In the late 1960s, as a high school student and stamp collector in Farmington, Maine, I paid a fellow member of the local stamp club $15 for a shoebox full of “covers.” A cover is the entire card or envelope to which a collectable stamp is affixed. The box contained several dozen, perhaps a hundred or more, miscellaneous pieces of mail, if not all then most of them from about 1860 to 1920 and most of them local to the Farmington area. Since my siblings and I, through our father, are descended from several families of Farmington’s early settlers, this box inevitably contained items originally mailed to some of those ancestors or side-branches of the family tree.
My father’s mother and grandmother lived two hours away, in Portland. Both died early in 1969, the year I graduated high school. They were the last of Dad’s ancestors, and after they were gone I was given a packet of old letters and cards from the same era because I was the stamp collector in the family. When I went away to college and then into the Army, these items all ended up in one pile. Much of my personal stuff was stored in a shed that burned in my absence. Strangely, my stamp collection was not stored in there.
While I have long since abandoned collecting individual U.S. stamps, I did keep those philatelic covers. I still have the curious piece of Civil War history shown here and transcribed below so it can be more easily read. (There are a few more interesting pieces from the Civil War and earlier. As time permits, I will scan, transcribe, and share those as well.)
One side of this piece is addressed to E. S. Butler. (Ephraim Sherman Butler, farmer, 1805-1878, married Caroline Knowlton in 1830, an earlier branch of whose family gave rise to Knowlton, McLeary, & Co. Caroline’s brother, Jason Knowlton, is my great-great-great-grandfather.) The other side, A CARD, contains this single, strange paragraph:
An article having recently appeared in the “Farmington Chronicle” supposed to refer in part to myself, and the said article containing false and libelous statements and innuendoes, I hereby denounce the Editors L. N. Prescott and J. S. Swift as SLANDERERS AND LIARS. I cannot condescend to bandy personalities with these vulgar libelers who have a press at their control (which I have not) ; and I believe their characters to be so well known that nothing they can say will be sufficient to put me on the defensive in this community.
I warn the public against the abovementioned scurrilous journal.
September, 15, 1864 CLIFFORD BELCHER
I obtained this piece of paper when it was already over 100 years old and owned it for nearly 50 more years before learning anything about its author. On the now-ubiquitous internet I found A HISTORY OF FARMINGTON, FRANKLIN COUNTY, MAINE, FROM THE EARLIEST EXPLORATIONS TO THE PRESENT TIME, 1776-1885. BY FRANCIS GOULD BUTLER, MEMBER OF THE MAINE HISTORICAL SOCIETY. Published FARMINGTON: PRESS OF KNOWLTON, McLEARY, AND CO. 1885. (All quoted passages below are taken verbatim from this book.) Now I know much more about Clifford Belcher as well as the likely circumstances of his tirade against the newspaper.
The Butler and Knowlton families in the Farmington area were so intertwined and intermarried between 1776-1885, the period covered by this book, that they could have assumed the combined name, Knowbutlerton.
This book lists four men going by the name Clifford Belcher, (strangely unrelated to the Knowbutlerton clan and thus not my relative), one of whom would be the author of A CARD.
One Clifford died in 1773. Another Clifford was born in 1778 and died in 1832. Then there is “Clifford, b. March 23, 1819 graduated at Harvard College in 1837. He was a successful lawyer in New Orleans, La., until impaired health compelled him to relinquish his profession. He d. in Boston, Dec. 25, 1879, leaving a large estate ; unmd.” This Clifford Belcher was alive at the right time, but evidently never came near Farmington and is only mentioned in the genealogy section.
Under “early traders” the book lists Clifford Belcher (1778-1832) among merchants at Backus Corner (no specific year). Then there is this about the same person: “Clifford Belcher in 1804 began trade in general merchandise, at the upper part of the Center Village, where the greater portion of the business of the place was then transacted. His store was situated just below Joseph Titcomb’s. He was a shrewd and sagacious merchant, actively engaged in business until near the time of his death.” This Clifford Belcher, the “early trader,” is the Belcher grandfather of the author of A CARD. He had a brother, Hiram Belcher, about whom more later. Clifford (1778-1832) had a son, Samuel Belcher, born in 1814, who became a lawyer in his younger years and who served as Speaker of the House in the Maine legislature in 1849-1850. And it is this Samuel Belcher’s son who is the author of A CARD.
The next paragraph is merely to provide the apparent origin of the given name, Clifford, which appears so often among the several generations of Belcher’s:
“Of the twelve children of Josiah and Ranis Belcher, the eighth was Edward, who was born Jan. 19, 1669. In late life he purchased an estate at Stoughton and removed there, and died March 16, 1745. His widow survived him until March 5, 1752. Clifford Belcher, the youngest of the six children of Edward and Mary (Clifford) Belcher, married June 24, 1740, Mehitable, daughter of Samuel and Sarah (Clap) Bird, and granddaughter of John and Elizabeth (Williams) Bird of Dorchester. He owned a large estate in ancient Stoughton, where he resided until his death, April 26, 1773. His wife was born Dec. 8, 1706, and died Feb. 20, 1779.” [This Clifford Belcher, namesake of the others mentioned above, was given his mother’s maiden name.]
