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Thomas Sylvanus

The new tombstone of Thomas Sylvanus, aka Ching Lee, aka Ye Way Lee
Thomas Sylvanus, 42nd NY Infantry, Corp Company D, July 4, 1849 -- June 15, 1891.

Photo credit: Will Radell

Contributors of this webpage

1. Will Radell, Secretary/Treasurer/Webmaster, John T Crawford Camp 43, Pennsylvania, Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War.

Special thanks to the members of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, John T Crawford Camp 43, Pennsylvania.

2. Clarence Stephenson, Indiana County (PA) 175th Anniversary History. (Stephenson’s work was referenced by Will Radell.)

3. Edward Milligan, American Civil War Navy History Researcher who did his research in the National Achieves. He is also an old friend.

Rededicating the graves of 4 Civil War Union soldiers by the John T Crawford Camp 43, Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War

The John T Crawford Camp 43, Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, will be rededicating the graves of 4 Union soldiers on July 10, 2005.

Their names are, John Harvey of the 6th USCT (U.S. Color Troops), Frank Donohugh (61st PA Infantry, Co. A), William Woolweaver (67th PA Infantry, Co. E) and Thomas Sylvanus, whose real name was Ching Lee, aka Ye Way Lee, (81st PA Infantry Vol. Co. D; 42nd, 59th, 82nd NY Infantry Vol.).

Ching Lee served the Union bravely. He was wounded and was at Andersonville Prison for a short time and then released on a prisoner exchange. He re-enlisted several times during the war. He was from Indiana County in Pennsylvania (near Pittsburgh). He was one of the few Chinese-American that we knew, to have received pension from his service in the army from the Civil War. He is buried at Oakland Cemetery in Indiana, PA. His old marble headstone is fading, so the SUV contacted the Veterans Affairs office and got the new headstones.

July 10, 2005 Rededication

July 10, 2005 Rededication, as reported by the Indiana Gazette

"Following the summary of the soldiers' military service were remarks from Eric Schmincke of Philadelphia, Pennsylania Department Commander of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War. Schmincke addressed the significance of the diversity encompassed in the four graves. He noted his satisfaction that the soldiers were now 'lying shoulder to shoulder, just as they (stood together) during the war.' After Schmincke's remarks, the re-enacters, all members of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War and Ladies' Auxiliary, performed honorific rituals."

"American flags were placed near each headstones, roses were strewn on the graves, and 34-star flags, emblematic of the Union that the soldiers fought for, were ceremoniously awarded to representatives of each soldier........In dramatic fashion, the soldiers raised their muskets and delivered a bracing 21-gun salute.......... A bugler closed the service with the mournful tones of taps."

"Regarding Sunday's ceremony, Schmincke was especially impressed by Sylvanus' esperiences.
'It's not every day you get to honor someone of Chinese ancestry,' he said. 'It proves that individuals can come to this country and still feel the need to serve and protect it.' "

Thomas Sylvanus, aka, Ching Lee, aka, Ye Way Lee (Ah Ye Way)

Summarized by the webmaster, Gordon Kwok.

Thomas Sylvanus, a Chinese from Hong Kong, was brought to America on a ship when he was about 8 years old. He was born in Hong Kong on July 4, 1845. He was brought to the United States by a Mrs. McClintock in 1852 to be educated and then to be returned to China as a missionary. Apparently, he didn’t like the plan designed for him and tried to get out of this arrangement. A Dr. Sylvanus met the Chinese boy in California apparently took care of him. His first name Thomas, came from a sailor named Thomas, who treated him kindly in the ship. Somehow, Dr. Sylvanus brought the boy to his sister, Mrs. Duvall who lived in Baltimore, Maryland, when the boy was about 12 years old. His full American name is Thomas Sylvanus Duvall, but he dropped the name Duvall when he enlisted, and was known as Thomas Sylvanus.

Thomas Sylvanus was 16 years old, when the American Civil War broke out, When General Benjamin Butler marched his Massachusetts troops through Baltimore, the lad was in the city and eye-witnessed the fighting between the troops and the mob. He enlisted on August 31, 1861 in the 81st Pennsylvannia Volunteer Regiment, Company D, in Philadelphia, using the name Thomas Sylvanus, and he was at Seven Days Battle before Richmond. He was discharged on December 10, 1862 on account of disability.

