Books by Ruthanne Lum McCunn


My study of Chinese in the Civil War, published in 1996, identified only ten who served, and while researchers combing through muster rolls have since added dozens of names, and will undoubtedly find more, the number of Chinese will always be miniscule in the face of the three million who fought. The range of their participation was broad, however, the challenges they faced unique and worthy of acknowledgment.

For researchers, a few cautionary notes: "Chinese sounding" names often turn out to be nationals of other countries; many of the Chinese who served had completely western names; microfiche are frequently illegible; census data is flawed. The individuals identified in Terry Foenander's "Asians in the Civil War" have been vetted. Gordon Kwok's "Association to Commemorate the Chinese Serving in the American Civil War" is an invaluable, up-to-date clearinghouse. Both these websites and my own work include individuals of mixed race.

A slightly different version of the following essay and profiles for the names in bold face may be found in Asian Americans: An Encyclopedia of Social, Cultural, and Political Change to be published by ABC-CLIO.

Readers should note that in the years since my 1996 study, the explosion of online resources for primary material—such as newspapers and census documents—has brought to light additional information on many of the individuals profiled, leading in some cases to different or more nuanced interpretations and analysis in the ABC-CLIO profiles.


At the start of the U.S. Civil War in 1861, scarcely 200 Chinese resided east of the Mississippi where the war was primarily waged. So, discounting the five who enlisted in California, the known total of fifty-eight Chinese servicemen means the level of combatants in proportion to the population was substantial—and these figures do not take into account the percentage of the Chinese population that was male and of age for military service.

Since the smallest number of Chinese resided in the south, it's not surprising that only five are known to have fought for the Confederacy. Of these, only the Bunker cousins, both from slaveholding families, were committed to the Confederate cause, enlisting in the Virginia cavalry. Also in the cavalry, but in Tennessee, Marshall Tsao, or Cao Zishi, was underage and in the nebulous position of student, apprentice, and servant, so could not possibly have chosen freely when accompanying his master into military service.

Some Chinese had no interest in fighting for either the Confederacy or the Union. John Fouenty, conscripted in Savannah, Georgia, ran away to Union-held St. Augustine but did not join the Union cause. Having been captured from his native Hong Kong for the notorious "coolie" trade, he had survived a four-year labor contract in Cuba and had been homeward bound when forced to disembark on the American continent and then to don Confederate gray. Once within Union lines, Fouenty resumed his broken journey home to China.

A strong case can be made that another runaway, Thomas Sylvanus, was devoted to the Union since he re-enlisted twice after a battle-related disability discharge. Hong Neok Woo, in the Pennsylvania militia, is on record as supporting the North because he opposed slavery. Edward Day Cohota, like many peers in the general population enlisted simply because he did not want to be left behind by friends when they went soldiering.

The range of choices and motivations for service among Chinese reflects those of other native and foreign-born males. Desertions likewise occurred, but the reasons prompting the handful by Chinese have yet to be uncovered. The small cluster of desertions from the Second Louisiana Infantry points to a problem within the regiment. Possibly James Johnson, who had been a sailor before joining the 18th New York Cavalry realized in the few months between his enlistment in New York and desertion in New Orleans that he preferred the sea.

American cargo vessels had long included Chinese on crews, and most of the Chinese veterans identified to date served in the Union navy, which was open to all races, and where they held similar positions: cabin boys, stewards, cooks, landsmen. Because the navy did not maintain personnel files for enlisted men until 1885, constructing profiles of Chinese who served at sea and verifying their claims is virtually impossible. According to newspaper reports, some were involved in combat: John Akomb, steward on a gunboat, was twice wounded, once seriously in the chest; the heel of John Earl—a cabin boy on Admiral Farragut's flagship, the Hartford—was smashed by solid shot in Mobile Bay; and William Hang, serving on the same vessel as a landsman, handed out powder during the battle.

Unlike the navy, the Union army initially excluded "colored" volunteers. Then African Americans were allowed to fight in segregated "colored" regiments officered by Whites, and it is here that the unique position of Chinese in America's racial landscape is most evident. There were only three categories in the 1860 census—White, Black, or Mulatto—and how a Chinese was identified seemed to depend on the enumerator, economics, and geography. In North Carolina, the slaveholding Bunker family was—from the two Chinese fathers and two White mothers to their mixed race children—considered White. Also marked White was Antonio Dardell, a servant in Connecticut. But in Maryland, a census enumerator expressed his puzzlement over the appropriate designation for servant Thomas Sylvanus by making something akin to an exclamation mark, and a subsequent census enumerator in Pennsylvania found him White, another Black.

