Of the two and a half million people who enlisted in the Union army during the Civil War, some 40,000 or so were French-Canadians, or Franco-Americans born in the US. An uncertain number of Confederate soldiers were also of Cajun, French or French-Canadian heritage, especially in Louisiana. It would be impossible to give a comprehensive picture of the contributions Franco-Americans made during the Civil War, but this Memorial Day week, I’ll be sharing three profiles of Franco-American soldiers who typify different kinds of Franco-American recruits for this bloodiest of American conflicts.
Joseph-Caleb Paradis is the only known French-Canadian officer to serve in a Maine regiment during the Civil War. Born in Charlesbourg just outside Quebec City in 1843, Paradis was just beginning a career as an architect’s clerk when the war broke out, but he almost immediately left Canada for Portland (presumably via the Grand Trunk Railroad) to enlist in the US Army.
Maine received fewer Canadian recruits than many US states, probably because it was a greater distance from Canada’s major population centers than New York, Vermont or Midwestern border states. Those Canadians who did enlist in Maine were mostly Anglophones from the Maritimes. There’s no record of why Paradis came to Portland to enlist, but records show that he enlisted in the 5th Maine Infantry on the 16th July, 1861 – within the first three months of the war.
The official history of the 5th Maine by George W. Bicknell, who served alongside Paradis, reports that the young man was motivated by his opposition to slavery and had
“a spirit sensitively alive to the maintenance of right, when he saw the attempts of ambitious men to extend the borders of slavery he sought the states, that he might add his influence and work in the cause of liberty.”
If true, this would differentiate Paradis from many Union soldiers, who were not necessarily abolitionists. It might, however, explain his decision to sign up in Maine. As the State Archives note, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the anti-slavery novel written in Brunswick, had recently been translated into French.
Paradis was unusual in another respect – during his three years of service, he rose through the ranks from enlisting as a private, to being commissioned as a Captain. He was even recommended for a commission in the regular, US Army – but when this was impossible, he was assigned a lieutenancy and later captaincy in the 5th Maine instead. This feat is especially impressive for a man without any pre-existing connections or network in Maine. In his letter of recommendation to Governor Cony of Maine, Colonel Edwards, the commanding officer of the 5th laconically stated that Paradis was “a man of steady habits and good moral character.” Bicknell gives a more vivid description of the French-Canadian who was initially assigned as a clerk at headquarters:
While in the ranks, he was a faithful soldier, always desirous of doing his whole duty…[his] position exempted him from bearing a musket in times of action. But he wanted no exemption; and whenever the regiment became engaged, one of the first objects which would attract attention, would be Sergeant Paradis coming up with a musket borrowed from some wounded man, and at his post in the ranks, he poured his volleys at the enemy.
Paradis’ commission as an officer came after the 5th Maine’s victory at the Battle of Rappahannock Station in Virginia. Col. Edwards, who called the action “a complete and glorious victory,” praised Paradis for his capture of 13 Confederate prisoners. Edwards described the battle in vivid terms in a report back to Maine, and it is easy to see how Paradis would have distinguished himself here, given the early description of his ardor. The 5th Maine and 171st New York were attacking a strong Confederate position, and advanced to within 500 yards of the Southerners before taking cover beneath the rise of a small hill:
[At nearly] 7 o’clock PM…I received orders to move my regiment forwards…Under the cover of the darkness of the night – we approached to within twenty five yards of the enemy in his pits, when I gave the order to “Charge.” At this moment, we received a terrific volley from the enemy’s infantry, and at the next, our boys had sprang into the rifle pits, sweeping every thing before them. These entrenchments were occupied by more than double the men than my own front presented, but so sudden and unexpected was our movement upon them that the enemy seemed paralyzed.
The 550 Union soldiers captured a total of 1200 prisoners, the colors of four regiments, and five colonels. Despite his brave conduct – or more likely because of it, Paradis would not survive the war. He was wounded in the Battle of Cold Harbor, in June of 1864; one of the bloodiest engagements of the war. Having survived Antietam and Gettysburg, the twenty-one year-old would die a few days later in a military hospital in Alexandria, June 18.
Paradis’ remains were embalmed, and his body was returned to Quebec City. According to the regimental history, they were returned to his father, but the obituary which appears in the Maine Adjutant-General’s report of 1864, notes that he was returned to his friends. The burial record, at the parish of St Roche, Quebec, confirms this. He was interred on the 29th of June, 1864, in the presence of nine young men who are likely his friends. The State Archives notes that the cost of returning the body was about $70, more than $1,000 in today’s terms, and that this was borne by the men of his company, so that he could be laid to rest among his countrymen. As the regimental history concludes,
Well indeed may his friends cherish his memory, for Captain Paradis was a noble soldier, and a true man.
Thanks to the “Acadian and French-Canadian Genealogy and History” Facebook group for their transcription assistance and other suggestions.
 Parish Records of Charlesbourg, Quebec. Baptism of Joseph-Caleb Paradis, 3rd March, 1843. Ancestry.com. Quebec, Canada, Vital and Church Records (Drouin Collection)
 “Jos. C. Paradis,” Quebec City, 1861 Census of Canada, Ancestry.com. Library and Archives Canada; Ottawa, Ontario, Canada; Census Returns For 1861; Roll: C-1254, p.337.
 A note by Bicknell in his roll as assistant to Col. Edwards appears on the account of the Battle of Rappahannock Station cited below.
 Edward S. Stevens, letter to J. Hodsden, Maine Adjutant-General, Nov. 9th, 1863. Maine State Archives.
 Report of the Adjutant General of the State of Maine (Augusta, Maine: 1864), p431
 Parish Records of St Roche, Quebec City, Quebec. Burial of Caleb Paradis, 28th June 1864. Ancestry.com. Quebec, Canada, Vital and Church Records (Drouin Collection)