Monday, September 10, 2012

A Canadien in the American Revolution: The Reluctant Patriot Charles Racine

The American Revolution was a conundrum for the Canadiens. Under British rule for a mere dozen years prior to Lexington and Concord, the Canadiens faced an American invasion in the first years of the War for Independence. The British Parliament’s Quebec Act of 1774 had secured the privileges of the seigneurs (lords) and the clergy winning these elites over to the cause of Great Britain. The great mass of the population, les habitants, was ambivalent.

Caught in the crossfire of what they regarded as a civil war between Englishmen, the habitant's tendency was one of neutrality with modest aid proferred to either side in accordance with the shifting winds of war.

During the American invasion of Canada in 1775, a certain Charles Racine, my 16-year-old 4th great-grandfather, was driving his cattle southward when he encountered the American invaders in the Richelieu Valley and was taken prisoner. Why the Americans seized Racine is unknown. It would take little imagination to devise that the Americans chose to “requisition” Racine’s cattle, that the latter took exception, and found himself arrested.

After serving time as a prisoner of war, the Americans gave Charles the choice of joining their cause or remaining a prisoner. He opted for the former and officially enlisted on December 16, 1777, becoming a Private in Captain M. Gilbert’s regiment of foot under Colonel Moses Hazen. Congress had given Hazen the commission to raise a regiment in Canada, which, since it was not part of any State’s militia, came to be known as Congress’ Own.

Moses Hazen was a man of great energy and determination but of questionable moral fiber. From Haverhill, Massachusetts, of Puritan stock, Hazen’s military career began with the British army in the Seven Years (“French and Indian”) War. In the epoch of the Deportation of the Acadians, Hazen bore the responsibility for the burning of four men, two women, and three children in a house he set ablaze, as well as for the scalping of six others. One of the women and the children Hazen immolated were the daughter and grandchildren of an Acadian leader who was forced to witness these killings.

During the siege at Québec in 1759, Hazen’s party was engaged in raids on the countryside, a mission that probably included the killing and scalping of a priest and thirty parishioners in the country near Québec City.

After the war, Hazen followed the victorious British armies into Montréal where he partnered with a merchant and succeeded in land speculation and development. When war came between Britain and its American colonies, Hazen first sided with the British and then switched allegiances. Before gaining his commission from Congress, Hazen had already been imprisoned by both the Americans and the British. He was later court-martialed by the Americans but acquitted. During the course of his career, Hazen was jailed no less than 14 times for debt, and was in an out of lawsuits for most of his life.

With Hazen’s regiment, Private Charles Racine, along with many other Canadiens, participated in some of the most storied events of the American Revolution. Congress’ Own was at Valley Forge, took part in the Battles of Brandywine and Germantown in the Philadelphia campaign, and was present at the climactic siege at Yorktown. Racine served for the duration of the war and mustered out on June 30, 1783.
Uniform and Equipment of Congress' Own

In the war’s aftermath, the Canadiens who had served with the Americans were persona non grata in their native land since they had fought against their country’s sovereign. For a time they were under the ban of the Catholic Church as well. Hazen’s litigious habits, however, appeared to be a boon to the veterans since he pursued Congress doggedly on their behalf, securing them lands in upstate New York.

A return of January 26, 1785 confirms that Racine had been granted two lots totaling 500 acres in Clinton County, New York. However, Racine, like most of the refugees, seems never to have taken possession. The lands required surveying and the destitute veterans had no money for these services. Neither had they supplies nor tools with which to work the land. Their plight was exacerbated by the fact that they had become Congress’ own problem – foreigners and not citizens of any of the thirteen United States.

Racine tiptoed back into Canada in 1785. Evidently back in the Church’s good graces, in 1791 he married Josephte Desrochers at the parish of St-Charles-sur-Richelieu. After his homecoming, Racine sold off his New York holdings in parcels to Hazen’s nephew, Benjamin Mooers, who sent his agents into Canada to buy the lands of the Canadien veterans. Mooers eventually controlled about a quarter of these lands.

Racine worked as a carpenter and fathered seven sons and two daughters. He died at age 68 in 1827 and is buried at Saint-Damase, QC.

In 1855, the adult children of Charles Racine attempted to secure payment of the pension due to their late mother as a widow of a Revolutionary War veteran. They hired an American lawyer to press their claim and acquired affidavits from men who had known Charles Racine. These men testified that they had heard Racine speak many times of his service in the American army in the Revolution. These affidavits also reveal that Charles had documentary proof of his service but a 1795 fire had destroyed his house and everything in it.