A similarly stumped Confederate general asked captured Union soldier, John Tomney, whether he was "a mulatto, Indian, or what?" Such confusion over appropriate categorization may account for the Confederate cavalry and infantry's acceptance of Chinese and mixed-race men to fight alongside Whites. At least two Chinese served in the Union's Colored Troops, whether from personal preference or after being rejected by White regiments cannot be determined. But Yale graduate Yung Wing was rejected when he offered his services in Washington D.C. in 1864, perhaps because he expected to be commissioned as an officer rather than serving as a private.

Period magazines were rife with negative images of Chinese, and the widely-used school text, Peter Parley's Universal History,proclaimed Chinese as rat-and-dog-eating liars addicted to cheating. Chinese displayed in tours sponsored by missionaries or P.T. Barnum projected more positive yet no less stereotypic images. Given the scarcity of Chinese in the East, though, most people did not personally encounter any except in New York City's lower wards where an estimated concentration of about seventy worked as peddlers or operated boarding houses and small businesses.

That Chinese won acceptance, even admiration and respect in White regiments, with three earning promotion to corporal, can be attributed to the nature of a soldier's small, tight-knit community where men depended on each other for survival, not just on battlefields, but on long, hard marches, when felled by sickness, or as prisoners of war. Veterans reluctant to surrender this camaraderie sought to preserve it through regimental reunions and formation of a fraternal organization the Grand Army of the Republic, and Chinese actively participated in both. Invariably, the anomaly of their service was commented upon, sometimes by the Chinese veteran himself for whom it seemed a point of pride.

Among the Union veterans, none has been identified as native born. But foreign born Chinese veterans, having fought for the United States of America, sought to become its naturalized citizens, and Congress had promised any honorably-discharged foreign-born veteran citizenship upon petition. The 1790 Naturalization Law restricted naturalization to Whites, however, and the Fourteenth Amendment, by which African Americans gained citizenship, did not apply to Chinese. Then Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 explicitly forbidding their naturalization. Yet these laws were applied so inconsistently that Hong Neok Woo was naturalized in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, before the war, Thomas Sylvanus shortly after, Antonio Dardell despite Exclusion, but Edward Day Cohota denied; and William Hang, a Navy veteran, was thoroughly ensnared in the contradictions.

Granted citizenship in New York on October 6, 1892, Hang voted until August 17, 1904, when he was arrested while exercising his franchise. Producing his naturalization papers, Hang was then subjected to a tirade by Joel M. Marx, assistant United States attorney, who accused the judge issuing the papers of inexcusable ignorance. Hang fought the ruling to no avail. On October 21, 1908, New York's Supreme Court vacated and set aside his citizenship.

Thus Chinese veterans, however acculturated in language, religion, dress, and cultural practices, were relegated to permanent outsider status while European veterans found their service and citizenship accelerated their complete assimilation. For European veterans, then, their ethnicity could be "just one aspect of their character, not the burning core of their very being." The law permitted Chinese veterans no such luxury. And, after passage of the 1892 Geary Act which extended Exclusion and required all Chinese to carry identification proving their legal entry, Joseph Pierce changed his identity to Japanese; his children and those of Antonio Dardell passed as White.

So powerful is the legacy of Exclusion that despite its repeal in 1943, Chinese in America continue to be marginalized in the twenty-first century. Congressman Mike Honda, seeking passage of a resolution to honor Asian American and Pacific Islander soldiers who fought in the U.S. Civil War, found himself in an uphill battle. After staying the course for five long years, he finally succeeded on July 30, 2008. Except for a very occasional citation of an individual, however, their participation has yet to be included in any histories of the war.

Selected Bibliography

Costa, Dora L. and Matthew E. Kahn. Heroes & Cowards: The Social Face of War. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998.

Gordon Kwok, "Association to Commemorate Chinese Serving in the American Civil War."

McCunn, Ruthanne Lum, "Chinese in the Civil War: Ten Who Served," Chinese America: History & Perspectives (1996): 149-81.  
[Note: This link is a 17mb pdf file of the article.]

Tchen, Jack Kuo Wei. New York before Chinatown: Orientalism and the Shaping of American Culture, 1776-1882. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.

Terry Foenander, "Asians in the Civil War."

"Vote Cast Here by Shipmate of Farragut," San Francisco Chronicle, November 5, 1920.

Copyright © 2011 by Ruthanne Lum McCunn