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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 Three

The Growth of French America During the Civil War


Most of the French Canadians who immigrated to America during the Civil War probably did not come to fight but rather to participate in a booming economy. Nonetheless, the conflict disrupted French Canadian immigration. Indeed, during the Civil War the United States was experiencing rapid but uneven growth. After an initial slump, the war stimulated the manufacturing sector but retarded overall growth. Soon, large numbers of women entered the labor market. Real wages stagnated as inflation and currency devaluation ate away at income. While the American economy grew as demand for food, uniforms, blankets, shoes and weapons soared, there was a slump in other sectors, notably in railway construction, or in the cotton industry of New England. On the whole, the Civil War both dislocated immigration and trade.1

The slowdown in the cotton industry would have serious repercussions on the fledgling Franco-American communities of New England. Many immigrants returned to Canada as mills closed or cut wages and work weeks. During the Civil War, the Canadian dollar was still on a gold basis. While the American Federal Government printed millions in greenbacks, the U.S. dollar depreciated in value and Canadians could buy farms in Michigan at bargain prices. Some French Canadians did use this opportunity to buy land at twenty to thirty cents per acre. Nonetheless, the Civil War brought about a major shift in French Canadian immigration patterns. Before the War, French Canadians headed to the American Northeast and to the Midwest in roughly equal proportions. However, after the conflict, New England and New York State began to attract the vast majority of immigrants. The rapid industrialization of the Northeast accounts for part of this shift but it can also be attributed to the changing nature of French Canadian immigration. Before 1860, an important proportion of immigrants from French Canada settled on farms in Illinois or Michigan. As the American agricultural frontier continued to shift Westward towards the Dakotas, Montana and Kansas, French Canadians who could afford to homestead turned their sights on the regions of Quebec which had remained largely untilled, like the Saguenay-Lake St. John or parts of the Laurentians. The new immigrant was poorer. He could not afford to travel as far, and was more likely to be seeking industrial work. Hence, the mills and factories of New England and New York State became more attractive.2

Between 1860 and 1870, about 100,000 French Canadians settled in the United States. During this period, the total population of French America roughly doubled. By 1870, almost half a million Americans were born in British North America. About a third of these new immigrants were French Canadians. Most would have arrived between 1863 and 1870. Indeed, many Franco-American communities in New England experienced negative population growth from 1860 to 1863. In his memoirs, Rémi Tremblay described how and why many immigrants, including his family, returned home:

The industrial crisis deepened in the beginning of the war. The mills had cut two days out of the work week and everyone expected that they would soon close outright. Discouraged, many French Canadian families began to think about returning to the Saint-Lawrence Valley. Some former farmers decided to make the trip home using horses that, owing to deflation, could be bought at reasonable prices. The savings it generated compensated the slowness and discomfort of this mode of transport. A farmer saved on railway tickets and arrived in Canada with a horse and wagon [and could start homesteading immediately].3

Problems in the cotton industry, temporary passport regulations, a low U.S. dollar and the fear some immigrants had of being drafted kept many away, especially during the first half of the War. However, prosperity in Canada was the main cause for the decrease of French Canadian immigration. As a general rule, French Canadians would not leave their homeland if they could earn a decent living there. Immigration was stimulated by necessity and not by greed. During the Civil War, the Canadian economy flourished. Tied to the U. S. by a reciprocity treaty negociated in 1854, British North America exported huge amounts of food and raw materials to a bulimic American war economy. In the Atlantic colonies, fish and lumber exports rose while shipbuilding and smuggling, which were an important segment of the regional economy, grew substantially as huge profits could be made in running the Union blockade of the Confederate States.

However, by 1863-1864, Canadian wages began to return to their prewar level as thousands of American draft dodgers, deserters, copperheads and escaped Confederate POWs began to stream into Canada and drive wages down. Millions of dollars of depreciated American silver coins also found their way North, which helped alleviate Canada’s traditional shortage of hard currency but also stimulated inflation. For the first time, Canadian banks and businesses were no longer willing to accept American dollars on par. While the cotton industry in New England slumped, the American leather and wool industries flourished in response to the military’s endless demand for shoes, belts, harnesses, uniforms and blankets. Meanwhile, the war cut wide swaths through the American labor pool. Correspondingly, thousands of French Canadians streamed into the U.S. from 1863 to the end of the conflict. One of these, Alfred Bessette (1845-1937) of St-Grégoire-d’Iberville, Quebec, came to work in New England’s textile industry in 1865. Orphaned at the age of twelve, he had come to the United States in order to escape desperate poverty. Bessette would return to Quebec in 1867 and join the Congregation of the Holy Cross as Brother André. He would go on to become Canada’s most important faith healer and was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1982. Today, Montreal’s St. Joseph’s Oratory, North America’s only major urban shrine and an important pilgrimage site, stands as a testament to Brother André’s intense spirituality.

