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Chinese Soldiers Fought in U.S. Civil War

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, April 24, 2001 – In the 1860s, if you wanted to send someone "to the ends of the Earth" you sent them to China.

Those were the days of sailing ships augmented by steam power and China was as remote from the Eastern United States as it was possible to be. Still, Chinese Americans found their way to the East Coast, and researchers claim that as many as 50 Chinese fought as soldiers during the American Civil War.

The number does not include the Chinese who served in the U.S. Navy during the war. The soldiers fought on both sides, researchers claim.

The first Chinese on record arrived in what became the United States in 1815. A Chinese ship's cook settled in Monterey, Calif., then a Spanish province.

The mariners of the Eastern seaboard traded with China. American ships vied with European traders to bring back the riches of the Orient. That was how a Chinese child ended up in Massachusetts.

In 1845, Sargent S. Day, captain of the square-rigged merchant ship Cohota, left Shanghai, China, bound for Massachusetts. Two days from port, he discovered two little half-starved Chinese boys on board. The older boy died, but Day "adopted" the younger boy and named him Edward Day Cohota.

Edward sailed the world with Captain and Mrs. Day until the captain retired to Gloucester, Mass. in 1857. He attended school and the other Day children treated him as a brother.

With the outbreak of the American Civil War, Cohota joined the 23rd Massachusetts Infantry. He fought in the Battle of Drury's Bluff near Richmond, Va., on May 16, 1864, and came out of the battle with "seven bullet holes thru" clothes. None touched his flesh."

At the Battle of Cold Harbor, Va., June 3, 1864, a Confederate Minie ball parted Cohota's hair permanently, but he was not otherwise hurt. He stayed with the Army of the Potomac through the end of the war.

After the war, Cohota rejoined the Army and was stationed at Fort Randall, Dakota Territory. He married and had six children. He served in the Army for 30 years. All that time, he thought he was a U.S. citizen and believed his Civil War service qualified him for the right. But he didn't take out his second set of naturalization papers until after the Senate passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. He was not a citizen and could not become one.

Cohota died at the Battle Mountain Sanitarium for Veterans in Hot Springs, S.D., in 1935.

Another Chinese soldier of the Union participated in the most famous battle of the Civil War -- the three-day Battle of Gettysburg, Pa.

Pvt. Joseph L. Pierce was age 21 when he enlisted in the 14th Connecticut Infantry in August 1862. It's unclear how Pierce ended up in the United States. One story has it that his father sold him to Connecticut ship Captain Amos Peck for $6. Another story was that his brother sold him for $60. Still another was that Peck picked up the lad, who was adrift in the South China Sea. Peck, a lifelong bachelor, turned the 10-year-old he called "Joe" over to his mother in Connecticut.

Young Joe went to school with the Pecks and formally became Joseph Pierce in 1853. He picked up the last name from President Franklin Pierce.

At the time of his enlistment Pierce was a farmer in New Britain, Conn. He listed his height at 5 feet 5 inches, dark complexion with dark hair and black eyes. His birthplace was Canton in Kwangtung Province, China.

His regiment participated in the Battle of Antietam, Md. Sept. 17, 1862.

He suffered some sickness during his time around Washington and was in the hospital for a time. He was assigned to the Quartermaster Department for a bit and rejoined the 14th in time for the Battle of Chancellorsville, Va. in May 1863.

The 14th had a distinguished role in the Gettysburg campaign. "It fought on the north part of Cemetery Ridge on July 2 and was one of the units that helped repel Pickett's Charge," said Gettysburg Historian John Heiser. "The 14th was primarily responsible for turning back Brig. Gen. James Pettigrew's North Carolina division." Today, you can see the 14th Memorial to the north of the grove of trees marking the High-water Mark of the Confederacy.

The 14th's regimental history says that during Pickett's charge, Pierce appeared "pig-tail and all, the only Chinese in the Army of the Potomac." But he wasn't.

Cpl. John Tommy, of Company D, 70th New York Infantry, fought with III Corps on July 2. Tommy also was Chinese and from Canton. "We don't know how he ended up in the United States," Heiser said. "He lost both arms and legs during the fighting around the Peach Orchard. He died in the hospital on Oct. 19, 1863."

A third Chinese soldier, Antonio Dardell, fought with Union troops at Gettysburg. "He was taken as a child from China by a sea captain," Heiser said. "He enlisted Oct. 22, 1862, in Company A, 27th Connecticut Infantry. He was from Clinton, Conn. The unit fought at the wheat field." Little else is known of Dardell except he was a tinsmith in civilian life and applied for a pension from the government in 1912.

Historians say there may be more Chinese soldiers. It is tough to pick them out because they often took American names. Another member of the 14th Connecticut Infantry, John Lee, may have been Chinese. Of course, he may have been no more Chinese than the Confederate commander at Gettysburg, Robert E. Lee.

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