On September 11, 1863, he re-enlisted in Company D of the 42 nd New York Volunteer Regiment and was sent to the front. With that group he was at the Mine Run, the Wilderness Campaign, Spottsylvania, and Cold Harbor. When he was at Spottsylvania, he was a Corporal of the Color Guard. "After all the Color Guard, except himself, had been disabled he kept the colors of his regiment flying on the breastworks." (Stephenson, page 58, Vol. 4). After that, he was wounded at Cold Harbor and was captured at Petersburg, Virginia on June 22, 1864, in the movement along the Jerusalem plank road and sent to Andersonville Prison, Georgia, and wasn't released from prison until the close of the war, in Jacksonville, Florida on April 28, 1865.

His military record stated that "Present on rolls to April 30, 1864. Transferred to CO. D 82nd NY Infantry June 28th and reported on rolls for May and June 1864, absent missing in action since May 6, 1864. Transferred to CO. H 59th NY Inf. Vols., and reported on rolls to Oct. 31st, 1864 absent missing in action May 6, 1864. Dropped from subsequent rolls to M.O. Roll of CO. dated June 30, 1865 which reports him absent at Camp Parole. Mustered out on Ind.M.O. Roll a corporal, June 15, 1865 at New York City as of CO. D of 42nd NY Inf. Vols. with remark captured June 22, 1864 and paroled Apr. 28th 1865. Co H NY Vols. (Volunteers) was in action at Cold Harbor June 2nd and before Petersburg June 22nd 1864. No further information."
(Note: The Cape Cod Civil War Round Table member Fred Wexler, writing a book on 42nd NY Regiment, mentioned that Thomas Sylvanus never actually served in the 82NY or the 59NY but rather was transferred to their rolls while a POW when the 42NY was consolidated with other regiments of their brigade. That is what happened to the dozens of other men of the 42NY captured at Weldon Rail Road on June 22, 1864. The 42NY was mustered in on June 22, 1861 exactly three years before the action at Weldon Railroad. The original men of the 42NY were mustered out in July 1864 with all the remaining men who had re-enlisted, been drafted, enlisted later in the war or served as substitutes being transferred to the 82NY.)

According to Stephenson, Ching Lee (Thomas) came to Indiana, PA in 1870. By 1880 he had obtained a veteran's blind pension (due to disease contracted at the Andersonville prison camp, Georgia.) and was operating a laundry business. In 1881 he was advertising an item that "celebrated shirt polish" at $1 per bottle, and that his house was, "at the skating rink," He joined the Indiana GAR Post 28 on May 19, 1885 (5/19/1885). Even though he was poor, he did all he could do to support his family. In February of 1891, he came down with a severe cold that left him in bed for a few days. Someone placed the family in charge of Overseers of the Poor. Thomas became very irate when this happened and insisted, that "there was no necessity for doing this." Rumor has it that a physician refused to see him because he did not have the money to pay him. Thomas (Ching Lee) died four months later and was buried were he rests now, in Block J of Oakland Cemetery in Indiana, PA. Post 28 attended the service in a mass on 5/29/1992. State Senator H.K. Sloan delivered the eulogy in Library Hall on 5/29/1992.

It was reported that Ching Lee had married a Woolweaver girl in 1874 (What is interesting is that a Union Soldier who is buried next to Ching Lee is William Woolweaver of the 67th PA). She lived with him about a year and then left him. He was able to divorce her in 1878. About that time he was housekeeping with a Tillie Askins. They had 4 or 5 children together and were not married until 2/16/1891.

