By Ling-Mei Wong
The story of the Chinese serving in the American Civil War is rarely told. On the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, “Chinese Heroes of the American Civil War” recounted their bravery on April 11 at the Somerville Public Library.
Henry Jung is a former Marine who served in Vietnam War and was interested in other Chinese veterans. When he heard about the 50 known Chinese soldiers who fought in the Civil War, he was keen to learn more.
“During the U.S. Civil War, China was also in a civil war. The Taiping Rebellion was gigantic, as over 20 million people were killed from 1850 to 1864,” Jung said. “Famine and the rebellion were the impetus for the Chinese to emigrate.”
Many of the Chinese who served enlisted with Western surnames. One such Chinese soldier was Edward Day Cohota, who took his name from the ship that brought him to Gloucester, Mass., when he was four. Cohota fought in the Civil War and the American-Indian Wars, then settled in Nebraska after 30 years of service. Despite his valor, he could not become an American citizen. While President Abraham Lincoln had promised citizenship for all Union soldiers who served, Lincoln was assassinated before the legislation went into effect.
“Cohota went before the courts and Congress, but died a noncitizen,” Jong said. It was not until 2008 that the House of Representatives posthumously granted citizenship to Cohota and another Chinese Union soldier Joseph Pierce.
Pierce was the highest-ranked Chinese-American to serve in the Civil War, reaching the rank of corporal. He fought in major battles such as Gettysburg and Antietam, then settled down in Connecticut after marrying into a prominent silversmith family.
“Pierce became an influential and upstanding citizen, where his connections in local politics let him skirt federal law,” Jong said.
Other influential Chinese soldiers included the brothers Christopher Wren Bunker and Stephen Decatur Bunker, descended from the first Siamese twins Chang and Eng Bunker. Their fathers were Chinese immigrants to Siam (now Thailand) who were connected by their sternum and livers. They were brought to the United States as freak show exhibits and took their name “Bunker” after touring Bunker Hill. After they had amassed a fortune, they settled down in North Carolina with two white sisters and had 21 children between them. They owned 100 acres of land and more than 60 black slaves.
“The Bunker brothers were hardcore Confederates,” Jong said. “While they were older at the time of the war, their sons were in great shape, so they enlisted in the cavalry with Robert E. Lee. Those guys were probably officers with education and wealth. They could buy horses and equipment, even though they were half-Chinese.”
Both sons survived the war and went on to have families. Today, more than 1,500 descendants of the Bunkers reside in America.
The passage of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act prevented other Chinese from becoming citizens. The Long Depression in 1873 lasted more than 15 years, resulting in great unemployment and turmoil. During the turmoil, Congress enacted the Exclusion Act because the Chinese were viewed as cheap labor and a threat during mass unemployment.
“I call them ‘Chinese heroes’ not because of their moral position, but for their devotion to the cause, tenacity and leadership,” Jong said. “Look at the racial barriers these men had to break in their communities.”
Jong will give his presentation again at 7 p.m. on May 9 at the Quincy Crane Library and at the same time May 23 at the Malden Public Library.
For more information, please visit the Association to Commemorate the Chinese Serving in the American Civil War at https://sites.google.com/site/accsacw/.
This post is also available in: Chinese