The secret history of Chinese-American Civil War soldiers

The United States is obsessed with its Civil War — the story of North versus South has become a compelling part of our historical landscape, though it’s often sanitised and simplified. Part of that simplification has included the erasure of some of the people who fought in it. You might have heard about women who dressed as men to go to the front, but did you know that Chinese-Americans also fought in the Civil War, for both the Union and the Confederacy? Though their ranks were likely small, they played an important role in a strange moment in American history.

Usually when I delve into Chinese-American history, I look at California and the broader West Coast. For this piece, I’m venturing further afield, though many of the Chinese-Americans who participated in the Civil War did come from the goldfields of California. Some were driven by the desire for a better life after systematic racist policies had made it extremely difficult for them to thrive in California. Others had causes closer to home.

At least one soldier, Ah Yee Way, had been a slave in Baltimore prior to his decision to flee and fight for the Union. Though the numbers of Asian-Americans held in slavery were relatively small, they were definitely a part of the landscape of slavery, and, like their compatriots of other races, they were unsurprisingly eager to fight for liberation. Even after incurring a serious eye injury in service, he wanted to reenlist, and he was the only Chinese-American Civil War soldier to receive a disability pension. When he died in the 1890s, he merited a New York Times obit — in a nation still filled with obsessive hatred for Asian-Americans.

Some, like Corporal  John Tommy, died in the line of duty. Corporal Joseph Pierce fought in a number of key battles, including Gettysburg. Others, like Chrisopher Wren and Stephen Bunker, actually fought for the Confederacy, defending the interests of their slaveholding parents, Chang and Eng Bunker. While it’s tricky to determine precisely how many Chinese-Americans served in the war (not least because many went by Westernised names), there were at least 50.

Not a huge number, but still an important one. Asian-Americans had actually also served in the War of 1812, illustrating that they were committed to the nation they’d deemed home despite the fact that it rewarded them for it with prejudice and hatred. Some of the same soldiers who fought in the Civil War had endured not just slavery but legislated and legitimised policies that persecuted them, making it impossible for them to pursue the much-vaunted American Dream. Soldiers and sailors from California, for example, had arrived to reap the riches of the gold fields, only to discover that they were basically shut out.

After the war, they returned to communities rife with discriminatory attitudes, from racist political cartoons in the paper to crowds running them out of town and sneering at them as ‘Chinamen.’ Chinese-Americans were treated as cheap, easy labour on the railroad and elsewhere, and were sometimes even brought in as scab labour, engendering even deeper racist hatred. Despite the government’s promise that those who served in the war would receive citizenship, Chinese-Americans were let down, courtesy the Chinese Exclusion Act. That denial meant that they couldn’t vote in elections held by the nation they fought for, and it also excluded them from opportunities like homesteading. After risking their lives for the United States, what they got was scraps — much like the broken promises to many Black soldiers after the war.

Many Americans don’t know about the history of Chinese Civil War soldiers and their larger context. They aren’t just an ‘oddly enough’ factoid to whet interest in the war. They speak to deeper trends in America’s history and self-conception. Post-colonisation, one of the most remarkable and odd things about the United States was that many people who lived in oppression were still willing to take up arms to defend the nation that had treated them with nothing but hatred and spite. Many of those people self-identified as ‘Americans’ and felt a deep connection to the country, and after fighting bravely, they were consigned to the dustheap again as though their contributions didn’t matter. Some definitely did fight because they genuinely believed in the mythologies surrounding America. Others no doubt hoped that fighting would bring about legitimacy and citizenship for themselves and their communities, and they were repeatedly let down.

It wasn’t until 2008 that the House passed a resolution recognising and honouring the roles of Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders in the Civil War. It largely flew under the radar, one among many such resolutions that passes every year, recognising and honouring and making note of all number of things. It was an important moment, though, for the United States government in recent years has begun to acknowledge not just the history of Asian-Americans throughout colonial history, but also to admit that it treated them very poorly. A recognition in the form of a resolution, or even a nice apology for the internment camps, doesn’t make good on harm done, but it does serve as an important first step in a journey that might lead to more substantive change. That change includes actually teaching youth about these events in our history, and making policy changes to reflect a better understanding of anti-Asian racism and all that goes with it.

I hope we don’t lose that progress in the coming years, that Asian-Americans aren’t about to watch their hard-earned gains slip away as the country plunges into chaos.

Image: Civil War Days in Illinois, Mark Theriot, Flickr