French-Americans in the Civil War

        There have been settlers of French extraction in North America since the beginning of white colonization. Lured by the promise of life in the New World, however, French immigrants continued to arrive in America over many years; between the census of 1850 and that of 1860, the number of French arriving doubled to just over 100,000. Other than Canada, where the majority of French settlers had gone to live in the early days, it is difficult to pinpoint any one area of the United States where the newcomers headed-with the dramatic exception of Louisiana. So many French settled there that today the culture is indelibly marked by the presence of their language and other ethnic preferences.
        The French left quite a presence on the Civil War, too. The colorful, seemingly bizarre uniforms of Zouave units, in both the Confederate and Union armies, can be traced directly back to the garb of French soldiers in Algiers, adapted to that hot climate. Striped or red baggy trousers, bright waistcoats, cropped jackets with braided trim, fez-style hats, and sashes tied dramatically about the waist were, to say the least, unusual sights on Civil War battlefields-but woe be to the soldier who made fun of a Zouave comrade, for they were numbered among some of the fiercest fighting units. The Louisiana Tigers of the Confederate Army and the New York Fire Zouaves of the Union are but two of those fabled regiments, and their fame is spread across the history of the war.
        Famous French Confederates included Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard. Born in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana, on May 28, 1818, he was the number two graduate of the West Point Class of 1838, and was a staff officer for Winfield Scott during the Mexican War, where he was a comrade of Robert E. Lee and George Meade. In January 1861, Beauregard was appointed superintendent of West Point-only to be relieved a mere few days later because of his Confederate sympathies. Beauregard can be said to have served as the Confederacy's midwife, bringing the infant nation into the world: he commanded the attack on Fort Sumter in April 1861, then helped Joseph E. Johnston defeat the Federals in the Battle of First Manassas or First Bull Run). There is no theater of the war in which Beauregard did not fight; in addition to Virginia, he was also prominent in the West, taking command of the Army of Tennessee when Albert Sidney Johnston was killed at the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862. He assisted in the defense of Richmond in May 1864, and was again at Joe Johnston's side at the end in North Carolina. His fiery Creole temperament made him occasionally difficult to get along with, and he was in almost constant disagreement with President Jefferson Davis. But few others can be said to have had as much effect on the Confederacy's military legend, with the possible exception of Robert E. Lee.
        Camille Armand Jules Marie, Prince de Polignac, was another colorful Confederate Frenchman-this time a true native of the old soil. Born in Seine-et-Oise, France, in 1832, Polignac had served gallantly in the French army in the Crimean War; in Central America at the outbreak of the war in America, Polignac offered his sword to the Confederate cause and served it well. He was a staff officer for Beauregard, and later saw service in Louisiana with General Richard Taylor; near the end of the war he became involved in a Confederate bid to win French support for their flagging cause.
        Polignac ran the blockade in March 1865; he was in Spain, trying to secure passage to France, when news of Lee's surrender reached him. He was the last man holding the rank of Confederate major general to die, passing on in November 1913.
        The Union, too, had their colorful Frenchmen. Prince Jerome Bonaparte served as an officer in the Federal forces, volunteering his services; one of the most important and gentlemanly services he rendered ' in addition to his bravery and sense of honor, was to leave behind a record in watercolors of the places and people with whom he served. It was considered a gentleman's pastime and hobby to be able to paint amusing little pictures for one's friends; Bonaparte's pictures give an accurate and discriminating view of life in the Union army from the brush of a royal admirer.
Source: The Civil War Society's "Encyclopedia of the Civil War."

This Page last updated 02/16/02

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