In the Midwest, the Civil War brought employment and prosperity to Franco-Americans. In Michigan, French Canadians arrived to work in a lumber industry that was experiencing rapid growth as timber prices soared. Michigan’s lumber barons preferred French Canadian labor because it was more skilled and experienced. Other French Canadians found work in iron and copper mining around Lake Superior as wartime demand made prices soar. The Michigan mining industry was so desperate for labor that the various companies got together and founded the Mining Emigrant Aid Association to recruit workers in Canada and Great Britain. In June 1863, a Franco-American agent of the Association, Euchariste Brûlé, arrived in the Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula with 250 workers he had recruited in French Canada. However, most of these workers soon left their mining jobs to work in an industry with which they were better acquainted: lumber. Some Franco-American entrepreneurs managed to obtain a piece of the action in Michigan. Félix Rouleau imported Canadian horses to sell to the Union army. In 1863, Charles Gariépy, Jean-Baptiste Jolicoeur, Paul Perrault and John Fournier received government contracts to supply the constructors of the Michigan Mineral Range State Road with wood.4

Illinois witnessed important institutional growth during the Civil War era. In 1861, nuns from the Congrégation de Notre-Dame founded a convent in Bourbonnais. In 1865, a group of Clerics of Saint Viator led by Father P. Beaudoin, c.s.v. from Joliette, Quebec, founded a commercial academy in Bourbonnais that was destined to become the most important institution of the Viatorians in America: St. Viator College. Under the auspices of the Clerics of Saint Viator, the college would play a key role in the fight to preserve the French language and culture in the American Midwest. St. Viator College received a university charter from the Illinois Legislature in 1874. In Chicago, Father Montobrig, a French priest, founded Notre-Dame parish in 1863. A year later, the parish was taken over by Father Jacques Côté (1829-1911), who was its curate for twenty years. Soon, Notre-Dame parish became a transit point for many of the French Canadian immigrants arriving in Illinois. By 1865, there were roughly 7000 Franco-Americans in Chicago.

In the American Northeast, immigrants began to change their settlement patterns. As the following table attests, French Canadians headed increasingly towards Southern New England. As industrialization progressed in Southern New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut, immigrants turned away from the farm labor, lumbering, brickworks, marble quarries and slateworks of Northern New England and headed for the industrial centers of Southern New England. Northern New York State remained a popular destination for immigrants. Between 1860 and 1870, the Franco-American population of New England nearly tripled and immigration patterns profoundly shifted. New England and upstate New York became the preferred destinations for French Canadian immigrants, and Massachusetts replaced Vermont as the New England state with the largest Franco-American population. By the early 1860s, railway construction had made Southern New England much more accessible for French Canadians. Around 1850, it had taken five weeks for Napoléon Lord to travel by horse-drawn wagon from Southern Quebec to Lowell, Massachusetts. In 1864, Philippe Lemay’s family was able make the trip in five days by riding the various rail lines which now crisscrossed the American Northeast.5

Distribution of the Franco-American Population of New England, 1860-18706


Total Franco-American population by state in 1860

Percent of total Fr.-American population of New England residing in each state in 1860

Total Franco-American population by state in 1870

% of total Fr.-American population of New England residing in each state in 1870






N. Hampshire















Rhode Island
















During the war, Franco-American institutions experienced a slow but steady pace of growth. In New England and New York State, only ten French Canadian Catholic parishes existed in 1860. Most Franco-Americans had to attend mass in English in predominantly Irish parishes. During the war years, the Franco-Americans of Winooski, Vermont, would travel the mile and a half that separated them from Burlington, to attend a French mass in St. Joseph’s parish (founded in 1850) until they could found their own parish, St. Francois-Xavier in 1868.

