Introduction to the Project Acadians in Gray

 

As the song says, I was born on the bayou.  Almost.  Two and a half miles from the old wood-framed American Legion Hospital in which I was born, down a blacktopped road now lined with expensive houses, east of my hometown of Jennings, flows Bayou Nezpique, a tributary of the Mermentau River.  So, close enough.  I am bayou born and bred, a bona fide Louisiana Cajun, with Acadian ancestry on both my father’s and mother's sides of the family.  And that, of course, has everything to do with why I am pursuing this project.

I was not always proud of being a Cajun.  In my adolescent years in the 1960s many of my friends were "regular" Americans whose families had migrated to southwest Louisiana to work in the oil fields or run businesses connected with that ubiquitous industry.  It was uncool for kids my age with names like Cormier and Fontenot to listen to and admit that they enjoyed "chanky-chank" music, the waltzes and vigorous two-steps that our parents and grandparents loved so much.  My grandparents spoke little English, and my parents never bothered to teach their four children our native tongue.  My parents were born in the late 1920s and were the first generation of Cajun children to be subject to Louisiana’s mandatory school attendance law (1916) and the subsequent law which dictated that only English could be taught in Louisiana's public schools (1921).  My parents could speak only Cajun French when they entered first grade at the tender age of six, and they were literally beaten by their teachers into speaking English.  My mother remembers those spankings vividly, and, perhaps more tellingly, my father never did learn to read and write in either of the two languages he spoke.  When I entered first grade in the mid-1950s, teachers no longer spanked Cajun children for speaking French in the classroom; at least, I never witnessed such punishment in any of my classes.  But my parents didn’t know that.  They consciously, lovingly chose not to teach us Cajun French and spoke it at home only when they didn’t want us to understand what they were saying.  Thus, I required the services of an interpreter, usually my mother, to speak at length with any of my grandparents or other elderly Cajuns who struggled with English.

I will never forget, when I was very young, an insensitive gentleman asked me my name.  "Ohhhh," he grinned, hearing the name "Cormier," "you’re a little coonass."  I had never heard the term before or, more likely, had ignored it, not applying such a nasty name to myself.  But here was an adult, the voice of knowledge and experience, calling me such a thing.  It was as much the man’s tone of voice as the word itself that told me this was nothing to be proud of.  When I protested to my mother—family name Miller, pronounced Mee-LUH by her Cajun father—she informed me that I was indeed a coonass and that I should get used to it.

Needless to say, these are not the kinds of youthful experiences that instill pride in ones unique cultural heritage.01

I became interested in the War of 186106 at an early age, reading avidly in the Times-Picayune the adventures of Johnny Reb and Billy Yank.  There was never any doubt where my sympathies lay—I was a Johnny Reb through and through.  Damn the Yankees for invading our sacred soil!  Give a piercing Rebel yell, boys, for the good old Stars and Bars!  Generals Lee, Jackson, and Bedford Forrest were living, breathing heroes to me.  My friends and I went downtown to the Morgan and Lindsey store and bought those cheap felt gray Rebel caps with the Battle Flag glued securely to their crowns and the anachronistic crossed rifles emblazoned above their visors.  We fashioned Enfield muskets from sticks and boards, and fought for the glorious South with the fierce determination of our Confederate forebears.  I gave no thought then to my Cajun ancestors of the 1860s—it was nothing to be proud of, remember—but I knew that the Cajuns were living in Louisiana during those momentous days of conflict.  I just wasn’t sure if any of my people had worn the Confederate gray.  I asked my parents and grandparents, but they had no clue.  For a long time I wasn’t even sure if the war had been fought in Louisiana west of New Orleans.  My head was full of Shiloh and Vicksburg, Gettysburg, Chickamauga, and Appomattox.  Bisland and Irish Bend, Mansfield and Pleasant Hill were unknown to me until my last years of high school.  Even then I assumed that my ancestors, being Cajuns from Carencro and Opelousas, had taken to the swamps when the Yankees came and avoided a struggle that was not their own.  Though I majored in history in college and read avidly about the war, the myth of Cajun indifference to the world at large kept its hold on me.  Occasionally I encountered references to "Frenchmen" or "Creoles" in Confederate units that fought in Virginia, Tennessee, and Mississippi.  I don’t remember seeing any references to "Cajuns" or "Acadians" in those units.  The notion of my own flesh and blood fighting for the Confederacy held no interest for me—perhaps I was afraid of what I’d learn about my Cajun ancestors, such is the hold of youthful prejudices on the mind of the adult—until I got hooked on family genealogy.