Mrs. Sylvanus and her 3 surviving children were poverty stricken. She earned a mere $2 per week. She was forced to leave the children home alone that were ages 15, 12, and 10 while she went to work. They didn't have enough clothing, food, and bedding. The children (according to Stephenson, a boy and a girl-no mention of names) were then placed in Soldiers Memorial Home in Brookville, PA (which is about 1 hour and 45 minutes North of Indiana, PA). In 1895, Mrs Sylvanus was arrested for stealing and jailed because she couldn't obtain bail. In 1906, John Sylvanus, the son of Tillie and Thomas, died in Cincinnati, OH. He married Myrtle Smith, daughter of Christopher Smith who was living in Altoona, PA at the time of John's death. No mention if they had children. According to Stephenson, "'About a Year Ago' the newspaper item reported, John 'was charged, along with another man, of holding up and robbing a third party at P.R.R. depot in this place. He left town during the night and has not been in Indiana since.'" There is no mention in this book as to what happened to the two children after they went to Soldiers Memorial Home in Brookville, PA.

Will Radell and his group are working on a lead in Marion Center, PA, which is just outside of town here. They think this may be an in-law, but they are not sure if this person is still alive or has any children. If Radell’s memory serves him correct, the last name is King.

However, my friend Mr. Edward Milligan managed to dig out a piece of documentation form the National Achieves. A statement/affidavit given by Thomas Sylvanus’s daughter, Mrs. May King, would show that Thomas Sylvanus did have offsprings. (Her document is shown below.)

Will Radell, Secretary/Treasurer/Webmaster, John T Crawford Camp 43, Pennsylvania, Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, wrote me the following:

"Thomas Sylvanus was from Indiana County in Pennsylvania (near Pittsburgh). To our knowledge, he was the only Chinese-American to have received a pension from his service in the army from the Civil War. (Actually Thomas Sylvanus is one of the few Chinese-American to have received pension.) He is buried at Oakland Cemetery in Indiana, PA. His headstone is fading, so we contacted the Veterans Affairs office and the new stones are on their way.

As far as I can see his military records do not indicate Ching Lee, but I have the whole collection of the Indiana County 175th Anniversary History by Clarence Stephenson which has 1 1/2 pages about Thomas and they do indicate that his real name was Ching Lee. He was from Hong Kong, China. I talked to my Commander if we could put Ching Lee on his headstone, but he said that the Veterans Administrations office would not do that since they only go by his military records.

According to his military records, at the time of discharge, he was 19 years old, stood 5 foot 4 inches tall, had sandy complexion, with black eyes, black hair, and was a tailor by trade. It also states that he was born in Hong Kong, China. He was discharged for cataracts in both eyes. But according to Stephenson, he contracted a disease at Andersonville that almost destroyed his eyesight.

He was born in Hong Kong on July 4, 1845 and died June 15, 1891 in Indiana, PA. He is buried at Oakland Cemetery in Indiana, PA (which is about 60 miles North East-East of Pittsburgh). Myself and two other members of the Civil War group I am in were at the cemetery last Friday admiring his new headstone and working out logistical issues for the July 10th 2005 rededication ceremony."

Will Radell
May 4, 2005

(Ed. Milligan wrote me this summary:)

I read Thomas Sylvanus’s Chinese name as Ah Ye Way. He was in the 81st Pa, got a disability discharge for his eyes, became a sub in a NY unit and ended in 59th NY where he was captured. He spent time in Andersonville. and then was at Camp Parole. He returned to Indiana, Pa, Where he married and divorced and remarried with 2 kids. At his death they went to an orphans home in Pa. He was a GAR member in Indiana,Pa. The travail of his widows attempt to get a pension is a bureaucratic triumph over common sense. I have his pension file and will reread it to answer some of the questions in these messages. Probably there are descendants in PA.

Thomas Sylvanus is likely the only Chinese to have been in, and lived through time in Andersonville. His military service is odd as he had a disability discharge when he went to NY and joined a NY regiment. He could sign his name but I wonder how well he could read the fine print on the application? But they took him and he served honorably in 2 NY regiments. Sadly we do not get his parents’ names. His reference to his brother being "killed in the war" leads me to think that brother was in service as well. But again, how to find him? Thomas had a tough time. The pension file reflects some of his, and his wives problems. Some of this must have affected the kids. But King is a good name to follow for the married daughter as her one letter proves. But at least here is solid proof of ethnicity and Civil War service.

Ed. Milligan
June 4, 2005

The following is an affidavit on Thomas Sylvanus pension claim sworn by a Moses L. Steele (sent to me by Ed. Milligan)


(The stamp said "US Pension Office, May 12, 1891")

State of Pennsylvania, County of Indiana, SS:

In the matter of Pension Claim, no. 152,888 of Thomas Sylvanus, Co. D. 42 NY Vol. Inf.

