For our first post on the new blog, we have a contribution by a special guest blogger. Anneliese Meck is a historical interpreter and interpretation office assistant, and honors both her Chinese and American heritages through historical clothing construction and living history at the Genesee Country Village & Museum.
The Chinese Soldiers of the American Civil War
As the cries of battle, cannons and musket fire once again resound through the historic village, echoing in the hearts of soldiers, civilians and spectators alike during our annual Civil War Reenactment, we hope that, in the words of President Lincoln, “these dead shall not have died in vain.” Though small in number, the Chinese who fought for freedom in this “new country,” with the promise “that all men are created equal,” will not be forgotten, nor their contributions unnoticed. Asian Americans have served in the armed forces of just about every major American conflict since the War of 1812, demonstrating a deep commitment and patriotic spirit for the country they consider home, despite legalized discrimination and exclusion. Few may know of the roles of the Chinese in the American Civil War, but with primary sources like military records and photographs, and through the continued efforts of historians and Civil War buffs, we are uncovering a heroic history and redefining diversity in war.
The Chinese in America, 1513–1860
To understand how the Chinese came to enlist in the American Civil War, a brief historical context detailing their migration and settlement in the United States is necessary. After nearly a century of isolation, the Chinese established trade relations with the Portuguese in 1513, beginning a long, complicated relationship with Europe and contact with the Americas. Chinese shipbuilders of Spanish Manila galleons or naos de China, “China ships,” and sailors were employed in the thriving trade route between Manila and Mexico, operating from around 1565 to 1815 (Kwok). Chinese silks, porcelains and jewelry were exported in exchange for New World gold and silver. Around the same time, in the 1700s, the British East India company landed in Canton (Guangzhou), which became the center of trade by 1760.
In the mid-1850s, with Canton under British and French occupation, Chinese men were sought after as a cheap labor source, serving as sailors, cooks and stewards upon ships along the Eastern American seaboard. Some even decided to settle in ports such as New York City as an 1856 New York Times Article evidenced, estimating around 150 “Chinamen in New York,” mostly employed as sailors (Heaver). That mention, along with the number of young boys adopted by missionaries and sea captains to be raised in America, accounts for most of the recorded presence of Chinese on the East Coast. While on the West Coast, the international gold rush of 1849 sparked a diaspora, with more than 250,000 young Chinese men hoping to strike riches in California’s gim san or “gold mountain” (Shirk). Rather than prosperity, they quickly discovered a deep-seated, anti-Chinese climate, and were forced out by discriminatory measures like the Foreign Miners’ Tax.
The Chinese in the Civil War
To the surprise of most Americans today, 58 Chinese men, out of a total of 200 identified as living on the East Coast at the start of the war, voluntarily enlisted in both the Union and Confederate armies to fight for the same causes as their black and white compatriots. Many hoped for legitimacy and citizenship in exchange for loyalty and service to a country they considered their own. Accounts of valiant efforts in many major battles as well as service records exist, showing that three Chinese soldiers were even promoted to corporals in all white units. This included both Corporal Joseph Pierce of the 14th Connecticut regiment, who fought at Antietam and Gettysburg during Pickett’s Charge, and Corporal John Tommy of the 70th New York regiment, Co. D, who also fought at Gettysburg and lost all four limbs in the crossfire.
Eager for liberation, some of the Chinese enslaved through the Pacific slave trade, much like their African American counterparts, hungered for a better life and enlisted in the Union army. Thomas Sylvanus, or Ah Yee Way, escaped from slavery in Baltimore fought at Gettysburg and survived a nine-month incarceration at Andersonville, the notorious Confederate prison camp. Woo Hong Neok, one of the few Chinese granted citizenship before the war, also identified with the Union cause. He enlisted with the 50th Pennsylvania Infantry, Co. I, stating that he “volunteered on June 29, 1863 in spite of the advice of my Lancaster friends against it, for I had felt that the North was right in opposing slavery. My friends thought I should not join the militia and risk my life in war, for my own people and family were in China and I had neither property nor family in America whose defense might serve as an excuse for my volunteering” (Shirk).
At the same time, at least five Chinese Americans have been identified by name as sympathizers of the Confederate cause. Most famously, cousins Christopher and Stephen Bunker, the sons of prosperous slave-owning farmers in North Carolina, fought to protect their family’s interests, as well as Henry William Kwan of the 12th Virginia Battalion of Light Artillery, Co. B. There are even records of Chinese enlisted with the Avegno Zouaves Company I of the 14th Louisiana Infantry (Kwok).
Other important roles included an unidentified number of Chinese sailors, stewards and cooks serving in the Union navy during the blockades of Southern ports. Several names include Thomas Smith, a sailor listed onboard the USS Potomac, John Akomb, a steward on a gunboat, and William Hand, the first Asian American to enlist in the US Navy in 1863. Unfortunately, historians will never know an exact number of the Chinese in the American Civil War, but their collective contributions to the war efforts were unarguably “far above our poor power to add or detract” (Lincoln).
