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Two Japanese Nationals Fought in US Civil War

by JAVA Research Team (JRT)
May 2020, Volume 70, Issue 5

Gettysburg, PA.  The 2015 US National Park Service (NPS) Handbook, Asians and Pacific Islanders and the Civil War provides the names of about 335 Asians and Pacific Islanders who served in the US Civil War.  They found their way to America from China (74); Guam (22); Hawaii (53); India (49); East Indies (23); Indonesia (5); Japan (2); Malaysia (3); Mauritius (3); Myanmar (2); New Zealand (5); Northern Marianas (4); Pakistan (1); Philippines (56); Polynesia (4); Samoa (1); Singapore (3); Sri Lanka (6); Tahiti (8); Thailand (1); Tonga (4); Unidentified Points of Origin (6).

Approximately 250 of the Asian and Pacific Islands enlistees, including two Japanese nationals, used Anglicized names because recruiters had difficulty spelling foreign names and were under severe pressure to meet demanding recruitment quotas. Enlistees could not write their names in English, and administrators did not care.  Many were listed as “Joe”.  Ruthanne Lum McCunn, a principal writer of the Handbook, said “the lists of Asian Pacific Islander enlistees in the book do not differentiate between Union and Confederate combatants.  By far the majority fought for the Union.  But some did fight for the Confederacy.”

McCunn also said the reasons Asian nationals served in the Civil War were “defense of the homeland, desire for citizenship which was promised to foreigners, opposition to slavery, and adventure”.

Information in the Handbook and independent research have helped to compile the profiles of the two Japanese nationals who used Anglicized names, Pvt John Williams and Pvt Simon Dunn.  Despite its best efforts, JRT has not succeeded in locating their Japanese names.  If anyone has or succeeds in obtaining their Japanese names, would you kindly share that information with JRT (JAVAPotomac@gmail.com).

Pvt Williams was age 22, born in Japan, 5’ 1” tall; black hair, dark complexion and a laborer.   He enlisted at the 3rd District Enrollment Board, New York, on August 25, 1864 and served in the 1st Regiment New York Cavalry (Lincoln).  He arrived in the US to study 10 days before he enlisted. McCunn said in an article of the book that according to historian Katsuya Hirano, “if Williams knew how to ride, perhaps even fight, he could have been of samurai origin”. 

After each hard day of fighting, Williams and his fellow cavalrymen would unsaddle and rub down their horses, feed them and saddle them up again.  They then slept, fully dressed, with rifles at their side, anticipating the bugle to sound to mount their horses for another engagement.  In 1864 the 1st Regiment fought in the Shenandoah Valley campaign.  Williams was engaged in combat operations until he was hospitalized in the 3rd Division Cavalry Corps Hospital with fever caused by a disease called “febris remittens” and later transferred to Armory Square General Hospital in Washington, DC.  Today this disease is called remittent fever, the symptoms of which are elevated body temperature showing fluctuation each day but never falling to normal.   He was not able to ride with the regiment for the final discharge ceremony in New York on June 27, 1865 but was discharged from the hospital earlier on June 16.

Pvt Dunn, described as 5’ tall, was born in 1842 in Japan.  He was recruited in Brooklyn, New York on December 7, 1863 for Co E, 158th Infantry, New York, known as the “1st Empire Brigade”.  Dunn’s unit served in combat in Beaufort, North Carolina in August 1864; in Swansborough and Jackson, NC in February 1864; Petersburg, VA in August 1864; Richmond, VA in 1864; Appomattox, VA from March 28 to April 9, 1865.  His unit was in Appomattox when General Robert E. Lee was at the Appomattox Court House on April 9 for the surrender ceremony.  Dunn and his fellow infantrymen were mustered out of the 158th on June 30, 1865 and transferred to Co D, 100 Infantry, New York, on July 1, 1865.  He was discharged from the Union Army on August 28, 1865 at Richmond, VA.

JRT comment.  We thank Dr. Jim McNaughton for donating to JRT the NPS Handbook, Asians and Pacific Islanders and the Civil War, which opened research challenges to identify the first ethnic Japanese to serve in the US military.   We also thank Ms McCunn for responding so helpfully to our numerous questions.   Obtaining the true names of Pvt John Williams and Pvt Simon Dunn is our goal (a) to conduct continued research as to what the two Union Army soldiers did after the Civil War and (b) to identify the first ethnic Japanese to serve in the US military.