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French Canadians During the Civil War

Discussion in 'Civil War History - General Discussion' started by dawna, Oct 2, 2004.

  1. dawna

    dawna First Sergeant

    Feb 20, 2005
    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.

    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.

    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].

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