On this 21st day of April, A.D. 1891, personally appeared before me a clerk of Orphans’ Court in and for the aforesaid County duly authorized to administrate oaths, Moses T. Steel, aged 48 years, a resident of East Mahoningth, in the County of Indiana and State of Pennsylvania, whose Postoffice address is Indiana, Indiana County, Pennsylvania.

______aged_____years, a resident of _____in the County of _____and the State of _____whose Post office address is _________well known to me to be reputable and entitled to credit, and who, being duly sworn, declared in relation to aforesaid case as follows:

I was a prisoner in Andersonville prison, Georgia, having been taken in April, 1864, and got out in October of the year after. During my confinement in that prison, I met a soldier, whom I recognized by his physiognomy as a Chinaman. He is the only person of that nationality whom I ever saw in the United States service. At the time that I knew this person at Andersonville, he was suffering a disability in one of his legs, which caused him to limb some. After my discharge from Andersonville, I never saw this person until after the close of the war, when I met him in Indiana, PA, and acknowledged him as the same person referred to above whom I knew at Andersonville prison. He is the same individual known as Thomas Sylvanus.

Affirmed further declare that I have no interest in said case and am not concerned in its prosecution.

Moses L. Steele

(This affidavit was sent to me by Ed. Milligan)

(Affidavit, page 1)

Indiana, PA, January 16, 1889

Hon. J.D. Cameron

Dear Sir,

In the matter of the Original Invalid Pension claims, no. 152,888, of Thomas Sylvanus, for increases in pension on account of other disabilities than mentioned in the original claim, Affidavit of Claimant and Physician’s certificate were forwarded to the Pension Office, some time last summer. The case is perhaps, somewhat peculiar, and have therefore to call your attention to it in the hope of (incurring action thereof)

Herewith find a copy of the Claimant’s affidavit.

The history of the case is this:

Thomas Sylvanus, or otherwise Ah Ye Way, is a Chinaman by birth. He was brought to America when about 8 or 9 years old. He fell into the hand of a Dr. Sylvanus in California, and by him afterward brought to Baltimore to the Dr’s sister, a Mrs. Duvall. At about 12 years of age, this "heathen Chinese" was christened as Thomas Sylvanus Duvall, ------- the name Thomas having been appreciated by the lad, out of regard to a kindly sailor of that same name, on board the ship which brought him to America ...................

(Respectfully referred to Hon. Jno. C. Black, Commissioner of Pensions)

(Affidavit, page 2)

Thomas Sylvanus Duvall was about 16 years old when the roar of the rebellion broke out. On the day that Gen. Butler arranged to march his Massachusetts troops through Baltimore, this lad was out in the city on an errand and was an eye-witness to the conflict between the troops and the mob. On the 31st August 1861, he enlisted in the 81st Rgt. P. V., under the name of Thomas Sylvanus, and was discharged 10th Dec. 1862 on account of disability. On the 11th Sept 1863, he re-enlisted in the 42 nd NY Vol., was sent to the front. Served in the Wilderness campaign, was finally captured before Petersburg, VA, in the movement along the Jerusalem plank road. He was thereafter a prisoner ----- most of the time in Andersonville ------ until the close of the war.

The disability for which additional pension is claimed, was occasioned in this way: At Cold Harbor, while making an advance, June 2, 1864, in the face of the enemies’ fire, our line were broken and forced to fall back. In making the advance, Sylvanus received a fall, sustained a slight cut upon the tibia of one of his legs, ------ not so bad, however, as to require treatment, nor to keep him off duty.

(Affidavit, page 3)

The only person present at the time of receiving the fall, with whom Sylvanus had acquainted, as far as he knows or able to recall, was one Peter McGinley, or, McGinliss, or McGinnies, (name not definitely recalled) and who was killed a few days later, in the rifle pits at Cold Harbor, by a shot from a rebel sharpshooter. The slight injury sustained, as above stated, has since resulted in Perrostitis (parotitis) over the tibia, near the upper end.

