In April 1861, civil war broke out in the USA. In a country on the boil, in which each camp was expecting a short and glorious conflict, mobilization was as disordered as it was sudden. On both sides, the belligerents called for the noblest devotion and summoned all their available forces. Amid popular effervescence, many French immigrants answered the call to take up arms. Ceding to popular pressure, thousands of them rushed to the recruitment offices. At a time when the destiny of the young transatlantic republic was being forged, after Alexis de Tocqueville had predicted its rise, some of their compatriots, borne up by the migratory flow, with a love for adventure or seduced by an ideological cause to defend, did not hesitate to cross the Atlantic to offer their blades to one of the two armies. Midway between the War of Independence and the First World War, their participation in the greatest confrontation ever conducted on the soil of the New World opened a fresh chapter in the history of Franco-American relations.

“Our American cousins”

According to the United States census of 1860, there were about ten thousand Frenchmen living under the shadow of the star-spangled banner. They formed a population that was relatively young, generally male and from rural origins, who had gone to the USA to seek the means to improve their standard of living. Social misery, civil discord, but also the progress of transatlantic liaisons, generous concessions of land, relatively high salaries and the Eldorado of California were all invitations to make the journey. In their majority, they settled in the States of the North, the spearhead of industry and progress, turning away from the Old South, the land of choice of an agrarian society founded on slavery. They were to be found in such large metropolises as New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Cincinnati, in distant California and in the high Mississippi valley. In the South, only Louisiana and Texas contained large-scale populations.

Geographically dispersed, ideologically divided between refugees from various revolutions and in search of markers, the French in America created the image of an heteroclite population which had problems fading into American society. They emphasized their cultural differences and kept up the cult of their motherland, to which they nourished the hope of returning after having assured their future, and so did not dive into the melting pot of nationalities as offered by the New World.

The call to arms

But the combat nevertheless awakened their warlike instincts. Amid the din of battle, Napoleon III’s proclamation of neutrality on 10th June 1861, which forbade any French nationals to join the ranks of either army, otherwise they would lose their protection, failed to play a dissuasive role. On both sides of the Atlantic, the legend of La Fayette was rekindled, to the great displeasure of the Imperial authorities. Exiled in England, three princes of the Orléans family, the Count of Paris, the Duke of Chartres and the Prince of Joinville, offered their blades to assist the Union and served for one year at the headquarters of General McClellan. There, they met Colonel Gustave Cluseret, the future communard general, who represented the republican opposition against Napoleon III. With the same enthusiasm, Prince Camille de Polignac, the son of the minister Charles X, instead joined the Confederate camp where he rose as high as the rank of Major General, thus becoming, for posterity, the “La Fayette of the South”.

Like other groups of immigrants, the French volonteers started by attempting to group together in homogenous corps, where they could impose their national identity and exalt their military traditions. In New York, three infantry regiments were formed at the beginning of the struggle: the “Gardes La Fayette” (55e New York) under the command of Régis de Trobriand, the “Zouaves d’Epineuil” (53e New York) and the battalion of “Enfants Perdus” (Independent Corps). The French of the South did likewise. In New Orleans, under the aegis of the municipal authorities and of the consul of France, the colony’s notables set up a “Légion française” and a “Brigade française” to provide a service of civic guards. Their services were to be crucial when it came to maintaining order after the fall of the Creole city in April 1862.

Despite a few spendid moments, these units were to have just a fleeting existence, given that the French colony bore in it germs of division. For four years, it became involved in the ups and downs of a total war, whose developments were reported in France, in the edifying testimonies of, among others, Ernest Duvergier de Hauranne, Auguste Laugel, Camille Ferri-Pisani, Edouard Lacouture and Charles-Frédéric Girard.

The time for Americanization

Meanwhile, civilians were not spared. The French often complained of pillage, exactions and annoying decrees, without ever obtaining any concessions. The struggle was not favourable to the administration. Internal quarrels weakened the degree of community resistance. Furthermore, the expedition to Mexico gave rise to anti-French feelings, which were detrimental to the subjects of Napoleon III. In the South, the French were affected by the rise in the cost of living, food shortages, the impoverishment of the countryside and the climate of insecurity which was kept up the soldiers, guerrillas and escaped slaves. The deeds of the belligerents destroyed the illusions of those who had thought that they could stay on the margins of the conflict, by evoking the benefit of neutrality. Because of its total nature, the war invited itself into a community which until then had been cultivating its particularities, while looking with mistrust and sufficiency at the ambient mainstream. For the first time, it could not resist the strength of the current and was forced to throw itself into the great bath of Americanization.

The Civil War was a turning point in the history of French immigration to the USA. The French formed new bonds with their adoptive country while at the same consummating their break with their original motherland. Dragged down by the penury of cotton and the Mexican question, Imperial France was accused of abandoning them. Incapable of extending an effective protection, while its room for manoeuvre was limited, its image was altered and it lost its credit amidst the events. In the South, in particular, the calamities of the struggle and the slowing of communications because of the blockade and military operations heightened incomprehension, bitterness and rancour. The French shared the sufferings and concerns of the American population. The dangers, sacrifices and trials of everyday life forced them to dig into their reserves, become attached to the principles at play and establish extra-community solidarities. Their time spent in the armies meant forging new ties, lowering barriers and wiping out certain prejudices. Those who had served in the armies of the Union automatically acquired citizenship and received an allowance from the federal government. In the Southern States, the lasting myth of the “lost cause” gave the former combatants an aura which was to last for several generations. Whether they had been in the camp of the winners or the losers, French immigrants were now no longer the “birds of passage” they had claimed to be before. They had definitively passed from the Old World to the New.


Published in may 2021