Sergeant-Major Abraham Cohn, one of the 9,000 Jews who fought for the Union (some 2,000 Jews fought for the South), won the Medal of Honor for valor above and beyond the call of duty at the Battle of the Wilderness and the Battle of the Crater in 1864. (Historical records indicate at least six Jewish-Americans received this award during the period 1861-1865.) The record of his deeds and those of other Jewish-American participants in the Civil War are preserved at the National Museum of American Jewish Military History in Washington D.C. This article will focus on Sergeant-Major Cohn’s exploits during the Battle of the Wilderness.
As is the case with so many other Civil War participants, there is little or no pre-war evidence to indicate Sergeant-Major Abraham Cohn of the 6th NH Volunteers was Medal of Honor material. Born in the East Prussian town of Guttentag on June 17, 1832, he came to New York at the age of 28 during the mid-19th century flood of German Jewish emigration. He was not a physically imposing man; his service record describes him as, "….five feet five and ½ inches high, florid complexion, blue eyes, black hair, and by occupation, when originally enrolled, a Teacher." Yet there must have been something of a soldierly nature in Sergeant-Major Cohn because within 18 months of service he rose from the rank of Private to 1st Lieutenant, fought in eleven battles, was twice wounded, and won the Medal of Honor "for conspicuous gallantry" in the Wilderness, May 6, 1864 and "for bravery & coolness" at The Crater, July 30, 1864. (Cohn enlisted as a Private in Co. E, 6th NH Volunteers in Campton, NH on January 5, 1864 and was promoted to Sergeant-Major on March 28, 1864.)
In May, 1864, the 6th New Hampshire, assigned to Major General Ambrose Burnside’s IX Corps, was helping to guard the rebuilt Orange & Alexandria Railroad from Manassas Junction south to Rappahannock Station. The Battle of the Wilderness began in earnest on May 5, 1864 when the Army of the Potomac under General Ulysses Grant tangled with General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at two key locations: the tiny settlement of Wilderness Tavern (where Sedgwick’s Union VI Corps and Warren’s Union V Corps faced Ewell’s Confederate II Corps) and the junction of the Brock and Orange Plank Roads (where A.P. Hill’s Confederate III Corps met Hancock’s Union II Corps). As the fighting intensified, Grant ordered IX Corps to fill the gap between these forces by means of an all-night forced march that brought Burnside’s men south of the Rapidan River and into the Wilderness. After a day of confused fighting that ended in stalemate, The Army of Northern Virginia was facing a critical situation. Longstreet’s Confederate I Corps, ordered to move north from Gordonsville as quickly as possible on May 4, was still ten miles from the road junction where A.P. Hill’s under-strength Confederate III Corps was fighting for its life. Ewell’s Confederate II Corps, meanwhile, was heavily engaged with Sedgwick’s and Warren’s troops. Tomorrow, Lee knew, Hancock would advance with 20,000 veteran troops against A.P. Hill and there would be little left with which to stop him - unless Longstreet arrived on time. (Late on May 5, the 6th New Hampshire, assigned to Griffin’s Brigade of Potter’s Division of Union IX Corps, was ordered to reinforce Wadsworth’s Division of Union VI Corps as Wadsworth prepared to attack A.P. Hill’s left flank).
At 5 a.m. on May 6, 1864, Union II Corps began its expected attack on the Confederate positions, advancing in three battle lines on a front more than a mile long. By 7 a.m., the Union troops had advanced more than a mile and the Confederate lines were beginning to crumble. Soon Wadsworth’s Federals were closing in on Lee’s headquarters at the Widow Tapp Farm; all that stood between them and a Confederate disaster were 12 guns commanded by Colonel William Poague of Virginia. Poague’s artillery repeatedly blasted the oncoming Union troops with cannister but they kept advancing despite their mounting casualties. Then disorientation set in as the Federal advance (including that of Potter’s Division) became bogged down in the thick, entangling underbrush of the Wilderness, losing direction and momentum when they could ill-afford it.
At that pivotal moment, Longstreet’s 20,000 men arrived on the scene; four brigades of Confederate I Corps used the bed of an unfinished railroad as a means to hit Wadsworth’s Division at 11 a.m. with a massive counterattack. After suffering 1100 casualties in the early morning Union assault, Wadsworth’s men began to steadily give ground in the face of the Rebel onslaught. Then, shortly before noon, disaster struck; General Wadsworth fell mortally wounded while trying to rally his troops and his loss caused what remained of his division to head for the rear.
It was at this time that Sergeant-Major Cohn, in the words of his Medal of Honor citation, displayed "conspicuous gallantry in rallying and forming under heavy fire disorganized and flying troops of different regiments." Although the historical details of his actions that day are not available beyond what is described in the citation, we can make several assumptions based on similar events in other Civil War battles. The 6th New Hampshire, a battle-tested, veteran outfit with a reputation for steadiness and courage under fire, was probably serving as a backstop for the Union retreat from the Widow Tapp Farm. The Confederates would have advanced, shouting the Rebel Yell as they went, steadily pushing back elements of Wadsworth’s Division until they reached the 6th NH’s lines. The Rebels then would have opened up a heavy fire against the Yankees. Lieutenant Colonel Henry Pearson, CO, 6th New Hampshire, (who was later killed at Cold Harbor) knowing he would need every man he could find to hold off the Rebel attack, in all probability assigned Sergeant-Major Cohn to collect and organize whomever he could from those fleeing the battlefield to shore up his lines. This meant Cohn had to cajole and coerce soldiers from other units who didn’t recognize his authority (and whose only concern at that moment was to get away from the battle as quickly as possible) to stand and fight with the 6th New Hampshire while hundreds of Confederate .58 caliber Minie balls were flying about. Somehow, largely through the efforts of Sergeant-Major Cohn, the rag-tag elements of retreating soldiers were brought together and formed into a defensive line that brought Longstreet’s counteroffensive to a standstill.
Sergeant-Major Cohn served with the 6th New Hampshire until mustered out on July 17, 1865 as a 1st Lieutenant. He moved to New York City after the war where he was active in business affairs. Married and the father of eight children. Cohn died in New York City on June 2, 1897 at the age of 65. He was buried in the Cypress Hills Cemetery.