Friday, August 8, 2003

On April 26, a historical marker was dedicated in Franklin Park in Columbus, Ohio, to honor Asian soldiers from Ohio who served in the American Civil War. The marker was sponsored by the Columbus chapter of the Organization of Chinese Americans and the Ohio Historical Society. The marker states that “research indicates at least 17 Union soldiers with Chinese last names served in Ohio.” The names of 17 men from Ohio regiments with supposedly Chinese names were included on the reverse side of the marker. They included names such as Au, Lau, Koo, Meng and Wang.

The names were derived from an Internet Web site of Civil War soldiers with Asian-sounding last names. The site has a disclaimer that the names have not been researched and many are not exclusively Asian. Despite the disclaimer and warnings from the Web site’s administrator about the lack of data to prove these men were Asian, the Columbus Organization of Chinese Americans went ahead with plans for the marker.

Terry Foenander, an Australian who has done research on the American Civil War navies and other subjects, had doubts about the Columbus claims. He, researcher Ed Milligan and author Dr. Tom Lowry during the 1990s investigated the history of Asians in the U.S. Civil War. This work culminated in a report on the findings of Mr. Milligan and Mr. Lowry in Civil War News in 1998.

As a result of his doubts, Mr. Foenander posted a message on Ohio in the Civil War on the Web asking if anyone could verify the nativity of the 17 men. The author noted that two men were named Lau.

Having worked with a woman with the last name of Lau who was of German descent, I notified Mr. Foenander that these two men might be German. Mr. Lowry did some initial research on three of the men and found that one man, Charles Au of the 55th Ohio Infantry, was, in fact, born in Germany. Mr. Foenander then consulted the Mormon Family Search database and discovered that five of the men listed on the marker were in the database and their race was listed as white. Eventually, Mr. Milligan and the writer of this piece did an exhaustive search of the military and pension records of the men named on the Columbus marker. In fact, not one man was of Asian descent.

Americans take pride in ancestors who served on both sides of the Civil War. A great number of participants in the conflict were, indeed, recent immigrants to the country, including Germans, Irish, some Asians and others. However, in this case, a desire to be part of this great event that changed America overcame the imperative for the research to prove the connection — that the soldiers were, indeed, Asian.

The “descriptive card” in the military record gave information on the man’s description and place of birth. These cards are derived from the original “descriptive books” of the regiments and companies of the soldiers.

The majority of the men were German, with one man from Nova Scotia, and a man named William L. Mar could have been of Scottish or Welsh extraction. Perhaps the biggest surprise was that one man, Buck Lee, was a black who enlisted at Savannah, Ga., in December 1864 as an “undercook” in the 66th Illinois regiment. He had been listed on the marker as being in the Ohio Sharpshooters, but in fact he was recruited into Company H of the 66th Illinois after this company of the Sharpshooters had been assigned to the Illinois regiment. His hair color, eye color and complexion all were listed as “black.” In addition, the original descriptive book had “colored” in parentheses next to his name.

The Illinois adjutant general’s report carried him as being of “African descent.” This was a true K — a strikeout in baseball terms. He was not Asian, not enlisted in an Ohio regiment and not even a native of Ohio. His birthplace was Chatham, Ga.

Pension files turned up additional data on the men, such as original copies of death certificates listing their race as “white,” in some cases the race of their wives and children and an original copy of a German marriage certificate in old German script from the canton of Bern, Switzerland. (Jacob V. Au also enlisted at Canton, Ohio, which provided some comic relief to the researchers.)

A photograph of Philip J. Wang of the 107th Ohio regiment was published in an article on the 107th in Military Images magazine in the May/June 2001 issue. Although he was a man with a dark mustache and hair, he definitely is not Asian looking. Also, the 107th Ohio Infantry was organized originally as the 5th German regiment and was composed largely of Germans.

Bernhard H. Lau was also in the 108th Ohio (6th German regiment), and John Meng served in the 28th Ohio (2nd German regiment). Several of the men enlisted in those regiments came from the Cincinnati area, which was heavily populated by Germans.

Three of the men were officers: Christopher Au of the 120th Ohio, William H. Koo of the 47th Ohio and Philip J. Wang of the 107th regiment. Because of the temper of the times, no minority would have been commissioned an officer to command white troops. A few blacks eventually were commissioned, but they exclusively commanded units of U.S. Colored Troops.

In a statement to the Columbus Dispatch, Sonja Gong of the OCA stated that it was not known if any descendants of the men named on the marker were living. In fact, three living relatives have been found as a result of this research. They were surprised to find out that their ancestors were portrayed as Asian.

Sadly, the Columbus members of the ethnic organization were either ignorant of the information about Civil War soldiers easily available on genealogy Web sites and at the National Archives or just didn’t bother to do additional research other than to use the names from a Web site where the administrator had warned that many names might not be exclusively Asian. Even a quick check of a surname dictionary would have enlightened the group that names such as Au and Lau are German. Au means “a meadow with water,” and Lau means “a thin woods.”

The OCA originally approached the Ohio Bicentennial Commission on the project but was turned down because of the lack of research or evidence on the origins of the men. Turning to the Ohio Historical Society, they did get the backing of that organization. Ohio politicians and others attended the unveiling of the marker. An article was published by the Columbus Dispatch.

The results of the research on these men, including copies of documents, have been forwarded to the Ohio Historical Society. Don Tolzmann, director of German-American studies at the University of Cincinnati and a former trustee of the OHS, provided additional background on the German regiments, and his influence was instrumental in the eventual decision by the Ohio Historical Society to replace the marker with a new marker that would not have the names inscribed.

A final aspect to this episode is that members of the Au and Lau families report getting Chinese junk (no pun intended) mail. It is sent to them on their computer e-mail and their regular mail, and they also receive telemarketing calls in Chinese that they, of course, can’t understand. Telemarketers using computer name lists apparently make the same bad assumptions that the Organization of Chinese Americans did about these names.

The researchers involved in this project hope that telling the story of this unfortunate event will deter other groups from tainting history with unproved claims.

Darl L. Stephenson is the author of “Headquarters in the Brush: Blazer’s Independent Union Scouts.”

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