MagazinesPost Magazine

The Gettysburg redress

The American civil war's bloody turning point will be commemorated this week and, thanks to a small band of dedicated historians, the involvement of a handful of Chinese combatants - as well as their shameful treatment afterwards - is also being remembered. Stuart Heaver goes in search of long-lost heroes

 

The 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, the bloody turning point of the American civil war, will be widely commemorated this week, but the role played by Chinese soldiers in that historic conflict will remain largely ignored, as will the war's broader legacy of exclusion and discrimination for Chinese Americans.

Thanks, though, to the efforts of a small number of dedicated American authors, historians and civil war buffs, largely of Asian heritage, many Chinese soldiers who served in the "war between the states" have been identified, including some who fought at Gettysburg, and at least one of those so-called Chinese Yankees was from Hong Kong.

It is hard to imagine how a 19th-century Hongkonger could find himself fighting in one of the costliest conflicts (620,000 lives were lost over four years) in American history. As Hong Kong historian Elizabeth Sinn reminds us, though, in her recent book, Pacific Crossing, by the time the first shots of the civil war were fired, in 1861, the US was already an important destination for the Chinese diaspora. Many Chinese boarded ships in the rapidly expanding maritime hub of Hong Kong bound for Gold Mountain, as San Francisco was known, the terminus for the world's first truly international gold rush.

Says Sinn: "The gold rush triggered one of the most dramatic migration movements of the 19th century," creating what she refers to as a "blind frenzy" of shippers in Hong Kong for the gold rush market.

Even prior to the California gold rush, Chinese sailors, cooks and stewards served on ships plying their trade between the Pearl River Estuary and the eastern seaboard of America. Many of these seafarers settled in east coast ports such as New York, a city built largely on the spoils of this lucrative China trade. In 1856, a New York Times article headlined "Chinamen in New York" estimated that there were about 150 Chinese men living in lower Manhattan, "mostly employed as sailors".

It was the maritime links with the Pearl River Delta that led, indirectly, to one Chinese Yankee being part of a key moment: the momentous Battle of Gettysburg, on July 3, 1863.

 

IN 1852, A 10-YEAR-OLD boy who would later be called Joseph Pierce (his name probably chosen after that of then US president Franklin Pierce) was taken to the US from Guangzhou by American sea captain Amos Peck, who adopted him as part of his affluent farming family in Berlin, Connecticut. There are several versions of exactly how the boy came to be on board but his biographer, Irving Moy, has his own theory.

"I believe that Pierce's father sold him out of desperation, with the hope he would have the opportunity for a better life, even if it meant being a servant to a stranger from a foreign land," says Moy, who re-enacts the young man's role at Gettysburg in historical recreations of the manoeuvres of Pierce's own regiment, the 14th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry.

Moy says he is "hooked" on the American civil war - fought between the Confederate, southern, slave-owning states and the northern Union, or United States - and has discovered that Pierce's life had a startling number of parallels with his own. Like Pierce, Moy's father was from Guangzhou and entered the US under an assumed name. The crew on Peck's ship called Pierce "Joe"; Moy's father's assumed middle name was Joe. In 1943, during the second world war, Moy's father enlisted as a private in the US Army, as Pierce had done during the civil war. Pierce later married a Martha Ann Morgan from Portland, Connecticut, the same town Moy's wife is from.

But why would Pierce, a young Chinese man living with a well-off farming family in Connecticut, wish to risk his life in a bitter civil war on foreign soil?

"Was it the need to prove his own self-worth and test his manhood by distinguishing himself in battle?" asks Moy. "Even though his family and community accepted him, he remained an outsider due to the colour of his skin."

Whatever his motivation, the official record confirms that Private Joseph Pierce was aged 21 when he enlisted, stood five feet, five inches tall, with dark hair and black eyes, and was born in the city of "Canton, Kwangtung Province, China". His occupation was recorded as a farmer and he enlisted for three years of military service in New Britain, Connecticut on July 26, 1861.

Pierce played a central role at Gettysburg. During the Confederate army's ill-fated Pickett's Charge, when most of the 12,000 infantrymen sent by General Robert Lee to overrun the Union lines of defence were mown down by volley after volley of musket fire, Pierce fought proudly, "pig-tail and all, the only Chinese in the Army of the Potomac", according to regimental records.

The story of another Chinese Yankee who fought at Gettysburg is about to achieve immortality as a historical novel by bestselling author Ruthanne Lum McCunn, who, like the protagonist of her new book, Thomas Sylvanus (or Ah Yee Way), is a Hongkonger.

McCunn's hugely popular books about the 19th-century Chinese diaspora have won many awards, and have been translated into 11 languages, published in 22 countries and adapted for the stage and film.

"I felt an immediate kinship with Thomas because we both come from Hong Kong," says McCunn, who now lives in San Francisco.

