminal extravagances? How many of them pass their winters in the shanties, in the bosom of the forests, or their summers at the fisheries on the north shore of the St. Lawrence, or on the coast of Labrador and Gaspesia? Has not this same passion for excitement the effect of seducing too great a number of our young men into the ranks of the armies of the American Republic?6

A prime example of an adventure-driven enlistment can be found in French Canadian journalist and writer Rémi Tremblay (1847-1926). At the age of twelve, Tremblay’s family left Quebec to immigrate to Rhode Island, where he and several relatives worked in various cotton mills in and around Woonsocket. However, when the Civil War disrupted New England’s cotton industry, wages were cut and the Tremblays were unable to find work. In 1862, the family returned to Canada. At sixteen, Rémi Tremblay dreamed of serving in the French Foreign Legion. He then figured that his best chance to see any action was in the Union forces. Tremblay had caught "war fever" at fourteen while living in Woonsocket. In his autobiographical Civil War novel, Un revenant. Épisode de la Guerre de Sécession (1884), he explains how it affected him:

[I] had witnessed the departure of the Woonsocket, R. I., company and was also present for the ovation they received upon their return [from the first battle of Bull Run]. The spectacle of those brave men, their faces tanned by the Virginia sun, had gripped [my] imagination. The few injured men [I] had seen with their arm in a splint or walking with crutches inspired [me]. [I] believed that those soldiers who had lost their lives at Bull Run were martyrs to the cause of humanity. The dead, the injured and the survivors all seemed to be heroes. [I] would have enlisted immediately, but it was 1861 and [I] was only fourteen.7

In October 1863, penniless, the sixteen-year old Tremblay left his job and his family and walked 72 miles from Contrecoeur, Quebec, to Rouse’s Point, New York, where he enlisted in the Fourteenth United States Regular Infantry. He had signed up "not for money but for glory." However, during his eighteen months of service, Tremblay would see very little money or glory, and plenty of misery. He saw action in the battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor and in the siege of Petersburg and fought bushwhackers in Kentucky and West Virginia. Captured in 1864, he was incarcerated for six long months in the notorious Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia. Paroled, Tremblay was sent to a parole camp in Annapolis, Maryland, where he went absent without leave and deserted. Wanted for desertion, he quickly returned to Canada and in 1866 became an officer in the Canadian Militia. He then saw action during the Fenian raids. Later he became a journalist and a translator at the Canadian House of Commons. An adventurous man throughout his life, Tremblay died in Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe, in the French West Indies. He was not the only French Canadian to use his Civil War experience to secure a commission in the Canadian Militia. Though he should have been arrested upon his return to Canada for flouting the British Foreign Enlistment Act, Isaïe Dussault (1843-1929), who had joined the Union army in 1864, went on to become a lieutenant-colonel in the Canadian Régiment de Portneuf.

Tremblay, like many other French Canadian soldiers, did not have any scruples regarding desertion, and indeed, tried to desert several times. After reading that Confederate President Jefferson Davis had issued a proclamation granting an amnesty and promising to repatriate foreign-born Union soldiers, Tremblay claims to have deserted to a band of West Virginian bushwhackers in hopes of being allowed to travel to Mexico and enlist in Emperor Maximilian’s army. When he learned that he would not be sent anywhere but back to the Union lines, Tremblay eventually found his way back to his regiment, so as to avoid a court martial.

Many young French Canadians, upon learning that army life was not as glamorous as it had first seemed, deserted. Some tried to obtain a release on the grounds that they were British subjects and that their enlistment violated British neutrality laws or that they had enlisted while underage and without parental consent.

About forty percent of the Union forces were twenty-one years old or less and many were younger than eighteen. Éphrem-A. Brisebois (1850-1890) enlisted in 1865, when he was only fifteen. A fervent Catholic, he later served in the Papal Zouaves and fought Italian unification. In 1873, when the Canadian government set up the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to patrol the recently acquired North-West Territories, Brisebois was named one of its nine commanding officers. During 1875, he supervised the construction of Fort Brisebois, which was later renamed Calgary, Alberta. In 1885, Brisebois took part in the suppression of Louis Riel’s North-West Rebellion.

Undeniably, the Civil War was hell. Indeed, many Franco-Americans would never return home. Onésime Falardeau (1828-1862) was the first soldier from Cohoes, N. Y. to be killed in the war when the train that should have brought him to his basic training camp struck him. Eusèbe Sansouci (or San Souci) had settled in the United States in 1855. After enlisting in the First United States Cavalry Regiment, he was killed in the battle of Salem Church, Virginia, in 1863. One of his children, Emery John (1857-1936), would go on to become the Republican Lieutenant Governor (1915-1920) and Governor (1921-1923) of Rhode Island. Some French Canadians would return home horribly maimed.

