Civil War Chinese
The fact that Chinese men served in the American Civil War is not widely known. Even today, with all that has been learned about these soldiers, it is difficult to find information about their service--and even less is known about their lives prior to arriving in America. Researching them and bringing their story to light is a mission many of us share. In writing my novel for middle-grade readers, I hoped to entertain young men and women with a truly American story of triumph and challenge in pursuit of happiness; to remind kids that honor, valor, and patriotism have little to do with race and much more to do with heart.
The Beginning of the Story
The journey to write my novel began with a Civil War Times Illustrated magazine, graciously gifted to me by a friend of my father's. I was a recent college graduate with a degree in American History, a path sought mostly because of my fascination with the Civil War. When I came across the Time Lapse article titled "An Oriental Yankee Soldier," in the September/October 1994 issue, I was both shocked and thrilled. Avid reading of Civil War books and years of college study had not yielded such a discovery. I had to know more…
My first Internet searches introduced me to pioneers of research into Chinese Civil War soldiers and sailors. Sincere thanks and appreciation go to Terry Foelander, Ruthanne Lum McCunn, Thomas Mowry, Edward S. Milligan, and Gordon Kwok for doing the yeoman's work to illuminate their history. My questions started to be answered. I learned about the Coolie Trade and life in China under the Qing Dynasty. I learned more about Joseph Pierce, the corporal upon whom my main character, Thomas, is based, and the names of other soldiers like Antonio Dardelle and Edward Day Cahota. At the time, I was busy absorbing all the information I could find. I had no inkling of ever doing anything with that research.
Connecting with "Joe"
Joseph Pierce was likely sold by his father for six dollars when he was a young boy and journeyed to America on the ship of Amos Peck, a Connecticut sea captain. Amos, who may have had abolitionist (anti-slavery) leanings, brought the boy home to be raised as a member of the Peck family. As unbelievable as his early history was, Joseph's Civil War history captivated me first. My love for the drama of the Civil War can be traced directly back to the great Bruce Catton. My interest was piqued by a mention of Andersonville, a Civil War prison camp, on television. Fortunately for me, the book I sought for more information was his "Reflections on the Civil War." Bruce Catton brought the war to life for me. He gave me the background "memory" to place Joseph in great battles like Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. The bond grew deeper.
The Creative Leap
An innocent Internet search one day yielded information about the Institute of Children's Literature in West Redding, CT. They were offering a course: Writing for Children and Teens. I was a professional writer and communicator, but I'd always had the itch to write creatively. They offered a proficiency test for acceptance and I had nothing to lose. The idea of writing for children and teens was exciting--how fun it would be to entertain and educate kids through my own written words! Needless to say, I was accepted and my first instructor was author Peggy Thomas. During a non-fiction lesson, I wrote about Chinese Civil War soldiers. Peggy's encouragement and her 'thanks' for teaching her something resonated with me. She also made the suggestion that one day I should write a non-fiction children's book about the Chinese Civil War soldiers. The seed was officially planted.
I enrolled in my third course with the Institute with the express purpose of writing that non-fiction children's book. I had a great instructor, Kevin McColley. Ever-encouraging, he suggested that I turn the idea into a fiction story given that much of the history was thin. I jumped at the opportunity to fill in the "gaps" of Joseph's story with my imagination and reliance on my Asian heritage and experiences. Under Kevin's guidance, I completed the first draft of my novel, which at the time was titled "Thomas, the Chinese Soldier." It would take much time and much revision after the course was over--the novel in its current form bears little resemblance to that first draft, but Kevin set me on my path. I am a much better writer today because of him. He helped me cure adverb-itis and to write without filtering. There would not have been a draft from which to grow and learn without his mentorship and instruction.
A Kindred Spirit
It has been a long journey from first learning about Joseph Pierce in 2002 to starting at the Institute and getting a manuscript ready to shop to publishers, but along the way, I had always hoped to make the acquaintance of Irving David Moy. Irving wrote a wonderful and informative book, An American Journey: My Father, Lincoln, Joseph Pierce and Me. A Chinese-American, he is a member of Company F, 14th Regiment, Connecticut Volunteer Infantry, Inc., a non-profit Civil War living history and preservation organization. He and I both "met" Joseph Pierce in the same Civil War Times Illustrated Magazine and it set us on similiar yet distinct paths. Irving is a historian in his own right--his contributions to what we know about Joseph Pierce cannot be understated. As a Civil War reenactor, Irving portrays Joseph Pierce in battle reenactments. He has been most helpful in reviewing my novel, assisting me with the historical facts and lending his expertise to the story to give it the authenticity that only a historian and Civil War reenactor could. He has been so generous and gracious with his time and materials. I consider him a great friend.