The untold saga of people from the Indian subcontinent, who enlisted and served in the US Civil War of the 1860s, has been uncovered through the National Archives and the newly set up database, Civil War Soldiers System (CWSS) in Washington, D.C.
This is the first time that the extant of South Asian participants in the US Civil War is being revealed. The work continues as we examine pension files in order to supplement the list of names with a more complete record of information about the experience of these enlistees and their families throughout the Civil War era. Efforts are also underway to locate their surviving family members through genealogical resources.
The work continues as we examine pension files in order to supplement the list of names with a more complete record of information about the experience of these enlistees and their families throughout the Civil War era. Efforts are also underway to locate their surviving family members through genealogical resources.
As more military, immigration and other public documents are being made available by the National Archives, Indian-American scholars are in a position to contribute to the general body of human knowledge by researching their own history in America. And it is clear from recent evidence that that history, as we know it, deserves to be rewritten.
While the primary source for this research has been NARA and the National Park Service's CWSS
Our attempt here has been to place the South Asian connection with the American Civil War into the hands of the public so that other researchers can build on what has been discovered.
This research is part of a planned electronic database commemorating the deeds of South Asian Americans from 1650 to 1950. That is, much before the large-scale immigration from the subcontinent. The first part of this research uncovered the story of slaves from the subcontinent who were brought to the US colonies during the 1680s (http://www.indolink.com/displayArticleS.php?id=071204025816).
Our efforts are sustained by the inspiration of third generation Indian-Americans, Zadie Jivan and Riya Jivan.
SOUTH ASIAN SOLDIERS/SAILORS
Because many of these South Asians had anglicized their names on coming to the U.S., it is often difficult to confirm their nativity from the name alone. But fortunately the military archives and the records relating to them provide enough information about their place of birth along with some physical features.
Records reveal that the South Asian servicemen who came from India were born in Calcutta, Bombay, Madras, Burhampur, Pondicherry and Bangalore. And their complexion was categorized variously as mulatto, creole, negro, swarthy, bronze or dark. They came from a variety of backgrounds: sailors, mariners, machinists, farmers, cooks, laborers, as well as the occasional student. They had enlisted in the Navy, the Cavalry, Artillery, and Infantry, serving in various capacities -- from Sergeant and Seaman to Fireman, Steward, and Cook.
In the Navy, Desis were enlisted for service in the following vessels: USS Wabash, Minnesota, Narraganset, Anacostia, Mystic, Lancaster, Pontiac, Orvetta, Tristram Shandy, Marriot, Boxer, Antona, North Carolina, Iroquois, Niagara and Monitor. In the cavalry they served in the following regiments: 16th New York, 3rd Missouri State, 6th New York, 4th Pennsylvania and the Ist West Virginia. They formed part of the 31st and 19th US Colored Troops, the 1st and 11th New York Independent Battery, the 13th New York Heavy Artillery, and the volunteer corps in Oregon, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Desis also served in infantry battalions in Massachusetts, Missouri, New Hampshire, New York and Connecticut.
According to Australian researcher Terry Fenander, because of the very liberal enlistment policies in the Union Navy at that time, there were a number of sailors from India, China, Philippines and various parts of Asia listed on the muster rolls of various vessels. Fortunately the muster rolls also show the complexion of these sailors and as such we can also assume that someone shown as ‘black’, ‘yellow’, ‘copper’ or ‘swarthy’ is obviously a native of the country they were born in. In addition, there were some with “fair” complexion who were categorized as ‘probably Caucasian’ who could be of European descent, but born in India.
Among the sailors is the fascinating story of an Indian Parsi prince from Lahore who served in the US Navy, made his home in San Francisco, and upon his death in 1911, was interned with full military honors at the Presidio. In the Civil War database one can also discover another young man from India who served in the New Hampshire Infantry, receiving the medal of honor on 30th July 1864 for being “one of the first in the exploded mine, captured a number of prisoners, and was himself captured, but escaped”. There is also one soldier who died of typhoid while on duty.