McCunn grew up in post-war Hong Kong, playing in the rubble of bomb sites near her home in Sai Ying Pun and attending King George V School, in Kowloon. Like the central characters in many of her novels, she left Hong Kong for America at a young age to seek her fortune.

Ah Yee Way was born in Hong Kong in 1845 and taken to America by a missionary when he was about eight years old.

"Ah Yee Way said [to fellow soldiers and regimental historians] he was brought to America as a boy of seven or nine by a Mrs McClintock [although] a very thorough search of missionary listings from that period showed nobody by that name," says McCunn.

The plan had been to educate the boy and return him to China to be employed in the evangelical cause of converting the heathen Chinese to the joys of Western-style Christianity.

It seems, though, that young Thomas was less than enthusiastic about this career plan and following a chance meeting with a Dr Sylvanus in California, he ended up in Baltimore with Sylvanus' sister, Mrs Duvall.

Unlike with his comrade Pierce, though, there is no ambiguity regarding Sylvanus' motivation for joining the combat.

"For Ah Yee Way, the cause was not in the least remote. At the outbreak of war, he was a 16-year-old enslaved in Baltimore, and he ran north to Philadelphia, where he enlisted," explains McCunn.

There is no doubting his dedication to the cause. Sylvanus was discharged after 18 months due to an eye injury that left him partially blind - but he re-enlisted twice more. He fought in many of the major battles and survived nine months' incarceration in the notorious Andersonville prisoner-of-war camp, and was involved at Gettysburg.

"[His regiment] was responsible for burying the dead, gathering and guarding military material left on the field and guarding the massive tent-hospital of 5,000 [men who were] too seriously wounded to be moved," says McCunn.

Sylvanus would become the only Chinese civil war soldier to receive a US war pension for disability. So highly regarded was he that on June 21, 1892, his funeral was reported in The New York Times in an article, headlined "Our Chinese soldier is buried", that compliments the "good soldier" for his bravery: "He was a corporal of the color guards at [the 1864 Battle of] Cold Harbour. When the breastworks were charged, all the others detailed to hold up the flag fell but the plucky Chinaman waved the Stars and Stripes defiantly and survived."

Several other Chinese served with distinction in the civil war. Many of their contributions were discovered by Gordon Kwok, another Hongkonger living in the US and webmaster of the Association to Commemorate the Chinese Serving in the American Civil War.

Corporal John Tommy served in Company D, 70th New York Infantry at Gettysburg. Despite the simple Western name foisted on him, he was a native of China. He lost all four limbs on July 2, 1863, and died of his wounds on October 19.

Antonio Dardell was an orphan taken at a very early age from China and raised by a sea captain. His pension records show he enlisted as a private in October 22, 1862, and joined Company A, 27th Connecticut Infantry, fighting in the civil war (although he was in hospital during the Battle of Gettysburg.)

In 1845, Edward Day Cohota and his brother were caught stowing away on board a ship out of Shanghai captained by Sargent S. Day, of Gloucester, Massachusetts. His sibling died but Edward sailed to New England, where he was raised by the Day family. Day Cohota fought in several battles in the civil war.

Many Chinese sailors, stewards and cooks served in the Union navy in the vital blockades of the southern ports but service records were not maintained, making research difficult. According to newspaper reports seen by McCunn, some were involved in combat: John Akomb, steward on a gunboat, was twice wounded, once seriously in the chest; a heel of John Earl - a cabin boy on Admiral David Farragut's flagship, the Hartford - was smashed by solid shot in Mobile Bay; and William Hang, serving on the same vessel as a landsman, handed out powder during the battle. Hang was one of the first Asian Americans to enlist in the US Navy, in 1863.

Research by McCunn, Moy, Kwok and others has already uncovered as many as 58 Chinese combatants in the civil war - mostly on the Union side but some, like cousins Christopher and Stephen Bunker, the sons of conjoined Chinese twins from Siam (modern-day Thailand; and the origin of the term "Siamese twins"), fought for the Confederates - so their role should be widely recognised by now, at least in the US.

"Alas, no," says McCunn. "There's great disbelief when I cite Chinese participation; then dismissal because the numbers are small, hence considered insignificant."

The numbers were indeed small but, as McCunn points out, the fact that there were only about 200 Chinese recorded as residents in the eastern US at the time means a very large proportion of that population joined up.

Furthermore, this heroic contribution by Chinese soldiers and sailors was too often rewarded only with racial discrimination and exclusion after the war ended, in 1865. Chinese immigrants had long suffered resentment and discrimination in California, where their numbers were greatest. They were effectively forced out of the gold fields by measures such as the Foreign Miners' Tax of 1850, which introduced the staggering monthly fee of US$20 for the right to mine, and so had no alternative but to accept low-paying menial work to survive.

