by Allan Branstiter
It has been twenty years since my dad received a box of magazines from a truck driver outside a plastic pipe factory in Muncy, Pennsylvania. Not every dad would accept a beaten box of glossy mags from a trucker, and even fewer would bestow said box upon their 12-year-old son. But my dad did, and in doing so kicked off what became a life-long interest in the history of the American Civil War. I remember the event vividly: Dad pulling up in his Ford Ranger just after dinner, the soft sides of a heavy cardboard box straining to contain its contents, and the colorful images of soldiers fighting and dying upon the shining covers of the innumerable issues of Civil War Times Illustrated staring back at me as I deposited them all over my bedroom floor.
Of the thousands of pages I would eventually read about the Civil War as a boy, a single page stands out in my memory more than the rest. On the final page of many issues of Civil War Times Illustrated during the early 1990s, the editors would dedicate a page to the life of individual veterans of the Civil War. One was set aside for Joseph Pierce, the adopted Chinese son of a sea captain who served in the 14th Connecticut Infantry at Gettysburg. Pierce’s image currently hangs in the Gettysburg Museum; however, few people knew about him twenty years ago. When I first discovered him, Joseph Pierce’s existence unsettled me for reasons that took me years to understand. I remember that moment clearly. Pierce’s Asian face stared up from the page at my Asian face—two brown bodies surrounded by a sea of white culture and white history.
To understand why I was shaken by Pierce, you’ll have to understand my youthful obsession with the Civil War as more than a boyish affinity for wartime glory, uniforms, and adventure. We might start with what historians have long referred to as the Civil War’s “memory.” For 150 years, the dominant public memory of the Civil War was defined by white Americans. Films like “Birth of a Nation” (1915), “Gone with the Wind” (1939), “Gettysburg” (1993), and “Field of Lost Shoes” (2014) romanticized, whitewashed, and de-racialized the conflict. Even “Glory” (1989), a film about the storied 54th Massachusetts, is told primary from the perspective of the black regiment’s white commander. Meanwhile, the memory of the war has largely glossed over the war’s important effects on racial questions beyond emancipation, like settler colonialism and cultural imperialism. The traditional narrative of the Civil War has also largely ignored the experiences of non-white people, rendering it a white war for the soul of a white nation.
Beyond films, the well-kept national battlefield parks also serve primarily as monuments to the white dead. Nationalistic and ethnic kinship subsume notions of ideological differences in these sanctified places, and tourists are left with an impression that the Civil War was an unfortunate conflagration of political disagreement. Whether he fought for the North or South, the Civil War veteran is remembered as the epitome of the American citizen soldier. Casting ballots, shouldering arms, remembering the dead, and shaking elderly hands with former foes. What could be more American than the Civil War soldier?
Ta-Nehisi Coates once wrote that black parents during his childhood believed that “a true history, populated by a sable nobility and punctuated by an ensemble of Negro ‘firsts,’ might be the curative for black youth who had no aspirations beyond the corner.” When he was a child, Coates and his classmates were shipped from Baltimore to Gettysburg to learn about the war that “had the magical effect of getting us free” in an attempt to bestow these black inner-city kids with some sense of legacy and history. For him, that trip only served to alienate and remind him that the Civil War’s memory wasn’t built with black folks in mind. Instead, it taught him that white people, be it through public policy or historical memory, believed that the existence of black people in America was a problem.
I was fascinated by history for different reasons. As a young half-white child, separated from his Filipina mother and raised as a white working-class kid, my early years were marked by confusion, tension, and desire to conform to my white surroundings. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I was attracted to the Civil War due to the romance and de-racialized nature of its popular memory. The war was like a salve that could wash the color from my skin like Pear’s Soap. Lacking the guidance of model who could guide me as I reconciled my body with my culture, I sought to wash away my brownness and join the world of white folks. To a naive young half-caste, obsession with the Civil War seemed like a way to whiteness akin to baseball, apple pie, country music, and white bread. All I had to do was embrace the lessons the war’s memory had to teach and I’d be fully integrated into Ted Turner and Robert E. Lee’s America.
One of photography’s great powers is its ability to allow the viewer to connect with the subject’s humanity of great distances and time. When I first saw Joseph Pierce’s portrait, what I experienced was more than a mystical sense of shared humanity. What I felt was the pang of being brown in a white nation, as well as the our forgotten history. I remembered that I wasn’t what I wanted to be. I remembered that I existed somewhere between belonging and alienation.
The author of the article made no attempt—at least one that stuck with me—to understand Pierce’s motivations for fighting for the Union. The author also did not explore the man’s life as a racial “other” in a country dominated by whites. What stood out was a description of Pierce’s long queue of hair and how peculiar white soldiers thought it looked. But Pierce’s picture told me more than the writer’s summary of the soldier’s life did, and it told me more than the queue of hair that separated Pierce from the culture around him.
In Pierce’s face I recognized myself—a young man seeking to understand their place in America. In his calm face I saw my own flat nose, almond eyes, and shiny black hair. I also recognized the awkward juxtaposition of an anglicized name and an oriental face. His mother was missing, as was mine. His seafaring father brought him home and instilled a willingness to serve in the military in him. So did mine. Perhaps I was projecting, but I sensed a kindred spirit trying to earn his place in white society by participating in the rituals of white American masculinity. What I sensed was that the Civil War could be more than a war for union, secession, slavery, or emancipation; it could also be a war fought in order to belong.
Clearly, I’m still working this all out. I’m 33 years old now, and I’ve got my own war under my belt. I still struggle to put to words why the Civil War and Joseph Pierce matters. I’m still trying to understand why Civil War reenactors and their vision of a simplified past makes me seethe, and why the academic discussion regarding the conflict still alienates me. I’m still trying to understand why I once saw the Civil War as a way to destroy my non-white identity. I’m still trying to understand why many Americans don’t recognize the war’s ability to oppress people in the twenty-first century. I’m still trying to understand why intelligent people still don’t see plantation weddings, Confederate flags, and over-zealous reenacting as injustices. I’m still trying to understand whether or not I’m wrong.
As Dr. Max Grivno once told me, the goal of the historian is to understand the past. I can’t help but to see it as an opportunity to understand myself, too. But one thing’s for sure—Joseph Pierce’s ponytail reminds me that you’ve got to embrace your otherness. If you don’t, someone will use it against you. It also reminds me that what makes a person unique can strengthen our understanding of the past. As people of color there are things we know that can’t be taught . . . and those things can make all the difference. Hopefully the story of Joseph Pierce and his effect on a twelve-year-old boy will convince people that we need more people of color studying history. And if studying Civil War history made me feel like an outsider in my own nation, let it be known that it also gave me a way to analyze and undermine that very sense of alienation as well. Thank God for that.