Hidden in the books of Indiana County’s rich history, is one name that stands out among Civil War veterans – Thomas Sylvanus, a remarkable figure whose tale unfolds like a forgotten chapter of valor and adversity.
Born on July 4, 1845, in China as Ching Lee, Thomas embarked on a journey that would see him become the only Chinese-American veteran of the Civil War listed on U.S. pension rolls. Little is known about his early years until, at the age of 7, he was brought to the United States by Mrs. McClintock. She hoped that he would live a missionary’s life, however as the Times put it, he “did not take kindly to her plans.”
At just over 16, he enlisted in the Union Army under the name Thomas Sylvanus in August 1861 in Philadelphia – Company D, 81st Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. The reasons behind his choice of the name Sylvanus remain unknown.
Thomas Sylvanus’ war record echoes with impressive feats. Discharged in 1862 due to disability, he refused to be sidelined, re-enlisting in Company D, 42nd New York Volunteers. His journey led him through the Seven Days Battle before Richmond and engagements at Mine Run, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, and in front of Petersburg. At Spotsylvania, he displayed exceptional courage as a corporal of the Color Guard, keeping the regiment’s colors flying even after his comrades were disabled.
The horrors of war caught up with Sylvanus as he was wounded during a charge at Cold Harbor on June 1, 1864. Captured on June 24, he endured the dreadful conditions of Andersonville Prison in South Carolina surviving until the war’s end but tragically contracting a disease that nearly destroyed his eyesight. He was honorably discharged in Jacksonville, Florida on May 26, 1866.
The mystery of why Sylvanus chose Indiana as his post-war home remains unsolved. Around 1870, he settled here, granted a small veterans’ blind pension. In 1874, he married a woman by the name of Woolweaver, but the union was short-lived. A divorce followed in 1878, and Sylvanus began a new chapter in his life with Tillie Askins. They had four of five children, but were not married until February 16, 1891, when the Indiana Times reported they obtained a license and were married by George Row, a justice of the peace.
His small pension was likely insufficient to support a family, so he tried to supplement it by selling fish and fruit. In August 1880, he opened a laundry, and by 1881, he was marketing his “celebrated shirt policy” at $1 per bottle. The paper also stated that his house was then located “at the skating rink.” This possibly could have been the skating rink which was located near Armory Hall located at the corner of Water Street and Carpenter Avenue, which is now the Parking Garage. Sometime after 1881, Sylvanus moved, because at the time of his death, his home was on North Sixth Street.
In February 1891, Sylvanus health deteriorated due to a severe cold. It was reported that a physician refused to see him at that time because he could not pay. When the plight of the family became known, the Overseers of the Poor took charge of the children. Sylvanus was angered by this and insisted “there was no necessity for doing this.”
Thomas Sylvanus died June 15, 1891, at only 46 years old.
A member of Indiana Post No. 28, G.A.R., Sylvanus’ legacy received due recognition. State Senator Hannibal K. Sloan delivered a poignant eulogy in Library Hall (Church Street at the site of the present Rochester and Pittsburgh Coal Co. building) on May 29, 1892.
Sylvanus’ family faced dire poverty after his death, and Tillie Sylvanus struggled to make ends meet. By September 1891, she was working for a pittance of $2 a week and had to leave the children – ages 15, 12 and 10 – home alone. Complaints arose about other children of the neighborhood congregating at the home, and it was alleged that the oldest child would send the two younger ones away on some pretend errand so the others could drink and carouse. Apparently, for this reason two of the children were placed in the Soldiers Memorial Home in Brookville shortly afterward. What was done about the 15-year-old is not known.
In May 1895, Tillie Sylvanus was arrested on a charge of stealing and jailed because she could not obtain bail. If she did steal, one could surmise that it was out of desperation and necessity.
One of the children, John Sylvanus, apparently continued to live in Indiana until about 1904. An item in the Indiana County Gazette dated January 3, 1906, reported that John Sylvanus had died in Cincinnati and that “about a year ago he was charged, along with another man, of holding up and robbing a third party at the P.R.R. depot in this place. He left town during the night and has not been in Indiana since.” The Gazette also noted that his wife, Myrtle, daughter of Christopher Smith, had begun divorce proceedings and was in Altoona at that time.
Thomas Sylvanus, a genuine Chinese-American soldier, left an indelible mark with his fine service to his adopted country. Although he was not a “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” his birth on the Fourth of July adds a poignant layer to a forgotten hero’s tale in the heart of Indiana County.