Woo Hong Neok
A Chinese American soldier in the Civil War.
In the popular imagination, the American Civil War is an extraordinary drama portraying the denouement of the exceptionally serious struggle to preserve the Union and end the institution of slavery. In the unfolding drama the actors on the battlefield, as well as on the home fronts in both the North and the South alike, are nearly always white or black Americans with a smattering of Native Americans. A closer examination of the historical record reveals surprising details that deepen and enrich understanding of the nuances of the traditional historical narrative. On March 4, 1921, historian and prolific writer William Frederic Worner uncovered one such detail when he read a paper before the Lancaster County Historical Society entitled "A Chinese Soldier in the Civil War" that provided an interesting profile of Woo Hong Neok, a Chinese American citizen who lived in Lancaster from 1855 to 1864.
Born on August 7, 1834, in the small settlement of Antowtson located about five miles from the south gate of the city of Zhangzhou in the southern Fujian Province of China, Woo was enrolled by his father at age thirteen in a Shanghai boarding school run by Bishop William Jones Boone of the American Church Mission. (In Chinese writing surnames precede given names, hence Woo is the family name.) He studied algebra, geometry, astronomy, history, and philosophy in addition to Chinese language and literature. Although he later admitted to not being a very good student, and even confessed to frequently running away from school, Woo nonetheless was among the first generation of native Chinese to be baptized as a Christian, the result of aggressive Western missionary activity in China's coastal cities during the early nineteenth century. One consequence of this experience was that he became intensely curious about distant lands, especially America.
Ships from Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry's (the younger brother of Oliver Hazard Perry of "Hero of Lake erie" fame during the War of 1812) expedition to open Japan in 1852-1854 entered Shanghai harbor in 1854. Prior to returning home, officers from the frigate USS Susquehanna attended Sunday services at the American Mission where Woo expressed his wish to see America. An American missionary negotiated with the officers for him to serve as a cabin boy on the Susquehanna, a side-wheel steamer set to return home via the Indian and the Atlantic Oceans. Woo served the ship's surgeon John S. Messersmith, a native of Lancaster. Upon his arrival in Philadelphia on March 10, 1855, Woo accompanied Dr. Messersmith to his home at 40 North Lime Street in Lancaster where he resided for nine years.
While living in Lancaster Neok routinely attended morning services at St. James Episcopal Church, where the reverend Samuel Bowman served as rector; in the afternoons he sometimes sang in the church choir. St. James Episcopal Church, established in Lancaster in 1744 with the support of King George II and the reverend Richard Locke, held its first services in an old brick courthouse that stood on Lancaster's Penn Square. Although the church was closed during the American revolution because the reverend Thomas Barton was a royalist, other prominent members at that time included George Ross, signer of the Declaration of Independence; Edward Hand, Continental Army general; Edward Shippen, a founder of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University); and Amos Ellmaker, the Anti-Masonic vice presidential candidate in the 1832 presidential election. From its beginnings the church counted among its diverse congregation English, Germans, African Americans, and Native Americans. The current brick church building located at 119 North Duke Street where Woo worshipped was erected in 1820.
Following a failed attempt to secure employment at the Lancaster Locomotive Works, a neighbor and St. James Church organist, Joseph Clarkson, suggested Woo apprentice himself as a printer with the Lancaster Examiner and Herald. this he did, recognizing that training as a printer was a trade that might serve him well in the future. He worked as an apprentice for four years, after which he served the newspaper as a journeyman for three more years before becoming a pressman with the Lancaster Daily Express.
Woo was naturalized as an American citizen on September 22, 1860, the only Chinese person naturalized in Lancaster County at the time; he was also one of the few Chinese in the entire country granted citizenship before the outbreak of the American Civil War. After general Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia crossed into Pennsylvania in the days prior to the July 1-3, 1863, Battle of Gettysburg, Woo enlisted in the Union army. "I volunteered on June 29, 1863," he later wrote, "in spite of the advice of my Lancaster friends against it, for I had felt that the North was right in opposing slavery. My friends thought I should not join the militia and risk my life in war, for my own people and family were in China and I had neither property nor family in America whose defense might serve as an excuse for my volunteering."
