Chinese Soldiers Who Fought in the American Civil War for the Union and the Confederacy
Lost and Forgotten History Can Kill
Gradually, lost histories of the American Civil War Era have been uncovered and added to the body of historic literature taught in college-level and graduate school classes.
These students are fortunate to be able to benefit from these "lost episodes" of history. Living history museums around the United States are picking up this information and adding exhibits to highlight the previously lost facts and stories about atrocities and heroes in equal proportions.
US military websites have published data about the various ethnic groups that served with the Union and Confederate armies during the Civil War and we find that these include Native North Americans, African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asians of several countries like China, Siam/Thailand, and the Philippines.
In the 2010s:
The Case of Danny Chen
Afghanistan War: Chinese-American Soldier's Suicide
Because some history has been forgotten, October 2011 saw the suicide of US Army Private Danny Chen in the War in Afghanistan brought into the news by the efforts of his family to gain justice.
Eventually, eight soldiers were charged in his death related to Chen's targeting with continual racial and outsider slurs in addition to physical torture. Four of the men were court martialed.
He could handle the slurs well enough with jokes, but wrote in his diary that he was running out of witty comebacks. His unit and his commanding officers in Afghanistan did not seem to know (or care?) that non-citizen Chinese fought in the US Civil War with whites or that the Chinese continued to join the Army and Navy and fight for "whites" from then, forward.
The slurs against Danny continued and his commanding officers forced him to lead a project in his unit by speaking only in Chinese. None of his fellow trainees understood him. He was also beaten and otherwise physically tortured by men in his unit. Those legally charged in his death included several non-commissioned officers and at least one lieutenant. (Associated Press for the Wall Street Journal; http://tinyurl.com/y6w9hssj)
Chinese Soldiers in the American Civil War
At least 58 Chinese Americans fought in the Civil War, constituting a largely forgotten community of soldiers and veterans— Ben Railton for We'reHistory.com, November 7, 2014
Volunteers and the "Shanghaied"
The United States Army tells us on its Internet page concerning Asians and our Civil War, that thousands of Asian people immigrated to America from 1800 - 1850 and continued to do so after these dates. Not all of the Chinese soldiers of the Civil War are listed on their site.
After examining the literature on this topic, Dave DeForest (referenced below) found 58 Chinese in the war, often on navy vessels. He may not have considered those having Hispanic surnames, however, as discussed below.
Interestingly, some Chinese were "Shanghaied" into the Confederate Army in New Orleans when they disembarked ships coming into port. They thought they were being invited to games and fun; and, they were not alone - other ethnic groups were mustered into the Confederate forces this way (Davis, 1960).
This seems to have been usual for the 14th Louisiana Infantry, tricking Chinese and Filipino men into service. Because many of the Filipino men had Hispanic surnames, many are lost to history as having been Asian servicemen. In fact, many of them were Filipinos who had lived in Mexico.
The most well known Chinese in the Civil War armies and navies are in the following list, many because photos exist of them.
- Corporal John Tommy (or Tomney in some sources). Battles of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg with the Union Army. Killed in battle with both arms and legs blown off by cannon fire July 12, 1863. He lived another 3.5 months until October 19. Reports and journals speak of him as a good soldier, brave and friendly.
- Christopher Wren Bunker, son of Chang Bunker (famous Siamese twin with P.T. Barnum). Battles in PA and WV with the Confederate Cavalry. Captured and later released
- Stephen Decatur Bunker, son of Eng Bunker (the other famous Siamese twin. Battles in WV and VA with the Confederate Cavalry. Wounded, captured, and later released.
- Antonio Dardell was taken from China by an American sea captain, probably purchased or found orphaned. He served with the Union Army, 27th Connecticut Infantry, survived the war, and worked as a tinsmith until 1912.
- Corporal Joseph Pierce survived Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg and other actions with the Union Army, the 14th Connecticut Infantry. After being sold as a child to an American sea captain, he always wore his Manchu Dynasty que (pigtail), even in the army.
- Edward Day Cohota was given his surname by the sea captain of the ship of the same name, Cohota. Edward was about 5 years old when he was found stowed away or abandoned on the captain's boat in the company of an older Chinese boy that died. Cohota later served the Union Army in the Civil War, continued a military career for another 20 years, met and guarded Sitting Bull, but could not gain US Citizenship because of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (law until 1943) that banned it. Apparently, Edward still voted in several elections, although he was not a citizen.
- Ching Lee (b. July 4, 1845; d. 1891). Renamed Thomas Sylvanus after he was passed around among American families and kept by a doctor's sister. Thomas joined the Union Army at age 16 and was discharged after a year with poor site, but enlisted again within another year. Reports and retirement documentation indicate that he was highly decorated in his army service. Wounded after battles in Pennsylvania and Virginia and captured, he was released after the war, blind. He was allowed to become a US Citizen, however, and received a Civil War pension in1880 - he started a laundry with it.
- The author Burke Davis has found the following Filipinos in the Civil War: Caystana Baltazar, Antonio Ducastin, Manual Santos, and Leon Zapanta. There are many others we do not know and may never find.
Research continues, and additional names may be uncovered. However, after the Civil War, many Chinese soldiers went back to farming in the Southern US, formed interracial marriages and blended into the background, further hidden with each successive generation. They married Blacks, Native Americans, Whites, Creoles, and Cajuns, as far as can be determined.
Many family trees likely contain Chinese ancestors that are unknown as such, because of Hispanic surnames and surnames taken from American sea captains to whom Chinese men were sold or from adoptive families. There may be a lot of Americans that have Chinese heritage
Major Battles Fought by Chinese Soldiers
Chinese soldiers fought in other Pennsylvania battles as well, especially Chin Li (Thomas Sylvanus).
Various of the later 13 battles.
Port of Entrance (and Shanghai conscription) and site of the Battle of New Orleans.
Chinese American WWII Veterans
Chinese Fighting for America: A Legacy
About 20,000 Chinese Americans joined the United States Armed Forces to defend America during World War II. This was an impressive 20% of the entire Chinese-descendant population in the Lower 48 States. We thank the for their service.
In large Chinatowns like that of New York City and San Francisco, as many as half of the Chinese men living there were drafted or volunteered for military duty from WWII through Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, as well as other war zones. We owe them thanks and honor.
- Sucheng Chan, Asian Americans; Twayne Publishers, 1991.
- Davis, B. Civil War: Strange and Fascinating Facts; Random House, 1960.
- DeForest, D. Historian Recounts Role of Chinese Americans Who Fought in US Civil War; Voice of America, 2011.
- Kwok, G. Chinese serving in the American Civil War; 1998.
- McCunn, R. L. Chinese in the Civil War: Ten Who Served; 1996.
- Qian, K. Sons of Civil War Veterans to Honor Chinese War Hero, 2005.
- Railton, B. Veterans to Remember: Chinese Americans in the Civil; 2014. War. werehistory.org/veterans-to-remember/ Retrieved August 25, 2018.
- Reynolds, A. Army upholds charges in Chen case. Downtown Express. www.downtownexpress.com/2012/02/22/army-upholds-charges-in-chen-case/ Retrieved June 19, 2012.
© 2012 Patty Inglish MS