Discipline in the army was often severe and the pay was low and irregular. The terror of battle contrasted severely with the monotony and boredom of camp life, with its endless and tedious drills and reviews as well as dirty, leaky and cold tents. Long marches carrying forty pounds of equipment, food shortages, contaminated water, parasites, improper nutrition, sanitation, lodging and medical care all weakened the troops’ health and morale. Wearing the same uniform year-round, troops baked in the summer and froze in the winter. While the Union soldier was better fed than his Confederate counterpart, on the whole, his diet was utterly deficient. He lacked fresh meat, fruits and vegetables. Improper treatment of the wounded and the sick made soldiers fear the doctor. In fact, disease claimed twice as many Civil War soldiers than combat. In an era where germs were unknown to medical science, measles, especially in winter, malaria, venereal disease, dysentery and the deadly typhoid fever were the soldier’s worst enemies. The camps surrounding Washington, D. C., which were transit points during the war, were notoriously insalubrious during the first phase of the conflict. Charles Bilodeau (1834-1901) of Saint-Lazare, Quebec, immigrated to Pennsylvania in the 1850s and enlisted as a cook in late 1861. He offers a good example of how disease spread through the Union ranks. In his diary, he recounts his brush with death near Washington in 1861: "November 16. After having slept on the ground and in the mud, without any blanket, I contracted typhus." Bilodeau was lucky to survive, though he would later contract both dysentery and malaria. No longer a cook, he saw action until mid-1865 and was able return home to Saint-Lazare after the war.8

Like Rémi Tremblay, many Franco-American soldiers had to suffer through the wretched and unsanitary conditions of Confederate prison camps. Malnourished in cramped and insalubrious camps, many would not survive their internment. Simon M. Dufur (Dufour) of Richford, Vermont, was confined for eleven long months in Pemberton, Libby, Belle Island, Florence, and the notorious Andersonville Prison. A private in Company B of the 1st Regiment of Vermont Cavalry, Dufur was captured at the age of nineteen during the Kilpatrick-Dahlgren raid on Richmond, Virginia. He later wrote a gripping account of his incarceration under the title of Over the Dead Line (1902).

Modern warfare is said to be largely impersonal. Ships and planes fire missiles at distant targets and inflict "collateral damage." Inversely, Civil War fighting was highly personal. Soldiers would fire at each other at close range and then charge with fixed bayonets. Battles often degenerated into vicious hand-to-hand combat, which, at heart, was not fundamentally different from the methods of war practiced two thousand years ago. The deadly chaos of battle, where the screams of the wounded and the dying mingled with the smoke and noise of rifle and cannon fire drove many men mad. Forced to kill or be killed, many Franco-American soldiers returned home psychologically scarred by their war experiences.9

Isolated and homesick, Franco-American soldiers might not even be able to turn to their chaplain, who was usually a Protestant, and if he was Catholic, could probably not speak French. It was virtually impossible for isolated Catholics to keep Lent. Moral degradation rolled through the camps and Catholics and Protestants alike were swept up in a wave of swearing, gambling, drinking and prostitution. The accent and religion of foreign-born soldiers often made them the victims of pranks, mischief and abuse. Though French Canadians who had worked in lumber camps were used to cramped quarters, exhausting work and bad food, often, a steady diet of salt pork, hard tack and coffee and the general harshness of military life would take its toll on even the most hardened recruit. Many would do almost anything to get out of the service. Canada’s National Archives contain one particularly pitiful yet touching letter written in desperation by a young English Canadian who had endured the Peninsular campaign of 1862:

You may write to Lord Lyons [the British Minister in Washington] & try to get me out if you can […] I want to get out very bad tell him that I enlisted under eighteen & that I am only five months over it now. Tell him that I am a British subject […] We got half a lemon and four potatoes one day and that was all […] the food didn’t come […] we are full of lice […] the bones stick out all over me […] I saw the Rebels on the other side of the river [while] on picket but I did not fire at them. It seemed too much like murder & I thought of the Golden Rule – do unto others as you would they should do unto you […]10

Of course, the war could have its lighter side. In a letter to his parents, a Wisconsin private recounted a story that probably involved a French Canadian:

