By Sam Chu Lin

An honor guard of nine men dressed in Union Civil War uniforms held
up their rifles and pointed them to the sky as the captain of the squad
gave the order to aim and fire. A volley of three shots shattered the
calm of a bright and sunny Sunday afternoon (July 10) at the Oakland
Cemetery in Indiana,Pennsylvania. A crowd of about fifty people
including about a half dozen Asian American students and visitors stood
at attention to witness this unusual event. Some had traveled from as
far away as Pittsburgh about an hour away.

More than a week has gone by, but the news of this small ceremony
continues to generate plenty of curiosity across the country. Many
people are surprised to learn that one of those Civil War heroes was a
Chinese veteran.

"Sometimes people don't think about Asian Americans as being
patriotic," commented Gay Chow, a professor of Asian American studies
at nearby Indiana University. "In the early days a lot of Americans
thought of them as people who
just worked on the railroad, hoarded their money and sent it back to
China. So it's nice to hear a different story."

Members of the Sons of Union Veterans and others had gathered at
Indiana's Oakland Cemetery to honor four Civil War veterans including
Thomas Sylvanus alias Ching Lee of Hong Kong by rededicating their
graves and to read out their accomplishments. The graves of three of
the men received new headstones to replace the ones that were almost

Richard Hoover, a Vietnam veteran and a Civil War enthusiast whose
great-grandfather and two great-great grandfathers fought in that
conflict, discovered Sylvanus' grave on a visit to the cemetery and
noted it was in need of repair.

"You could faintly read out his name --- Thomas Sylvanus," Hoover
recounted."The headstone needed replacement. I didn't know he was
Chinese. I contacted Clarence Stephenson who has written a detailed
account of our county's history and about our Civil War veterans, and I
have also received copies of Sylvanus' pension papers, about 30 to 40
pages. Those documents have really paid off dividends."

Researchers learned that Ching Lee had adopted the name of an American
family that had cared for him as a youth and the surname of a friend.
He enlisted in the military when he was16 years old. He was wounded
and highly decorated for his service in the 81st Pennsylvania Regiment.
Following the conflict, he settled in the Indiana, Pennsylvania area,
operated a laundry business, became an American citizen in ceremonies
in Pittsburgh, and died in 1891."

Richard Essenwein, Commander of the John T. Crawford Post, Camp 43,

Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, says Sylvanus fought at Mine
Run, the Wilderness Campaign, Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor. After he
was wounded, the
Confederates sent him to the infamous Andersonville Prison in Georgia
where many prisoners of war died, but he survived.

"He was a color barrier, and he kept his regiment's flag flying,
" Essenwein stated. "Everyone else on his color guard had been wounded
or killed. It was the highest honor that you could have during the
Civil War. Color barriers gave direction to the troops, and how well
those signals were displayed often meant the difference between victory
or defeat."

Some historians believe at least 50 or more Chinese or Asian
Americans fought in America's Civil War. Unlike Sylvanus, many of them
were never given U.S. citizenship, a pension, or any other benefits.
Representative Mike Honda (D-San Jose) has introduced a resolution in
Congress that grants U.S. citizenship to those veterans posthumously,
and leaders of the Sons of Union Veterans are offering their support.

"Men of all races and all creeds," Essenwein commented, "if they
served in that war, and they fought to preserve this Union, they
deserve to be recognized and remembered. They should be granted

"In the 108th Congress, I sponsored a House Joint Resolution
proclaiming that posthumously, soldiers of Asian descent who fought in
the Civil War to be honorary U.S. citizens," Honda responded. "This is
a little known chapter in American history, and I am heartened to see
that there are others around the country working on bringing more light
to this important subject. Every soldier deserves the respect and
recognition for having served this country."

Leaders at Indiana County's Historical & Genealogical Society are
now thinking of ways to generate new support for such a resolution.
The group has already set up an exhibit featuring a black mannequin to
illustrate that African Americans also fought in the Civil War. With
the discovery that Thomas Sylvanus was a Chinese, the society and
museum is now considering possibly setting up a similar exhibit
featuring an Asian American flag bearer in a Union armyuniform. The
cost is estimated at about a $1,000 and the non-profit group is looking
for contributions. Anyone wishing to help should contact Coleen
Chambers, the society's executive director at: 724-463-9600 or by email

No known photograph exists of Thomas Sylvanus alias Ching Lee, but
it's believed there is a drawing of him that was published in a local
newspaper. Essenwein and Hoover say they are now searching for it in
historical archives.

"Indiana, Pennsylvania is the hometown of actor Jimmy Stewart,"
Richard Hoover noted. "Visitors to our town and students from the
university will also be enlightened when they visit our museum. Our
hope is they will be able to learn more about the Chinese and other
minorities who fought in the Civil War too."