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Class Year

2019

Abstract

About fifty Chinese men are known to have fought in the American Civil War. “'Mulatto, Indian, or What': The Racialization of Chinese Soldiers and the American Civil War" seeks to study how Chinese in the eastern portion of the United States were viewed and racialized by mainstream American society, before the Chinese Exclusion Act and rise of the "Yellow Peril" myth. Between 1860 and 1870, "Chinese" was added as a racial category on the U.S. federal census, but prior to 1870 such men could be fitted into the existing categories of "black," "white," or "mulatto." The author aims to look at the participation of the Chinese who served as soldiers in the Civil War, and how their experiences reflected the liminal space Chinese occupied in a society predominantly built upon a black-white racial hierarchy.

The paper thus asks the question: why were some Chinese soldiers treated as white and able to enlist in white regiments, while others were enrolled in colored regiments? In the first section of the text, the author examines the case of John Tommy, a Chinese soldier who died at Gettysburg. He is noted for being Chinese, and puzzling those around him as they tried to fit him into their preconceived notions of racial categories in America. In comparison, Joseph Pierce, another Chinese soldier, is treated as if he is white, in part due to his own upbringing in America and his association with a prominent local family. Pierce's case is mirrored to an extent by Christopher Bunker in the Confederacy, who, although of Chinese descent, harbors strong Confederate loyalty due to his family's status as slaveholders and plantation owners. Yet Chinese men were not always treated as white elites, as seen in the case with Charles Marshall, whose position as a personal attendant put him in closer proximity with other African American menservants.

Socioeconomic class and background thus server to define Chinese soldiers in a society where there was no set racial category to define them. This essay aims to set the groundwork for future inquiries as to why some Chinese men, particularly soldiers, were able to later naturalize as American citizens and vote, despite the Naturalization Act of 1790 explicitly stating only white people could become citizens.

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