Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A Canadien in the American Civil War

Many Canadiens fought in both the Revolutionary War and the American Civil War. Estimates for the number of Canadiens who fought in the latter conflict range as high as 20,000. A love of adventure and the desire for employment seems to have been the main motives for these very young men who heard the calls to arms in the 1860s.

Philibert Racine, the brother of two of my great-great-grandmothers (my grandparents were second cousins) was among these Canadien veterans of the Civil War. Philibert was born on June 20, 1845, and baptized at Saint-Pie, Bagot County, Québec (known as "Lower Canada" at the time).  Following his father Prudent Racine's involvement in the Patriotes War of 1837 (see previous post) the Racines lived briefly in Vermont before returning to the Eastern Townships region of Québec in the early 1850s where they settled eventually  at Roxton Falls.

Philibert Racine in his Union Army uniform (c. 1862)
(Courtesy of Michael Gilleland)
What caused Philibert to enlist in the Civil War is unknown but we do know that he duly enrolled in the First Vermont Battery Light Artillery, known as Hebard's Battery or Grey Horse Battery, on January 18, 1862 and was mustered in on February 18 of that same year at the age of 16.  Philibert enlisted from Hardwick, Vermont, along with a brother who called himself "George." 

Both Philibert and George anglicized their names. Philibert called himself "Philip F. Root."  There is no record of a Georges Racine anywhere.  I suspect that the "George Root" who enlisted with Philibert was the latter’s older brother Cyprien Racine, baptized May 30, 1843 at Saint-Damase-de-Saint-Hyacinthe, Québec. I believe that "George" is Cyprien's alias because in the 1861 census of Roxton Falls, Québec, the listing for the Racine family claims that Cyprien was absent in les États-Unis as of that year which puts him at the "scene of the crime" within a year of "George's" enlistment.

Also, Cyprien was close in age to Philibert and would have been 18 when he enlisted which makes him the brother who was the most likely to be of enlistment age as of 1862.  Further, there's no decent Yankee equivalent of Cyprien.  Philibert was relatively easy to render into anglais as Philip. But Cyprien? These considerations are hardly probative but they're enough to suggest to me that "George" was Cyprien.

Philibert and Cyprien saw some action in the war in the Red River campaign in Louisiana. Philibert was wounded. His hearing and eyesight were damaged by artillery fire. "George" seems to have had a bit of trouble in the army. He was promoted but then busted down in rank for some indiscretion. The two intrepid brothers were mustered out of military service on August 10, 1864 and both returned to Canada. A year later, Philibert married Philomene Dupuis the widow of Michel Billette at the church of St-Jean-Baptiste, Roxton Falls, Québec.
Philomene Dupuis Racine with great grandchild
(Courtesy of Michael Gilleland)

Around 1867, Philibert and Philomene relocated to Brunswick, Maine.  Philibert Racine, under his alias Philip F. Root, became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1876. One of the witnesses at his naturalization was his fellow Civil War veteran, Benjamin Greene, who was the wealthy manager of the Cabot Manufacturing Company, the textile mill that had brought the Canadiens to Brunswick. Traffic across the border between Québec and New England was swift in this period and Philomene, as well as other Racine relatives, lived in both Québec and Maine into the early 1900s. Philibert signed himself "Philip F. Root" on documents in both Canada and the USA.

Philibert Racine died in 1900. His wife continued to receive a pension from the U.S. government due to the disability he suffered in the Civil War.  He is buried in St. John's cemetery in Brunswick, the town where he and his family were among the early stalwarts of the Franco-American community in coastal Maine.

Military Pension record for "Philip F. Root"

More information about Canadiens in the American Civil War

Prudent Racine: Patriote of 1837, Rebel Against Entrenched Power and Privilege

My great-great-great grandfather Prudent Racine was involved in the Québec Rebellions of 1837. By 1838 the movement had led to a failed attempt to overthrow British rule in Canada and establish an independent Republic of Québec (known as “Lower Canada” at the time).

Prudent lived at a place called Saint-Charles-sur-Richelieu where he was one of a group of Patriotes who stormed the house of the seigneur (feudal lord) Pierre Debartzch after the latter was perceived to have betrayed the movement. The rebels fortified the house and challenged the British army until they were defeated by the redcoats at the Battle of Saint-Charles.

The picture above shows an artist’s rendering of the battle, an artist who traveled with the British army and was an eyewitness to these events. The Debartzch manor house is center-left. My ancestor lived near the church (left), and so his house must be one of those depicted but he was most likely in the house of Debartzch when it was damaged by cannon fire.

Below is a page in a booklet called Report of Commissioners Relating to Compensation for Losses Sustained During the Rebellion in Lower Canada printed in 1840 which may be found in a library at Harvard. The booklet was in the collection of the noted 19th c. historian Francis Parkman. Prudent Racine is the last name on the “LIST of Rebels” who seized the house of Debartzch. Prudent later had the gall to sue the government for losses sustained in the battle a fact reported elsewhere in the 1840 report. The case was, needless to say, dismissed.

After the destruction of his hometown, Prudent Racine and family appear to have wandered about the Eastern Townships region of Québec and then moved for a few years to Northern Vermont where many of the rebels had taken refuge. He later returned to Québec settling eventually in a town called Roxton Falls, where his granddaughter, my great-grandmother was born in 1868. Prudent died and was buried at Roxton Falls in 1888.

