Civil War, Culture War: French Quebec and the American War between the States
Jones, Preston, The Catholic Historical Review
In June, 1864, an unnamed French Canadian Catholic stationed in a Union trench outside Richmond, Virginia, penned a letter to a loved one back home in Quebec.1 The letter, itself among the few extra-official, extra-journalistic primary sources available to scholars interested in French Canadian involvement in and attitudes toward the American Civil War, was not meant for public consumption but rather to provide family and friends with news. It was a "friend of the journal," as the editor of the newspaper that published the letter wrote in his preface, who decided to make it public. He undoubtedly did so because the letter tells the tale of a lonely, weary French Canadian who, probably contrary to the wishes of his parents, loved ones, and parish priest, had enlisted in the Union army. "We finally have a little respite," the soldier wrote, "and I've decided to take advantage of it and write a few lines." This letter was one of many reminders offered to young French Canadians in the 1860's that those who went to the American war would face hard times.2
There is no question that the American Civil War was of great interest to French Quebeckers. As was the case throughout the press in Canada, Quebec's French-language newspapers frequently published war news taken from Union and Confederate journals. If, as Robin Winks has noted, the dearth of letters to editors of Canadian newspapers suggests a lack of interest on the part of general readers in the philosophical issues of the war-whether or not the Confederacy should have the right to secede from the Union, for instance3-they devoted much editorial comment to such issues in Quebec, albeit in a distinctly French Canadian fashion. Whatever a lack of debate in the pages of newspapers might mean in English-speaking British North America, where a wider range of opinions was held on a number of points (e.g., the Methodist Christian Guardian of Toronto advocated the immediate abolition of slavery while the Methodist Provincial Wesleyan of Halifax stood for gradual abolition), the average mid-nineteenth-century French Quebecker's deference to political and religious authority lent itself to a greater consensus on social and philosophical matters. It is true that Quebec's liberals, such as those who inhabited the rouge Institut Canadien, railed often against the conservative status quo. But their views were not widely shared in the 1860's.4 The opinions of most of French Quebec's newspaper editors were habitually in line with those of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, and these trickled down, unresisted, into the hearts and minds of the general population. Once the opinions of Quebec's religious leaders were known on a given subject, there was little perceived need for, or even an interest in, debate among "ordinary"French Canadians.5 Thus, while editorializing on the war was common in the French Canadian press, argument over what the war meant was not. In the 1860's, moreover, hardly more than half of Quebec's French population could read and a majority lived in rural settings.6 Thus even the small number of literate, rural French Quebeckers who might have felt compelled to write editors would have been too occupied with their daily work to do so.
If most French Quebeckers did not thus fret themselves over the philosophical issues raised by the American war, there can be little doubt that the conflict nevertheless weighed heavily on their minds. For a large number of the French Canadians had relations or friends residing in the United States at the time of war. Indeed, between 1851 and 1871 some 105,000 Quebeckers, the overwhelming majority of them French-speaking Catholics, emigrated to the United States.7
As is well known, the majority of French Canadians who emigrated to the United States in the ante-bellum years resided in nearby New England. But Quebeckers did emigrate to all ends of the continent.8 In the 1850's, for instance, some six or seven thousand French Canadians emigrated to Illinois, where they joined an already existing French Canadian community of 8,000. …