Edward Day Cohota and Chinese American Soldiers in the Civil War

Cowboy Recreation and Nature Trail

Asian American/Pacific Islander History Migration & Immigration Military & War

A studio portrait of Edward Day Cohota taken in the 1880s, two decades after his Civil War service.

Courtesy of Cape Ann Museum

The Cowboy Recreation and Nature Trail passes right alongside Valentine, Nebraska’s Mount Hope Cemetery, within whose grassy expanse lies the grave of Edward Day Cohota (~1840s–1935), a Chinese veteran of the Union and U.S. armies. Cohota moved to Valentine in the mid-1880s, when the U.S. Army transferred him to Fort Niobrara, and he lived out the rest of his life between northwestern Nebraska and South Dakota. [1]

For years, Cohota maintained he was the Union Army's only Chinese soldier, but that was far from true. [2] Over 300 men from Asia and the Pacific Islands served in both the Union and Confederate armies—a high number considering the population of Asian and Pacific Islanders in the United States was less than 40,000 in the 1860s. [3] Immigration from Asia and the Pacific Islands spiked in the 1850s, following the discovery of gold in California; however, Asian and Pacific Islanders have lived and worked in the Americas since the 16th century. Beginning in the 1500s, global trade linked the Atlantic and Pacific colonies of European empires, and as ships sailed along these trade routes, they carried people and goods from Asia and the Pacific Islands to the Americas. Many of these individuals were sailors who hopped off ships in harbors like New Orleans and New York, while others were coerced or contracted laborers brought to Hawaii, Latin America and the Caribbean to do backbreaking work for little or no money. Missionaries, ship captains and merchants also brought children back to the United States when they returned home from the Pacific. [4]

Cahota was among the latter group. Although the story of his birth and immigration to the United States are unclear, newspaper stories published in the late 19th and early 20th centuries offer myriad origin stories, some more embellished than others. It is likely that Cohota was born in Shanghai, and was brought to Gloucester, Massachusetts, by a ship captain named Sargent S. Day. [5] The Days raised Cohota alongside their two biological children. He was a teenager when the Civil War began, and Captain Day had to sign a consent form when Cohota enlisted in February 1864 because he was a minor. [6] Cohota first served 16 months with Company I of the 23rd Massachusetts Voluntary Infantry and fought in several battles, including at Drury’s Bluff and Cold Harbor. He somehow survived without injury, though he had a narrow miss when a bullet flew so close to his head that it parted his hair. [7]

Cohota mustered out of the Union Army in June of 1865, after the Civil War ended, but he reenlisted shortly thereafter (this time in the 15th Infantry of the U.S. Army). It was the beginning of a 30-year military career that ultimately brought Cohota to the plains of South Dakota and northern Nebraska. In 1883, while serving at Fort Randall in Dakota Territory, he met and married Anna Dorothea Hallstenson. The army transferred him to Fort Niobrara shortly thereafter, and the couple's six children were born in Valentine. Cohota retired from the army in 1894. [8]

Tragedy befell the Cahota family at the turn of the century. Anna died in February 1899 when their youngest child, Miles, was only five months old. [9] Cohota sent their children to an orphanage—it was common at the time for a widowed, working parent to use orphanages to care for their children when paid work limited their ability to do domestic labor—but Miles did not survive without his mother. [10] The next year, Cohota was arrested, charged with stealing cattle and spent 9 months in jail before being acquitted by a jury. Once freed, he opened the Kangaroo Restaurant on South Main Street in Valentine. [11]

Cohota’s life continued relatively peacefully until 1912, when he went to apply for a homestead; under the Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909, American citizens were eligible for a grant of 320 acres of public land for farming. Cohota believed he had become a naturalized citizen after he enlisted in 1864, because foreign-born soldiers were offered citizenship in exchange for fighting. Cohota had even voted in U.S. elections since the 1860s. However, he neglected to formally petition the government for naturalization, and by 1912 it was too late; the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 made it illegal for Chinese living in the U.S. to become citizens. Cohota tried to get Congress to intervene, but was unsuccessful. [12]

Suffering from age-related health problems, Cohota spent his final years living at the Battle Mountain Sanitarium for Veterans in Hot Springs, South Dakota. Despite the late-in-life move, Valentine was still home, and after his death, his body was returned to Valentine and buried in Mt. Hope Cemetery. [13]


  • [1] Ruthanne Lum McCunn, Chinese in the Civil War: 10 Who Served (Ruthanne Lum McCunn: 1995), 156.
  • [2] Alex Jay, "Edward Day Cohota, 1931 and 1935,” The Blue, the Gray and the Chinese, March 26, 2014,; Alex Jay, "Edward Day Cohota, 1927–1929,” The Blue, the Gray and the Chinese, March 25, 2014,
  • [3] Ruthanne Lum McCunn, “The Numbers,” in Asians and Pacific Islanders and the Civil War, ed. Carol A. Shively (Washington, DC: National Park Service, 2014), 33; Terry Foenander, “Those Who Served,” in Asians and Pacific Islanders and the Civil War, ed. Carol A. Shively, 239–47.
  • [4] Gary Y. Okihiro, "Asians and Pacific Islanders in the Americas,” in Shively, 6–15; Ruthanne Lum McCunn, “The Pacific Pig Trade,” in Shively, 15–20.
  • [5] Jay, "Edward Day Cohota, 1931 and 1935”; Jay, "Edward Day Cohota, 1927–1929.” See also: Alex Jay, “Edward Day Cahota: Shanghai, China,” The Blue, the Gray and the Chinese, March 18, 2014,
  • [6] McCunn, Chinese in the Civil War, 153–54.
  • [7] Ruthanne Lum McCunn, “Edward Day Cahota,” in Shively, 78–79.
  • [8] McCunn, Chinese in the Civil War, 154–56.
  • [9] Alex Jay, "Edward Day Cohota: Valentine, Nebraska, 1898–1917,” The Blue, the Gray, and the Chinese, March 24, 2014,
  • [10] Jessie B. Ramey, Child Care in Black and White: Working Parents and the History of Orphanages (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2012).
  • [11] Jay, "Edward Day Cohota: Valentine, Nebraska, 1898–1917.”
  • [12] McCunn, Chinese in the Civil War, 156–57.
  • [13] Ibid, 158.

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