The Chinese Patriot

Chinese-American senior citizen wearing fedora and holding a cane
Retired U.S. Army veteran Edward Day Cohota

U.S. Army

The garrison at Fort Union had a surprise when Company C, 15th U.S. Infantry arrived at the fort in June 1872. The new arrivals included Edward Day Cohota, a native of China. Cohota's life was an odyssey that had taken him from the docks of China, to sea, to an adoptive home in Massachusetts, to the battlefields of the Civil War and now to the windy, western frontier of New Mexico.

A Hard Start in Life

Abandoned or lost by his family in the chaos of late Imperial China, Edward found himself alone as a small boy on the docks somewhere in China. Befriended by an American sea captain, Sargent Day, the little Chinese boy sailed around the world to Gloucester, Massachusetts. Captain Day's family embraced the small boy and raised him as part of their family in that seafaring town.

Cohota was the name of the ship on which young Edward sailed to the United States. There is very little known about his childhood and adolescence, but we do know that he enlisted in the Union Army in February 1864. His enlistment papers show his age as 18, but his personal copy of the regimental history is marked with the number "15" next to his age. Edward fought with the 23rd Massachusetts Infantry on several Virginia battlefields, including the slaughter at Cold Harbor, where he dragged a wounded comrade to safety behind a rock.

Back in the Army

Edward survived the Civil War and returned to Gloucester. Unable to find work, he went to Boston, hoping to sign on with a ship. Instead, he ran into some old Army friends (including a recruiting sergeant). They continued their reunion in a nearby saloon, and before he knew it, Edward was back in the Army. He enlisted with the 15th U.S. Infantry--and continued to re-enlist for 30 years.

Edward served at numerous forts on the western frontier, including several years at Fort Union during the mid-1870s. While serving at Fort Union, Edward was a cook for his company. He also helped build a military telegraph line across northeastern New Mexico. Along the way, Edward married a Norwegian immigrant, Anna, when he was in his late 30s.

Heartbreak and Injustice

After his Army retirement in 1894 (at Fort Niobrara in Nebraska), Edward opened a restaurant in Valentine, Nebraska, and ran it for many years. Five years after Edward retired, Anna died giving birth to their sixth child. Soon after his wife's death, Edward became sick and was unable to care for his children. The three youngest were put up for adoption. Then in 1910, a fire virtually destroyed his restaurant, but Edward re-built.

Despite his many years of service in the U.S. Army, some time after his retirement Edward was denied a homestead application in Nebraska. Why? Because he was not a U.S. citizen. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited Chinese immigrants from becoming citizens--the only piece of immigration law in American history that targeted a particular ethnic group. Despite years of Army service and repeated appeals, an angry Edward was unable to get the decision reversed. (The ban on citizenship for native Chinese was not removed unitl 1943.)

The Final Years

Late in life, when Edward was about 80 years old, he returned to his boyhood home of Gloucester, Massachusetts, where he was re-united with his adult children. There, he also visited with the now aging soldier he had saved on the Cold Harbor battlefield.

Edward spent his last years at a veterans' home in Hot Springs, South Dakota, where, on a regular basis, he would go outside and stand at attention for the lowering of the United States flag. When he died in 1935, in his 90s, Edward still had not been granted U.S. citizenship.

To learn more about Edward Cohota and other Asian-American soldiers in the 1800s, see Asians and Pacific Islanders and the Civil War, edited by Carol Shively and A Chinese Soldier in the Indian Wars, by Thomas Lowry.

Last updated: January 7, 2021

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