Indiana, PA - Indiana County

Author doing research on life of Chinese vet of Civil War

by MARY ANN SLATER, on March 31, 2009 12:00 AM

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.

(Originally published Monday, March 30, 2009)

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; 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.

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