At least 58 Chinese Americans fought in the Civil War, constituting a largely forgotten community of soldiers and veterans. By the 1850s, Chinese Americans—who had begun arriving to the continent’s western territories in the 1780s, long before they were part of the United States—had also begun to arrive and form communities on the East Coast. They came in a variety of ways: as visitors or students accompanying returning missionaries; as merchants or businessmen pursuing new opportunities; as performers or artists finding new venues; even as slaves in the era’s so-called “coolie trade.” By the war’s outset, there were hundreds of recorded such East Coast Chinese Americans (and likely many more not recorded), and many chose to enlist.
In her newest book, Chinese Yankee: A True Story from the U.S. Civil War – which will be published on Veteran’s Day, no less – historian and novelist Ruthanne Lum McCunn chronicles the story of one such forgotten veteran, Thomas Sylvanus (Ah Yee Way). As McCunn details, Sylvanus was born in Hong Kong, brought to the U.S. as an orphan and enslaved in Baltimore in the mid-1850s, and escaped to join the Union Army at the outset of the Civil War. Despite being partially blinded in his first battle, he went on to reenlist twice, rescue his regimental colors at Spotsylvania, and survive 9 months imprisonment at Andersonville, among many other striking wartime and post-war experiences that contributed to what his 1891 New York Times obituary called a “singular career.”
Yet if those and other accumulated events made Sylvanus’ life singular, his Civil War service was not. Most Chinese American soldiers, like Sylvanus, fought for the Union, and some received similar contemporary notoriety and acclaim: Corporal Joseph Pierce’s contributions to the Union victory at Gettysburg were honored with a picture at the Gettysburg Museum; Edward Day Cohota continued to serve in the army for more than twenty years after the war’s end.
Credit : Ben Railton for werehistory.org