When one thinks of the Civil War and its participants, most individuals are aware that thousands of foreigners, such as the Irish, Germans, English, and other non-citizens were involved on both sides of the conflict. Ella Lonn’s classic work, Foreigners in the Union Army (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1951), reveals a host of persons from various European countries who filled the Federal or Union ranks. However, few are aware that a number of men from Asia or China were also engaged in the “War Between the States.” One such person was John Tommy.
The Daily Evening Bulletin of Philadelphia on July 10, 1863, published a somewhat lengthy article titled, “China at Gettysburg,” (which originally appeared in the New York World) stating how among those “killed at Gettysburg was a young Chinamen, known as John Tommy…the only representative of the Central Flowery kingdom in the Army of the Potomac.” The next day, the Easton, Pennsylvania, paper, the Daily Evening Press, remarked that John Tommy “seemed not to know what fear was…He had not been wounded up to Gettysburg, but in Friday’s fight he was struck by a shell, which tore off both legs at the thighs, and he shortly bled to death.” Frederick Phisterer, in his compilation, New York in the War of the Rebellion: 1861-1865, (Vol.1, Third Edition, Albany: J. B. Lyon Co., 1912), also stated that Tommy lost both his arms as well as his legs on July 2, 1863, at Gettysburg, and that he “died of his wounds October 19, 1863…a good and brave soldier” (p.70). There are conflicting reports between the official New York record and his service record as to the date of death. What is certain is that he succumbed to his injuries sustained during the battle of Gettysburg.
John Tommy served in Co. D of the 70th New York Infantry, or First Regiment of the famed organization known as the “Excelsior Brigade” commanded by Col. Daniel E. Sickles. The former chaplain of the Second Excelsior or 71st Regiment in his oration given at Gettysburg after the Civil War remarked how “It is deserving of remembrance and record that in one of our regiments, is a Chinese, and he a true soldier and a brave man, who, at the battle’s close, will be counted with the dead.” (See, New York Monuments Commission, For the Battlefields of Gettysburg and Chattanooga. Final Report on the Battlefield of Gettysburg, Vol.II, of 3 vols., Albany: J.B. Lyon, Co., Printers, 1900, p.577).
John Tommy’s military records show him enlisting at the age of eighteen on June 21, 1861, at Camp Scott on Staten Island, New York, with Captain Benjamin Price being his company commander. He is described by newspaper accounts as being “bright, smart, and honest,” and soon became a favorite of his fellow Union troops at Red Hook, Staten Island.
During the War, while his regiment was serving in Stafford and Prince William counties in Virginia, he was at first captured by the Confederates in March of 1862, paroled and later captured once again at Manassas in August of the same year. He was sent to meet Major-General John Bankhead Magruder, who had been placed in charge of the left wing of the Confederate Army stationed at Richmond. Gen. Magruder asked Tommy what it would take for him to join the Confederate Army. Tommy replied in jest: “Not unless you make me a brigadier general!”
Tommy soon became a favorite of the Rebel forces in the area, and was later sent to Fredericksburg, Virginia, where his picture was taken and published in the local newspapers. He was incarcerated for a time at Libby Prison along with his commanding officer, Captain Benjamin Price, who had been taken prisoner at the battle of Williamsburg, Virginia.
Tommy was paroled at Newport News and made his way back to New York City. While living in New York, he served as a medical nurse for his sick and wounded commander and is also said to have “spent his little means in providing delicacies for his sick fellow-soldiers.” He eventually returned to his regiment, having been promoted to corporal in February of 1863. He was involved in the famous engagements at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and last of all at Gettysburg. His company went into the fray with twenty-eight men, twenty of whom were killed or wounded.
Other Chinese served in various Union and Confederate forces during the Civil War, such as Hong Neok Woo, of Co. I of the 5th Pennsylvania Infantry, who was originally from Antowtson, Yanghuhsien District of China. Such individuals reveal the complexity of the Civil War, and the role that various individuals played, from a host of diverse ethnic and racial groups, which continues to aid in the popularity and interest in America’s most famous conflict.