That’s when I met my paternal great-grandfather, Joachim Cormier of Carencro, in the pages of Father Donald Hebert’s Southwest Louisiana Records.  Joachim had two younger brothers, Lasty and Clémile, and I was puzzled to find no evidence of Lasty’s marriage or offspring, but such are the vagaries of genealogy.  I had settled in Virginia by then, so access to Louisiana genealogical records was difficult for me.  On a visit to my Louisiana relatives I found a set of Father Hebert’s Records in my hometown library and spent hours going through it, searching for ancestors, but back in Virginia I tended to neglect my genealogy research.

About this time I took an after-hours tour of the Museum of the Confederacy with the Richmond Civil War Roundtable.  We were allowed to see the museum’s wonderful collection of books in the closed stacks adjacent to the reading room, and, while perusing the shelves for interesting titles, I noticed a copy of Winchester Hall’s Story of the 26th Louisiana Infantry.  I was amazed to find a Confederate regimental history written by a participant, and especially a regiment from my native state.  I opened the book to see what I could find there, and what happened next destroyed in a flash those prejudices I held against my Cajun ancestors and their role in the Civil War.  There on page 155, as plain as day, in the roster of the 26th Infantry’s Company A, were Privates Clémile, Joachim, and Lasty Cormier—my great-grandfather and his two younger brothers!  On page 97 I discovered why I had never found a marriage record for Great-uncle Lasty: "June 5, 1863: Wounded mortally in the head by a shell."  He had died in the trenches at Vicksburg.  I shared my joy of discovery with my fellow Civil Warriors, and soon I was a compatriot in a local camp of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

I searched for my own copy of Winchester Hall and was chagrined to learn that it was a rare, long-out-of-print volume that sold for hundreds of dollars.  Soon, however, a reprint of the book appeared, and I purchased a copy.  I read avidly of the fighting at Chickasaw Bluffs and in the bloody siege of Vicksburg, battles in which my flesh and blood had fought the invading Yankees.  Company A of the 26th Louisiana Volunteers was a thoroughly Acadian unit—the Lafayette Prairie Boys, they called themselves.  In their ranks were Moutons and Martins, Bernards, Broussards, Babineauxs, Brasseauxs, Breauxs, Boudreauxs, Comeauxs, Dugass, Doucets, Duhons, Duboiss, Guidrys, Landrys, LeBlancs, Mires, Melançons, Roys, Savoies, Sonniers, Trahans, and Thibodeauxs—family names familiar to me back in my native Louisiana, the surnames, in fact, of some of my own cousins.  These Acadians had not run away to the swamps and prairies when the invader set foot on their sacred soil.  These Acadians—Lasty Cormier and Martin Thibodeaux, Charles Bergeron, Melville Naquin, Théodule Babin, Clitus Boudreaux, Adelin Hebert, and many others—had sacrificed their lives for the cause they cherished:  Southern independence.  They had worn the gray and butternut, by God, and had fought and died for Louisiana and the Southern Confederacy.  I hoped that someday someone would tell the story of every Acadian unit that fought for the South.  

Fate, for what reason I cannot say, has handed that task to me.

METHODOLOGY and SCOPE

I must first explain why I call this project Acadians in Gray.

