(Friday Night History) Japanese Veterans of the American Civil War

Image: Banner of the 1st Regiment NY Cavalry. (Public Domain)

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SALUTATIONS you fantastic denizens of the internet! The first #FridayNightHistory of 2021 is here! This week, a new mystery: the true name of “John Williams,” Japanese Veteran of the American Civil War.

Yeah, you heard right. And he’s not the only one, either.

Now– I know, I know. Ordinarily you see me talking about the Japanese aftermath of the US Civil War, in the form of people and surplus equipment from the US that ended up there during the Boshin War. But in a curious turn of events, I find myself in pursuit of the opposite: information on a Japanese veteran of the US Civil War. A friend on Twitter @DuPertweet alerted me to a tweet by @KyleMizokami, with photos of an article talking about Asian-American/Pacific Islander veterans of the US Civil War in general and Japanese vets in particular. And much to my surprise, there were two Japanese people listed there. I’m starting from one of them, and seeing how much I can reconstruct, because there really weren’t that many Japanese people outside of Japan in the timespan of the US Civil War (1861-1865).

So, what do we know about this person who American records call John Williams?

We know he arrived in New York from Japan in 1864, when he was 22. According to an article in the Hawaii Pacific Press, he was “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.”  He fought in the Shenandoah Valley Campaign, fell ill with remittent fever, and was not able to return to his regiment in time for their discharge ceremony on 27 June 1865, being discharged on the 16th.

That’s most of what research assembled by the Japanese American Veterans Association and published in this HPP article tells us about this man. But I am of the opinion that there is likely more information out there, including his actual name, but will take further digging in Japanese and English language sources in order to find. The article references an edited US National Park Service volume, Asians and Pacific Islanders and the Civil War. So where do we begin?

Let’s start with the dates: 15 August 1864 for arrival, 25 August for enlistment, 16 June 1865 for discharge. What was going on in Japan at the time? And what were some of the major places where Japanese people were heading abroad at the time?

Summer 1864 was extremely volatile in Japan. The battle at the Kyoto imperial palace called the Forbidden Gate Incident or Hamaguri Gate Incident was 20 August, the culmination of rising tensions across the entire year between the Tokugawa Shogunate and the recalcitrant Choshu domain of western Japan. High profile political assassinations continued apace, including that of Sakuma Shozan, a noted educator and scholar of European technologies and languages, on 12 August. The following month, the Shogunate launched the First Choshu Expedition. All of this was happening against the backdrop of major political and military reforms and shakeups in both the Shogunate as well as the myriad feudal domains: the Choshu Expedition saw one of the first deployments of regiments of the modernized Shogunate Army. Some of these reforms were implemented through study in Japan of new technologies or methods through foreign literature, or through consultation of western specialists present in Japan. But just as common was the dispatching of students to Europe or the United States, in the interest of building up a cadre of Japanese experts that– with some investment of time and money in study– could help guide those reforms further. Enomoto Takeaki, who went on to fame as commander of the Shogunate Navy and later as an Imperial Japanese Navy admiral and diplomat, was one of the more notable of these students, having studied in Holland from 1862 to 1867. Takahashi Korekiyo, who began as a vassal to the house of Date and eventually rose to become Prime Minister and Finance Minister, was another– he studied in San Francisco. Yet another, of course, is our First New York Cavalry veteran, this “John Williams,” who enlisted ten days after arrival– and according to what we know, had arrived in the US for study.

Assuming this is correct, we can safely conjecture that he was either of warrior caste birth or was of the warrior caste by adoption. While some people of non-warrior caste did leave Japan in the 1860s, most who did were of warrior extraction, and their domains (or the Shogunate) paid for or arranged for their travel and study. While some domain records did not survive the Boshin War and other records did not survive the firebombings of the Second World War, we can safely assume that a Japanese person sent to New York for study who was presumably of warrior extraction would have left some kind of paper trail in Japanese, and likely more of one in English than has yet been found.

The other thing I can offer– at this point mostly as conjecture– is that his enlistment in the Union Army so soon after his arrival was not a whim, but rather was intentional. If so many Japanese people sent abroad in those years were there to acquire military and military-adjacent skills, then to me, it seems within the realm of possibility that he enlisted in order to gain hands-on knowledge of English as well as of US weapons and tactics. The US Civil War having begun in 1861, it is not a matter of the war having broken out while he was on his way to New York. He would’ve known it was underway, and thus could quite conceivably have gone from the beginning with the intention of enlistment, or with vague enough directives that would’ve allowed for his enlistment. After all, bear in mind that this is an era where information and communication traveled much more slowly, and as such there was significant room to make snap decisions without oversight.

But again, without further evidence, right now this is all in the realm of conjecture. As the JAVA Research Team notes in the HPP article quoted above, it “opened research challenges to identify the first ethnic Japanese to serve in the US military.” As with them, I share the goal of finding the true names of these men that US records list as John Williams and Simon Dunn. So, what to do next? I’m not sure where to begin, but I’m looking, and my gut feeling is that we haven’t heard the last of them. I know I’ll certainly be looking– and, I am certain that in time, I will likely find something. Having studied this period since 2003, and having seen the digitization of extremely rare material and the rediscovery of physical records and photos thought previously lost (e.g. the confirmed photo of Shinsengumi trooper Saito Hajime), I know there is more out there than seems to be, in both Japanese and English. And because of how the demands of a shrinking number of tenure postings affects academe (where the best access to source material is concentrated), there is a dearth of trained scholars who can handle working across Japanese and English source material of this era and are in a position to actually do so.

But mark my words– in all probability it’s a matter of when, not if, we learn the men’s true names.

I’m Nyri and this has been #FridayNightHistory– the beginning of a new search. Now, to work.

Questions?

Sources

  • Masao Miyoshi, As We Saw Them. (Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2005).
  • Ohira Kimata, Sakuma Shōzan (Tokyo: Yoshikawa Kobunkan, 1959), p. 198.
  • Shimokuni Tōshichirō tō rirekisho. (Hakodate: n.p., 1891), p. 6. Archived at https://www2.lib.hokudai.ac.jp/cgi-bin/hoppodb/kyuki.cgi?id=0A006540000000000&page=6&lang=0 Accessed 5 January 2021.
  • JAVA Research Team (JRT). “Two Japanese Nationals Fought in US Civil War.” Hawaii Pacific Press, March 15, 2020, p. 28.
  • Richard J. Smethurst, From Foot Soldier to Finance Minister: Takahashi Korekiyo, Japan’s Keynes (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009), p. 21.

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