A Washington newspaper, some months ago, published an imperfect sketch of this same Thomas Sylvanus. I may here say, that so far as known, he is the first Chinaman credited with service as a soldier in the U.S. Army, and also the first, so far as I can learn, to become naturalized and has received his paper from the US court at Pittsburgh shortly after the close of the war. He is a member of the Indiana Post G.A.R.

Would you be kind enough to look into this case. If the Department will not act upon it, we will thus endorse to get special action by Congress.

Respectfully yours,

George Row

(This document was sent to me by Ed. Milligan)

A letter written by Mrs. May King (Thomas Sylvanus’s daughter)

(The first stamp said "US Pension Office, Mar 28, 1899")

(The second stamp said "Record Division, Mar 31, 1899")

Office of J. L. Davis, Justice of the Peace

Not on rolls of Pittsburg Agency

Grant, PA, Mar 14, 1899
Mr. J. S. Nesbit,
Pittsburg PA

Dear Sir,

Your favor of the 11th rec’ed.

In reply to questions asked, would say my father, Thomas Sylvanus, did draw a pension until his death which occurred the 15th day of June 1890. While in the Army, he was a member of Co. D, 81st Regt. Cannot say whether the Guardian ever made application for our pension or not. This name is Capt. J. S. Nesbit, Wagram Co. Accomac County, Virginia.

Very Truly yours,

Mrs. May King (Thomas Sylvanus’s daughter)

Grant, PA.

Webmaster’s notes and commentary on the following topics:

Ching Lee / Ah Ye Way became Ching LEE / Ye Way LEE

In the 19th century, a Chinese usually has more than one name. A person was given a name at birth, and usually took another name when attending school. So it is not unusual to have two names. The Chinese name Ching Lee (Thomas Sylvanus) was found in Stephenson’s book. The Chinese name Ah Ye Way (Thomas Sylvanus) was found in an affidavit sworn in by George Row. The character "Ah" is not part of a name, but an interjection indicating the name following "Ah" It is a verbal signal indicating a name is being called. So "Ye Way" is Thomas Sylvanus’s other Chinese name. In western nomenclature, the order of the family name goes last, and so his name became Ching LEE, where LEE is the family name. His other name would be Ye Way LEE. If we want to go with the Chinese traditional nomenclature, with the family goes first, Thomas’s Chinese name would be, LEE Ching and the other name would be LEE Ye Way.

The politically incorrect term, "Chinaman"

In today’s society, the word "Chinaman" is a derogative, insulting and discriminating word.
In order to be true to the 19th century historical document, where the term "Chinaman" was used, the webmaster made a decision not to change the word in order to preserve the authenticity of the document. Please keep in mind that the word "Chinaman" should be substituted with the word "Chinese".

Establishment of his Chinese ethnicity

It is without doubt that Thomas Sylvanus’s Chinese ethnicity is firmly established. Both Stephenson’s writing and the documents from the National Achieves confirmed the fact. Also the Australian researcher Terry Foenander had found Thomas Sylvanus is a Chinese, in a few years ago (1999) and he posted his finding in his website, Asians in the Civil War. "Thomas Sylvanus, China, Company H, 59th NY Infantry. (Muster Roll.)"

Possible / probable contact with the descendants of Thomas Sylvanus.

In the process of my research, it is very rewarding when I find descendants of these Chinese American Civil War veterans. On Edward Day Cohota, I found one of his descendants while my research friends (including Ruthanne Lum McCunn and Monty Hom) found at least two others. On Joseph Pierce, my research friend Irving Moy found a few of his descendants, and, one of Joseph Pierce’s descendant emailed me after she saw my website, and thus, through her, I found a few more descendants. By the same approach, I am hoping Thomas Sylvanus’ descendants (if any) may some day would contact me, so that we could complete the circle. I really don’t know for sure whether Thomas Sylvanus has any living descendants. But there is always hope. This is one of the reasons that I upload this website ----- to honor this unknown veteran.

Webmaster: Gordon Kwok
June 10, 2005

Reprint a news article on Ruthanne Lum McCunn visiting Indiana, Pennsylvania
From Indiana Gazette.com  Indiana, Pennsylvania
(Reprint with permission from Mary Ann Slater and the Indiana Gazette.) 

