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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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This booklet was written in an effort to better acquaint Franco-Americans with their outstanding contribution to American life. Indeed, it is partly up to Canadian historians to reveal this heritage to French Canada’s often neglected and overlooked diaspora. For too long, Franco-Americans have remained the "forgotten Americans." This study seeks to help remedy this unfortunate oversight.

French America’s past is at the crossroads of Canadian and American history. As such, a brief survey of the growth of Franco-American communities during the Civil War years and of French Canada’s role in the United States’ most violent and costly conflict seemed a good starting point for a more general reflection on the historical place of French Canadians in America.

On the whole, the events surrounding French Canada’s reaction to and participation in the American Civil War also offer an ideal example of the constant interplay between Canada and her great neighbor. As the conflict drew thousands of adventuresome French Canadians south, it also had a profound effect on the constitutional, political, military and intellectual development of Canada. Truly, the Civil War was a crucial event in Canadian history and should be treated as such.

Franco-Americans in the Civil War Era is the first booklet in a bilingual series called "Études sur l’histoire des relations canado-américaines/Studies in the History of Canadian-American Relations" that explores various aspects of the historical relationship between Canada and the United States. The series’ goal is to provide the reader with a more holistic understanding of Canadian and American history.

Indeed, as a Canadian historian, my research has convinced me that our history cannot be studied in a vacuum. The writing of Canadian history must acquire a continental dimension. For too long, Canadian and American scholars have looked at the 49th parallel as if it were something akin to the Great Wall of China. I would argue for a more holistic or continental approach to Canadian and American history. The simple realities of North America proscribe isolationism. A quick glance at a physical map of our continent will reveal far more north-south geographical convergences than divergences. As such, our common border is, in a sense, nothing more than an arbitrary line traced across our continent by nineteenth-century diplomats. On a demographic level, Canada and the United States have never been truly separate entities. The inhabitants of our two great nations have constantly been on the move and have mingled in a most remarkable way. Seventy years ago, about one American in thirty-seven was of Canadian birth or parentage (almost one in three in New Hampshire and a little more than one in four in Maine) and roughly one Canadian in thirteen was of American birth or parentage (around one in four in Alberta and one in five in Saskatchewan).1 Moreover, our economies have been inextricably linked since the mid-nineteenth-century. Finally, on a yearly basis, millions of tourists cross our shared border.

However, despite the tremendous attraction of the United States, Canada has remained independent. In a way, Canada exists in defiance of continentalism. Indeed, it is entirely clear to me that Canada’s greatest achievement has been to resist the cultural, social, demographic, economic and geographic forces that bind our two nations together and remain a separate political entity.

For the sake of clarity and continuity, I have decided to use a certain number of anachronisms in this booklet. During the 1860s, the term Franco-American did not yet exist. Nonetheless, I have used "Franco-American" instead of "French Canadian living in the United States" for obvious reasons. "Quebec" and "Ontario" are used to describe what was then known as the Canadian sections of Canada East and West. "Canada" is used for what was in fact the Province of Canada, which contained the most settled areas of the present day provinces of Quebec and Ontario. "British North America" is used in reference to the totality of the British colonies and possessions in North America as they stood in 1861 (Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, the Province of Canada, Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Rupert’s Land, and the North West Territories).

This study has benefited from the criticism and encouragement of several scholars. My mother, Janice Kelly-Bélanger and father, Professor Claude Bélanger of Marianopolis College (Montreal), commented on an early draft and offered a great deal of encouragement. Professors Desmond Morton, Gil Troy and Brian Young of McGill University and Professor Pierre Trépanier of the Université de Montréal have also provided me with useful and perceptive comments. My colleague Michel Ducharme offered pertinent and constructive criticism. I would also like to thank Antoine Godin and Dominique Foisy-Geoffroy for their invaluable technical assistance. This study was made possible by a graduate fellowship granted by the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada.

D.-C. Bélanger
Montreal, Quebec
June 24th, 2001