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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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For the American scholar, no period of history is more fascinating, challenging and controversial than that of the Civil War. Nevertheless, few historians have studied the Franco-American participation in the war, which has remained shrouded in myths. This booklet examines this little known aspect of the conflict along with the growth of the Franco-American communities in the Northeast and Midwest during the Civil War era. Throughout the study, the Canadian dimension of the conflict is explored to provide the reader with an overall sense of its continental impact.

The American Civil War was an irrepressible and bloody conflict whose underlying causes can be linked to the institution of slavery and to the fundamental cultural, social, ideological, moral, political, constitutional and economic divisions it engendered. Today, historians widely accept the proposition that, if slavery had not existed or had been restricted to one location within the United States, then a civil war would not have occurred, or at least not in the way it did. The issue of slavery was thus at the root of the conflict. It expressed itself in a variety of ways. For instance, after the Mexican War (1846-1848) extended America’s borders to the Pacific Ocean, the question of slavery’s westward expansion spawned a serious disagreement over the nature of the American political system. Indeed, Americans had not yet resolved the central question as to who was the ultimate authority under their federal system. During the 1850s, they debated whether the States were sovereign entities, and thus each able to retain the right to decide on the issue of slavery, or if the central government the ultimate authority, and therefore capable of imposing uniformity on the issue of slavery to all of the States and territories. The tone of the debate soon shifted dramatically as America argued over more explosive questions: did the States have the right to secede from the Union, or was the American federation indissoluble? The Civil War answered these questions in a conclusive manner.1

Slavery was about more than money or cotton, it was the foundation of a whole social order. In the past, some historians sought to minimize slavery’s role in the coming of America’s most destructive war. However, in recent years, most have come to accept its centrality among the causes of the Civil War. Accordingly, the issue that preoccupies contemporary historians is no longer whether slavery caused the Civil War, but how and why it did. Though a vast majority of Americans, including those who supported the Republican Party, were hardly abolitionists in 1860, it is clear, as Abraham Lincoln had put it, that the nation could not endure "half slave and half free." Slavery was a lucrative system. Given a new life in the early nineteenth-century with the spread of cotton production in the South, it would not have collapsed under its own weight. Only a violent struggle could purge America of its "peculiar institution."2

Over two million men served in the Union army and navy during the Civil War. Though some idealistic young men enlisted because they felt that the war was a righteous crusade to abolish slavery, the bulk of the Union’s soldiers and sailors were not fighting in hope of freeing the slaves. In fact, during the conflict’s first couple of years, abolition was not a formal war goal. Consequently, during the first half of the Civil War, Lincoln tried desperately to avoid turning the conflict into an unpopular struggle to free the Southern slave. Paradoxically, while the war’s underlying causes lay in the divisive issues spawned by slavery, the general unpopularity of emancipation made it impossible for the North to conduct an abolitionist crusade until the conflict was well underway. In 1860, most Northerners denounced the cruelty and degradation surrounding the institution of slavery and bitterly opposed its westward expansion but were not ready to embrace emancipation. This was the great paradox of antebellum America. Indeed, most of those who fought and died for the North did so because they felt compelled to restore the Union by force. Others sought adventure or employment in the Union ranks. Nonetheless, though most were hardly abolitionists, hundreds of thousands of ordinary Americans took part in what some historians have rightly termed "the Second American Revolution." This revolution would free the Southern slave.

American historians have long discussed which side had the best troops or generals or the more efficient War Department. These debates, while interesting, miss an important point. Bravery, training, tactics and generals may have won battles and campaigns, but economics and demographics won the Civil War. Simply put, the North won because it had superior resources at its disposal.

In 1860, the North’s greatest advantage over the South was not so much its industries or its railways but rather its large pool of labor. In any war, manpower is a strategic resource. It fuels industry, raises crops and fights battles. Not only was the North’s population more than double that of the South, but it also received an overwhelming proportion of America’s immigrants.

Although the Civil War temporarily disrupted the flow of immigration, the North could still count on a fairly steady stream of new arrivals to contribute to its war effort. After a sharp decline in 1861 and 1862, immigration began to pick up again by 1863. Still, fearing war and conscription, many potential immigrants stayed away. However, after the economic dislocation of the war’s early months, some arrived specifically to find work in a booming economy suffering from a severe labor shortage. Throughout the United States, soldiers needed to be replaced on the farms and in the vital industries of the home front, and wages were high. Some immigrants also came with the intention of enlisting in the Union forces.3

Roughly half a million Union soldiers and sailors were foreign-born. Indeed, a large proportion of the immigrants were of military age and there was a higher proportion of males among the foreign-born than in the general population. Proportionally, they could furnish more soldiers than native-born America. The sheer numerical importance of foreign-born recruitment has given rise to a persistent Southern myth that "the majority of Yankee soldiers were foreign hirelings." However, nothing could be further from the truth. While the foreign-born contribution to the Union cause was crucial and increased with time, it was not as massive as some historians have claimed it to be. In fact, foreign-born men, who accounted for about a quarter of the servicemen, represented roughly 30 percent of the males of military age in the Union states. Immigrants were thus under-represented in the Union forces. Catholics, especially the Irish, were the most under-represented group in proportion to population. This can be explained in part by the Democratic allegiance of a majority of American Catholics and by their opposition to Republican war goals and policy, especially emancipation and conscription. In New York City, Irish resistance to military conscription spawned the infamous draft riot of 1863, which terrorized the city and left at least 105 people dead. To this day, it remains the worst riot in American history.4

© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College