This being the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War there is much discussion on the role of minorities, especially African-American. However what has been sorely neglected and practically unknown is the role of Asian-Americans in this conflict.
The Chinese was a very small population in the Eastern United States at the beginning of the war, probably no more than 300-400 perhaps. Yet researchers and scholars believe that there were at least 50 or so who served in the Union forces (army and navy). Some even served with the Confederacy, several with the Virginia or Tennessee cavalry as well as the Louisiana infantry.
At least three were in Union uniform at the Battle of Gettysburg—there is a photo of Cpl. Joseph Pierce (14th Connecticut) at the visitors center at Gettysburg. The other men were Cpl. John Tommy of the 70th New York (who later died of wounds suffered in the battle) and Pvt. Antonio Darnell of the 27th Connecticut. Many Chinese servicemen had to adopt “Anglo” names to avoid discrimination and harassment.
Here in Massachusetts, you have Edward Day Cohata, an orphaned, stowaway adopted by a white sea captain from Gloucester (there is a photo of the middle-aged Cohata and his elderly adopted father at the Cape Ann Museum). He enlisted in the 23rd Massachusetts and was at the Battle of Drury’s Bluff and that of Cold Harbor. Cohata made the army his career and stayed for 30 years, spending much of that time on the Western frontier (for a time he guarded the prisoner Chief Sitting Bull).
Unfortunately in the Post-Reconstruction era there were a series of racist, anti-Chinese laws passed. These Jim Crow-like laws deprived Chinese residents of their civil rights. These Chinese veterans either lost or never received their citizenship despite promises made during the war. Pierce and Darnell were forced to change their racial classification to protection their citizenship, while Cohata was refused citizenship despite outstanding military service. William Hang, an Union navy veteran was arrested at the voting booth in New York City because his citizenship was cancelled.
Finally after much struggle in 2008 Congress passed a resolution honoring the service of these men and giving them posthumous citizenship. But there are many stories to be told, both Blue and Gray. Like when Cpl. Tommy “dissed” a Confederate general during an interrogation. Or Pvt. Ching Lee who survives the infamous Andersonville Prison. Or Chinese volunteers serving with “Colored Troops”. Or the dashing cavalrymen of the wealthy, slave-owning Chinese Confederate family in Virginia. Or John Akomb, Union gunboat crewman, wounded twice.
Henry Jung, Ed.D (University of Mass., Amherst)