The terms "Acadian" and "Cajun" are often used interchangeably, but they are not exactly the same people.  The Acadians are the people who lived in the French colony of Acadie, later British Nova Scotia, from the 1630s until they were forced from their homes by their British overlords in the 1750s.  Many of them returned to old Acadia after the French and Indian War.  Most did not.  The Acadian exiles who made their way to Louisiana a decade after the dispersal and settled on the Mississippi River above New Orleans, along Bayous Teche and Lafourche and on the southwest Louisiana prairies, by necessity had to assimilate to a very different environment, both natural and human.  These Acadians inevitably intermarried with French Creole, German, Spanish, Irish, Native American, African, Foreign French, and even Anglo families already in the area or who arrived in the region in subsequent decades.  It is this rich gumbo of assimilated peoples who became the Cajuns of South Louisiana. 

Some might say that this project should be entitled Cajuns in Gray.  Studies by Glen Conrad, Carl Brasseaux, and James Dormon reveal that by the 1860s the descendants of the Acadian exiles were thoroughly assimilated into a new culture of their own making in the prairies and bayous of South Louisiana--today's Cajun culture.  However, standard dictionaries reveal that the word "Cajun" did not appear in print until 1868, three years after Appomattox.  The use of the word "Cajun" in the context of the War of 1861 thus would be anachronistic.  The Cajuns existed as a culture in 1861; they were just not called that, at least not in print, until after the war was over.02

Hence the title Acadians in Gray.

The use of this term is more than an accommodation to euphony and historical accuracy, however.  I have used Acadian family names as the basis by which to determine which Confederate units contained a significant number of Cajuns.  As the Acadians were the progenitors of the Cajun culture, so here they are the major determinants of what was or what was not a significantly Cajun unit in the armies of the Confederacy.  It stands to reason that where there was a significant number of "Acadians" in a military company, there was a significant number of "Cajuns."  

From Bona Arsenault’s monumental five-volume genealogy of the Acadians, I compiled a list of families who were exiled from Nova Scotia and who settled in Louisiana.  Works by Stephen A. White, Robert C. West, Albert J. Robichaux, Jr., and Timothy Hebert supplemented and clarified what I found in Arsenault.  I then combed Andrew B. Booth’s three-volume Records of Louisiana Confederate Soldiers and Louisiana Confederate Commands, as well as the index to the Compiled Service Records of Confederate soldiers in the National Archives, Napier Bartlett’s Military Record of Louisiana, and other sources that contain rosters of Confederate units from Louisiana, and noted those Acadian surnames that appeared therein.  Using these names—104 of them—I compiled a list of Confederate units that contained a significant number of these Acadians, and it is these units that form the basis of this studyTo make certain that no significantly Cajun unit went undetected, I chose additional families who are not Acadian in origin but who intermarried with the Acadians before the war and added them to my list of families ... over 700 surnames so far.03

By a significantly Cajun unit I mean that if there were at least 25 individuals with Acadian/Cajun surnames from my list who at any time were assigned to a company or battery, that unit made the roster of Acadians in Gray.04  A total of 129 companies and batteries, 10 battalions, and 32 regiments, including a cavalry battalion from Texas, have made the list of significantly Cajun units.  The inclusion on this list of a regiment of free blacks from New Orleans, the 1st Native Guards, attests to the racial as well as cultural diversity of the Cajuns of Louisiana.  A close study of Arthur Bergeron’s Guide to Louisiana Confederate Units reveals that these units fought in every major theater of the War: the East, the West, and the Trans-Mississippi.  Thus, the scope of this study, like the bayou on which I was born, runs deep and wide—almost the entire expanse, in both time and space, of this nation’s bloodiest, most significant conflict.

In conclusion, I must beseech my Cajun cousins et cousines to approach this project with an open mind as well as a joyous heart.  I make no special claims for our people in my study of their role in the War of 1861.  There were heroes and scoundrels among them no more and no less than among other ethnic groups who fought on either side in the war.  I am determined to tell their story warts and all, dire la verité.  If I anger any of my fellow Cajuns by exposing an ancestor’s less-than-heroic war record, I am truly sorry for that.  I can only say that I am an historian, not a cultural apologist, that what I reveal here is what the historical record has revealed to me.  I will not, as our Cajun ancestors would scoff, chanter des midi a quatorze heures!05

