May 31, 2024

Do This, NOT That: AAPI Civil War Service [Response Post on Best History Practices]

I've had this post mostly written for weeks, and debated whether to make it public or not.  On this last day of AAPI month, I figured better now than never, and clicked the bright, orange "publish" button with the paper airplane emoji.  So if this post reached you - welcome, and let's dive into some best history practices around sharing AAPI Civil War history. 

[Disclaimer: this post will be a departure from my historical sewing content, but I felt important to discuss as we continue to honor and celebrate Asian American, Native Hawaiian, & Pacific Islander voices, communities, and history throughout May, and all year round.  The opinions expressed here are solely my own, and do not reflect the views of my employers.] 

Going all the way back to the first weekend of May, I had the chance to return to New-York Historical Society as part of their Asian American & Pacific Islander (AAPI) family day, and present a living history program honoring the lives and legacies of Chinese participants in the American Civil War.  Right as I was posting pictures from the program, I had a friend bring a problematic post on the subject to my attention.  Usually, I would not take the time to respond to a post like this as there is little that would change the minds of those who wrote it.  

That said, what really caught my attention was that it had been liked by over 2.6 thousand Civil War enthusiasts, and shared at least 367 times (publicly) and counting, [note: these numbers may have increased from the initial drafting of this post].  I viewed this as an opportunity to educate - both sharing in the responsibility to stop the spread of misinformation around the topic, and promoting better history practices in any small circles I may have influence.  Again, I do not expect the original poster(s) to take note or notice of my opinions - and invite anyone reading this response post to keep an open mind and please be civil in the comments section - thank you

First, a little background - in my living history programs and lectures on the subject, I do discuss Chinese participation on both sides of the Civil War to fully contextual experiences and present accurate, truthful history.  My interpretations are supported by extensive historical research, including both primary sources whenever possible and reputable secondary sources.

History is no dichotomy, which the Civil War is too often boiled down to - blue and grey, Union and Confederate, brother against brother.  There will always be exceptions to our assumptions and norms, and those who seek to cling to and/or glorify these examples to fit specific, biased narratives.  Yes, there were a handful of Chinese and AAPI combatants serving the Confederacy - many were forcibly conscripted or even enslaved servants, and proximate location and language barriers may factor into voluntary enlistment.  There were also staunch Chinese Confederates and enslavers of African Americans themselves, with the Bunker family being that one exception here.  History is complicated - and it would be a great disservice to Chinese and AAPI veterans to strip them of these nuances - much like their citizenship, civil rights, and memory have been in the American past.  Furthermore, to weaponize their stories and struggles to serve a Confederate-sympathizing agenda is in no way honoring Asian American, Native Hawaiian, & Pacific Islander month - and to suggest so, as the original post has done, is equally distasteful and appalling. 

For reference, here is the original post in question - please note, I am purposely not revealing the identities of the original poster(s), as the purpose of my response is to educate.  The post appears in a popular, neo-Confederate nonprofit chapter with a large following (91K+ likes, 99K+ followers), who claims to be the "pre-eminent authority on Southern Heritage."

Original post from a popular, neo-Confederate nonprofit chapter.
Source: Facebook community, posted May 1, 2024

On first glance, you might be wondering:  what makes this post so problematic?  Allow me to share my thoughts here, and offer some suggests for more ethical history practices: 

Problem #1:  Looking at the first line, we see May declared as "Asian Confederate History Month," and this is echoed in the text of the picture: "Happy Asian American History Month."  Neither of these are the correct names for the annual commemorative month, which honors the roles and achievements of generations of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders (AANHPIs) who have "enriched America's history and are instrumental in its future success" (Learn more about: Asian & Pacific American Heritage Month). 

Better History Practice:  On the surface, repurposing a title can be overlooked - sure, it's a small thing!  However, this action may unintentionally disregard both the fight for AAPI recognition and the lengthy Congressional battle to declaring a heritage month; as well as ignoring the intentions behind the history and heritages being commemorated.  

To summarize the history of AAPI Heritage Month, the origins date back to the first failed House Joint Resolution 540 in 1977.  President Jimmy Carter signed a later resolution into Public Law 95-419 on October 5, 1978, proclaiming the "7 day period beginning on May 4, 1979 as [the first] 'Asian/Pacific American Heritage Week.'"  This would later be expanded by Congressional Public Law 102-450 in 1992, which designated the entire month of May as Asian American & Pacific Islander Heritage Month.  May was specifically chosen to "commemorate the immigration of the first Japanese to the United States on May 7, 1843, and to mark the anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869" - an event the Chinese immigrants and laborers who laid the tracks were excluded from.  In a country that has exploited; excluded; wrongly accused and imprisoned in concentration (internment) camps; disenfranchised; and all but forgotten AAPI contributions and history - declaring May our heritage month is a small, yet significant step to acknowledging historical betrayals, and promoting collective healing and tolerance. 

