This is believed to be an image of Woo Hong Neok taken at Lancaster, circa 1863-1864. (Photo National Archives)
He was born in 1834, in the southern Fujian Province of China.. An American missionary negotiated with the officers for him to serve as a cabin boy on the Susquehanna. Woo served the ship’s surgeon John S. Messersmith, a native of Lancaster. Upon his arrival in Philadelphia on March 10, 1855, Woo accompanied Dr. Messersmith to his home at 40 North Lime Street in Lancaster where he resided for nine years.
He was also one of the few Chinese in the entire country granted citizenship before the outbreak of the American Civil War. After general Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia crossed into Pennsylvania in the days prior to the July 1-3, 1863, Battle of Gettysburg, Woo enlisted in the Union army.
“I volunteered on June 29, 1863,” he later wrote, “in spite of the advice of my Lancaster friends against it, for I had felt that the North was right in opposing slavery. My friends thought I should not join the militia and risk my life in war, for my own people and family were in China and I had neither property nor family in America whose defense might serve as an excuse for my volunteering.”
Enrolled as a private in Company I of the Fiftieth regiment Infantry of the Pennsylvania emergency Militia commanded by Captain John H. Druckemiller, Woo was first assigned to defend against a possible Confederate approach to Safe Harbor at the mouth of Conestoga Creek in Lancaster County. On the company’s muster roll his name appears as Neok Ung Hong. From the Franklin County seat his unit marched to Maryland, through Hagerstown to Williamsport, where it was stationed for picket duty at Dam Number 5 on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. Destruction of this dam by the South would thwart Union efforts to move troops and supplies. Woo’s assignments included cooking, sentinel work, and target practice as well as long marching drills. After returning to Camp Curtin in Harrisburg, Private Woo was mustered out of service on August 15, 1863.
In 1864 in New York he boarded the Kiukiang, a vessel operated by the Oliphant Company, and arrived at Shanghai in May where he dutifully registered as an American citizen at the American Consulate. Woo Hong Neok, a citizen of both China and America, as well as a veteran of the American Civil War, died on August 18, 1919, seven years after the fall of the Qing Dynasty, and was interred in the Westgate Cemetery in Shanghai, the oldest Christian burial ground in Shanghai.
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A farmer in Fujian, China walks through the morning sun light as he makes his way to the fields with his bull. Photograph by TheamMeng Sea