As the raw information is gathered, faint shadows become clear pictures; names become real people. Hopefully, this raw information will becomes fascinating stories - all waiting to be uncovered by the intrepid researcher. We hope the information presented here will enable other researchers to identify the extant families of these veterans and their surviving family members in the U.S.
ANTONIO F. GOMEZ alias RUSTUMJEE C. BEY
Perhaps the most intriguing story is that of Conjee Rustumjee Cohoujee Bey. All the ingredients for an Indian American historical novel can be salvaged from the life story of this Parsi who claimed Punjabi royalty as part of his Indian heritage. We are presently examining the roots of his Lahore connection with the help of the History Department at Lahore Government College.
This is the bare outline of the story that can be pieced together from his military and pension records and from newspaper archives.
Born 10th December 1836 into a princely family of the Punjab, at the age of 12 the young Rustomjee was packed off from Lahore to be educated in London. Twelve years later the adventurous young man, with the British flag tattooed on both arms, arrived in New York. He became the protégé of the famous Rev Henry Ward Beecher. Beecher managed to convert him and promptly assigned him a Hispanic name, which didn’t quite clash with his princely good looks.
Because Beecher would have liked to transform the Parsi prince into a Christian minister, he encouraged Gomez to pursue studies towards the ministry. But the compulsions of war wrought a significant change in the young Indian's trajectory. It happened on 8 February 1862, when Gomez walked into the sprawling Navy Yard in Brooklyn and enlisted as a Ward Room Steward aboard the USS North Carolina. He went on to serve aboard the USS Dacotah and the Iroquois. Two weeks after his first discharge Gomez reenlisted to serve aboard the USS Niagara where he was discharged April 1865 in Lisbon, Portugal.
After spending some time with the Beechers, Gomez made San Francisco his home, becoming perhaps the first South Asian to settle and raise a family in the city. His home, first at the 1600 block of Gough Street and, after the 1906 earthquake, at 2500 block of Gough Street, was in the heart of San Francisco. A year after the death of his first wife Alice Vass in 1888, Gomez married Suzanne Dutreux at the Grace Episcopal Church in San Francisco.
For 44 years Gomez worked for the Navy Pay Office in downtown San Francisco. And when he died of pneumonia in 1911 the Navy gave him full military honors, interning his body in the Presidio. His wife Suzanne and their four children survived Gomez. We are in the process of locating the descendants of Gomez’s son and three daughters, who are believed to have lived in Oakland, California.
OTHER SOUTH ASIANS IN THE CIVIL WAR
Another resident of California was William Packenham, First Class Fireman, who enlisted in the USS Narraganset, aged 24. He was born in Bangalore and had a dark complexion.
The records of Charles Simons, who earned a Medal of Honor from President Lincoln in 1864, indicate that he was born in India, had enlisted in Virginia, and attained the rank of a Sergeant in Company A of the 9th New Hampshire Infantry.
The Muster Rolls of the USS Minnesota show a John Burns of Madras, India, as having served in that vessel. Burns, aged 23, was a mariner by occupation and he enlisted on June 17, 1864 for 3 years at New York. He was described as having gray eyes, black hair and a dark complexion.
Henry S. Bell, a native of Calcutta, aged 21, and a baker by profession, enlisted February 24, 1862 for the war at New York. He is shown in the Muster Rolls of the USS Orvetta and USS Pontiac and described as Negro. Similarly Joseph Sortee of Madras and John Joseph (USS Lancaster) a mariner from Bombay, are both described as Negroes. James Bradshaw of Calcutta who served as a cook aboard the USS Mystic is described as “black.” Another, Joseph Raimen, also from India, is described as Creole.
Peter Blake, 23, born in Ceylon, enlisted on June13, 1864 in Boston as a Wardroom Cook and served for two years aboard the vessels Tristram Shandy, Massasoit and Boxer. The records describe his complexion as “Mulatto.”
