Civil War: Asian soldiers were true patriots, both for the Blue and the Grey

Part 1 of a two-part series on the unsung Asian heroes of the Civil War. Photo: Amputation at Gettysburg tent hospital, 1863

VIENNA, Va., September 27, 2012 — Part 1: Men from a dozen or more countries fought in the Civil War, both for the Union and for the Confederacy, a fact which many of us have always known. It was only a few months ago, however, when we discovered the only Armenian to serve, and now a new aspect of immigrant service has come to light. And these heroes are Asian.

The most recent research on this subject shows that as many as 58 men from China served in the Civil War, the majority in the Union ranks, in a period when there were about 200 Asians in the entire eastern United States. They have been forgotten in contemporary times, just as they were basically forgotten during the War, segregated because they were referred to as “yellowskins,” and the promises made to them were never kept. At least five Asians are known to have fought with the Confederacy.

The Government’s Broken Promise

Corporal Joseph Pierce

One of these heroes is  Cpl. John Tommy (sometimes spelled Tomney), born on the mainland of China, who came here from China via Hawaii and then on to Staten Island, N.Y., where he enlisted in the Union Army on June 21, 1861, for a period of three years.

John Tommy was a brave man, one of the numerous “foreigners,”  to whom a promise was made by the U. S. Government: service on behalf of the Union would be rewarded  with full American citizenship when the war was over and if the Union won. But it never happened. 

John Tommy joined the 70th New York Regiment, the “Excelsior Brigade,” under the leadership of General Dan Sickles, one of the most colorful leaders in the war, and a politician first, last and always. Many people recall Sickles as the man who later shot his wife’s lover, Philip Barton Key II, a son of Francis Scott Key, the author of “The Star Spangled Banner.” Sickles escaped imprisonment or death by being the first man in the history of the country to use the defense of temporary insanity.

Remembering that there were few Asians in the U.S. at this period of time, it is easy to understand why a rebel general inquired of the captured Tommy, “What are you—a Mulatto, Indian or what?”

Quadriplegic Injuries

Cpl. Tommy fought at Antietam and then with Sickles’ men at Gettysburg. It was to be his last battle. He was horribly injured in the fighting near the Peach Orchard, losing both legs at the thighs, and one source says, both arms as well.   

At a time when neither the doctors nor the government knew what to do with a paraplegic, much less a full quadriplegic, it would seem that little of an effective nature was done for the young man. Yet he lived, in agony, until October 19 of that year, before finally succumbing to his injuries. His final report showed that he “was a good and brave soldier.”

 Tommy is buried in the Soldiers National Cemetery in Gettysburg National Military Park among the unknown or unidentifiable soldiers of the New York Excelsior Brigade.

Tommy has a distant contemporary descendant who has written a historical novel about him and the life the Asians lived back then, which we will be reviewing in a later column. 

Tommy was not alone. Antonio Dardell, a young Chinese man, was taken at nine years old from China, adopted, and raised by a Connecticut sea captain. Living in the Northeast, he enlisted as a private in Company A, 27th Connecticut Infantry, on October 22, 1862, and was discharged a little over a year later. He was a tinsmith by trade and lived in Clinton, Conn. until he moved to New Haven. His pension was only granted when he was 68 in 1912.

“Siamese twins” Produce Confederate Soldiers

Chang and Eng Bunker

Anyone older than 40 has at least heard of Eng and Chang, conjoined twins, born in Siam (now Thailand) and connected at the sternum or breastbone by a five-inch ligamentous strip, sharing the same liver. 

While we no longer accept the term “Siamese twins,” (actually their mother was mostly Chinese) they lived good, long lives following their exploitation by the Barnum and Bailey Circus, made enough money to buy some 200 acres in North Carolina near Wilkesboro where they were slave owners, accomplished amazing agricultural work, and raised their families. 

Eng and Chang  Bunker married sisters, Adelaide and Sarah (Sally) Yates, despite the objections of the local people, and between them fathered 22 children, living in two large houses. The conjoined fathers would spend three nights in one house and then three in the other.