We came in the [railway] cars from Madison from La Crosse. It was a new experience for me, I was wide awake the whole day. I was afraid we were off the track every time we crossed a switch or came to a river. At the towns the girls swarmed on the platforms to ask the boys for their pictures and to kiss the best looking ones. A young Frenchman […] small and quick, got the most kisses. He was so short the boys held him by the legs so he could reach down out the windows to kiss the girls. Many times some old fellows held the girls up so she could be reached. It was fun anyway.11

Most French Canadians did find the adventure they craved. Some thoroughly enjoyed the camaraderie of military life. Others served in the Deep South and returned home with exotic stories involving Negroes or alligators to tell their enthralled relatives. Many rural men who had never even seen a camera before had their first picture taken. Though French Canadian soldiers were often picked on by their Anglo-American peers, many claimed to have been quite popular, as they were able to entertain their comrades by telling stories of Indians and far away places or by singing French songs. Rémi Tremblay claims to have been particularly well liked by his comrades. His ability to "imitate Irish, Negro or German accents" or to "sing bawdy songs" apparently endeared him to his brothers in arms. In his memoirs he wrote that: "There was no animosity directed at French Canadians. They [his comrades] only knew of one, [myself], whom they called Frenchy." Then, as today, many Franco-Americans had to endure being known as "Frenchy" at some moment of their life.12

The presence of musicians or of a band in a regiment might raise the troops’ morale. One of the distinguishing characteristics of the Union army was its numerous bands of musicians. When not on the march, bands commonly gave concerts that were greatly enjoyed by the soldiers. Indeed, before gramophones, radio or television came into existence, live music was one of the preferred entertainment of the masses. On the whole, Civil War soldiers had to provide their own entertainment. During the early part of the war, each regiment was authorized a band, but in mid-1862 an order was passed prohibiting bands below the brigade level. In September 1861, one of Canada’s most famous composers, Calixa Lavallée (1842-1891) enlisted as a first-class trumpeter in the Fourth Rhode Island Regiment, probably under the name Caliax Levalley. Born near Verchères, Quebec, Lavallée had run away from home at the age of fifteen and had eventually joined a traveling minstrel show at New Orleans. A musician at heart, he nonetheless found himself transferred to combat duty after the War Department suppressed regimental bands. Wounded in the leg during the battle of Antietam, he was honorably discharged in October 1862. After his discharge, Lavallée would compose the music to O Canada, which today is Canada’s national anthem. He died in Boston at the age of forty-nine. Some historians speculate that Lavallée’s interest in patriotic music was sparked by his days as a military musician.13

Though there was no specifically Canadian unit in the way there were Irish or German regiments during the war, many French Canadians served in regiments from Northern New England, the Midwest or upstate New York where their countrymen were well represented. Several regiments from Maine or Vermont contained so many French Canadians that French became the dominant language within some companies. Some served in the only French regiment of the Union army, the Gardes Lafayette (the Fifty-fifth New York), commanded by a French immigrant, the writer and journalist Colonel Régis de Trobriand (1816-1897), who had had previous military training and experience in France. The regiment had been formed out of a New York militia unit and was partially equipped with funds collected among the French and French Canadian population of New York city. They drilled at Camp Lafayette on Staten Island before being shipped to the front. After a year of service, the regiment had lost over four hundred men and had to be incorporated into the Thirty-eighth New York Regiment.14

A few attempts were made to form Canadian or French Canadian regiments in the Union army. All failed. In 1861, Colonel Rankin, who was a member of Parliament in the Province of Canada and a militia officer, set out to raise a regiment of sixteen hundred lancers for service with the North. He was quickly arrested for violating the British Foreign Enlistment Act. As a Union recruitment officer, Edmond Mallet had sought unsuccessfully to regroup all the French Canadians serving in the various infantry units mustered in the Lake Champlain region into one French Canadian regiment. Major Mallet, whose family emigrated from Montreal to Oswego, New York, when he was only seven, would eventually become a prominent member of the Franco-American elite. After the battle of Fair Oaks in 1862, Mallet was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant. Severely wounded at the battle of Cold Harbor in 1864, he had been left for dead on the battlefield (his death was even announced in an Oswego newspaper) when a general who knew him well insisted that he receive medical treatment. After the battle, he recovered and was cited for "distinguished gallantry" and promoted from the rank of lieutenant to that of major by President Lincoln. After the war, Mallet attended Columbia University and received a degree in law. He went on to work for the United States Treasury Department and was named Special Indian Agent in Oregon by President Grant in 1874. Later, President Cleveland named him Inspector-General of Indian Affairs. Sadly, after his years of military and civil service, Mallet, like many other Franco-Americans, could barely speak French and was only a nominal Catholic. However, after a visit to Canada awakened his faith and his national pride, Mallet became very active in the movement to preserve the French language and culture in the United States. He acknowledged that he had been saved at Cold Harbor by Providence and by his mother’s prayers and became a zealous Catholic. As an amateur historian and bibliophile, Mallet sought to chronicle the contribution of French Canadians to the American Republic in an effort to instill a sense of pride among his compatriots. Today, his library forms the core of the Union Saint-Jean-Baptiste d’Amérique’s collection of Franco-Americana. Major Mallet had risen through the ranks to become, it would seem, the highest ranked French Canadian in the Union forces. According to Colonel de Forest, "if he had been five years older and five inches taller, he would have finished the war a general rather than a major." On the whole, French Canadians in the Union army were disadvantaged not so much by their height or age but by their language and religion and by their general lack of military experience. Indeed, for various reasons, French Canadians were under-represented in the ranks of the Canadian Militia. Consequently, most French-speaking officers in the Union army were from France and had previous military experience. While there was one Montreal-born general in the Union army, Jacob Dolson Cox, and one Canadian-born colonel, Joseph R. Scott, few French Canadians received officer’s commissions.15

