Little was known of Private Mohammed Kahn until a technician named Jesse Willinski took the time during his lunch breaks to scan the record of a pension application into the U.S. Archives digitized collection of Civil War documents, and his co-worker, Kate Mersiolvsky, wrote about the documents on the Archives website in 2017. In order to prove that he deserved a pension, Private Kahn had to describe his experience in the Civil War in detail. Descriptions of his heroism, loyalty, and injuries would give greater evidence of his right to a pension and disability payments. Despite his heroism, Private Kahn was eventually given disability, but no pension.
Private Mohammed Kahn was also known as John Ammahail, John Ammahie, John Amamahe, Grey, Smith, John Kahn, and John Emahe. He was born in Persia between 1823 and 1830, and migrated to the U.S. in 1861 with an American official. Others described him as having a dark complexion, standing about 5’5″ or 5’6″ tall, and speaking imperfect English. Private Kahn enlisted after a night out with is friends who convinced him to join. He first served in the 43rd New York regiment, which was a white regiment, and he fought along side other Union soldiers at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. Soon after that battle, he became separated from his regiment because the train carrying his regiment left without him when he was sent to run an errand for the Quartermaster. He went to Hagerstown, Maryland to attempt to reunite with his regiment, but once he arrived there, he was arrested. He tried to explain that he was a member of the New York 43rd Regiment, but no one believed him. Officials sent him to work with escaped slaves in Pennsylvania.
Kahn was relentless in his attempt to find his regiment. He searched for months asking everyone he could about the whereabouts of his regiment.
Finally, just before the end of the war, Private Kahn heard that the 14th New York regiment was on a train headed toward the Battle of Wilderness in Spotsylvania, Virginia. He caught a train with them. Once in Spotsylvania, he was able to join his regiment at last, after 19 months and 2 days of separation. Just 15 minutes into the battle, he was shot in the left hand. He was sent to the hospital and while on furlough from the hospital for 30 days, he reported that he begged and slept on the streets. His wounds soon healed, and he continued to serve as a sharpshooter for the remainder of the war. When asked why he didn’t say in the hospital where he could get a good meal and a bed, he remarked that he was a, “dammed. fool.”
Private Kahn wrote several letters to apply for his pension over a time span of 10 years. He also obtained doctor reports and affidavits from friends and doctors he had seen to support his case. His own letters are believed to have been transcribed by a scribe who left his mark on is work. Private Kahn was initially denied his pension because he was reported to have deserted his regiment. He tried persistently to correct this error. He explained the factors that contributed to the delay in rejoining his regiment right away, citing the problems caused by his skin color and his inability to read and write in English. In 1876, it actually took an act of Congress to order that his records be corrected and his pension granted, but the records still were not corrected and no pension was awarded. In 1884, Congress refused in enforce the order, but no one is really sure why.
Private Kahn died in 1891 in Brooklyn, NY and was buried at the Cyprus Hill Cemetery at the age of 61. In the pension letters, Private Kahn describes his personal life after the war. He reported that he married his wife in Asia just before coming to the US, and he sent for her shortly after he arrived, but he didn’t see her until he returned to Boston from the war in 1865. The couple lived in Boston until about 1869 and had 2 children. One documents says that while living in Boston, he grew his hair long and he made his living selling beads and baskets. Several documents also mention that he had an herbal doctoring business there. One person reported that Kahn helped him read the Koran. When his children were just one and two years old, his wife died on a trip to Rhode Island. Kahn had her body brought back to Boston, and she was buried there.
Kahn then moved to Washington, DC and married a lady named Miss Kenney from Charlottesville, Va. She was described as a “bright looking mulatto” who made and sold beadwork. There are records of a Mohamed Dean Kahn who lived in Washington, DC and worked as a physician in 1879 and 1880 and another Mohamed Kahn, perhaps his son, who worked as a clerk in Washington, DC in 1882.
Kahn claimed several types of disability including rheumatism and heart disease brought on by exposure to the elements during the war, a head injury and a broken nose from a rifle butt to the head, and limited mobility in his hand due to the bullet injury he sustained. Some have questioned the role race played in Kahn’s requests for his pension. One pension officer investigator described Kahn’s as a, “lazy freeloader,” who was being helped by a network of Black friends. Whether or not race played a part in the decisions to grant the pension of Private Kahn, his documents paint a picture of a the life of a man caught between two worlds, the East and the West, as well as an America divided by racism.
- How did Private Kahn arrive in the US?
- What was Private Kahn’s role in the Civil War?
- Why did Private Kahn become separated from his regiment?
- What struggles did Private Kahn face as a person of color at the time?