Had it not been for the fact that they were conjoined, Eng and Chang Bunker — better known as the original Siamese Twins — might have made pretty good Civil War soldiers.
After all, the athletic prowess of the former circus performers was well-known and their chosen home of Surry County was definitely part of Dixie.
Although the Siamese Twins did not go to war after tensions between the North and South reached the boiling point in 1861, their sons did, according to a presentation Saturday by author-historian Tom Perry. Perry, of Ararat, Va., appeared at Mount Airy Museum of Regional History as part of a “History Talks” series there.
The program was attended by about 40 people, including several descendants of the twins, based on a show of hands.
Nearly everyone in the rural South was caught up in the war, and that was true of the Bunker brothers, who married two sisters in the area and produced large families. The twins were nearly 50 years old when the hostilities broke out, along with being joined at the sternum by a small piece of cartilage, thus limiting their involvement.
However, Christopher Wren Bunker (born in 1845), Chang’s eldest son, and his first cousin, Stephen Decatur Bunker (born in 1846), whose father was Eng, both served in Company “I” of the 37th Battalion of the Virginia Cavalry.
A disproportionately large number of people of Asian descent fought in the Civil War, Perry said.
Records of Stephen Decatur Bunker’s military service are sketchy, but more is known about Christopher Wren’s exploits, according to Perry, citing letters and other documentation. His research regarding the twins and their families is part of a new book he is authoring on Surry County’s involvement in the Civil War.
The cousins’ cavalry unit engaged the Yankees in present-day West Virginia, along with other areas including southwestern Virginia, Tennessee, the Shenandoah Valley and Pennsylvania when Rebel forces invaded that Northern state and burned the town of Chambersburg.
The two served under Gen. Jubal Early, one of the war’s more colorful figures.
Letters home from Pvt. Christopher Wren Bunker tell of the hardships and high points of serving during a bloody conflict, Perry’s presentation detailed.
At one point, the young soldier wrote of his unit’s activities in Rogersville, Tenn.: “There we saw a little fun, catching Yankees.”
Yet little “fun” was to be had as the war progressed, Perry told the audience.
Because of serving in the cavalry, maintaining a horse was a constant problem, including one instance in which Christopher’s mount was shot out from under him at the Battle of Moorefield, W.Va. — a cavalry engagement that was part of the Valley Campaign.
“The Confederates had to supply their own horses,” Perry explained, unlike the practice of the Union Army.
During the Battle of Moorefield, in the war’s later stages, Christopher Wren Bunker was captured on Aug. 7, 1864, and imprisoned at Camp Chase in Ohio. Conditions there were horrible, with Bunker passing his hours of captivity carving boats and musical instruments and reading the Bible, Perry said.
The captive detailed how he and others there received only enough rations to keep them alive.
However, unlike many others who either died in battle or captivity, the Bunker cousins survived the war and for many years afterward. Christopher Wren Bunker lived until 1932 and Stephen Decatur Bunker died in 1920.
Part of Perry’s program involved shooting down some myths about the Siamese Twins’ history during the Civil War.
One concerns a story about Northern Gen. George Stoneman — who led a raid into Surry County — trying to draft one of the brothers into the Union ranks, but not the other, which is mentioned in a book about the twins titled “The Two.”
Perry said he finds it hard to believe that Stoneman, who had a force of 4,000 troops, would want to enlist someone from Surry County. “But it’s a great story,” he added.
The local historian said it is known that some of Stoneman’s men sought out the Siamese Twins during their foray into Surry. They were aware of the Bunkers’ celebrity status from their earlier career with P.T. Barnum’s circus. “It’s amazing to me that Stoneman’s men knew they were here,” Perry said.
“Imagine that — someone coming to Mount Airy because of a famous entertainer,” the speaker joked in reference to Andy Griffith.
In addressing other unsubstantiated stories regarding the twins’ link to the war, Perry said he has been unable to find evidence of presidents Abraham Lincoln or Andrew Johnson meeting the two.
However, Perry mentioned that Eng and Chang Bunker have been a part of American pop culture, both then and now.
This included being the subjects of a humorous article by Mark Twain which had them on opposite sides in the Civil War, though they didn’t actually fight. It reads in part:
“During the war they were strong partisans, and both fought gallantly all through the great struggle — Eng on the Union side and Chang on the Confederate. They took each other prisoners at Seven Oaks,” Twain wrote humorously.
“But the proofs of capture were so evenly balanced in favor of each that a general army court had to be assembled to determine which one was properly the captor and which the captive. The jury was unable to agree for a long time; but the vexed question was finally decided by agreeing to consider them both prisoners, and then exchanging them.”
Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or email@example.com.