Along with adventure, money seems to have been the other prime motivation for French Canadians to enlist in the Union army. By 1863, recruitment had reached an impasse in the United States. Americans who were going to enlist for various reasons already had. The economy was in high gear and America had become war weary. An inefficient and unfair draft system (only seven percent of the men whose names were drawn actually served) allowed the purchasing of substitutes or an exemption from military service with the payment a 300 dollar commutation fee. Viewed as a right, substitution had a long tradition in America. However, the draft system was mostly an inducement to volunteer. Indeed, it was the volunteer who truly stood to profit from the war. As the conflict progressed and states and counties sought to fill their enlistment and draft quotas, the value of national, regional and local bounties increased. A substitute might receive several hundred dollars for his services, especially after Congress repealed commutation in 1864. By the end of the conflict, an entrepreneurial recruit could also combine federal, state, county and municipal bounties into grants of a thousand dollars or more.16

In French Canada, as elsewhere, this sum represented a small fortune. Most Canadian workers only earned a few dollars a week and most farms, if they produced a marketable surplus, could not expect their yearly profits to exceed one or two hundred dollars. Many enlisted in late 1864 or early 1865, knowing that the conflict would soon be at a close and hoping to use their bounty money to pay off debts or buy a farm. In a predictable pattern, poverty and debt drew many French Canadians into the Union army. The Canadian government understood the importance of Union bounties in attracting foreign recruits. In 1864, the Report of the Canadian Minister of Agriculture tried to explain the recent slump in immigration to Canada by claiming that: "The high bounty offered for enlistment in the North has also had a powerful effect in directing the current of European emigration toward our neighbors’ shores."17

As America became desperate for soldiers, substitute brokers and unofficial recruitment officers crossed the border in hopes of inducing Canadians to enlist. These men operated illegally. Indeed, under the British Foreign Enlistment Act of 1818, it was illegal for British subjects to serve or recruit for foreign armies. It was also illegal for foreigners to recruit British subjects. Moreover, American law also forbade foreign recruiting. Quickly rescinded and rarely enforced, the War Department’s General Order No. 45 of July 1861 had even prohibited the acceptance into the service of recruits who did not speak English. These legal stumbling blocks did not stop substitute brokers and recruiters from operating throughout Canada. Often these men sought to induce British soldiers to desert from the low pay and harsh discipline of the British army. They also convinced many privates and officers to desert from the Canadian Militia. Receiving a bounty or commission for every young man they could convince to cross the border, many agents operated with complete impunity. Bribes and a need for recruits made American officials look the other way. Detroit, Buffalo and Northern New England became centers of Canadian recruitment. Towards the end of the war, the problem became so serious that the Canadian government had to set up a secret police force to counter it.18

Some of the most successful recruiters were Franco Americans. The French Canadian elite denounced these men with particular vehemence. In 1864, the Bishop of Trois-Rivières, Quebec, Msgr. Thomas Cooke (1792-1870), warned the clergy of his diocese that it was their duty to "unmask these traitors."19

However, the system functioned improperly and many French Canadians took advantage of its flaws. Indeed, Canadians were notorious "bounty jumpers." Some were known to cross the border, enlist, claim their bounties and then desert and return to Canada at the first opportunity. A few even repeated this feat several times. Union General H. B. Carrington reported that British North Americans would enlist, desert and enlist again, and that to help put an end to this practice he had court-martialed and executed two unfortunate Canadians who had each collected three bounties.20

