In the Archives: William A. Cowles and the Civil War

Author: Kayla Allen, Archives Assistant and graduate student in the History MA Program at UMass Boston

Daguerreotype portrait in a gold frame of William Cowles in uniform from the waist up

William A. Cowles in uniform. Sitting recorded in Cowles’ diary: 06/02/1863, New Orleans

If you want to learn more about the Civil War or see some handwritten sheet music from the 1800s, you need look no further than our William A. Cowles papers, 1834-1905. William Cowles was a young man during the Civil War and he served in the Union Army twice with the 42nd Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteers. On his first tour, Private Cowles played the French horn in the band of the 42nd Regiment while they were stationed in New Orleans. Later, Cowles served as a corporal in the same regiment. During both of his tours, Cowles had to leave behind his young wife, Josephine Lewis. Luckily, Cowles survived the war and was able to return home to Josephine and father two children.

After Cowles’s and Josephine’s deaths, his papers made their way into the possession of author and historian Anthony Mitchell Sammarco, who donated them to the Healey Library’s University Archives and Special Collections. The digitized part of this collection includes images (such as daguerreotypes and tintypes) of Cowles, Josephine, and at least one of their two daughters. It also consists of war-time documentation like Cowles’s furlough card, discharge papers, and a muster call. In addition, there are obituaries and funeral information for both Cowles and Josephine, Cowles’s medals and ribbons, and his tuning fork. Some of the larger objects in the collection are Cowles’s sewing kit and portable writing desk (which he would have had with him on his tours), his journals documenting his experiences during the war, and his small book of music containing all of the pieces he played while on active duty.

Please feel free to take a moment and “thumb” through the pages of Cowles’s journals and music book. We also have a typed transcript of some of his writing that might be helpful. When you’re ready, you can check out the digital collection and the physical collection’s finding aid.

Grossmann Gallery exhibit features diaries and journals from University Archives & Special Collections in the Healey Library

IMG_6238Diaries and journals offer a unique lens through which to study and experience historical and historic events and time periods. A current display in the Walter Grossmann Gallery in the Joseph P. Healey Library, entitled “WINDOWS TO THE PAST: Diaries and Journals from University Archives & Special Collections,” uses the writings of three individuals to reflect on life in Massachusetts and in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century.

This display serves as a companion exhibit to another display in the Grossmann Gallery entitled “‘A PERSONAL MANIFESTO … OF SORTS’: The Diaries of Carol McEldowney,” which explores the life of activist, writer, and women’s self-defense educator Carol McEldowney. Read about that exhibit here.


William A. Cowles, circa 1862

The first individual featured in “WINDOWS TO THE PAST” is William A. Cowles. Born in Dorchester, Massachusetts, in 1834, Cowles served two tours of duty with the 42nd Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteers during the Civil War. He married Josephine Lewis of Quincy in 1858 and the couple had two daughters. The Cowles family later moved to Billerica, Massachusetts. William Cowles died on September 15, 1905. The Cowles papers in University Archives & Special Collections consist primarily of the journals that Cowles kept while serving his first tour of duty in New Orleans. Included in the display, along with those journals, are a ration book and a music book, newspaper clippings, photographs, and a printed history of the 42nd Regiment. View a fuller description of the Cowles Papers here. Select materials from this collection have also been digitized and are online here.

Also featured in the display are diaries and other materials from the Albert D. Healey collection. Healey (no known connection to Joseph P. Healey) was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, on April 27, 1888, and moved to Dorchester in 1902. Healey began recording his personal diary in January of 1903 and ended it in 1908, his last year at Harvard College. According to Healey, he intended to “write a sort of diary in which I shall state the most important happenings of my life every day for a year” and “it is very probably that I shall not finish it, because I seldom finish such things after starting them, and if I should finish probably nobody will ever see it.” The collection contains a number of diaries, a sketch book, poetry and a short story draft by Healey, among other materials, many of which are included as part of the display. View a fuller description of the Healey collection here.

Wedding of Robert and Arabella Bellamy (photo contributed to the Mass. Memories Road Show by Robert Severy), September 24, 1913

Wedding of Robert and Arabella Bellamy (photo contributed to the Mass. Memories Road Show by Robert Severy), September 24, 1913

And finally, a number of materials related to Robert Bayard Bellamy are on display as part of “WINDOWS TO THE PAST.” Bellamy was a civil engineer and surveyor who held several positions with the Works Progress Administration during the 1930s. Included as part of the Bellamy Family Papers in University Archives & Special Collections, donated by Robert Bayard Severy, the Robert Bellamy papers include personal correspondence between Bellamy and his wife, Arabella (or Belle), during the Depression when Robert was forced to leave the area to find work. Also included are a number of household expense journals and personal diaries by Bellamy, including a copy of his diary from 1926 to 1951. In his diary from 1893, which is included in this display, Bellamy, then in his early teens, describes life in Dorchester, his school, attempts with friends to find the best spots in the city for sledding in the winter and fishing in the summer, and a train trip through western Massachusetts. View a fuller description of the Bellamy Family Papers here.

From remembrances of wartime to reflections on daily life, these diaries, journals, and sketchbooks present multifaceted entry points for exploring Massachusetts history and life.

Visit “WINDOWS TO THE PAST” in the Grossmann Gallery on the 5th floor of the Healey Library at UMass Boston. The exhibition will run through the spring of 2016.

For questions about these collections or to schedule a research appointment, please email or call 617-287-5469.

To learn more about all of the exhibits currently on display in the Grossmann Gallery, click here.

University Archives & Special Collections in the Joseph P. Healey Library at UMass Boston collects materials related to the university’s history, as well as materials that reflect the institution’s urban mission and strong support of community service, notably in collections of records of urban planning, social welfare, social action, alternative movements, community organizations, and local history related to neighboring communities.

University Archives & Special Collections welcomes inquiries from individuals, organizations, and businesses interested in donating materials of an archival nature that that fit within our collecting policy. These include manuscripts, documents, organizational archives, collections of photographs, unique publications, and audio and video media. For more information about donating to University Archives & Special Collections, click here or email