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Reflections On the Civil War and Joseph Pierce, by Irving Moy

Reflections On the Civil War and Joseph Pierce, by

Irving Moy

Tom Brokow's best selling book, "The Greatest Generation," refers to that generation that fought during World War II to make the world safe for democracy, as "the greatest generation."

My own belief is that the generation who fought on both sides of the American Civil War could have the greater claim as being the "greatest generation" in our nation's history.

Unlike World War II, the Civil War was fought on American and not on foreign soil, between Americans. This "Brother's War" resulted in 600,000 casualties. If we were to apply these 600,000 casualties and its percentage of the population then to our current population, this would be the equivalent of losing 5,000,000 Americans today.

The North's victory resolved two issues left unanswered by the American Revolution: whether in a free government the minority has the right to breakup the government whenever they choose and whether this republic would continue to endure half slave and half free. It uprooted institutions that were centuries old, transformed the social life of half the country and profoundly impacted our entire national character to the rest of the world. The consequences of which have set the course of this country to become "a great melting pot" of immigrants into a single nation that Abraham Lincoln called the "last best hope of earth."

It was for these reasons that my parents immigrated to this country from China and why my father enlisted to fight in World War II in order to share in the great "American dream" of having the opportunity and freedom to better themselves and to become productive and accepted members of their community. In a sense, this was what the "greatest generation" was fighting to preserve during World War II.

As I reflect more and more on the life of Joseph Pierce, I have come to realize that this unique individual whose life God continually had his hand on, not only contributed to the outcome of the Civil War in making this country into what it has become, but actually lived the "American dream" throughout his life before it even become a possibility.

Consider the following. Although Pierce was sold by his father at the age of ten to a sea captain, he did not spend his life at sea as a cabin boy or servant. Amos Peck for some reason took a liking to him and brought him to be raised by his mother in Berlin, Connecticut. Here he was treated as part of the Peck Family, attending the same country school with Peck's younger brothers and sisters.

Joseph Pierce in 1853 was most likely one of the few Chinese in New England and in Connecticut at the time. Although the first recorded Chinese began to come to America in 1848, the first significant immigration occurred in 1852, confining itself to the Pacific coast. The Pecks with whom he was raised was a prominent family, descendants of Deacon Paul Peck, one of the original proprietors, who along with Thomas Hooker, founded Hartford, Connecticut.

Pierce was an accepted member of his community when he enlisted on July 26, 1862 for, undoubtedly, the same reasons the early volunteers had who answered President Lincoln's call for troops.

He was mustered into the Fourteenth Regiment, Company F of the Connecticut Volunteer Infantry that became part of the Second Brigade of the Third Division, Second Army Corps of the Army of the Potomac. From 1862 to 1865, Pierce unknowingly participated in what turned out to be many of the pivotal military events of the war, fighting in the major campaigns from Antietam to Gettysbury to Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House.

He survived some of the bloodiest battles fought during the Civil War. The Fourteenth Connecticut participated in thirty-four battles and skirmishes, lost more men killed in battle in proportion to its size (only 215 (21%) of the original 1,040 men who left to fight returned home) and captured more prisoners, cannon and battle flags than any other Connecticut regiment.

His war experiences made Pierce the most renown and highest ranked (corporal) Chinese soldier to have fought in the Civil War. Unlike many veterans who could not settle back to their pre-war lives, he apparently made the transition back to civilian life without too much difficulty. There is no record of him as having joined any GAR Post after the war, he was able to place this chapter of his life behind him to move on with his life. Pierce settled in Meriden, Connecticut in 1868 and for the next 48 years that would remain in his life, Joseph Pierce lived, worked and worshipped within a two mile radius from his home on Meridian Street.

He listed his occupation as being a farmer when he enlisted to serve with the Fourteenth Connecticut, but in the 1870-71 Meriden City Directory his occupation is listed as being an engraver. His "sisters" with whom he grew up with, married into families who established the silver smith trade in Meriden (the city became known as the "silver city"). This family tie apparently opened a door for him to enter a professional trade.

On November 12, 1876, at the age of 34, Joseph Pierce, married eighteen year old Martha Morgan, an American woman, from Portland, Connecticut. Just think of the courage both of them had to marry outside the social conventions of that time! What a wonderful story in itself that the two of them married out of love. I would like to believe that the other picture we have of Pierce in formal attire was taken for his wedding with Martha. This marriage produced four children, two daughters and two sons. Only the sons survived to adulthood.

On March 27, 1890, Joseph and Martha were received as probationary members of Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church receiving full membership on November 6th, four days before his 48th birthday.

When his oldest daughter, Lulu Edna, died the age of sixteen on February 17, 1895, many people in the community shared in the family's grief. According to the Meriden Daily Republican of February 20, 1895 there were many "floral emblems" from the church and engravers of the Meriden Britannia Company.

He worked for the Meriden Britannia Co. for a period of twenty-six years before retiring at the age of 72 in 1914.