Prudent Racine is doubly my ancestor since my paternal grandparents were second cousins and their common ancestors were Prudent Racine and his wife Eleonore. I am proud to come from a long line of people who had the courage to fight against entrenched, monarchial power and feudal privileges.

There is No Name for Us

The descendants of the many distinct Latin American and Hispano-Caribbean groups in the USA have adopted a common name: Latino or Hispanic. Although the South Florida Cuban-Americans, the Mexican-Americans of California, and those of Puerto Rican origin in New York City (to name just a few of the peoples called Latino) come from quite different countries, and each maintains its cultural distinctiveness, Latinos have recognized that their interests were best served by recognizing their commonality in terms of language or heritage. By gathering all of these distinct groups under a single name, they have increased their cultural presence enormously.

There is no single name that embraces all of the French North Americans. We have many names: Québécois(e), Acadien(ne), Cajun, Franco-American, etc. Although each of these groups represents a distinct culture, with its own narratives and traditions, we share a common root, and yet that commonality is very little expressed or appreciated. Instead we tend to emphasize differences. In some instances some of these groups even regard one another with a measure of contempt, with one group, for example, looking down their noses at the brand of French spoken by another. This is unfortunate since we are such a fragile plant. It’s as if we’re on the last lifeboat off of the Titanic and we’re bickering over who has the nicer shoes!

Among the Franco-Americans of New England, descendents of a late 19th-early 20th c. migration from French-speaking Canada, there was a partial merger of two of these distinct groups. Some of the mill towns in New England attracted emigration from among both the Québécois and the Acadians (French speakers from the Maritime Provinces of Eastern Canada). In some places the two communities went to the same churches and schools, lived in the same neighborhoods, and worked in the same mills and factories.

As French-speaking Catholics in a foreign land, they recognized that they had much more in common with each other than they had with the dominant culture. Their Yankee neighbors would not have understood the differences between the two groups and labeled them both, correctly or not, as “French-Canadian.” In some cases they intermarried with one another, creating a hybrid of the two cultures. 
My Grandparents' Wedding 1923:
Son of Québécois Marries Acadienne
Three of my grandparents had roots in various regions of Québec, while my maternal grandmother was an acadienne from Prince Edward Island. I’ve informed myself about the history of both groups and claim a heritage that is both Québécois and Acadien and elements of both cultures were present in the foods and folkways of my family.

It should be emphasized that these mixes happened in a minority of cases nonetheless, the hybrid called “Franco-American” has features of both cultures. In fact, one of my great-grandfathers was a Franco-Ontarien, adding yet another flavor to the mix. Franco-Americans in New England also came from all parts of Québec, representing a mix of regions that our Québécois cousins might regard as distinct.

I suggest that French North Americans at least consider following the example of our Latino friends and christen ourselves with a name that applies to all of us. This is not to lose the pride in being Cajun, Franco-American, or Québécois. Cuban- or Mexican-Americans have certainly not lost any of their flavor in regarding each other as fellow Latinos. It seems clear to me that our future lies more in emphasizing our commonality and our unity rather than our divisions.

I doubt my suggestion will be embraced.

Monday, July 30, 2012

What is French North America?

Take any map of North America. Ignore the national boundary between Canada and the United States. Then trace the vast arc beginning in the East where the Atlantic Ocean meets the great St. Lawrence River, move your gaze westward to the Ottawa River, the Great Lakes region, southward to the Ohio Valley, and then follow the Mississippi to its mouth at the Gulf of Mexico. Throughout this vast expanse you will find one French place name after another, from the many parishes of rural Québec named after ancient saints, to American cities such as Detroit, Saint Louis, and Baton Rouge, which most Americans now forget were originally pronounced with a French accent.

Throughout this territory and further west in both Canada and in the United States, through these names our ancestors left to mark their presence, one may perceive the remnant of a forgotten chapter in the history of our continent. This is the history of our French ancestors, who were among the earliest European explorers and settlers in North America. Small in numbers but great in courage and intrepidity they pressed deep into the continent before the USA was born.

This Gallic presence, ignored today by most of the inhabitants of North America, casts its shadow across the continent. Except in Québec, where our people make up the majority, and in certain pockets of New Brunswick, New England, and Louisiana, French North America is not distinct in the minds of most of the continent’s inhabitants – even in the minds of the French North Americans themselves. Starting with the voyages of Jacques Cartier in the 16th c. up until the historic defeat on the Plains of Abraham in 1759 and even beyond, the French established a presence, the ghost of which still haunts North America.

Confused by the artificial border between Canada and the USA, and separated from one another by the vagaries of history, many peoples with different names – Québécois, Canadien-français, Acadian, Cajun, Créole, Franco-American, Franco-Ontarien, Franco-Manitoban, Fransaskois, etc. – are all the descendants of the same period of migrations from 17th and 18th century France, the France of Louis XIV, the Sun King, the France of The Three Musketeers, of Racine and of Molière.

Separated by history and geography, these peoples and the lands they inhabit together constitute French North America. This blog will explore their common roots, their history, genealogy, geography, and cultures. The author has spent years researching this topic. I have pieced together the story of my own ancestors and those of other French North Americans and I have developed my own viewpoint on their past, their present, and on how their future could unfold. I will concentrate on the regions I know best in the Northeastern portions of the continent but also hope to give the topic its continental scope.

I wish that all peoples, of all ethnicities, those whose native tongue is English, French, or any other language, will read and learn about one of the least-known communities on this continent: French North America.