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Chinese Soldiers Who Fought in the American Civil War for the Union and the Confederacy

Ms. Inglish has spent 30 years working in medicine, psychology, STEM instruction, and aerospace education for Active USAF Civil Air Patrol.

 Despite exclusionary laws preventing U.S. citizenship, Asians served in the Union and Confederate armies and navies during the American Civil War (1861-1865).

Despite exclusionary laws preventing U.S. citizenship, Asians served in the Union and Confederate armies and navies during the American Civil War (1861-1865).

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:

Danny Chen, age only two months into his 19, lived deployment to Afghanistan.

Danny Chen, age only two months into his 19, lived deployment to Afghanistan.

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)

U.S. Army CH-47 Chinook helicopter offloading soldiers near the Arghandab district in Afghanistan's Kandahar province, Jan. 31, 2011.

U.S. Army CH-47 Chinook helicopter offloading soldiers near the Arghandab district in Afghanistan's Kandahar province, Jan. 31, 2011.

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.

Ongoing Research

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

Chinese Soldier, by William Alexander, 1793; traditional dress in China.

Chinese Soldier, by William Alexander, 1793; traditional dress in China.

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.

Sources

  • 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

Comments

Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on February 20, 2013:

Thanks! I feel fortunate in finding these materials. it seems that everybody was in the Civil War!

Ronald E Franklin from Mechanicsburg, PA on February 19, 2013:

Never, until this hub, have I heard anything about Chinese fighting with either army in the Civil War. I'm glad this bit of lost history is being restored. May your continuing research prosper.

Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on April 04, 2012:

Thanks for the kind words; I cannot stand by and say nothing about injustice like this.

stars439 from Louisiana, The Magnolia and Pelican State. on April 04, 2012:

It is important to treat people right no matter where their ancestors were born. A major step into world peace will come when good writers get opportunities to be world leaders. Logic, kindness, consideration, love, friendship, unselfishness, love of nature, environment, appreciation of beauty. Maybe this would help.

Great hub. And eye opener to the ills certain singled out people have endured. When will ignorant cruelties of cultures ever end. God Bless anyone who has been abused , or used because of their culture, or nationality.

God Bless You For Being The Wonderful Precious, Fair kind of decent person you are because you stand out as a champion for all people treated unfairly that should be treated fairly in all matters.

Reginald Boswell from Alabama on February 28, 2012:

Nice story

Don A. Hoglund from Wisconsin Rapids on February 25, 2012:

I'll admit I was unaware of Chinese in the Civil War.As far as it being taught in school, I never had any courses about that war at any level.

Nithya Venkat from Dubai on February 24, 2012:

This is informative and useful. A tribute to all soldiers who have fought and died in the line of battle. Voted up.

platinumOwl4 on February 24, 2012:

Patty Inglish h MS, I am well aware of the Chinese in a variety of Areas, but I was unaware of this. Spectacular article.

Kimberly Lake from California on February 22, 2012:

Very interesting. Voted up, interesting and socially shared

Patty Inglish MS (author) from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on February 22, 2012:

Not completely unbased as long asd humans are telling it.

haikutwinkle on February 22, 2012:

There are so many things to learn about history and not all information can be taught at school these days.

One question: Can historical information be universal and unbiased?