- Ruined by this Miserable War: The Dispatches of Charles Prosper Fauconnet, a French Diplomat in New Orleans, 1863–1868 ed. by Carl A. Brasseux and Katherine Carmines Mooney
In recent years, scholars have become ever more interested in exploring the international contexts of the American Civil War. Yet U.S. historians’ typically limited command of foreign languages, combined with the relative difficulty of accessing sources overseas, has limited the extent of their achievements. Carl A. Brasseux and Katherine Carmines Mooney ought to be thanked, therefore, for translating and editing the dispatches of Charles Prosper Fauconnet during his tenure as acting French consul in New Orleans from 1863 to 1865 and again in 1868. Their thoughtful introduction and tremendously thorough endnotes provide helpful context for Fauconnet’s reports. This volume contains especially valuable insights into two main subjects: the experiences and status of French nationals [End Page 324] during the Civil War and Reconstruction; and the distinctive history of New Orleans as an occupied Union territory where the problems of Reconstruction emerged early.
It was no easy thing to be a neutral foreigner in wartime Louisiana. From Fauconnet’s reports we learn about the travails of French men in areas surrounding New Orleans who felt the noose of Confederate conscription tightening as Confederate and Louisiana authorities became ever more desperate for troops and ever less willing to allow foreigners to avoid the draft. We hear the frustrations of French Louisianans who had their cotton confiscated by Union forces or who were unable to acquire the necessary licenses to practice their trade or profession because as foreigners they were unable to take the required oath of allegiance. Being French brought further problems when American resentment at French intervention in Mexico—and consequently at French Americans in general—intensified.
Fauconnet also proves an insightful guide to the unfolding challenges of Reconstruction. Occupied from April 1862 onward, New Orleans had to confront these challenges sooner than most parts of the Confederacy. How would the southern states be reintegrated into the Union? What kind of labor relations would replace slavery? How would African Americans fit into postwar society and politics? Fauconnet comments frequently on responses to these questions in New Orleans, often criticizing Union authorities for what he saw as their excessive protection of black rights. The editors rightly point out the contrast between Fauconnet’s exasperation at infringements on French rights and his condemnation of efforts to secure the rights of African Americans—both groups whose citizenship status was in flux.
Ruined by this Miserable War has much to offer to historians of foreign nationals in Civil War America and, more broadly, to anyone interested in the overarching issues of race, allegiance, and citizenship that became so significant in the 1860s. My only quibble concerns the order in which the documents are presented. Rather than arrange the reports in simple chronological order, the editors chose to split them into chapters according to calendar year, and to divide them within each chapter into themes, such as abolition, Mexican events, and the status of resident aliens. There are certainly advantages to this way of doing things: it is easy to follow a given storyline through the year without interruption. But surely many readers would prefer to be able to see the reports in context, and to understand the connections between Fauconnet’s attitudes toward, say, the changing status of African Americans and the changing status of the French. Even so, the order of the reports detracts only slightly from the utility of the volume, and the editors have done a great service to historians of this period in making such an informative set of documents so easily accessible.