1st known Civil War Soldier of Asian heritage in VA history – Edward Day Cohota

Department of Veterans Affairs Public Affairs Office

In 1860, the U.S. population was 31,443,321 of which 34,933 were identified as being of Asian-Pacific Islands heritage. A majority of the Asian-Pacific Island population lived along the West Coast while roughly 200 lived east of the Mississippi River. Very few soldiers of Asian descent served in the Civil War, but one of them who did lived at what today is known as the VA Black Hills Health Care Center in Hot Springs, South Dakota.

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Edward Day Cohota was born in China around 1843 and brought to America from Shanghai in 1845 by Captain Sargent S. Day of the merchant ship Cohota. Some accounts of Cohota’s life claim that he was a stowaway on the ship, but he would have been too young to do so on his own. Captain Day took the boy to his home in Gloucester, Massachusetts, where he and his wife, Lucy, raised him as their own, along with their other children.

On May 16, 1864, at around 20 years of age, Edward Day Cohota enlisted with the 23rd Massachusetts Infantry to fight for the Union’s Army of the Potomac. He fought in numerous battles including Drury’s Bluff and Cold Harbor, near Richmond, Virginia, and was discharged on June 25, 1865 at New Bern, North Carolina.

In 1869, he enlisted with the Regular U.S. Army at Fort Randall in the Dakota Territory. He was stationed with the 15th Infantry in the American West and served for 30 years. After his discharge, he retired with his wife and children to Nebraska. He filed for a disability pension in 1921 and entered the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers’ Battle Mountain Sanitarium in Hot Springs, South Dakota, on June 25, 1922. He lived there for 13 years and died on November 18, 1935. Edward Day Cohota is buried at Mt. Hope Cemetery in Valentine, Nebraska.

Several exclusionary laws, most notably the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, forbid individuals of Asian descent from being naturalized as U.S. citizens. In those days, U.S. citizenship was not required to serve in the American military. President Franklin D. Roosevelt repealed the Chinese Exclusion Acts in 1943.

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