Cambridge in the 1860s: The Third Annual Cambridge Archives Crawl

Cambridge in the 1860s: The Third Annual Cambridge Archives Crawl

Delicious ice cream was important in Harvard Square. Noise from students was a town/gown issue. The Cambridge Arsenal, guarded by Harvard students during the Civil War, was located at the corner of Chauncy and Garden Street. Emily Dickinson's mentor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, commanded the the first federally authorized African-American regiment during the Civil War and later founded the Cambridge Room, the archives and special collections room of the Cambridge Public Libary. These were among the small details of Cambridge life in the 1860s gleaned from a tour of nine extraordinary archives located in (mostly) Cambridge.

Organized by Gavin W. Kleespies, Executive Director of The Cambridge Historical Society, this week's tour, the third time this annual event has been held, visited and viewed rare orginal items from the collections of:

While slavery and the Civil War were the issues of the day in Cambridge of the 1860s, the objects unexpectedly encountered were the most intriguing.

At the Longfellow House, there were fragment's of Dante Alighieri's casket.

Longfellow House - Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site - 24

Henry Wadsorth Longfellow, who was the first American to translate Dante's The Divine Comedy, was presented these fragments by the wife of the then US Consul General to Italy who had obtained them from the man who had discovered Dante's casket in the 1860s.

Houghton Library, which houses Harvard University's collection of rare books and manuscripts, is the sort of place where you glance down at a display case and discover a book of the Gutenberg Bible. Houghton's surprise was a collection of recruiting posters for the Union Army, offering $200 bounties for enlistment. Regrettably, These posters were a surprise to Library staff as well. Vast portions of Houghton's collections, as well as that of the other archives, has yet to be meaningfully catalogued. Houghton's security policies prohibit carrying virtually anything into the Library, as well as photography.

Harvard's own archives gave a taste of student life in the 1860s. A pyrotechnist was hired for Class Day
Harvard University Archives - 15 and students using the gymnasium are cautioned to avoid all unnecessary noise while using the gymnasium. Harvard University Archives - 21

The Cambridge Arsenal, pictured above, is now noted only by the naming of its former location, the corner of Chauncy and Garden Streets, Arsenal Square. Guarded by Harvard students, it was also noted that Harvard had students from the south, and, thus, the Confederacy.

Much of the ephemera of the collections was delightful, but there were sobering objects as well. The Civil War uniform of Charles Longfellow was on display, complete with the hole caused by the bullet that wounded him and ended his service in the Union Army.
Longfellow House - Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site - 32
The pictures of emaciated prisoners of war were stark reminders of the horrors of that conflict. But according to one participant, the object that gave her the most chilling sense of being in the presence of history was the handwritten letter, housed at the Cambridge Historical Commission, from Abraham Lincoln thanking a Cambridge resident for their thoughts on gradual emanicpation. Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which was not gradual, a few months later.

Most of the items displayed, as well as the far larger collections, are available to researchers or interested observers through requests to the organizations. Exploration of Cambridge in the 1860s continues in August with Cambridge Discovery Days on August 6th and 13th.


Thanks for the show -- a fascinating dip into Cambridge's past.
Mary Holbrow