Enrolled as a private in Company I of the Fiftieth regiment Infantry of the Pennsylvania emergency Militia commanded by Captain John H. Druckemiller, Woo was first assigned to defend against a possible Confederateapproach to Safe Harbor at the mouth of Conestoga Creek in Lancaster County. On the company's muster roll his name appears as Neok Ung Hong, just one of many examples of variant Western spellings of Chinese names common during the period. He returned to Lancaster on July 2, 1863, and was sent to Harrisburg where his unit was equipped before being transported by train to Chambersburg. From the Franklin County seat his unit marched to Maryland, through Hagerstown to Williamsport, where it was stationed for picket duty at Dam Number 5 on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. Destruction of this dam by the South would thwart Union efforts to move troops and supplies. Woo's assignments included cooking, sentinel work, and target practice as well as long marching drills. After returning to Camp Curtin in Harrisburg, Private Woo was mustered out of service on August 15, 1863.
For whatever reasons, Woo shortly afterwards bid farewell to his friends in Lancaster, among them the Rev. J. Isidor Mombert of St. James Church, Edmond Kline of the Lancaster Examiner and Herald, Michael O. Kline of the Lancaster Cotton Mills, and attorney George M. Kline. In February 1864 in New York he boarded the Kiukiang, a vessel operated by the Oliphant Company, and arrived at Shanghai in May where he dutifully registered as an American citizen at the American Consulate. Struggling for eight months to re-acquire his fluency in the Chinese language, he became an assistant to Archdeacon e. H. Thompson in 1866 and helped establish the first dispensary of the American Episcopal Church Mission. This dispensary later became St. Luke's Hospital of Shanghai. On May 1, 1867, Woo was ordained a deacon by Bishop Channing Moore Williams in Shanghai's Church of Our Savior and on May 24, 1880, was advanced to the priesthood by Bishop Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky of St. John's Chapel, Jessfield.
In a land as vast and ancient as China, the lives of individuals can only be under- stood within the context of such a broad and deep history. It's ironic that China, a nation that invented canal locks, the magnetic compass, cast iron, the crossbow, gunpowder, the screw propeller, the stern post rudder, and spherical trigonometry centuries before similar innovations became known in the West would find itself prostrate before the firepower of European gunboats during the early nineteenth century. With a written history dating back nearly three thousand years, China has known periods of civil war that have lasted longer than the entire history of the American republic. In 1405 the Ming emperor Zhu Di ordered that a massive treasure fleet consisting of two hundred to three hundred vessels staffed by twenty-eight thousand sailors be built to sail the "western ocean" and invite envoys from foreign lands to come as guests to the Ming court. Gifts of silks, cottons, porcelain, and gold were sent to foreign governments as inducements. the eunuch Admiral Zheng led seven expeditions between 1405 and 1433 throughout Southeast Asia, Indonesia, India, around the Arabian Peninsula, and to the eastern shore of Africa. the largest of the ships measured 450 feet long and 180 feet wide, roughly the size of a World War II aircraft carrier. In 1433 a new Ming emperor, Zhu Zhanji, called the fleet home, initiating what would prove to be a prolonged era of Chinese isolationism. Admiral Zheng died on the return voyage and from that period foreign trade was banned; the maps and charts made by the admiral were destroyed and the remnants of the fleet were allowed to deteriorate. In 1450 Chinese emperor Zhu Qizhen finally ended all consideration of additional overseas voyages for good, deeming there to be nothing of value that could be learned or obtained from the outside world. Not until after the first Portuguese traders established contact with China in 1513, did direct trading relations between China and Europe begin, with China by then at a distinct disadvantage.
