I have been thinking how, since the dawn of civilization, women have always been the throw-aways of war. Victims of rape, kidnap, murder. Ironically, as man became more 'civilized,' the throw-aways came to include anyone outside the tribe whose language, or skin-color, varied from the accepted norm. In my new novel, THE SPY LOVER, about the American Civil War, I address the issue of racism, especially toward Chinese soldiers, in both the Confederate and the Union Army.
In that War, men and women 'of color,' nurses as well as soldiers, were always the last of the wounded to be carried from the battlefield. And they were the last, if ever, to be treated by medics. In my research for THE SPY LOVER, I discovered that white orderlies in field-hospitals (usually huge complexes of filthy tents) referred to soldiers of color as 'skins.' 'Redskins' (in those days referred to as Indians) 'Yellowskins' (Chinese) and 'Brownskins' (in those days referred to as Negroes.)
Unless their wounds were superficial, these 'skins' were usually left to die unattended. My Chinese uncle, Ayau Kam, used to talk about his ancestor from China, who emigrated to Hawaii, then the U.S. mainland. When the War started, this ancestor, John Tommy Kam, had enlisted at Staten Island, New York, and fought valiantly for the Union Army, after being promised U.S. citizenship if the North won the War.
One of the many little-known facts about the American Civil War is that fifty-two Chinese are documented as having served in that War, fighting for the Union side as well as the Confederacy. It is astonishing to me that, until now, no book has been written about these incredibly brave soldiers, fighting for a country that essentially scorned them. Many were immigrants who arrived in ports like Charleston and New Orleans, then gathered in small farm settlements up and down the Mississippi River. With no women of their own available, they intermarried with Creole women, Native Americans and African Americans, and produced broods of beautiful, mixed-blood children.
When the War began, some of them were kidnapped by the Confederate Army and forced to fight for the South. Many defected to the Union Army, rather than fight for slavery. In real life, John Tommy Kam was believed to have perished at the Battle of Gettysburg. But other Chinese soldiers survived the War. And when it was over, the U.S. government broke its promise, refusing these brave soldiers U.S. citizenship and the pensions they were due. They were unilaterally cast off. Forgotten.
The hope was that they would go back to China, and leave America 'pure.' Instead, the following decades saw a great influx of Chinese immigrants into America, fleeing their own country which for thirty years had been engaged in its own civil war (that reportedly cost 30,000,000 lives.)
Chinese laborers helped build America, they laid most of the tracks for the first railroads going east to west and west to east. During that time they died in the thousands of fever, starvation, outright murder. Their bones are buried beneath those tracks. Still, more Chinese immigrants arrived. They proved to be hard-working, honest, and - with a shortage of their own women - continued intermarrying with white women and every other available race, and proved to be excellent husbands and fathers.
Their growing numbers, hard work and perseverance threatened white America. Just as they had been denied citizenship after the Civil War, anti-Asian sentiment grew, culminating in the Naturalization Act of 1870, and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (both enforced by the U.S. government until 1943!) And worse, Americans reacted to their growing numbers with the heinous Chinese Massacres that spread across America in the 1870's, 80's, and 90's.
Even after the slaughter of Chinese was made illegal, punishable by imprisonment, it continued in the back alleys of cities where they were creating their own small Chinatowns. Astonishingly, it continued until 1965 when all restrictions on national origin and race were abolished. ( Still it continues in these United States: the demonizing and victimizing of each new immigrant group.)
But, what of the brave Chinese heroes of the American Civil War? Those who perished, and those who survived? Were they ever to be officially acknowledged? Only in April, 2003, was the House Joint Resolution #45 introduced to Congress, to posthumously proclaim all U.S. Civil War soldiers of Chinese descent to be honorary citizens of the United States, in recognition of their honorable services. But, their pensions were denied to their descendants. 2003. One hundred and thirty-eight years later.
In the course of five long years of research and the writing of THE SPY LOVER, I discovered the war records of John Tommy from Canton China, and Hawaii. (Along the way he had dropped the name 'Kam,' perhaps to sound more American. In the novel I renamed him Johnny Tom.) His records show he had fought in six different battles with the famed New York Excelsior Brigade. He had also suffered long, debilitating months in two different prisoner-of-war camps. He had saved lives, and was promoted to corporal. He fought valiantly, and perished at the Battle of Gettysburg.
In time, I found John Tommy's place of burial in the Soldiers' National Cemetery at Gettysburg National Military Park, amongst the 'unidentifiable' soldiers of the New York Excelsior Brigade who died at the Battle of Gettysburg. This man who had no country, no family to mourn him, and who died 'unidentifiable' is at peace with his comrades.
I have laid flowers there for John Tommy. For all of them. And I have written this novel, THE SPY LOVER, to memorialize him, and to memorialize another ancestor, Warren Rowan Davenport, who fought for the Confederacy. In the end, I believe I wrote this book to memorialize all the valiant boys of the North and South who perished, many who were too young to shave.
I hold the novel in my hand, and think of an old Chinese proverb:
"War has always been the same. Old men talking, young men dying."
I hope you are moved by THE SPY LOVER. Thank you.