Stories as to their surname vary: One says that they took the name to honor in their adopted country the Battle of Bunker Hill and the other says their banker was named Bunker.

Two of their boys, Christopher Wren Bunker (Chang’s son) and Stephen Decatur Bunker (Eng’s son), enlisted in the Confederate Army and fought in several battles, both being wounded, but both surviving, although Stephen spent considerable time as a prisoner of war at Camp Chase, Ohio. Their service in the 37th Virginia Cavalry was apparently no more than that of the average brave soldier, but their parentage set them apart.

They were raised as brothers when actually they were cousins, but the fact that their fathers had married sisters, makes them, in some weird genealogical scheme of things double first cousins, we are told.

One Hero Pictured at Gettysburg

Another Chinese soldier was Pvt. Joseph Pierce, who was born in Canton, Kwangtung Province, China, and there are several versions of the story of how Pierce came to America.

One says his father sold him to a Connecticut ship captain, Amos Peck, for $6. Another says that his own brother sold him for $60. A third indicates that Peck picked up the boy who was adrift in the South China Sea. Capt. Peck, a bachelor, turned the ten-year-old he called “Joe” over to his mother in Connecticut. He then went to school with the other Pecks and formally became “Joseph Pierce” in 1863, taking the name from Pres. Franklin Pierce. These three versions come from a Department of Defense story published in 2001, so his actual background remains murky.

Pierce was 21 when he enlisted for the normal three-year period of service on July 26, 1861. He was with Co. F, 14th Connecticut Infantry regiment, which became  part of the Second Brigade of the Third Division, Second Army Corps of the Army of the Potomac. Two years later he received a promotion to corporal, the highest rank any of the Chinese would or could achieve, considering the racial prejudice inherent in the service at that time. He was with that group at the Battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg), which encountered heavy fighting. 

He also faced Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. A historian recorded that Cpl. Pierce fought bravely, “pig-tail and all, the only Chinese in the Army of the Potomac.”  It is now known that this was not entirely accurate, but at the time the presence of a Chinese soldier was a rarity.

The old-fashioned “fu Manchu” hairstyle or pigtail that Pierce wore was favored by all of the Asian soldiers who fought in the war. It apparently kept them mentally connected to their homeland. Pierce’s picture was displayed at the Gettysburg Museum for sometime and is the only one of the Asian soldiers for whom we have a photographic record from that period. Pierce died at 74 years old in 1912. 

An Addendum to the story of Cpl. John Tommy by the author: Rather than leave a possible wrong impression in readers’ minds, I have tracked down some more information on the injuries sustained by Cpl. John Tommy at Gettysburg.  Speaking today with John Heiser, a historian and librarian at Gettysburg National Military Park, on the question of how long Tommy could have lived, and the extent of his injuries at the Peach Orchard, he advised that the official records and a book “Union Casualties at Gettysburg” by Travis Busey, indicate that Cpl. Tommy sustained shell shots which tore off both of his legs that day.  

Given the state of medical care and traumatic medicine, he agreed it was doubtful that the soldier could have lived long enough to even be transported to the nearest battlefield hospital, which is why most of the official records list him as killed in action on that date, not the October date that has been mentioned. And there is no indication that he lost both arms in the same battle.  Cpl. Tommy’s injuries were bad enough, and they don’t need to appear worse than they were.  

Part 2 of the lost history of the Asian heroes continues tomorrow.

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Martha M. Boltz

Martha Boltz is a frequent contributor  to the long running Civil War features in The Washington Times America At War feature in the print and online editions. She has been a regular contributor to the original Civil War Page and its successor page since 1994, and is a civil war buff, historian, and writer. "Someone said that if we don't learn about the past, we are condemned to repeat it," she said, "and there are lessons of all sorts inherent in this bloody four-year period of our country's history."  She is a member of several heritage and lineage groups, as well as the Montgomery County Civil War Round Table. Her standing invitation is, "come on down - check the blog - send me your comments and let's have fun with its history and maybe learn something at the same time."


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