Beginning in 1700 the British east India Company conducted extensive trade through Guangzhou (Canton) but resented having to pay for Chinese commodities in silver as decreed by the Qing emperor. To bypass the requirement, during the eighteenth century English merchants began smuggling opium from India into China to create a new consumer market for the commodity. In response, the Yongzheng emperor banned the importation of opium in 1729, except for small amounts required for medicinal purposes. With the British East India Company gaining a monopoly on the opium trade in 1756, it took advantage of China's porous southern border to outmaneuver the ban imposed by the central government in Beijing, bringing nine hundred tons of opium into the country annually by the 1820s. By 1838 this had risen to fourteen hundred tons annually, when the emperor appointed a new Confucianist commissioner, Lin Zexu, a former governor general of Hubei and Hunan Provinces, to crack down on the illegal trade. When the British merchants refused to cooperate, Lin blockaded their factories and cut off their food supplies.
In response to the crisis British Superintendent of trade Charles Elliot asked all British subjects to turn over their opium stores to him for destruction in exchange for reimbursement for their value by the British government. Lin subsequently boarded British vessels in international waters and seized additional opium that he dumped into the sea. the British government responded by sending a British Indian army to Canton in 1840, commencing the First Opium War against China in retribution for the destruction of British property. By 1842 China was forced to surrender in the face of superior British firepower and had to pay a large indemnity to the British Crown, open four additional ports to trade with great Britain, and cede the port of Hong Kong to Queen Victoria.
During this period Canton had been a center of Presbyterian Church missionary activity that aided the British East India Company in making inroads into Chinese society. It was into this volatile social milieu that Woo was born. The dominant native religions in China at the time included Taoism, Buddhism, and a rich heritage of traditional local folk religions collectively called Shenism that included ancestor worship operating under the umbrella of the unified ethical and moral system of Confucianism. Today, the breakdown of religious adherents in China is roughly 20 percent for a combined form of Shenism-taoism, 18 percent for Buddhism, 3 percent for Christianity, and 1 percent for Islam, while more than 40 percent of the population identify themselves as agnostics and 14 percent as atheists. Earlier efforts to intro- duce Christianity into the country, first by Nestorian Christians as early as the seventh century, and then by Jesuit missionaries in the sixteenth century, had not proven very successful. The missionaries who arrived from Europe in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries set themselves to the task of translating and printing large numbers of Chinese Bibles with the encouragement of the British east India Company which had its own commercial motives to encourage greater European infiltration of Chinese culture.
While Western religious traditions made relatively light incursions into Chinese society during the early nineteenth century, after the discovery of gold in California in 1849 more than 250,000 young Chinese men were motivated to seek their fortunes in America's gim san, or "gold mountain." Most of these Chinese immigrants came to dig gold and quickly strike it rich so they could return home to their families in China. For the vast majority the experience proved to be a life of poverty and loneliness in a land where anti-Chinese sentiment was powerful. By 1882 the United States passed the Chinese exclusion Act in an attempt to prevent Chinese immigrants from establishing their families in the United States. Most Chinese who came here during the nineteenth century ended up operating hand laundries and restaurants or were exploited as cheap labor for constructing the burgeoning railroads. After the 1870s those who remained tended to be segregated in small "Chinatowns" in cities such as San Francisco, New York, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh.
In a recently published book entitled Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White, Frank H. Wu, a professor at Howard University, carefully delineates the experience of what it means today to be a Chinese American in a society where race is too often defined as being either black or white. Introducing himself to his audiences by proclaiming "I am neither black nor white," he explores how the widely-held myth of Asian Americans as a "model minority" derives, at its deepest roots, from a "perpetual foreigner syndrome" that tends to marginalize Asian Americans as being forever outside the mainstream of American society. He asserts Asians are too often depicted as cartoon characters rather than real individuals struggling to work out a separate identity independent of their racial background. Woo is an example of that struggle in Lancaster during the mid-nineteenth century. While there is no evidence suggesting why he decided to abruptly return to his homeland at the end of his service in the American Civil War, and after having been naturalized an American citizen just five years earlier, it is easy to speculate that his recent regimental experiences may have played a role. His motivation to help free American slaves was probably inspired in part by his experience as an outsider in a predominantly dominant Caucasian culture that tended to be suspi-cious of the foreign-born even when those foreign-born espoused one of the mainstream religions of that culture.
