Today’s post comes from Kate Mersiovsky, National Archives Technician
Since I’ve become an archives technician in the Innovation Hub Scanning Room at the National Archives, I’ve seen my fair share of interesting records. Researchers have digitized the pension of presidential widow Lucretia Garfield, the pension of Harriet Tubman, and the Supreme Court cases In Re Gault and U.S. v. Edith Windsor. Recently one of my fellow technicians, Jesse Wilinski, found another unique record- the pension file for Mohammed Kahn, a Muslim soldier who served in the Civil War.
It is rare to find records of Muslim Civil War soldiers in our holdings. So far, Jesse has only encountered two pensions, and historians know of only about 250 Muslim Civil War soldiers in all. This record, therefore, sheds light on a unique perspective that is often overlooked. As a Muslim immigrant serving in a white unit, Kahn experienced challenges even more extreme than the hardships normally associated with a 19th century infantryman’s life.
Jesse is always on the lookout for unusual records and has fostered relationships with many of the researchers who come in to study our Civil War pension files. One of these researchers, Jonathan Deiss, tipped Jesse off to the existence of Kahn’s pension, which he scanned in the Hub during his lunch breaks.
Private Mohammed Kahn, also known as John Ammahail, was born in Persia, circa 1830. Raised in Afghanistan, he immigrated to the United States in 1861. About two months after his arrival he enlisted in the 43rd New York Infantry Regiment, following a night out with friends who convinced him to join.
In his pension application, Kahn recorded the many battles he either took part in or knew to have occurred nearby, the injuries he sustained, and the duties he performed while serving as both a cook and an infantryman. A few days after the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863, Kahn was separated from his unit and arrested in Hagerstown, Maryland, by a Union guard who brought him to the Provost Marshall’s headquarters. Though Kahn tried to explain that he was a member of the 43rd New York, the guard did not believe him, insisting that he could not be part of a white unit, as he was not a white man. Kahn was eventually sent to Philadelphia with recently escaped slaves to work, where he spent months trying to find his company or anyone else who would help him reunite with the 43rd New York.
When the Battle of the Wilderness started in May 1864, Kahn found a New York regiment – the 14th New York Infantry – that was taking a train down to the battle. In his desperation, he managed to jump on the train as it was pulling out of Philadelphia, and traveled with the 14th to Washington, DC. From the capital, he struck out on foot, following other squadrons down to the front in Spotsylvania, Virginia. He arrived on the last day of the battle and was finally able to rejoin his company in battle. Just fifteen minutes after his return, he was shot in the left hand. Despite this injury, Kahn, once healed, spent the rest of the war as a sharpshooter and ultimately served throughout almost the entire Civil War.
Want to learn more about Private Mohammed Kahn? His digitized pension application is now available in the National Archives Catalog, where you can help transcribe his story. Visit our Citizen Archivist dashboard to get started.
If you are interested in digitizing Civil War or other pre-World War I military records, come by the Innovation Hub at the National Archives in Washington, DC. We help researchers scan military service records, pensions, bounty land warrant applications, and carded medical records, and add these scans to the Catalog. We’re open Monday through Friday, 9 am to 5 pm. If you have any questions about our citizen scanning project, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.