[To Progress Report & General Information]

 

NOTES

01.  I was told in my youth that the pejorative coonass came from Anglo-Texans in the offshore oil industry of the late 1940s who made fun of the Cajun roughnecks & roustabouts by calling them coonass, a variation of a slur against African Americans.  However, a recent article in AGE (May 2003, 8) about LA attorney Warren Perrin's efforts to suppress the use of the word, states that coonass comes from World War II, when the French, who we were rescuing from the Nazis, made fun of Cajun GIs and their strange patois by calling them conasse, which in “real” French means a stupid person or a dirty prostitute.  As the story goes, the Cajuns’ fellow GIs picked up on the slur & called them coonass.  For a scholarly analyses of the etymology of this word, see Bernard, The Cajuns, 96; & Comeaux, "Coonass:  Diffusion & Probably Origin," 206, who cite James R. "Jimmy" Domengeaux as the progenitor of the theory that coonass came from Frenchmen's disdain for Cajun GIs in World War II.  Domengeaux was the first chairman of CODIFIL, the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana, the organization that seeks to preserve & purify the Cajun language & experience.  Bernard, The Cajuns, 96, using a photograph from the National Archives of a C-47 transport taken at Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, in Apr 1943 with the name "Cajun Coonass" emblazoned on its fuselage, explodes the French connection to coonass & admits that "the word's origin remains a mystery ..."  Dr. Bernard also cites a labor dispute case dating from Jan 1940 in which Cajun Alec Vincent, nicknamed "Frenchy," working at a Shell Oil facility at Deer Park, near Houston, TX, complained to his supervisors about a fellow worker who called him a "goddamn coon-ass."  See also Bernard, "Debunking the Alleged Origin of the Word 'Coonass'"; Rocky Sexton, "Coonasses," in Ethnicity, 132-33.  Dr. Comeaux's recently-published (spring 2015) essay on the subject, interestingly enough, points to the oil industry as important in the dissemination, if not the origin, of the word coonass.  See 211-14, 219.  Especially interesting for the author is Dr. Comeaux's conclusion that the Cajun-French term of endearment from which the word may have evolved seems to have originated in the Jennings area ... the author's hometown!  See 219. 

02. Brasseaux, Acadian to Cajun; Conrad, ed., The Cajuns; Dormon, Cajuns.  Both the Random House and Webster's dictionaries give the date of 1868 as the first appearance of the word "Cajun."  Bernard, The Cajuns, citing Brasseaux's Acadian to Cajun, and Bernard's recent Cajuns & Their Acadian Ancestors, disagree with the idea that a unique Cajun culture existed before the War of 1861.  He claims on p.168n of The Cajuns that "the ethnic group [the Cajuns] did not coalesce until after the Civil War."  I disagree.  A close look at the late colonial & antebellum church & civil records of South LA reveals that an ethnic "coalescence" began soon after the first Acadians reached LA, that by the time of the War of 1861 almost a century later there were few if any Acadian families who had not mixed their bloodlines with non-Acadian families in the region, thus creating a unique cultural identity that came to be called "Cajun."  Sociologically if not rhetorically, the Cajun culture existed in 1861, and the word "Cajun" likely had evolved by then, it just did not appear in print until 1868, three years after the war.  James H.  Dormon, in his careful study of Acadian/Cajun ethnicity (see especally pages 30, 33-34), emphasizes that the lower-class, non-genteel Acadians had become "Cajuns" by the mid-nineteenth century.  Though far from complete, the Family Histories section of this website will give the reader some idea of how many Acadian families mixed their bloodlines with non-Acadian families before the War of 1861.  For a preliminary analysis of endogamous/exogamous marriages in dozens of Acadian families, follow this link.