On January 3, 1916, Joseph Pierce died at the age of 73 after a long illness of a complication of diseases. He is buried in Walnut Grove Cemetery less than a mile from his home. His obituary made no mention of his service during the Civil War but simply stated that he was "well-known and liked." His country, however, remembered his participation and contributions by granting him a military pension in 1913 and a monument to mark his gravesite.

His life is this nation's immigration story in microcosm. Joseph Pierce lived the "American dream." He had the opportunity to live a life where he was able to work in a respectable trade in order to provide for his family. He was able to marry out of love of the wife of his choosing. He became an accepted and respected member of his community....the very things that all immigrants aspire to when they come to this country but are often denied.

We now living may never be asked to make the extraordinary sacrifices as these men who fought in the Civil War so willingly offered to do. But as inheritors of the great individual freedoms so costly won as the result of the Civil War, we must not forget the contributions of the Chinese soldiers and sailors and other immigrants, who fought and died to preserve the opportunities we have under these freedoms.

We can begin by honoring and respecting the contributions of all races and nationalities who make up this country called the United States and to accept each other as fellow Americans.

By Irving Moy, July 2001


Webmaster's note: My friend Irving Moy's essay on Joseph Pierce included a page from an article called "An oriental Yankee Soldier" by John M. Archer, of Collinsville, Connecticut. The article was printed in the Civil War Times Illustrated, September/October 1994 issue, on the page "Time Lapse." It is this page that stirred up Irving's interest to do further research on the subject, and so it is worthwhile to re-visit the article, and giving acknowledgment and gratitude to the author, John M. Archer. Here it is.

Joseph Pierce was worth six dollars in 1852. It was a time when his country, China, was plagued by civil war and famine. Starving familiestook desparate measures to get money and food. In the port city of Canton, the 10-year-old boy's father sold him to New England sea captain Amos Peck.

During the two-month voyage to the United States, the ship's crew nicknamed the boy "Joe." When he arrived in Hartford, Connecticut, to live with the Peck family, he was given the surname Pierce. Joseph Pierce, though technically a slave, was apparently treated as part of the family; he played with the Peck children and went to school with them.

A decade later and a year after the Civil War's start, Pierce joined the 14th Connecticut Infantry as a private. He became probably the only Chinese soldier in the Army of the Potomac. Three weeks after mustering in, at the Battle of Antietam, Maryland, the fledgling regiment joined the charge on the Confederate line at the Sunken Road. It lost 137 men. Just one year later, after fighting at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, the regiment had only 105 men left of the 1,015 recruits that had departed from Connecticut.

In 1864 Pierce, then a corporal, fought with the 14th in Virginia. The regiment lost many men. Despite replacements, by the beginning of 1865 the muster roll showed only 180 names. By the war's end the 14th had lost more men than any other Connecticut regiment.

After the war Pierce returned to his home state and settled in Meriden. He began a successful career as an engraver in the city's thriving silver industry. In 1876 he married a Martha Morgan and had three children. He lived and worked in Meriden until 1914. When he died two years later, an obituary in the local newspaper made no mention of his unusual background and stated simply and appropriately: he was "well known and liked."

Name: Joseph Pierce
Dates: 1842 (?) to 1916
Allegiance: Union
Rank: Corporal
Unit: 14th Connecticut Infantry, Company F
Service Record:
1862 --- mustered onto the army as a private on August 23,
1863 --- promoted to corporal in November,
1865 --- mustered out with his regiment on May 31.


Webmaster's note, dated August 9, 2001:

Civil War Encampment, Sunday, September 30, Noon to 5 p.m. (as posted on the Summer 2001 Calendar by the Connecticut Historical Society {CHS}.)

Relive life on the battlefields of the Civil War with Company G, 14th Regiment Connecticut Volunteer Infantry, an educational and Civil War encampment organization. Visitors can join in drill and recruitment exercises and experience camp life right on the CHS grounds, rain or shine. The original 14th Regiment was organized in 1862 and participated in virtually every important eastern campaign, from Antietam to Gettysburg and Appomattox, earning one of the highest rankings in the Army of the Potomac. Irving Moy will also give a short presentation on the 14th Connecticut's Joseph Pierce ------- one of the few Chinese-Americans who served during the Civil War.


Webmaster's remark: The Webmaster went to the Civil War re-anactment / living history encampment on the large field of the Connecticut Historical Society, on September 30, 2001. It was a great success. I saw tents, campfire, cooking, and the drilling of the Company G, 14th Regiment Connecticut Volunteer Infantry, re-enactment unit, all in complete Union Civil War uniform and equippment, including their 19th century rifles and their shooting re-enactment. My friend Irving Moy, portraiting Joseph Pierce, with his Ching Dynasty queue at his back, gave an lively account of Joseph Pierce's life up to the end of the Civil War. It was very informative and educational, and a real treat to the audience.


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Webmaster Gordon Kwok (
gordoncwrt@gmail.com)

August 9, 2001

Revised and uploaded on January 27, 2009

 

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