Prior to Woo's return to China, the Second Opium War of 1856-1860 had resulted in even further constraints on the ruling Qing Dynasty which extended most favored nation status to all foreign powers then trading in China and forced the emperor to accept the opening of a British embassy in the heart of Beijing. this laid the groundwork for further economic dismemberment of the countryside into various foreign "spheres of influence" for the balance of the nineteenth century and contributed to the eventual fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911-1912. After his return to Shanghai, Woo at first continued to wear western clothes and resided in the home of Ngan Wing Ging, said to be the first Chinese student to earn his master's degree in America in 1861. (Ngan earned his degree from the Kin yeung Institute in Ohio and sought to use what he learned in America to help reshape Chinese culture on a more western model.) American Episcopal Church Archdeacon E. H. Thompson encouraged Woo to spend eight months re-learning the Chinese language and the nuances of Chinese literature and to once again adopt Chinese garb to better reestablish a rapport with his own people in his mission to spread western Christianity in his homeland. Woo subsequently managed two elementary schools and was promoted to President of the Shanghai Episcopal Church where he served sixteen years as a pastor. He also served as a pharmacist for the church medical clinic and later raised funds to build St. Luke's Hospital where he served as a medical assistant to Dr. Daniel Jerome Mcgowan. Later affiliated with St. John's University Medical School, this was one of the three most famous hospitals in Shanghai during the period.
Remembering his own difficulties in finding secure employment as a young man in Lancaster, Woo was also instrumental in establishing the Yun Tak Institute, an industrial home for poor widows and orphans, whether Christian or not, to acquire the skills necessary to make themselves financially independent. This institute was originally established independent of church support. It was first housed in the Chow family residence and included a church, school, reception room, guestroom, utility room, restaurant, dormitory, kitchen, and nursery. At the age of eighty-four Woo turned over authority for the institute to the church under the condition that an executive board of native Chinese be established to manage the facility.
Woo Hong Neok, a citizen of both China and America, as well as a veteran of the American Civil War, died on August 18, 1919, seven years after the fall of the Qing Dynasty, and was interred in the Westgate Cemetery in Shanghai, the oldest Christian burial ground in Shanghai.
Woo was not the only Chinese American from Pennsylvania to serve in the Civil War. Ching Lee (1845-1891), born in Hong Kong, enlisted under his American name Thomas Sylvanus in the Pennsylvania eighty-First regiment at the age of sixteen. He lived in Indiana, Indiana County, where he operated a laundry, naturalized as an American citizen, and died in 1891. Ching Lee, who is buried in Indiana's Oakland Cemetery, saw action at Mine run, the Wilderness Campaign, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor and after being wounded was detained at the notorious Andersonville Prison in Georgia.
Muster rolls for the USS Potomac also reveal that a mariner named Thomas Smith who enlisted at Philadelphia on November 26, 1861, as a landsman for three years service was born in Hong Kong. Many Chinese who served in the war are difficult to identify because they adopted American names. It is believed that sixty Chinese Americans - among roughly two hundred Asian Americans - served in the Civil War. The story of Woo Hong Neok is a poignant reminder of the richly nuanced character of nineteenth-century Pennsylvania's unusually diverse cultural landscape at a time when the young American republic was wrestling with the perennial challenges of race, religion, and human rights.
Written by Willis L. Shirk Jr., an archivist with the Pennsylvania State Archives.
This article originally appeared in Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine, Volume XXXIX, Number 1 - Winter 2013.