Author doing research on life of Chinese vet of Civil War

Tombstone of Thomas Sylvanus

By MARY ANN SLATER, news@indianagazette.net
Published: Monday, March 30, 2009 11:54 AM EDT
Twenty-first century technology and century-old archival records have helped a writer from San Francisco unravel the story of a Chinese American who moved to Indiana after fighting with Union troops in the U.S. Civil War.

Ruthanne Lum McCunn will be in Indiana this week to continue her research on Thomas Sylvanus, one of the relatively few Chinese Americans who fought in the war.

McCunn will also speak at two public forums about her writing and research on the lives of Chinese Americans in U.S. history. She will talk at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Indiana Free Library and 7 p.m. Thursday at Pratt Auditorium on the Indiana University of Pennsylvania campus.

A prolific author of fiction and nonfiction, McCunn has won several national book awards. ``Chinese American Portraits: Personal Histories 1828-1988,'' was named an outstanding academic book by the review journal Choice.

The 63-year-old author first learned about Sylvanus a few years ago.

Sylvanus fought with Union regiments from both Pennsylvania and New York, and was buried in White Township's Oakland Cemetery after his death in 1891. His grave was one of four rededicated in July 2005, in a ceremony conducted by the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War.

The service was featured in a story in The Indiana Gazette.

History buffs who knew about McCunn's long-standing interest in Chinese Americans in the Civil War - she had previously written an article about 10 other Chinese American soldiers that was later posted on the Web - alerted her to Sylvanus' tale as it appeared in the Gazette.

She soon became intrigued by Sylvanus' story - his arrival as a child in the United States, and his dedication to the Union Army despite his war injuries and the tribulations he faced during his years in Indiana County.In an interview last week, McCunn said Sylvanus was the most interesting Chinese American Civil War soldier she has studied.

``There's something about his personality I find very engaging,'' she said.

From her research, McCunn discovered Sylvanus first enlisted with Pennsylvania's 81st Volunteer Regiment in 1861. He was discharged due to injuries but later re-enlisted with New York's 42nd Volunteer Regiment. His days in battle must have been difficult, McCunn pointed out, as injuries left him partially crippled and almost blind.

He came to Indiana in 1868 to work at the refurbished Union Hotel, McCunn said. He married twice while living in Indiana County. With his second wife, Tillie Askins, of Cherry Tree, Sylvanus had three children, though one of his two daughters died very young.

McCunn said she learned from research that though Sylvanus was poor and in constant ill health, he worked hard to provide for his family.

``He was really severely disabled but never gave up. He demonstrated the same kind of tenacity, the same kind of will (that he showed in battle) in his life in Indiana.''

McCunn has pieced his story together in many ways - sifting through National Archives pension records; researching his family history through www.ancestry.com; and corresponding with former Indiana resident and Civil War buff William Radell, who helped McCunn by going through local records of the Grand Army of the Republic that are housed in the Historical and Genealogical Society of Indiana County.

``Will very kindly went through those records for me to find out when he (Sylvanus) joined the GAR,'' she said.

During her visit to Indiana, McCunn hopes to better understand how Sylvanus lived in the Indiana community in the late 1800s.

``I want to find people who are familiar with life (in Indiana County) in that time period. ... Facts are only just that. What I want to do is place them into context.''

She is not sure whether she will use her research for a nonfiction essay or a historical novel. But she believes Sylvanus deserves attention. In her writing, she likes to focus on unsung heroes, men and women who are not rich or famous but who consistently strive to do the best they can.

``It is to recognize the people because they are ordinary people. They are not the power brokers. ... But they are extraordinary to me.''

During her talk Wednesday at the library, McCunn will tell stories about the diverse individuals she has discovered in her writing about Chinese America. In her talk Thursday at IUP, she will discuss how she goes about researching the culture and history of Chinese Americans in the 19th century.

McCunn's visit to Indiana is sponsored by IUP's English and history departments, the Asian Studies Committee, Women's Studies and International Studies.

March 30, 2009

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Webmaster : Gordon Kwok
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Written on June 10, 2005
Updated and slightly revised on July 31, 2005
Revised and uploaded on March 30, 2009