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

Koreas Mark 61st Anniversary of War Armistice

Muted observances on both sides of heavily-armed Demilitarized Zone that separates two decades-long enemies More

Judge Declares Washington DC Ban on Public Handguns Unconstitutional

Ruling overturns capital city's prohibition on carrying guns in pubic More

Pricey Hepatitis C Drug Draws Criticism

Activists are using the International AIDS Conference to criticize drug companies for charging high prices for life-saving therapies More

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.
Students in Business for Themselvesi
X
Mike O'Sullivan
July 26, 2014 11:04 AM
They're only high school students, but they are making accessories for shoes, fabricating backpacks and doing product photography - all through their own businesses. It's the result of a partnership between a non-profit organization that teaches entrepreneurship and their schools. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan and Deyane Moses met the budding entrepreneurs near Los Angeles.
Video

Video Students in Business for Themselves

They're only high school students, but they are making accessories for shoes, fabricating backpacks and doing product photography - all through their own businesses. It's the result of a partnership between a non-profit organization that teaches entrepreneurship and their schools. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan and Deyane Moses met the budding entrepreneurs near Los Angeles.
Video

Video Astronauts Train in Underwater Lab

In the world’s only underwater laboratory, four U.S. astronauts train for a planned visit to an asteroid. The lab - called Aquarius- is located five kilometers off Key Largo, in southern Florida. Living in close quarters and making excursions only into the surrounding ocean, they try to simulate the daily routine of a crew that will someday travel to collect samples of a rock orbiting far away from earth. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Not Even Monks Spared From Thailand’s Junta-Backed Morality Push

With Thailand’s military government firmly in control after May’s bloodless coup, authorities are carrying out plans they say are aimed at restoring discipline, morality and patriotism to all Thais. The measures include a crackdown on illegal gambling, education reforms to promote students’ moral development, and a new 24-hour phone hotline for citizens to report misbehaving monks. Steve Sandford reports from Bangkok.
Video

Video Virtual Program Teaches Farming Skills

In a fast-changing world beset by unpredictable climate conditions, farmers cannot afford to ignore new technology. Researchers in Australia are developing an online virtual world program to share information about climate change and more sustainable farming techniques for sugar cane growers. As VOA's Zlatica Hoke reports, the idea is to create a wider support network for farmers.
Video

Video Airline Expert: Missile will Show Signature on Debris

The debris field from Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 is spread over a 21-kilometer radius in eastern Ukraine. It is expected to take investigators months to sort through the airplane pieces to learn about the missile that brought down the jetliner and who fired it. VOAs Carolyn Presutti explains how this work will be done.
Video

Video Treatment for Childhood Epilepsy Heats up Medical Marijuana Debate

In the United States, marijuana is classed as an illegal drug by the federal government. But nearly half the states have legalized it, to some degree. Proponents say some strains of marijuana might have exceptional health benefits, for treating pain or inflammation in chronic conditions such as cancer, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy. Shelley Schlender reports on a strain of medical marijuana developed in Colorado that is reputed to reduce seizures in childhood epilepsy
Video

Video Airbus Adds Metal 3D Printed Parts to New Jets

By the end of this year, European aircraft manufacturing consortium Airbus plans to deliver the first of its new, extra-wide-body passenger jets, the A350-XWB. Among other technological innovations, the new plane will also incorporate metal parts made in a 3-D printer. VOA's George Putic has more.
Video

Video AIDS Conference Welcomes Exciting Developments in HIV Treatment, Prevention

Significant strides have been made in recent years toward the treatment and prevention of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. This year, at the International AIDS Conference, the AIDS community welcomed progress on a new pill that may prevent transmission of the deadly virus. VOA’s Anita Powell reports from Melbourne, Australia.
Video

Video IAEA: Iran Turns its Enriched Uranium Into Less Harmful Form

Iran has converted its stockpiles of enriched uranium into a less dangerous form that is more difficult to use for nuclear weapons, according to the United Nations’ Atomic Energy Agency. The move complies with an interim deal reached with Western powers on Iran's nuclear program last year, in exchange for easing of sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.

AppleAndroid