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Saturday, April 5, 2008

Just where was William Cowhey during the Civil War?

As always with the study of genealogy, one discovery opens up more questions and sets the seeker of family history off in new directions.

It was no different when I received the multi-page file from the National Archives & Records Administration detailing my great-great-grandfather William Cowhey's application for pension for his service during the Civil War.

The file is a fascinating series of affidavits, medical reports, declarations, claims, and other government documents, including a gem handwritten by his brother Thomas detailing a particular war experience that he suffered through with William. Read that story at Crossing the Potomac with William: a soldier's story.

One new piece of information that appears on various documents throughout the pension file had me puzzled initially. I knew from previous research that the two brothers had served together for 3 months during 1861 in Pennsylvania Infantry Company I-16 of Pottsville: from April 26, 1861 to July 30, 1861. Alongside William's service in Company I-16, his additional time in the service of the Union is also mentioned. According to affidavits signed by William and his wife Margaret (Foley) Cowhey and also according to the War Department, William also re-listed and served from January 30, 1862 to January 30, 1865 in Company L-5.

That's a significant time in the service of the Union. Of particular interest to me is the fact that it occurred after the onset of William's rheumatoid arthritis (which, according to his statements in the pension file, had its onset during his first three months of service in 1861).

These facts open up many more questions for me in terms of what type of action William Cowhey saw during the Civil War and what type of life he led, health included.

In my initial search for more information about these additional three years of William's life as a soldier during the Civil War I've received help from Military History Online and its Civil War forums. Thanks to the knowledgeable and generous individuals who read and comment on the forums, I've confirmed that William seems to have served in Company L 5th Artillery, Regular Army. (There is more than one Pennsylvania 5th, you see).

I've also received a brief summary of what type of action William's regiment saw during the course of their three years of service, but have lots more to learn. The history of the U.S. Regular Army Battery L 5th Artillery online at the Civil War Archive doesn't seem to square exactly with the dates listed in the documents that I have indicating William Cowhey's time of service. That and the History of the 5th U.S. Artillery online along with the Civil War Soldiers & Sailors website may provide some clues as to William's life as a soldier from 1862 to 1865, but I have a lot more research to do before I can make sense of it all.

Now, there was no draft back during the time of the Civil War, so William had to have been recruited as a volunteer. Why would a man with rheumatoid arthritis (which presumably was first set off because of his duties as a soldier) offer to enlist again - and how would he serve for three full years?

I was interested to read the suggestions of one commenter on the Civil War forum: "Maybe his arthritis was better, and maybe he had liked his stint in the 13th PA. Possibly he was down on his luck and 'three hots and a cot' sounded good. Maybe he had a friend(s) enlisting in the Regular Army."

There is probably no way for me to learn what William Cowhey's motives were for serving in the Union Army those three additional years. (Unlike William, his brother and fellow-first defender Thomas never re-enlisted.) But just what did William Cowhey experience during the Civil War? Three years fighting for the Union is a long time. With a little more research I hope to find out just where Company L-5 went and what they did during their three-year tour of duty.

Stay tuned for more on the story of my great-great-grandfather William Cowhey, Union soldier...

Source: William Cowhey (Pvt. Co. I, 16th Pa. Inf., Civil War), pension no. S.C. WC 376.459, Case Files of Approved Pension Applications, 1861-1934; Civil War and Later Pension Files; Department of Veterans Affairs, Record Group 15; National Archives, Washington, D.C.

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