George Buttery of Madras, described as having a dark complexion, enlisted April 18, 1864, served in Company B, 7th New York Infantry and was promoted to sergeant on May31, 1865. He also served in the 17th Regiment, Connecticut Infantry.
Peter Mendola (23) born in Calcutta and with black complexion enlisted on July 30, 1863 in Boston as an ordinary seaman and worked aboard the naval vessel Wabash.
According to the New Hampshire Navy Rosters, Alfred G. Mitchell, Seaman, USS Beauregard and USS Dale, aged 27, occupation Seaman, enlisted August 31, 1864, for 3 years, at Portsmouth, New Hampshire. He was born in Calcutta and is described as having gray eyes, black hair and dark complexion.
There are a few who were born in Java, Malaya or in the Philippines but described as East Indian. For instance, there is one Joseph Fernandez born in the ‘East Indies’ who served with the 19th U.S. Colored Troops. We have not included them in the list of South Asians
HOW THE RESEARCH WAS DONE
We have used The National Park Service's (NPS) Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System (CWSS), a computerized database containing basic facts about servicemen who served on both sides during the Civil War. The CWSS names index is derived from 6.3 million soldier records maintained by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). The information includes name, place of birth, place of enlistment, and military service records. Additional information about soldiers, sailors, regiments, and battles, as well as prisoner-of-war records and cemetery records, are in the process of being added.
The data entry phase of the 6.3 million soldier records was completed in 2004. The records have gone through the enormous and tedious task of being edited for accuracy, by the NPS staff. Recently, the final one million soldier names were made available. This completes the soldier names phase of the CWSS. A special ceremony was held on September 27, 2004 at Ford's Theatre, Washington, DC to commemorate this significant milestone.
Historians have determined that approximately 3.5 million soldiers actually fought in the War. A soldier serving in more than one regiment, serving under two names, or spelling variations resulted in the fact that there are 6.3 million General Index Cards for 3.5 million soldiers
In the meantime, the NPS has partnered with Howard University to identify African American sailors who served in the Union Navy during the Civil War. The research has resulted in a database of approximately 18,000 African American sailors from various historical Navy documents, which we have accessed.
The original service records and the pension records of Civil War veterans are maintained at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, where they are available for research. The records exist in their originally created form or on microfilm. United States Navy personnel records for the period 1861-1924 are one of the best secrets in genealogical research. These records commonly contain information that is otherwise unobtainable in federal records. The personnel records include military service records and pension records. The former document volunteer military service, and the latter document compensation due a veteran or widow for disability, age, or loss.
Pension records are more likely than military service records to contain genealogical information because a dependent had to prove his or her relationship to the veteran. The proof the federal government required included signed affidavits, service records, marriage licenses, and personal testimonies of service. From these records you can learn such information as the sailor's name and rank, name of ship and period of service, and the sailor's date of birth or age and place of residence. Other information such as cause of death may be included in a sailor's file, as well.
Unlike other wars of the past 150 years, the US Civil War was fought on American soil.
But it touched every person and influenced every institution more profoundly than any other event in American history. Over half a million young Americans gave their lives fighting for or against the effort by Southern states to secede from the Union and to preserve a society based on slave labor. Not only were civilians deeply scarred by the war, but also no aspect of the society, economy, or political system was spared. To this day, no part of the American past attracts so much continuing interest as the War Between the States.
Yet the stark truth remains that extensive research will never be an easy pursuit.
Thorough combing for files on a substantial subject will require time spent in Washington and the unglamorous scanning of reels of microfilm, handwritten papers, or both. Unglamorous, but not necessarily unrewarding. The archival researcher is the custodian of files that, with perseverance and luck, can resurrect hidden gems of information. The secret is that, for all the labor and time they can absorb, the archives and the records themselves are immensely satisfying. Not only do they inform and enlighten, they can also touch and inspire those intrepid enough to seek them out.
This story of forgotten Desis who chose to fight for America and in American soil, is just one example.