"If Chinese ventured into a mining area, they did so at their peril. Whites would beat, rob and sometimes kill them. They had, as the saying goes, 'Not a Chinaman's chance'," explains Moy.

This discrimination spread from west to east with the construction of the transcontinental railway and the increasing use of low-cost Chinese "coolie" labour.

"The anti-Chinese feelings spreading from the west hit home in 1870, when Chinese workers were shipped in from California to break a strike in North Adams, Massachusetts," says Sinn.

McCunn also points out that mainstream magazines of the time were rife with negative stereotypes of Chinese, and the widely used school text Peter Parley's Universal History proclaimed them to be "rat-and-dog-eating liars addicted to cheating".

Even though the US Congress promised any honourably discharged foreign-born veteran citizenship upon petition, those brave Chinese veterans found themselves the victims of state-sanctioned discrimination, resulting in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which explicitly forbade their naturalisation as US citizens.

Day Cohota found himself caught up in the politics of racism and xenophobia. When he tried to take up a homestead with his American wife and six children in 1912, he was notified that he was not a citizen of the country and therefore could not do so. Understandably, the veteran felt deeply betrayed by his adopted country and his official protest is still on record.

"I have fought in the country's service as a soldier," it reads, "and I have served in its regular army from which I was retired for continued honorable service of 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."

His plea fell on deaf ears and, to many, it seemed that slavery had been defeated only to be replaced with denigrating low-cost "coolie labour" that looked remarkably similar.

One Chinese veteran who did manage to obtain US citizenship was Hang. Naturalised in New York on October 6, 1892, he voted at every subsequent election until August 17, 1904, when he was arrested while exercising his franchise. Producing his papers, Hang was then subjected to a tirade by an assistant US attorney, who accused the issuing judge of "inexcusable ignorance". On October 21, 1908, New York's Supreme Court set aside his hard-earned citizenship.

Even Pierce, who had fought at Gettysburg with his hair combed in a traditional Manchu queue, was forced to repress and deny the heritage of which he was so proud for fear of expulsion, or worse. In fact, Pierce, who was promoted to corporal in the November after the famous battle, concealed his ethnicity so successfully that when Moy tracked down his descendants, as part of research for his book, they had no idea of their family's Chinese connection.

Not surprisingly, resentment over the mistreatment of these veterans still simmers, 150 years after the civil war.

"So powerful is the legacy of exclusion that despite [the act's] repeal, in 1943, Chinese in America continue to be marginalised in the 21st century," claims McCunn.

But how is this legacy still relevant in the modern multiracial US, with its free press and equal-rights legislation?

"Power lies in numbers," says McCunn. "Because of the exclusion [act], the Chinese-American population will never be able to catch up with what it would have been had Chinese, like other nationals, been able to immigrate freely before 1965, when China was finally put on an equal basis with other nations.

"To me, Chinese in America have historically been in a position not unlike [that of] Eurasians in Hong Kong - outsiders in the larger society."

So while the American-influenced media remember Gettysburg and the civil war as an important historical landmark in the US' proud history, those with something of an Asian perspective on world events might also like to pause for additional thought.

Perhaps they will recall for a moment the contribution of Chinese soldiers, thousands of miles from their homeland, who fought bravely for a noble cause in the bloodiest of conflicts only to be rewarded with discrimination and victimisation.

 

        Stuart Heaver

 

Digging for literary gold

International bestselling author Ruthanne Lum McCunn grew up in post-war Hong Kong, the daughter of a third-generation local woman and a Scottish-American merchant seaman from Idaho, in the United States. Now a resident of San Francisco, she is arguably best known for Thousand Pieces of Gold, a critically acclaimed novel published in 1981, which has sold more than 500,000 copies and tells the true story of Lalu Nathoy, a Chinese girl sold into slavery in 1871 by her poverty-stricken family and auctioned off in the American West. In 1995, McCunn published the historical work Chinese in the Civil War - Ten who Served. She taught at Cornell University, the University of California at Santa Cruz and the University of San Francisco and is in the process of completing her next book, Chinese Yankee, the story of Thomas Sylvanus.

 

 

Share

For unlimited access to:

SCMP.com SCMP Tablet Edition SCMP Mobile Edition 10-year news archive
 
 

 

This article is now closed to comments

lucifer
There are so many freaking Chinese in the US now from Taiwan, Hong Kong and true Mainland, the author wants us to believe that they are somehow discriminated against, yet they number in the millions…here's a piece of news for you…just about very ethnic group was discriminated against at one time or another in the US., which I may add was colonized and populated with ex-Europeans, the world's new liberals. China today, is one of the most xenophobic racist countries I have every come to know. Guess what else….the Romans had slaves too and here's another…they were JEWS!!! So why don't you write another book telling us how crappy Italians are because the Romans had slaves…..welcome to the world.

Login

SCMP.com Account

or