Canadians were not the only people to abuse the system. As French Canadians headed south to serve in the Union forces or work in a booming economy, hundreds of northern soldiers deserted and took a "French furlough" in Montreal. In early 1863, when Union morale hit rock bottom, desertion and draft dodging reached a fever pitch and were noticeably prevalent in the states that bordered Canada. Indeed, Canada proved a safe heaven for deserters and draft dodgers or "skeddadlers" as they were called. At first, these men were welcomed because a decline in immigration from the British Isles had created a labor shortage. However, Canada soon contained as many as fifteen thousand deserters and draft dodgers. Coupled with the Union spies, escaped POWs, Confederate agents and copperheads that circulated freely in British North America, these men drove wages down and created all kinds of disturbances.21

Not all French Canadians were enlisted into the Union forces of their own free will. During the Civil War, both sides used entrapment and coercion to fill their ranks. Some French Canadians were illegally drafted in the United States while others who had become American citizens were subject to the draft. During the conflict, stories abounded of "crimps" drawing Canadians over the border with the promise of work and tricking or coercing them into enlisting. These stories generally follow a predictable pattern: An American would hire a French Canadian or promise him work across the border. The French Canadian would cross the border and go out and get drunk with his new friend (sometimes victims were drugged). The next morning, he would awake hung over in a barracks dressed in a blue uniform and discover that he had enlisted in the Union army. Often, his freedom and his bounty had been taken away. Some men were abducted from their homes along the American border, while others were arrested while in the U.S. for alleged desertion from an army to which they had never belonged and were forced to enlist to avoid incarceration. The Collector of Customs at Coaticook, Quebec, claimed that crimps made it unsafe for townsmen to be out at night. Reports of mere boys being tricked into recruiting were not uncommon. In 1864, six French Canadians petitioned the Governor-General of British North America, Lord Monck (1819-1894), on behalf of a sixteen-year-old named Alfred Broissoit who had been made drunk by a recruiting officer, taken from Montreal to the United States where he enlisted and then was fleeced of his bounty money and forced to sign a receipt for a sum greatly in excess of his bounty. In his short novel, L’Innocente victime (1936), Franco-American writer and folklorist Adélard Lambert (1867-1946) tapped into the multitude of French Canadian folk-tales surrounding "crimping" and told the story of a young man who was tricked into enlisting in 1864. Wounded in battle and stricken with amnesia, the man fails to locate his wife who sets out to find him and is murdered in a case of mistaken identity. Lambert’s novel, along with Rémi Tremblay’s Un revenant and a few poems, are the only evidence of the Civil War to be found in French Canadian literature.22

While crimping did exist, it was not as common as Civil War era accounts suggest. Priests often used crimps as bogeymen to scare their parishioners away from the United States and alcohol. The government of the Province of Canada did all it could with limited resources to stop crimping. Sometimes, it offered rewards to apprehend known crimps.

It would also appear that about one in fifty British North Americans who fought in the Civil war served in the Confederate forces. Very little is known about these men. Some Nova Scotians served in the small Confederate navy or on blockade runners. Since only a few Franco-Americans lived in the Southern States in 1860 their numbers in the Confederate forces must have been very limited. In his autobiographical novel, Rémi Tremblay claimed that after deserting from the Union army he served briefly in a Confederate unit to avoid being sent back to the Union lines to face a court martial. After a few days, he deserted from his new unit and found himself in the unenviable position of being wanted for desertion by both sides. Isaïe Pigeon was living in Maryland in 1861 when he enlisted with a fellow French Canadian named Durocher in the Confederate Langways Regiment. Born in 1841 in Coteau Landing, Quebec, he took part in the first battle of Bull Run and was promoted to the rank of lieutenant before being captured in 1863. After his release he returned to live in Canada.23

In French Canada, the clergy had long claimed that life in America would be deadly and miserable for emigrants. During the Civil War their words rang true. Indeed, the political and clerical elite of French Canadian society did all it could to stop young men from enlisting in the Union or Confederate forces. Though, as was the case with French Canadian immigration to the United States, they were less than successful in putting an end to enlistments. While they were denounced in both the pulpit and in Parliament, hardly any Canadian-born Union soldiers were arrested when they returned home. A couple of French Canadian priests even found themselves serving as chaplains in Union regiments or hospitals. In addition, two French Canadian surgeons and five Canadian-born nuns attended to the sick and wounded during the conflict.24

© 2001 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College