News / Asia

    Historian Recounts Role of Chinese Americans Who Fought in US Civil War

    Historian Recounts Role of Chinese Americans Who Fought in US Civil War
    Historian Recounts Role of Chinese Americans Who Fought in US Civil War

    Multimedia

    Audio
    • Interview with Chinese-American expert Ruthanne Lum McCunn

    Many people would be surprised to know that there were some Asian faces in the
    crowds of white and black soldiers serving in the American Civil War.

    The participation of Asians, and in particular Chinese Americans, comes into focus this month as the United States marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the war.

    It began in 1861 after the election of an anti-slavery president, Abraham Lincoln. Fearing the eventual abolition of slavery, eleven southern states bolted from the union, setting up the pro-slavery Confederate States of America.

    Listen to the full interview with Ruthanne Lum McCunn

    The rebels resisted military efforts by the North to bring them back into the union, sparking four years of war that left more than 600,000 people dead.

    Even though there were only about 200 Chinese-Americans living in the eastern United States at the time, 58 of them fought in the Civil War. Because of their previous experiences at sea, many of them served in the U.S. Navy.

    Only one Chinese-American soldier was actually born on American soil.  The rest had come to the U.S. through the Pacific slave trade, adoption by Americans, independent immigration or the influence of missionaries.

    Author Ruthanne Lum McCunn, an expert on Chinese-American history, says three Chinese-Americans rose to the rank of corporal in all-white units. “This might not seem like much but if you look at the way the armed services were operating at that time, it actually was significant,” she said.

    Corporal Joseph Pierce, who as a child was brought to the United States from China by his adoptive father, fought in several major campaigns of the war including Antietam and Gettysburg. He was honored by having his picture displayed at the Gettysburg Museum.

    “It is also important to remember that not all the Chinese who fought in the Civil War fought for the Union,” McCunn said. “At least five have been identified as fighting for the Confederacy,” she pointed out.

    Two of these, Christopher and Stephen Bunker, were children of Siamese twins Chang and Eng, who had been brought to the U.S. to appear in the Barnum and Bailey Circus.  The twins, of Chinese heritage, became prosperous, slave-owning farmers in North Carolina. It was not surprising, therefore, that their sons should fight for the South.

    With so few Asians in the country, many Americans were puzzled as to how Chinese should be classified racially. "At the time of the 1860 census, there was only the differentiation of white, black and mulatto [mixed race],” McCunn explained.

    Many people in 1800’s America had never even seen a person of Asian background. “There was a young Chinese, John Tomney, who served in a New York outfit, and when he was captured, a rebel general asked him, ‘What are you—a Mulatto, Indian or what?’” McCunn said.

    Indications are that the Chinese soldiers were treated fairly well in the ranks. “I think whereas these men seemed to have been accepted by their fellow soldiers, what’s important to remember is the institutional racism of the time,” McCunn said.

    Racism, of course, was at the heart of the system of black slavery and it is not surprising that Asians would also suffer discrimination.

    Even though an 1862 act of Congress promised U.S. citizenship to any honorably discharged foreign veteran, Chinese Americans were denied that right because an earlier law allowed the naturalization of whites only.

    “There were Chinese, like Edward Day Cohota, who not only served in the Civil War, but became a soldier in the regular army after the war, and served for 20 years—he was denied citizenship,” McCunn said.

    In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which until 1943 made it technically illegal for Chinese to become citizens, although the law was inconsistently enforced.

    Years after the war, Cohota was said to have enjoyed telling his children that he had voted repeatedly--in fact, had cast his ballots for Republicans for 30 years--before it was found out that he was not really a citizen and therefore not qualified to vote.

    In 2008, Congressman Mike Honda, himself of Asian descent, persuaded Congress to pass a resolution honoring the contribution of Asian-Americans in the U.S. Civil War.

    Even so, Ruthanne McCumm points out, Chinese-Americans are yet to be included in any histories of the war and their participation is unknown to many.