Problem #2:  If the goal was truly to "Celebrate those Asians that Fought for the Confederacy" (sentence 2), honor them by saying their names.  If you can name the battle they died at, you most certainly can name person.  When they made the ultimate sacrifice, the least we can do is to make sure their names are not forgotten (again).

Better History Practice:  Instead of this: "One Chinese that died at Chickamauga & one at Franklin" (sentence 3).  Be more specific, like this: "One example from the few, confirmed Chinese Confederate veterans was Christopher Wren Bunker and his cousin, Stephan Decatur Bunker, who both served in the 37th Battalion of the Virginia Calvary."

Even better, give some biographical details about them and their service, like this:  

Christopher Wren Bunker and Stephen Decatur Bunker were sons of the famous conjoined twins, Cheng and Eng Bunker, and well-known examples of Chinese Confederate veterans.  The Bunker families owned 110 acres of land divided between the two households, and enslaved 33 Black men and women.  Cheng and Eng were staunch Confederate sympathizers, supplying money, food, and clothing to the troops; and even housed and nursed wounded Confederate soldiers at their North Carolina plantations.  Of their 22 children, only two sons enlisted at age 18, and were considered excellent marksmen by all accounts.  

Left: Christopher Wren Bunker, 37th Battalion of the Virginia Calvary.
Right: Christopher's letter, dated October 12,1864, from Camp Chase to his family. 
This is one of seven digitized letters, 1863-1864, in the UNC Collections.

Christopher Wren Bunker enlisted in the 37th Battalion of the Virginia Calvary on April 1, 1863.  The first action he saw was the burning of Chambersburg, PA, which was the only town in the North destroyed by Confederate forces in 1864.  He was wounded on August 7th, when the Union caught up with General McCausland's forces; and then imprisoned at Camp Chase, which was near Columbus, OH.  When word of imprisonment reached home, his father, Chang, sent him packages to supplement the meager rations, as well as money to buy comfort items, until he was exchanged for a Union prisoner of war on March 4, 1865.    

Stephan Decatur Bunker, following his cousin's example, enlisted in the same 37th Battalion, Virginia Calvary, on July 2, 1864.  He was wounded on September 3, 1864 near Winchester, VA, recovered, and was sent back into action.  After the Civil War's end, both Christopher and Stephan returned to run the family plantations, which were spared by Union forces; while their fathers, Chang and Eng, returned to touring to raise money.  They lost a majority of their income after the collapse of Confederate currency, and, of course, having to pay formally-enslaved laborers. 

Today, the Bunker legacy lives on, as descendants from both families continue to gather for the annual Bunker Reunion in Mount Airy, North Carolina. 

Equally important and before glorifying, remember that the Bunker cousins were the rare exceptions, and the only (to my knowledge) Chinese Confederates fighting in defense of their plantation and lifestyle, which depended on the continued enslavement and forced labor of African Americans.  There were others, like John Fouenty, who after escaping enslavement himself, was forcibly conscripted in Savannah, GA, while trying to secure his passage back to China.  Thus, responsible history practitioners should always contextualize AAPI Confederate service and experiences, and consider motivations (or traps) behind enlistment (versus forced conscription and/or enslavement).  Major factors included language barriers, geographical proximity (especially in Southern port cities), (false) promises of money and citizenship, call of adventure, and desire to belong and defend an adopted country.

Problem #3A:  As a certified Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion (DEI) professional, I spent a lot of time training historical interpreters and museum staff to use person-first language.  Person-first language humanizes individuals, and puts the person, rather than a descriptor or condition, front and center.  For instance, instead of saying "I saw a white walking down the street" - we would say "I saw a white person walking down the street" or "I saw a white family walking down the street."  This intentional action not only restores their personhood, but is also grammatically correct - bonus points!  

The same should be applied to the usage of "one Chinese" (sentence 2), "another Chinese" (sentence 3), and "one Pilipino [sic]" (sentence 4).  "Chinese" is a nationality, a proud identity, and a descriptor - it does not stand alone as a person.  Instead, make sure you include the person (noun) - like in these examples: a "Chinese person," a "Chinese serviceman," or "Chinese veterans." 

Problem #3B:  On the subject of identities and nationalities, we see "Philipino" (sentence 4) used in reference to the "Filipino" people.  The original poster was corrected multiple times in the comments, and by members from the Filipino community too.  Of course, I don't believe this typo was intentional or malicious, but the refusal to edit or correct the misspelling (after being repeatedly called out), certainly sends a message.  

Better History Practice:  If the intention was truly to celebrate Asian identities, using the correct and preferred spelling would be an easy and great place to start.  Not to mention, as we've already discussed in #2 and #3A, let's say their names. 

