Faces of the Civil War

New documentary examines the Chinese American soldiers in the War Between the States

Filmmaker Montgomery "Monty" Hom remembers visiting Gettysburg as a teenager and seeing a photograph of Joseph Pierce, a Chinese immigrant to America, on display in the visitors center. A caption underneath implied he was the only Chinese soldier who fought in the Civil War.

"I look back on that, and I just think, wow, how wrong that was," Hom said at a recent event at the National Trust for Historic Preservation headquarters in Washington, D.C., where he previewed his latest documentary, Men Without a Country: Chinese in the American Civil War. The film, narrated by actor James Hong, is slated to be released this fall.

After eight years of dogged research, Hom estimates anywhere from 50 to 100 Chinese Americans actually served. "It seems like a miniscule number, but it's actually quite significant if you look at the population of Chinese in America at that time, particularly on the East Coast," Hom explained. "The population was quite small."

Through photographs, archival documents, and interviews with historians and descendants of early Chinese immigrants and soldiers, Hom's documentary tells the little-known stories of these soldiers and the discrimination they faced after the war ended. Despite their military service, he explained, many Chinese immigrants were later denied U.S. citizenship because of the Chinese Exclusion Laws, passed by Congress in the late 19th century. The laws imposed strict moratoriums on Chinese immigration and prohibited persons of Chinese descent from becoming U.S. citizens.

"This film has been a pet project of mine for almost eight years," Hom said. "There have been so many bits of information about the Civil War that have come out in the last decade, and I feel like this is one of the highlights. A lot of people don't realize that the Chinese go all the way back to the Civil War [in America's history]."

Starting with just two photographs of Chinese American soldiers, his research took off when the great-granddaughter of one of the photographed men, Edward Day Cohota, gave Hom a box full of service papers her ancestor had kept. "In my hands was every single listing and record from 1862 to the end of [Cohota's] career in 1895," he said. "I was shaking, holding these documents, thinking I shouldn't be here. I shouldn't be seeing these. And I realized that all this information could be gone in a heartbeat. We would have no history on this Chinese individual who served."

Hom and a team of researchers set out to find more information on Cohota and the Chinese men and women who fought alongside him. They scoured the National Archives and pored over newspaper articles and Army and Navy records. "We started looking for the obvious names—Wong, Chen, Chu—but we quickly learned we couldn't rely on just Chinese surnames," he said, explaining many soldiers adopted American names upon entering the country or, in some cases, changed their names later to avoid discrimination.

Men Without a Country is the third film by Hom, an Emmy-nominated documentary filmmaker and producer. His first film, We Served with Pride, chronicled the story of Chinese American veterans of World War II and premiered at the Smithsonian Institute in 1999. Four years later, he produced A Brief Flight: The Story of Hazel Ying Lee and the Women Who Flew Pursuit, which tells the story of the first female Chinese American pilot to fly for the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II.

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