Veterans to Remember: Chinese Americans in the Civil War

Corporal Joseph PierceCorporal Joseph Pierce.

At least 58 Chinese Americans fought in the Civil War, constituting a largely forgotten community of soldiers and veterans. By the 1850s, Chinese Americans—who had begun arriving to the continent’s western territories in the 1780s, long before they were part of the United States—had also begun to arrive and form communities on the East Coast. They came in a variety of ways: as visitors or students accompanying returning missionaries; as merchants or businessmen pursuing new opportunities; as performers or artists finding new venues; even as slaves in the era’s so-called “coolie trade.” By the war’s outset, there were hundreds of recorded such East Coast Chinese Americans (and likely many more not recorded), and many chose to enlist.

In her newest book, Chinese Yankee: A True Story from the U.S. Civil War – which will be published on Veteran’s Day, no less – historian and novelist Ruthanne Lum McCunn chronicles the story of one such forgotten veteran, Thomas Sylvanus (Ah Yee Way). As McCunn details, Sylvanus was born in Hong Kong, brought to the U.S. as an orphan and enslaved in Baltimore in the mid-1850s, and escaped to join the Union Army at the outset of the Civil War. Despite being partially blinded in his first battle, he went on to reenlist twice, rescue his regimental colors at Spotsylvania, and survive 9 months imprisonment at Andersonville, among many other striking wartime and post-war experiences that contributed to what his 1891 New York Times obituary called a “singular career.”

Yet if those and other accumulated events made Sylvanus’ life singular, his Civil War service was not. Most Chinese American soldiers, like Sylvanus, fought for the Union, and some received similar contemporary notoriety and acclaim: Corporal Joseph Pierce’s contributions to the Union victory at Gettysburg were honored with a picture at the Gettysburg Museum; Edward Day Cohota continued to serve in the army for more than twenty years after the war’s end. There were also at least two very prominent Chinese American soldiers in the Confederate Army: Christopher and Stephen Bunker, sons of the famous touring Siamese twins Chang and Eng Bunker (who were by the 1860s retired from their performing days and operating a successful slave plantation in North Carolina).

The story of the Bunkers, fathers and sons, illustrates the individuality and complexity of each Chinese American Civil War soldier’s story, and particularly of the motivations behind their enlistments. Geography and cultural identification were clearly prominent factors. Yung Wing, the future diplomat who attended Monson Academy in Massachusetts, graduated from Yale in 1854 as the first Chinese American college graduate, and would later found the Hartford (CT) Chinese Educational Mission in order to give other young Chinese men the opportunity to receive what he called those “New England influences,” volunteered for the Union Army in 1864. The eldest sons of the Bunker twins, who in the 1830s ended their North American touring with P.T. Barnum and settled in Wilkes County, North Carolina, where they lived, farmed, and created large families over the next forty years (between them the two men had 21 children by their deaths in 1874), enlisted in the Confederate army.

Personal experiences also shaped the soldier’s choices, however. Edward Day Cohota came to the United States as an impoverished stowaway aboard the merchant vessel of Captain Silas Day; when Day and his ship Cohota left Shanghai on December 27th, 1845, they did so carrying a starving four year old Chinese boy who did not know his own name, and upon discovering the stowaway Day named him Edward and took him back to his Gloucester (Massachusetts) home, where he raised him. Edward later added Cohota to his name and took December 27th as his birthday, in honor of that ship and origin point; when he joined the 23rd Massachusetts Infantry in 1864, it could be said that he was doing so to fight for other children born, as Frederick Douglass traced so powerfully, without legal names and birthdays. And as a slave himself, Thomas Sylvanus knew that experience even more intimately and closely; Maryland may have been a border state, but Sylvanus’s identity tied him to the Union cause.

Thanks to scholars like McCunn and the kinds of digital resources linked here, we now know far more about these Chinese American soldiers than was the case even a few decades ago. For this Veteran’s Day, there are few stories and histories more worth our collective memories.

About the Author

Ben Railton

Ben Railton is Associate Professor of English and Coordinator of American Studies at Fitchburg State University. He's working to create public American Studies scholarship and to impact our collective memories and narratives, as evidenced by his books (most recently The Chinese Exclusion Act: What It Can Teach Us about America), his daily AmericanStudies blog, and many other ongoing projects.

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