Probably the best-known (and photographed) example of a Filipino soldier was Private Felix Cornelius Balderry of the 11th Michigan Volunteers, Company A.  He was working as a farmhand in Michigan prior to his enlistment in the Union Army on December 7, 1863 at Kalamazoo, MI.  He served through the end of the war, and was mustered out in September 1865.

Private Felix Cornelius Balderry of the 11th Michigan Volunteers, Company A

For those looking for more information on Filipino servicemen, the official National Park Service Handbook on Asian and Pacific Islanders and the Civil War provides a comprehensive biography on Balderry, and honor roll of Filipino soldiers and sailors.

Problem #4:  Turning attention to sentence 3: "There was another Chinese that took Christianity back to China after the war."  While there is truth in this statement (see Dzau Tsz-Zeh's story below), the vagueness (and unspoken implications) are a little troubling due to the lack of contextualizing missionary activities in China.  There is a lot of dark history and trauma around missionaries and imperializing activities, to the tune of "saving heathens" and conversion by the sword.  I am not going to say much more on this subject now, since it is outside the scope of this post - except that #2 and #3a apply to sentence 3 as well. 

Historical Context:  As far as saying their name, I believe this sentence may be referring to Rev. Dzau Tsz-Zeh, renamed Charles Marshall.  "Charlie" was only 14 years old when he accompanied David C. Kelly, an officer in the 3rd Regiment of the Tennessee Calvary, as his personal attendant and servant.  

Rev. Dzau Tsz-Zeh, renamed Charles "Charlie" Marshall. 
Personal attendant to David C. Kelly, 3rd Regiment of the Tennessee Cavalry.

After being orphaned at age 10, Dzau Tsz-Zeh was taken in by Rev. James William Lambuth, a missionary in Shanghai, to be educated in America and then return to continue ministry in China.  This was a relatively common arrangement - and as early as 1818, American missionaries were sponsoring young Chinese boys for study in the Northeast US, and receiving much financial support for "saving heathens."  In fact, there were other Chinese Civil War servicemen who would return to China to continue their ministry, including Hong Neok Woo, of the 50th Regiment Infantry, Pennsylvania Volunteer Emergency Militia.  

Arriving in Mississippi in 1859, Tsz-Zeh was baptized and took the name of his benefactor, Dr. Charles K. Marshall.  He was attending school in Lebanon, TN, under the care of David C. Kelley when the war broke out.  14-year-old Charlie likely had to fight alongside his master, and had one of his hands partially crushed by a cassion wheel during the Battle of Fort Donelson in 1862.  After the Civil War, he fulfilled his commitments to study, and returned to China as a missionary for the Methodist Episcopal Church.  Rev. Dzau Tsz-Zeh was ordained as a minister in 1876, founded both a boys school and the Soochow (Suzhou) Women's Hospital, after pursuing medical training as part of his mission work. 

Problem #5:  Lastly, we must discuss the misidentified photograph, which depicts arguably the most recognizable Chinese Civil War soldier, Corporal Joseph Pierce of the 14th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry, Company F.  While the original post did not acknowledge the soldier's identity, or credit the image source, the author's comments clearly suggested that they (among many others who "liked" the post) believed this to be a photograph of a Confederate soldier.  Despite being repeatedly corrected and presented with more information on Pierce, the author and other "supporters" stuck to their alternate version of history.

Here is one example, of many, where a commenter points out the mistaken identity - to which the author of the original post replied: "what happens when you got your history from pictures."  Perhaps we can appreciate the irony here, as a simple and quick Google search would have provided the original photograph of Corporal Joseph Pierce, which is held in the Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs at the Library of Congress (LOT 15158-1, no. 257).

Facebook post comment #1 - including author's response to corrected identity.

Here is another example where a commenter insists that the depicted "Uniform is definitely Confederate" - and is corrected.  I happen to know the second commenter personally, and they are a well-known tintype artist and historian.  In their answer, they provide more information on how the "indigo dye of many federal uniforms turns lighter grey when shot in Wetplate collodion."  Photographs may be "worth a thousand words" as primary sources go - but only as long as we interpret what is seen or physically observable, and avoid inventing our own conclusions without supporting documentation (facts).

Facebook post comment #2 - including information on color perceptions in the Wetplate collodion
(tintype) process from a well-known tintype artist & historian.

Reading through more top comments, the author begins volleying insults about others intelligence, and ultimately, disabled commenting entirely.  (Otherwise I might be tempted to drop a link to my response post haha!)  We all make mistakes - and while it may be temporarily embarrassing to be fact-checked on a public forum, a little grace would go a long way.  The responsible history practice would be to simply edit or update your post, and issue a correction or explanation, in cases where your research proves otherwise. 