    You May Like

    Taj Mahal Battles New Threat from Insects

    Swarms of insects are proliferating in the heavily contaminated waters of the Yamuna River, which flows behind the 17th century monument

    Self-doubt, Cultural Barriers Hinder Cambodian Women in Tech

    Longtime Cambodian tech observer Sok Sikieng says that although more women have joined profession in recent years, there remain significant factors hindering women from reaching tech potential

    Trans-Adriatic Pipeline to Boost European Energy Security

    $4.5 billion-pipeline will become operational in 2020 and will deliver gas from Azerbaijan’s Shah Deniz II field to southern Italy

    This forum has been closed.
    Comments
         
    There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Vietnamese-American Youth Optimistic About Obama's Visit to Vietnami
    X
    Elizabeth Lee
    May 22, 2016 6:04 AM
    U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to Vietnam later this month comes at a time when Vietnam is seeking stronger ties with the United States. Many Vietnamese Americans, especially the younger generation, are optimistic Obama’s trip will help further reconciliation between the two former foes. Elizabeth Lee has more from the community called "Little Saigon" located south of Los Angeles.
    Video

    Video Vietnamese-American Youth Optimistic About Obama's Visit to Vietnam

    U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to Vietnam later this month comes at a time when Vietnam is seeking stronger ties with the United States. Many Vietnamese Americans, especially the younger generation, are optimistic Obama’s trip will help further reconciliation between the two former foes. Elizabeth Lee has more from the community called "Little Saigon" located south of Los Angeles.
    Video

    Video First-generation, Afghan-American Student Sets Sights on Basketball Glory

    Their parents are immigrants to the United States. They are kids who live between two worlds -- their parents' homeland and the U.S. For many of them, they feel most "American" at school. It can be tricky balancing both worlds. In this report, produced by Beth Mendelson, Arash Arabasadi tells us about one Afghan-American student who seems to be coping -- one shot at a time.
    Video

    Video Newest US Citizens, Writing the Next Great Chapter

    While universities across the United States honor their newest graduates this Friday, many immigrants in downtown Manhattan are celebrating, too. One hundred of them, representing 31 countries across four continents, graduated as U.S. citizens, joining the ranks of 680,000 others every year in New York and cities around the country.
    Video

    Video Vietnam Sees Strong Economic Growth Despite Incomplete Reforms

    Vietnam has transformed its communist economy to become one of the world's fastest-growing nations. While the reforms are incomplete, multinational corporations see a profitable future in Vietnam and have made major investments -- as VOA's Jim Randle reports.
    Video

    Video Qatar Denies World Cup Corruption

    The head of Qatar’s organizing committee for the 2022 World Cup insists his country's bid to host the soccer tournament was completely clean, despite the corruption scandals that have rocked the sport’s governing body, FIFA. Hassan Al-Thawadi also said new laws would offer protection to migrants working on World Cup construction projects. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
    Video

    Video Infrastructure Funding Puts Cambodia on Front Line of International Politics

    When leaders of the world’s seven most developed economies meet in Japan next week, demands for infrastructure investment world wide will be high on the agenda. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s push for “quality infrastructure investment” throughout Asia has been widely viewed as a counter to the rise of Chinese investment flooding into region.
    Video

    Video Democrats Fear Party Unity a Casualty in Clinton-Sanders Battle

    Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton claimed a narrow victory in Tuesday's Kentucky primary even as rival Bernie Sanders won in Oregon. Tensions between the two campaigns are rising, prompting fears that the party will have a difficult time unifying to face the presumptive Republican nominee, Donald Trump. VOA national correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.
    Video

    Video Portrait of a Transgender Marriage: Husband and Wife Navigate New Roles

    As controversy continues in North Carolina over the use of public bathrooms by transgender individuals, personal struggles with gender identity that were once secret are now coming to light. VOA’s Tina Trinh explored the ramifications for one couple as part of trans.formation, a series of stories on transgender issues.
    Video

    Video Amerikan Hero Flips Stereotype of Middle Eastern Character

    An Iranian American comedian is hoping to connect with American audiences through a film that inverts some of Hollywood's stereotypes about Middle Eastern characters. Sama Dizayee reports.
    Video

    Video Budding Young Inventors Tackle City's Problems with 3-D Printing

    Every city has problems, and local officials and politicians are often frustrated by their inability to solve them. But surprising solutions can come from unexpected places. Students in Baltimore. Maryland, took up the challenge to solve problems they identified in their city, and came up with projects and products to make a difference. VOA's June Soh has more on a digital fabrication competition primarily focused on 3-D design and printing. Carol Pearson narrates.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora