Civil War: Unsung Chinese heroes who fought on both sides deserve recognition

A look at the little known stories of Chinese soldiers who served on both sides of the Civil War, fighting heroically and sometimes paying the ultimate price. Photo: Battle of Cold Harbor, 1864 by Kurz and Allison

VIENNA, Va., September 29, 2012 — Part 2: In the first segment of this two part column, we looked at the little known stories of Chinese soldiers who served on both sides of the Civil War, fighting heroically and sometimes paying the ultimate price.

Today we turn to a story that resonated into the Twentieth Century, the true story of a young Chinese man who went from starving stowaway to the battle of Cold Harbor.

It began when Sing Loo was discovered as one of two little Asian boys, four and six years old, who had stowed away on board the square-rigged merchant ship Cohota, in 1845 on a regular trip from Shanghai to Massachusetts. 

Sargent S. Day, captain of the ship, found the youngsters two days after sailing, and realized both were starving; how long before sailing they had eaten was anyone’s guess. The older of the two died and was buried at sea, but Captain Day took the younger boy, “adopted” him, and named him Edward Day Cohota, after the ship. The child sailed with the captain and his wife until Day retired in 1857, and they took him home with their own children, who accepted him as another brother.

Edward Day Cohota shortly before his death in 1935

When the war began, Edward Cohota enlisted in the 23rd Massachusetts Infantry, and saw considerable action in the Battle of Drury’s Bluff in May of 1864. He said he came out of the action with “seven bullet holes thru” his clothes, but “none touched his flesh.”

A Permanent Part in His Hair

It was at the Battle of Cold Harbor three weeks later that a Confederate mini ball went right across his head, leaving a permanent part in his hair, but he was not seriously wounded.   It is believed that Cohota was the only one of the Asian soldiers, who returned to military service after the Civil War ended, remaining in the Army for 30 years. He was stationed at Fort Randall, Dakota Territory, married and had six children.

For that length of time, remembering the promise of the U. S. Government to give citizenship after service, Cohota assumed he was a U.S. Citizen. However, he put off submitting his second set of naturalization papers until after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was passed, which rendered him not a citizen with no chance of becoming one.

Cohota evidently came through the whole episode with his sense of humor intact, since for years he enjoyed telling his children that he had always voted as a citizen, and had cast his ballot for Republicans for 30 years, even though he was not eligible all that time. He lived to the age of 93, served on the city council in Gloucester, and was Treasurer of Tyrian Lodge, Free and Accepted Masons.  He died in 1935 at the Battle Mountain Sanitarium for Veterans in Hot Springs, S.D. He also held a life membership in Masonic Arcania Lodge # 97 of Armour, S. D.

The amount of time Cohota spent in the military is the reason the military has more complete records on his life and service. Sometime in 1929, an article in the Rapid City Daily Journal gave tribute to Mr. Cohota, as follows:

“It is not an uncommon thing to see a grand old gentleman at the national sanitarium standing uncovered and at attention at “flag-down.” This refined, splendid looking old gentleman, who stands with such reverence and respect for the flag of his adopted country, is Edward Day Cohota, the only native-born Chinaman who went through the Civil War.

“His retirement pay was still coming when he arrived at the sanitarium, but he soon took a final discharge from the army and applied for a pension as a Civil War veteran. His claim was allowed at $72 per month.”

Devastation at Cold Harbor Battlefield

A caveat: in that era, and for decades afterward, “Chinaman” was a perfectly normal and accepted term for a person of Chinese descent. No opprobrium was intended or inferred.

From Silk Trade to Military

We have only slim information and conjecture as to how many of the Asian soldiers ended up in the army of either side. New Orleans was a favorite gathering place for those who had been in the navy, and many joined the troops to fight or were “invited” to join for a break from naval life.

Many Chinese in earlier years had first come to this country as part of the Manila, Philippines silk route, which ran from the island to Acapulco. We also have the Spanish to thank as they imported Chinese ship builders, one association leading to another. There were no Chinese women in the area, so they intermarried with native blacks, Creoles and others.

In any event, we now have verified service of more than a few Asians, including several Filipinos, who joined either the Confederacy or the Union forces to fight for their adopted land, and their dedication to this country deserves honor and respect. 

Regrettably, it instead led to the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which made it technically illegal for Chinese to become U.S. citizens, much less be citizens. This act was enforced until 1943.

It is sad that the U.S. government never kept its promise to them, since an earlier law said only whites could be naturalized, and that their service to the country has been overlooked for so long. These brave men in an adopted land deserve far more recognition, not to mention the reward of citizenship as promised, than they received.

Several historians have zeroed in on this subject, and I am grateful for their work in putting together this abbreviated story of the brave Asians who served during the Civil War.

Follow the column on Face Book or LinkedIn at Martha Boltz, and by email it’s MBoltz2846@aol.com Read more of Martha’s columns on The Civil War at the Communities at the Washington Times.


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Martha M. Boltz

Martha Boltz is a frequent contributor  to the long running Civil War features in The Washington Times America At War feature in the print and online editions. She has been a regular contributor to the original Civil War Page and its successor page since 1994, and is a civil war buff, historian, and writer. "Someone said that if we don't learn about the past, we are condemned to repeat it," she said, "and there are lessons of all sorts inherent in this bloody four-year period of our country's history."  She is a member of several heritage and lineage groups, as well as the Montgomery County Civil War Round Table. Her standing invitation is, "come on down - check the blog - send me your comments and let's have fun with its history and maybe learn something at the same time."

 

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