This author response was copied and pasted several times throughout the comments, mostly in response to corrections about the photograph - "Do some research before making stupid comments please."  (Not to mention, the Bunkers were cousins, not brothers...)  The lack of self-awareness astounds:

Facebook post comment #3 - advice from the author of the original post.

Maybe next time they might consider their own advice and do some more research before posting...or at least acknowledge Corporal Joseph Pierce and properly credit the source.  Better yet, remove the picture entirely, since Pierce might not be too happy to know his image is being used to glorify Confederate legacy. 

By the way, here is the original photograph, which I believe was artistically enhanced for the Facebook post:

Corporal Joseph Pierce of Co. F, 14th Connecticut Infantry Regiment by William Hunt, 1862.
Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs, Library of Congress (LOT 15158-1, no. 257)

Joseph Pierce was born in Canton, China, and at the age of 10, his father sold him to Captain Amos Peck for $6 to feed the starving family.  Captain Peck brought Joseph to Berlin, Connecticut, and left the young boy in the care of his parents.  Joseph went on to enlist on July 26, 1862, and served in 14th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry, Company F.  He fought in many battles, including: Chancellorsville; Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg; High Bridge and Farmville during the Siege of Petersburg.  For his dedication, he was promoted to corporal on November 1, 1863, making him one of three Chinese soldiers to rise through the ranks in all-white units.  He continued to serve until the end of the war, when his regiment was given the honor of leading the 2nd Corps on the homeward march.  Corporal Joseph Pierce even participated in the Grand Review of the Armies in Washington D.C. on May 23rd, 1865, before returning to Connecticut and becoming a silver engraver. 

While we are all entitled to our own opinions, as Civil War historians and history practitioners, we are responsible for providing accurate and factual information.  It is concerning and problematic for posts like these to be generated and promoted as "inclusive history" (when they are far from it) by popular and trusted sources for Civil War and Confederate history - and then widely circulated through social media algorithms that favor posts with 2.6K+ likes and 367+ shares and counting.  Thus, overshadowing the perhaps less sensational, but well-researched and expert content truly honoring AAPI service and contributions during the American Civil War. 

Concluding Thoughts

I would like to end this post with a call-to-action, if you will - and some suggestions for leveling-up your AAPI Civil War & living history practices: 

Solution #1: Above all, do your research, and be sure to check your sources for accuracy and consider any bias(es)!  A cursory search on Google will return mixed results of both current and outdated (bad) research, so it is always best to consult multiple and primary sources whenever possible. 

Here are some trusted sources on the topic to start: 
  • The official National Park Service Handbook on Asian and Pacific Islanders in the Civil War
  • The Blue, the Gray and the Chinese by Alex Jay, which is an outstanding compilation of biographies and primary sources 
  • For Confederate AAPI history specifically, see this article: "Native and Foreign-born Chinese Confederates In The War Between The States" published on the Southern Fried Common Sense & Stuff blog, which is run by a self-identifying Christian writer & Civil War history buff from South Carolina.  I especially appreciate their opening line and dedication: "The following blog post is dedicated to the memories of those Confederate veterans of Asian descent and their descendants living today -- and to the ongoing campaign to stop anti-Asian hatred in the United States today that this blogger fully supports."

Solution #2:  Attend lectures, listen to podcasts, and read materials written by experts on the topic.  

Solution #3:  Share this history with others.  Within your social circles and on social media, start sharing interesting online articles, books, lectures, events, and even museum exhibits on AAPI history to raise awareness and interest in the subject.  Help circulate and boost examples of "good history" for those algorithms!

Solution #4:  Advocate or be an advocate.  This looks like speaking (or typing) out to correct misinformation, and interrupting when you hear or see cultural ignorance, appropriation, racism, and exclusion happening in your circles.  Always lead with the facts, and if people are receptive, point them to places where they can find more information.

Remember, who you follow, what you "like" on social media, and when you choose to speak up - or to stay silent - matters! 

Solution #5:  Before you publish, consider if your post will truly honor or harm the community.  Unfortunately, intention and impact do not always go hand-in-hand.  Actively listen when members of the impacted community voice concerns, and be willing to take accountability and apologize if something goes wrong.

Solution #6: Support public historians and authors from the AAPI community, and their continued research on AAPI Civil War history and legacy.  Support takes many forms, including interacting with content on social media; attending virtual and in-person programs; inviting to your events; purchasing books or subscriptions to content; or even direct donations, if your means allow. 

Personally, I would love more opportunities to share AAPI Civil War history at historical sites, museums, living history events, and even reenactments - so if you'd like me to come to your Civil War event, feel free to drop me a line! 

Thank you for reading & special thanks to our generous patrons!

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1 comment:

  1. This is an important, balanced, and educational posting on an important topic. The advice about research is useful people looking into any topic, whether it be in the past or the present.


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