Californian finds Chinese relative buried in Carntonís Confederate Cemetery
By CAROLE ROBINSON, Staff Writer
After more than 140 years, there are still many stories told and untold stories about the Battle of Franklin being uncovered.
What began as a trip to Nashville for Fan Fair in 2005 became a life-changing event for Los Angeles resident Martin Chang.
Chang’s life has been a series of changes leading to an evolution and an understanding of purpose and self, but the discovery of an ancestor buried in the Confederate Cemetery at Carnton also redirected the quiet, unassuming young man to a clearer understanding of purpose.
“To me, Charles Chon must have had a purpose,” Chang said of the great- great uncle he discovered buried at Carnton. “He was a common soldier, he was captured (by the Union Army) at the Battle of Ark Post and spent time in a federal prison. When he was released, he reenlisted.”
Martin has uncovered tidbits of information about his ancestor, but there are still many questions unanswered about Charles Chon and the road that led a young Chinese man to Tennessee and the unusual discovery.
The Chang family, Chinese by descent, retreated to Taiwan when the Communists took over their country. They moved to California when Martin was in his early teens.
As the teenager grew and became Americanized, he acquired an interest in country music. It was that interest that eventually led him to change his religion from Buddhism to Christianity.
“I always preferred to listen to music I can connect with,” he said. “”To me, country music is the music of this country. There is a different culture that leaves room for God.”
The interest in country music also spurred an unusual interest in the South and the Civil War, specifically from the Southern point of view. There weren’t many people of Chinese descent involved in the Civil War, especially in the South.
“I was interested in the Civil War for some reason,” he said. “I didn’t even know there were Chinese in the war. I thought the Chinese came during the Gold Rush after the war.”
While visiting Music City in 2005, Chang, a computer information technology professional who works on large business computer networks, was drawn to Franklin to visit the Carter House, Carnton Plantation and Confederate Cemetery.
“First I came to the Carter House, took the tour, took some pictures,” he said. “It was late in the day when I went to Carnton – too late for a tour so I walked the grounds and walked the cemetery. When I was there I felt like I was on hallowed ground. I could feel honor there.”
On I-65 heading back to Nashville, Chang was compelled to turn around and head back to the cemetery to pray, even though darkness was fast approaching.
“That experience, to go back to pray at the cemetery, was very strange, especially because it was getting dark,” he said. “There was something familiar in the cemetery and I didn’t know why.”
He prayed at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, not knowing he had an ancestor buried nearby.
“I didn’t know Charles was in the war, I just needed to pray at the cemetery,” he said.
A couple months later, while surfing the Internet, Chang stumbled on a listing about Chinese in the Civil War by a Chinese member of a Civil War roundtable who researched and visited several Civil War battlefields.
“There were a lot of Chinese who fought for the Union, but most were in the Navy,” Chang said. “An entry mentioned a Chinese man buried at Carnton.”
That man was Martin’s great-great uncle, Charles Chon (the spelling has changed slightly over time and distance.)
“He is in a grave with a clearly marked headstone – number 66 with C. C. in the Texas Regiment.”
The discovery gave Martin Chang a new purpose, and an understanding of the direction he been led. He now wanted to know and understand his ancestor – the brother of his great-great grandfather.
To do so, he needed to do some walking in Charles Chon’s shoes, so he joined the Sons of Confederate Veterans, became a Confederate reenactor and a detective unraveling the story of his mysterious uncle who was a stone mason in Guangdong Province but landed in Shanghai where he disappeared.
“Hired by an American merchant,” Chang speculated.
The disappearance was around the time of the Taiping rebellion. When the Ch’ing Dynasty took over they killed 20 million Christians, Martin said.
“He may have been a Christian and escaped to avoid being killed,” Chang further speculates.
The next place he showed up was South Texas. He signed the papers to join the Texas Cavalry in York and died at the age of 22 at the Battle of Franklin.
Questions like how Charles landed in the United States – there are no records of his arrival, how he landed in Texas and in the notoriously tough Texas regiment that was a cavalry before taking to foot travel, and why he reenlisted, all remain a mystery.
“One thing for sure, he was tougher than nails,” said Thomas Cartwright, a historian at the Carter House. “Texans were tough. They brought the level up very high.”
There is a part of Martin Chang’s Chinese culture that lures him to be close to his ancestors, but the Christian he has become encourages him to connect with that ancestor.
“He left home, fought in a foreign war and died. He disappeared and140 years later I found him. I should do something for him.”
For now, Chang would like to get the aging headstone fixed and honor his great-great uncle in reenacting the Battle of Franklin and other Civil War battles in an effort to keep the memory alive.
Posted on: 11/29/2007