Which brings us to the Clifford of A CARD. There are these two helpful statements in the book, both referring to the same man:
1) “S. Clifford Belcher – Captain Co. G, 16th Infantry. Mustered in Aug. 14, 1862. Promoted major. Wounded at Fredericksburg and at the Wilderness, Va. Served two years, one month.” Note that time frame. Two years, one month from the date he mustered would be September 14, 1864. Now note the date on A CARD: September 15, 1864.
2) “Samuel Clifford Belcher, b. March 20, 1839, entered Bowdoin College at the age of fourteen, and graduated in course with the class of 1857. After his graduation he served for three years as preceptor of Foxcroft Academy, which position he resigned in 1860 to enter the office of Hon. Nehemiah Abbott of Belfast as a student at law. The following year he was admitted to the Franklin County Bar. Soon after the outbreak of the Rebellion, Mr. Belcher enlisted in the United States Service, and June 4, 1862, was commissioned captain of Company G, 16th Regiment of Maine Volunteers, immediately leaving for the front. This regiment was among the most gallant among the Maine regiments. It took part in the battle of Fredericksburg, where Captain Belcher was slightly wounded; it also served in the Chancellorsville campaign, and at Gettysburg. To this regiment at Gettysburg was assigned the perilous task of covering the retreat of the First Corps, upon the first day of the battle. It heroically held the position, from which two regiments had been previously driven, until every man but forty was killed or taken prisoner. It was while performing this duty that the regiment cut its battle-flag in pieces and distributed it among the men, that it might not be captured by the enemy. This famous order was given by Capt. Belcher. Capt. Belcher commanded the left wing of the regiment, and with his comrades was taken prisoner of war. While the prisoners were marching to Libby Prison, Captain Belcher made his escape, and by clever stratagem gained the Union lines. His regiment being captured, he was assigned as aid-de-camp to Gen. Heintzelman of the department at Washington. The following autumn he joined the soldiers at the front, and entered the ‘Wilderness’ campaign. On the 8th of May, 1864, he received a bullet in the head, which pierced the skull and rested upon the brain. After seventeen days the ball was extracted, but Capt. Belcher was not sufficiently recovered to rejoin his company before the cessation of hostilities. Gov. Cony commissioned him major June 1, 1864. Upon recovering his health, Major Belcher resumed the practice of law at Farmington, and has remained actively engaged in his profession up to the present time. In 1876, and again in 1878, he was nominated by the Democrats of the Second District as Representative to Congress. He was appointed by Gov. Garcelon upon his staff, as inspector-general, with the rank of brigadier-general, a position he held during Gov. Garcelon’s administration. He md., Jan. 19, 1869, Ella Olive (b. Sept. 17, 1845), daughter of Spaulding and Sarah (Rich) Smith of Wilton, 1 child : Fannie Spaulding, b. Nov. 27, 1869.”
Elsewhere, the book lists the office of Samuel Belcher and S. Clifford Belcher, (father and son), among Farmington’s active law practices as of January 1, 1885, the year of its publication.
On or about his date of discharge, then, September 15, 1864, the twice-wounded Clifford Belcher caused to be printed some quantity of these little 5” x 8” papers with a paragraph centered on one side, each of which he then folded into thirds and addressed to each of several friends or law office customers (how many?). What article had been printed in the Farmington Chronicle prior to his discharge, do you suppose, that so offended him and what false and libelous statements and innuendoes had it contained? Perhaps an archive of the newspaper exists somewhere, which can provide further enlightenment.
One can suppose that, while Captain-made-Major Belcher was recovering from his wounds, the newspaper printed something which impugned his character for allowing his regiment to be captured, or it may have cast some doubt upon the “clever strategems” by which Captain Belcher had made his escape from capture, or it may even have objected to his promotion to Major after it was clear that he would not return to his unit. The history, above, states awkwardly that Capt. Belcher was “not sufficiently recovered to rejoin his company before the cessation of hostilities.” And yet hostilities did not cease until the Confederate Army’s surrender, seven months after Belcher’s discharge from service. (He served “two years, one month” but the last four months were spent under medical care and not actively serving; actual time in the field and related duties, one year, nine months.)
One might also suppose that his peculiar promotion to the rank of Major, barely a year and a half into a military career, might have taken place only because Governor Samuel Cony, upon graduating college in his youth, had studied law under then-state-representative, later U.S. congressman Hiram Belcher (1847-1849), a great uncle of Captain Clifford Belcher. While governor of Maine, how better for Samuel Cony, Hiram’s protégé, to shore up his political career than to stay in the good graces of so illustrious a family as the Belchers? What better reason for Captain-Major S. Clifford Belcher to be promoted to the rank of Brigadier General in 1879 or 1880 while serving as inspector-general during a later governor’s administration? (And this took place right after our Clifford Belcher unsuccessfully ran for Congress.)
It is not the purpose of this article to impugn the Civil War service of a Union officer who survived a bullet lodged in his head, but merely to research available resources in order to obtain a background on this curious historical document in my possession. Upon reading A CARD once more, I suspect that Major Clifford Belcher did not pursue legal action against the paper. He does call it libel, which if proven, can have serious consequences. The tone of it, however, suggests that he distributed his own public response and did not further “condescend to bandy personalities” with the editors.
The 2¢ stamp, by the way, is Scott catalog #73, which collectors call a Black Jack, (Andrew Jackson), and on a cover such as this, if brought to auction, can be expected to bring many times the price I paid for a box of old mail fifty years earlier. With the provenance provided perhaps it would sell for substantially more. It is not, however, for sale.