Discrimination After the War
Though the battles of the Civil War may have ended in 1865, the fierce fight for legitimacy and equality for many minorities, including the Chinese, continued as wartime promises were broken. The heroic contributions of Chinese soldiers and sailors were only rewarded with racial discrimination and measures like the Naturalization Act of 1870 and Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which largely prevented Chinese immigration by making citizenship illegal. These laws were passed in direct violation of an earlier Congressional act from 1862, promising U.S. citizenship to any honorably discharged veteran of foreign born status. Deprived of citizenship, the Chinese were also ineligible for army pensions, voting and property rights, as Civil War veterans like Edward Day Cohota found when denied a homestead with his American wife and six children. In an official statement, Cohota wrote that he had “fought in the country’s service as a solder” and “served in its regular army for which I was retired for continued honorable service for over 30 years, and I believe that I, if anyone, have earned the right to be pronounced a citizen of the United States and enjoy all of its rights and privileges” (Heaver). His protests, however, and the deep betrayal of his adopted country were dismissed.
Reduced to poverty, most of the Chinese immigrants of the 19th century were segregated into Chinatowns, operating laundries and restaurants, or were exploited as cheap “coolie labor” along the transcontinental railroad. Those escaping the Pacific slave trade found it only replaced by strong anti-Asian sentiments, legalized oppression, and, in some instances, physical beating, robbing and killing. A once proud veteran of Antietam and Gettysburg, Joseph Pierce had to deny any association with his ethnic origin for fear of expulsion, or worse. In fact, he was so successful in his repression, that his descendants were unaware of their Chinese heritage.
A Lasting Legacy
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which forbid the naturalization of Chinese-American immigrants, remained in law until 1943, and it took another twenty years to formally abolish all restrictions based on race and national origin. More recently, in 2008, former U.S. representative Michael Makoto Honda lead Congress to pass a joint resolution, which finally recognized the sacrifices made by Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the American Civil War and posthumously awarded honorary citizenship (Smith). This decision was a historic, first step towards a more substantial recognition of Asian American contributions, ensuring that, despite centuries of institutionalized prejudices and the denial of citizenship, their service to the country will never be forgotten.
At the Genesee Country Village & Museum, we strive to recognize and celebrate the heroism of all American soldiers – black and white, blue and grey, and now Asian, alike. Continuing our mission to inspire excitement and curiously about a richly diverse past, we hope that you will join in our commemoration of the Civil War on the 15th and 16th of July, 2017.
1) “1860sClothing” – a picture of Anneliese Meck in 1860s clothing, photograph courtesy of M. Meck.
2) “CorporalJosephPierce” – Corporal Joseph Pierce of the 14th Connecticut Infantry Regiment, Company F, a Chinese Union soldier who fought at the Battles of Antietam and Gettysburg. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
3) “PrivateHongNeokWoo” – Private Woo Hong Neok of the 50th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment, Company I. Photograph by Dr. Thomas P. Lowry and Michael Musick, via the Association to Commemorate the Chinese Serving in the American Civil War.
Corporal Joseph Pierce. Wikimedia Commons, Wikimedia Foundation, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACorporal_Joseph_Pierce.jpg. Accessed 12 July 2017.
Heaver, Stuart. “The Chinese Soldiers Who Fought in the American Civil War.” Post Magazine, 14 July 2016, http://www.scmp.com/magazines/post-magazine/article/1270170/gettysburg-redress. Accessed 12 July 2017.
Hong Neok Woo. Association to Commemorate the Chinese Serving in the American Civil War, Gordon Kwok, sites.google.com/site/accsacw/Home/hong-neok-woo. Accessed 12 July 2017.
Kwok, Gordon. “Association to Commemorate the Chinese Serving in the American Civil War.” Association to Commemorate the Chinese Serving in the American Civil War, 18 Jan. 2009, sites.google.com/site/accsacw/. Accessed 12 July 2017.
Lincoln, Abraham. “The Gettysburg Address.” 19 Nov. 1863. Abraham Lincoln Online, 2017, http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/gettysburg.htm. Accessed 12 July 2017. Address.
Shirk, Willis L., Jr. “Woo Hong Neok: A Chinese American Soldier in the Civil War.” Civil War Pennsylvania 150, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 16 July 2015, pacivilwar150.com/ThroughPeople/Soldiers/WooHongNeok.html. Accessed 12 July 2017.
Smith, S. E. “The Secret History of Chinese-American Civil War Soldiers.” This Ain’t Livin’, 14 Feb. 2017, meloukhia.net/2017/02/the_secret_history_of_chinese american_civil_war_soldiers/. Accessed 12 July 2017.