In Maine, the French Canadians and Acadians of Aroostook County petitioned Pope Pius IX to have the parishes of their region transferred to the authority of the diocese of Portland, Maine. After their half of the Madawaska Valley had become American, its parishes had remained under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Saint John, New Brunswick. Some even wanted an apostolic vicariate to be erected in the Madawaska. In 1870, after several years of petitioning, Rome transferred the American half of the Madawaska Valley over to Msgr. Bacon (1814-1874), Portland’s first bishop.

One Franco-American newspaper, Le Phare des lacs, of Watertown, New York, was founded during the Civil War years by Alexandre Grandpré and Claude Petit. It would remain in print for the next dozen years. Another newspaper, Le Courrier de l’Illinois, founded in 1857 in Kankakee, failed.

Fortunately for Franco-Americans and all American Catholics, the Civil War offered a brief respite from anti-foreign American nationalism. The war temporarily disrupted organized nativism by absorbing xenophobes and immigrants in a common cause. Indeed, the nativistic Sons of America, the Order of United Americans and the very heart of Know-Nothingism, the American party, all collapsed in the early 1860s. Suddenly Puritan New England’s arch nemesis ceased to be the Pope and became "Johnny Reb." Despite a few incidents, Catholics contributed to the war effort. Moreover, anti-British sentiment stirred up by the Trent affair and other Anglo-American incidents helped make the Irish, and Catholics in general, appear more sympathetic to Protestant America.7

Like all American Catholics, Franco-Americans had had to suffer the high tide of nativism and Know-Nothingism in the 1850s. Claiming that Catholicism was a threat to American liberty, nativism was more anti-Catholic than it was anti-immigrant. The main target of nativists had been the Irish, but French Canadians had also had to suffer discrimination. Like the Irish, French Canadians were triple outsiders: they were Catholic, poor and foreign. Moreover, they spoke French, which made them face discrimination even from the Irish. 8

After a high tide in the 1850s, the war also largely submerged French Canadian annexationism. Though some radicals like journalist Hector Fabre (1834-1910) continued to speculate that French Canada would have been better off if it had become an American State, annexationism, once very strong in the late 1840s and early 1850s, was largely a spent force by 1865. Increasingly marginalized in French Canada, some annexationists, like the outspoken journalist and Civil War veteran Jean-Baptiste Rouillard, would have to take their message South, where they could preach to a more receptive audience. Indeed, annexationism was fairly popular in nineteenth-century French America. In 1893 Rouillard was in Boston publishing a monthly journal dedicated to annexationism named L’Union continentale.

On the whole, the Civil War severely tarnished the reputation that America had enjoyed as a model of stable democracy in the radical circles of French Canada. For years to come, Canadian Conservatives would use the war as a club to beat their Liberal opponents. To them, the American experiment in egalitarianism had failed. Democracy and equality could only lead to anarchy and war because they denied God’s will. Conservative French Canadian Catholics and some English-speaking Protestants, especially High Anglicans, felt that society ought to be hierarchical and ruled by a benevolent and paternalistic elite. They argued that authority was derived from God and not from the people. Should children elect their parents? Should women be equal to men? French Canadian conservatives asked rhetorically. They believed in duty, deference, and privilege, not in rights and equality. For conservatives, the cause of America’s failure lay not in slavery, but in democracy itself. Canadians would have to learn to avoid the democratic and egalitarian pitfalls that had caused the Civil War.9

Without a doubt, the Civil War had a profound impact on Canada's political and constitutional evolution. Fear of an American or Fenian invasion and the need for a common defense strategy was one of the major factors that launched British North America on the road to Confederation from 1864 to 1867. Many of the delegates to the three constitutional conferences that drafted the British North America Act of 1867 felt that the Civil War was an indictment of not only of egalitarianism, democracy and republicanism, but also of decentralized federalism, if not of federalism itself. In turn, Canadian conservatives drafted a constitution that granted most of the powers that were considered important in the nineteenth-century to the federal government and contained several checks to "excessive" democracy. Canada became a country based not on "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" but rather on "peace, order and good government." Indeed, it was probably Canadian author and journalist Bruce Hutchison (1901-1992) who put it best when he wrote that "the United States is the affirmation of the revolutionary process; Canada the negation."10 The Civil War was another American Revolution that Canada wanted no part of.

© 2001 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College