The aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars left many nations, including Prussia, in economic ruin and desolation. Many Central European nations responded as others had throughout much of recorded history. They targeted the Jewish populations with political persecution.
Jewish men were required to purchase letters of protection before they could engage in most businesses. Most could not afford the letters and had to take up the unrespected jobs. Without respected jobs, they could not marry. For the few who had letters, they were required to purchase a registration certificate, which was unaffordable to the vast majority of Jewish men.
In 1860, 28-year-old Abraham Cohn from the village of Guttentag in Prussia, was one of many German-speaking Jewish men seeking a better in the United States and chose to make New York their new home. There was nothing to make Cohn stand out from so many others who fled persecution. Had it not been for his actions in the war, he would have been little more than a footnote in history, if he was remembered at all.
On January 5, 1864, Abraham Cohn joined the 6th New Hampshire Volunteers as one Private among many. Unlike so many others, Cohn stood out and came into his own for the first time in his life. He was noted by his superiors, officers and sergeants alike, for his performance in the line of his duties right from the start.
There are no records to indicate why he chose the 6th New Hampshire over a New York unit, or why a battle tested group would accept him. There was nothing notable about him from his size to history. Whatever the reason, it would change the course of the war within a matter of months.
The 6th New Hampshire was already at Camp Nelson, Kentucky providing provost duty. They had been ordered there on October 25 of the previous year. They remained at Camp Nelson until March 10, 1864. He had shown himself to be a leader, but lacked battle experience.
Private Cohn fought alongside the other the battle-hardened 6th New Hampshire during the Overland Campaign. It was a push to take the Confederate capital, Richmond. General Grant was hoping to lure General Lee to fight in the open, since that would have removed the vaunted Rapidan River defenses. Had the defenses been abandoned for a direct fight between two warring forces, the Confederacy would have lost. They lacked the forces for open combat, which is why they remained on the defensive.
General Lee’s Northern Virginia countered every move General Grant made. It was the bloodiest battle of the entire war. The 6th New Hampshire was there from the start, and Private Cohn did more than just fight as the others. He became a battle tested leader of his men.
On March 28, 1864, less than three months after volunteering, he was promoted to Sergeant Major. Most Privates remained Privates throughout the Civil War. For Cohn to become not just a Sergeant, but Sergeant Major, the highest enlisted rank, shows just how truly remarkable he was in battle.
Following the failure of the Overland Campaign, came the Battle of the Wilderness, which took place between May 5 – 7, 1864. Wilderness is marked as the turning point of the Civil War. Without the victory to the Union, there would have been no taking Richmond the following year.
On May 6, Sergeant Major Cohn was under heavy fire and witnessed Union troops from different regiments starting to flee in panic from the approaching Confederate forces. He reorganized them into a line and had them return fire, which forced the Confederates to withdraw from the Union line. Had it not been for his actions, the Battle of the Wilderness would have been lost.
On June 15, 1864, the Battle of Petersburg began. General Grant marched his forces around General Lee’s and crossed the James River uncontested. Petersburg was vital to the fall of Richmond. General Lee found himself in a race with General Grant and lost.
The Union had numbers on their side, but Petersburg had defenses that could not be overcome before reinforcements arrived. General Grant may have won the race, but it was not by enough time. General Lee was able to reinforce Petersburg.
100,000 Union soldiers stood against 20,000 defenders. General Grant opted for a modified siege warfare over trying to take Petersburg directly. Significant fighting continued throughout hundreds of square miles. It resulted in the largest regimental loss of the entire war, which was the 1st Maine Heavy Artillery. Within 10 minutes of fighting, 632 men, out of 850, were either dead or wounded.
On July 30, 1864 Sergeant Major Cohn, was one of those defending the digging of the mine that would become the Battle of the Crater. Once again, he found himself under heavy fire and once again, he remained calm. His courage kept the mine being dug from falling into Confederate hands before the explosives were detonated.
Petersburg lasted until April 2 of the following year. 7 days after taking Petersburg, General Lee surrendered his forces, which brought an end to the bloodiest war in American history. Fighting on both sides would continue due to the time it took for news to reach the fronts and more lives were lost on both sides.
On July 7th, 1865, he was mustered out with the rank of 1st Lieutenant. During his 18 months as part of the 6th New Hampshire, he was wounded twice and fought in 11 battles. On August 24, 1865, Lieutenant Cohn received the Medal of Honor.
His Citation state:
During Battle of the Wilderness rallied and formed, under heavy fire, disorganized and fleeing troops of different regiments. At Petersburg, Va., 30 July 1864, bravely and coolly carried orders to the advanced line under severe fire.
Following the war, he returned to New York and did eventually marry.