03. See Arsenault, Généalogie; BRDR; Hébert, D., South LA Records; Hébert, D., Southwest LA Records; Hébert, T., <acadian-cajun.com>; West, Atlas of LA Surnames; White, DGFA-1.  Not all of the Acadian families who came to LA produced soldiers for the Southern Confederacy--specifically, Arosteguy, Bastarache, Le Borgne dit Bélisle, Bellemère, Belliveau, Billeray, Bonnevie, Carret, Chaillou, Clémenceau, Clossinet, Corporon, Darembourg, Darois, De la Forestrie, De la Maziere, Mius d'Entremont, Flan, Fouquet, Gousman, Grossin, Hamon, Hugon, Josset, La Garenne, Lagresse, Lamoureaux, Latier, Livois, Marant, Neveu, Patry, Precieux, Quimine, Rassicot, Savary, Segoillot, Surette, & Villejoin.  An Acadian named Joseph Guénard settled in the Opelousas District after Le Grand Dérangement, but he produced no male heirs who survived to raise families of their own; the Guénards who served the Confederacy probably came from a Creole family of that name.  The same seems to be true of Joseph Barthélemy of St. James Parish & Jean L'Enfant of San Luis de Natchez.  A number of other Acadian families--Brun/Lebrun, Cousin, Duplessis, Dumont, Durel, Guérin, Lafaye, Lavergne, Pellerin, Renaud, Ritte--came to LA with only daughters, or their sons or grandsons died without issue; therefore, the Acadian lines of those families never took root in the Bayou State; the members of those families in LA who served the Confederacy, like the Barthélemys, Guénards, & L'Enfants, were French Creole, French Canadian, or Foreign French.  A number of other families found in Arsenault or White lived in greater Acadia (present-day Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Maine, Prince Edward Island, Cape Breton Island, & Newfoundland) and also in LA but are not Acadians in LA--Adam, Ayo, Baudoin, Blanchet, Bonin, Borel, Boucher, Brunet, Champagne, Chauvin, Chenet, Dupont, Durand/Durant, Ferret, Fontaine, Gauthier, Herpin, Labat, Lacroix, Laforest, Lagrange, Langlois, Latour, Laure, Lemaire, Mallet/Maillet, Marchand, Maurin/Morin, Menard, Petit, Picou, Rodrigue, Rousseau, Simon, St.-Germain, Thibeaux, Vige.  All of these families, mostly French Creoles, are on the list of non-Acadian families except Laure, which did not produce a Confederate soldier from LA.  See General Information for a fuller explanation of how families qualify for the list.

04. In the case of a battalion-size unit not broken down into companies, the criterion is 50 individuals with Acadian/Cajun surnames; for regiment-size units not broken down into companies, 100. See the General Information page for a fuller explanation of how units qualify for the list.

05.  "tell tall tales or a cock and bull story”—literally, “to crow from noon until 2 in the morning!”  See Father Daigle’s Dictionary of the Cajun Language.  

And, by the way, when I say on my home page that "All Cajuns are related!" and call y'all my Cajun cousins et cousines, I am not just being cute, nor am I exaggerating ... all that much.  I defy anyone who lives in South Louisiana and whose family has been there for half a dozen generations or more to meet me in a Wal-mart or a restaurant or a dance hall anywhere in Acadiana and recite with me our respective genealogies and not acknowledge that we're cousins somewhere along the line.  We will connect.  We are cousins.  One big crazy family.  

06.  "The American Civil War" is the most common name for our nation's most terrible tragedy.  However, as any proud Southerner will tell you, the name is somewhat inaccurate.  It implies that the war which began in 1861 was fought between two sections of a single nation, that the Confederate States of America did not exist as an actual political entity, which it most certainly did.  "The War Between the States," then, despite its anachronistic ring, is a more accurate name for the conflict.  Unfortunately, certain heritage groups draw such a starkly black-and-white picture of the War Between the States that the gray shades of reality, especially the nuances of historical interpretation, seem to be lost on them.  In other words, they have managed to politicize their name for the conflict as thoroughly as their sworn enemies, the purveyors of "political correctness," have politicized theirs.  To avoid politicization of any kind and to strive for historical objectivity, I have chosen a name of my own for the war that is neutral, clear, & devoid of misunderstanding. 

I hope y'all enjoy this website.  sac

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Copyright (c) 2000-16  Steven A. Cormier