One of Racine’s sons, Louis-Augustin, also testified under oath that his father had spoken of his adventures in the campaigns “near Philadelphia” and that Charles had mentioned Livingston, Allston, and Campbell as among the officers under whom he had served. Livingston had also raised a regiment in Canada that was folded into Hazen’s late in the war. There is a great deal of documentary evidence for Charles Racine's military service, but this was unknown or inaccessible to the Racine family in 1855.

19th c. Transcription of the Roll of Hazen's Regiment:
Charles Racine is No. 23 in the list of Privates
The only surviving possession of the fire of 1795 was the rifle with which Charles Racine had fought for American independence. His family preserved the weapon until about 1880 when it was dropped in a lake during a hunting expedition.

This rifle may well have seen action in the Québec Rebellion of 1837, in which Charles’s son Prudent Racine, my 3rd great-grandfather, fought. Three generations of Racines were involved in signal events of North American history since Prudent's sons, Philibert and Cyprien Racine, were volunteers in a Vermont company in the American Civil War.

I have no evidence to support the claim but I tend to believe that Charles’s war stories influenced Prudent’s decision to serve in the cause of the liberty of “Lower Canada” (Québec) in 1837 and perhaps his grandsons’ efforts in the cause of preserving the Union Charles had, under duress, fought to establish.

And all of this because a teenager, tending his cattle, was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I would like to acknowledge my distant cousin Janine LaFleur Penfield for sending me a large collection of documents regarding the story of Charles Racine. Most of these materials were scans of primary sources from which the majority of this post was gleaned. 


  1. Fantastic account of a history that has rarely if ever been told! Marvelous!

    1. Thanks so much, Joe. On both sides of the border the histories of Canada and the USA are portrayed as more separate than they ought to be. The histories of the two countries are interwoven, with major population exchanges between them: Acadians scattered up and down what became the East Coast USA; Loyalists to Ontario and elsewhere; a large immigration of Francophones into New England in the 19th and early 20th centuries, etc. I call this blog "French North America" to emphasize this overlooked, continent-wide perspective.

  2. The level of detail in this account is remarkable. You mention documents provided by your cousin. How much of that is private documents held by the family, vs. publicly available? Is any of it based on family history that was passed down verbally without written documentation? (These questions are motivated by curiosity, not doubt!)

    1. Hi Bert. None of it was passed down orally through my line. I found out that I had an ancestor in the Revolutionary War through the distant cousin I mentioned who was also researching her family history. The documents are publicly available. The 1795 fire destroyed any documents that might have been passed down. A lot of the story is in the 1855 affidavits I mentioned. They are public records of the court in Montréal. Plus there are the parish records from Québec that have the vital stats like births, deaths, marriages; there are payroll records and lists of troops from the war; land records of Racine’s holdings in New York and their sale; as well as general histories of the Revolution that discuss Hazen and his Regiment, among other sources. I sifted through hundreds of pages of documents to piece it all together but others over time had done a large amount of legwork for me. The Racines are an old and large family in Québec and my predecessors in genealogy have done quite a bit of work on them. In fact, Charles Racine is doubly my ancestor since my paternal grandparents had a common great-grandfather who was Prudent, the son of Charles.

    2. I am the cousin and I found the documents on Fold3 when it was Footnote. It is Charles's Revolutionary War file and was over 100 pages. I saw it referenced in another amateur genealogist's article and in the Racine Dictionnaire. I, too, had never heard anything about this through my family. When we moved to PA, one of the first places my dad took us for an afternoon drive was Valley Forge. Now I think about how eery that is. I applied to the DAR and got in on my first try and I think when they looked at the NARA file, there was no mistaking that Charles had fought in the War.

  3. Many, many thanks for sharing this. Charles Racine is my 4th greatgrandfather as well (3 different ways!) and I have passed this along to my cousins....

  4. Fascinating! I'd be curious to see if you qualified on this basis for membership of the 'sons of the American Revolution'! The generous thing for Congress to have done would have been to grant these veterans citizenship, but it sounds like that wasn't even discussed. I wonder what other groups of outsiders suffered similar fates in the new nation?

    1. Thank you for your comment, James. My cousin Janine who left a comment above qualified for the Daughters of the American Revolution with the information about Charles Racine so, yes, I suppose I qualify for the SAR.

      I have no ready reply, but your final question is an excellent one. Thank you for commenting and please come back and visit often.

  5. Good info! Enough to find the M Gilbert's Company I was looking for!`Can you show the actual source/book with the muster roll in it please? Thanks!

  6. Hello david,

    In my research i found I am a grandson of his. I would love to touch base about documentation you have feel free to email me