#28 – Mary Ellen Weller: French-Canadians in the American Civil War: A Book Review

Note from Moderator: Mary Ellen filed this review of a book about the Civil War over a year ago.  It seems particulary pertinent as a memory for Memorial Day, 2009.  A companion to this article might be a recent talk by Howard Zinn on America’s “Three Holy Wars” at the 100th anniversary celebration of the Progressive magazine.  The Civil War is one of those wars.  His 35 minute talk can be viewed at http://www.commondreams.org/video/2009/05/18-0

Mary Ellen Weller: Riding the bus was an essential part of the French Heritage Tour sponsored by the IF Midwest May 2, 2008 [http://www.IFMidwest.org] . Essential because of who was sitting in those seats. Some were on the program and many were authors of books related to French-Canadian heritage in the US. What follows is a review of one of those books, a fascinating look at the US Civil War as an engine of French-Canadian immigration. It is not yet available in English.

Les Canadiens Français et la Guerre de Sécession, 1861-1865, une autre dimension de leur migration aux Etats-Unis

(French Canadians and the War of Secession, 1861-1865, another dimension of their migration to the United States)

by Jean Lamarre, Professor of History, Royal Military College of Kingston, Ontario

Quebec: VLB Editeur, 2006.

Americans of French-Canadian descent are likely to find their first immigrant ancestor arrived here between 1840 and 1930. In those 90 years more than a million French-Canadians came south of the border. The numbers are especially high during the time of the American Civil War. Exactly why young men of 15 to 49 (average age 25.2) (p. 51) would choose to fight in a neighbor’s civil war is addressed in Mr. Lamarre’s intriguing book and the answers are surprising.

The facts and evidence on which this work is based represent months of often tedious research in the National Archives in Washington D.C. where military records for each and every enlisted man are found. Lamarre used Record Group 94: the Adjutant General’s Office, Civil War (Union) Compiled Military Service Records. The researcher who wants to consult the personal file of a soldier must fill out, for each one, a form on which he indicates the name of the soldier and his regiment.” (p.26)* Using such a laborious process Lamarre gathered a sample of 1320 Union soldiers of French-Canadian origin, of whom 1142 were born in French-Canada and 178 in the US. He concludes that they represent about 10% of the total French-Canadian participation in the Union Army.

In addition to the challenge of submitting the necessary forms one by one to establish this sample, was the challenge of recognizing French surnames from approximate homonymic spellings in English. The recruits often could not spell their own names. More than 90% of these men could not sign their contracts and simply made a cross at the bottom of the page (p. 53). Check Mr. Lamarre’s appendix for the name Duquette and you will get a quick lesson in the challenges he faced. Remember, he had to order each record individually by name.

Once accessed, the record shows the soldier’s age at enlistment, his home, his place of enrollment, date of enrollment, and assigned regiment. The appendix which lists this information for the entire sample of 1320 French-Canadian Union soldiers will certainly be useful to anyone doing a family history. Thirty regiments from Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, New Hampshire and Rhode Island are represented. Additionally, the record might note injury, hospitalization, discharge at the end of his contract, re-enlistment, or status as a prisoner of war. Lamarre has re-created the stories of many individual soldiers and tells them with great care within the body of the text.

The first wave of (over-)confidence and patriotism that brought volunteers to the Northern Army swept many French-Canadians with it. An early victory was expected. Some joined for adventure, some for patriotism, some to combat slavery and some for the security of food, shelter, and a small salary. Those French-Canadians already living in the US were often pressured to show their allegiance to their new country by enlisting. In some communities there was violence against immigrants.

The situation at the border echoes the years of the Revolution. Just as Loyalists headed north to avoid the Revolutionary War, many, many French-Canadians returned to Canada alongside Americans seeking shelter from the conflict.

Lamarre notes that seasonal employment in both logging and farming, from New England to Michigan, had become a way of life for many French-Canadians. Some were motivated to enlist to protect these very personal economic interests. They reasoned that if the South won the war, they could lose these jobs.

That very line of reasoning reveals a lack of employment opportunities in French-Canada. Between 12,000 and 20,000 French-Canadians enrolled in the Union Army and Lamarre states that “it is above all the financial advantages accompanying enlistment that attracted the French-Canadians”(p. 49). At first, the “assurance of a monthly salary of $13” seemed “preferable to the idleness and poverty that awaited them on returning home” p. (48). As this most deadly of all American conflicts dragged on, with tens of thousands of Union soldiers dying in battle after battle, and few enlistments to replace them, Congress voted signing bonuses as part of the Militia Act of 1862. French-Canadian enlistments went up again. In 1863 a draft was established and “enlistment became even more profitable”. (p. 49)

Lamarre brings out three very important aspects of recruitment and enlistment that were new to me. One, under the draft it was legally possible to pay a substitute to enlist in your place. 14% of the French-Canadians who enrolled, did so as substitutes (p. 58) Two, recruiters for the Union Army operated in French-Canada openly before the British enforced the Foreign Enlistment Act (which forbade British subjects from fighting in foreign wars), and clandestinely as ‘job recruiters’ even after Britain’s declaration of neutrality. Three, the payment of Bounties to new recruits after 1862 led to a pattern of desertion and ‘bounty jumping’. 

Enlisting as a Substitute was dazzlingly attractive. “The sums paid varied between $100 and $300 in 1863 but they later reached $600 and even $1000. These amounts represented the equivalent of one to two year’s wages in Eastern Canada, a regular small fortune” (p.59).

The British and their colonies north of the border were understandably nervous at the assembly of large armies in the States. Among their fears was possible invasion by a victorious Northern Army. It was thought that the army would be used to pick off territory or whole colonies and annex them to the US. Among the results was the British North American Act of 1867. Huge territories recently opened by the ending of the charter of the Hudson Bay Company in 1860 were indeed causing comment and machinations in the US. Eastern and Western Canada (French and English) pulled together and became a confederation and a country rather than a collection of colonies. Many other factors led to confederation, but the American Civil War had its influence.

With Bounties at amazing levels, the fraud that was called Bounty Jumping is no surprise. Despite the risk of court martial and possible execution, some individuals signed up in several different regiments and collected several bounties, deserting each time, or simply not reporting for duty. Amazing as it seems, the recruits were paid their Bounty and then given time to put their affairs in order at home before reporting for duty. How much temptation does a poor man need? The number who reported honorably for duty is all the more impressive.

The individual stories that Jean Lamarre has reconstructed for this fascinating account of Civil War experiences are a great treasure. Alongside the important facts related to French-Canadian Union Army soldiers as a whole, each individual story humanizes and verifies those facts.

With illegal immigration ever before us as a 2008 campaign issue, with a fence going up between the US and Mexico, consider just this one fact: 25% of the Union Army were immigrants. At that time, if you were here and you were not born here, you were an immigrant. Simple as that. At the end of the war Union soldiers were granted a free homestead of 180 acres in remote places like Minnesota and Dakota Territory. It solved two problems at once: what to do with thousands of men seeking work, and how to populate a continent.

*All translations are mine, mew.

Note: This book is not yet available in English translation, but the valuable appendix is easily accessible with a minimal knowledge of French. An earlier work by Professor Lamarre, The French Canadians of Michigan: Their Contribution to the Development of the Saginaw Valley and the Keweenaw Peninsula, 1840-1914 is available in English from Wayne State University Press.

Mary Ellen Weller is retired instructor of French at Mesabi Range Community and Technical College, Virginia MN.  maryellenwellerATaolDOTcom