Getting to Know Claremont’s 15th Regiment

  • Thomas Clark, author of the book "The Forgotten Fifteenth." (Courtesy photograph)

Valley News Correspondent
Friday, December 07, 2018

Claremont — The chance discovery of a petition from the 1840s, signed by a regiment of Claremont militiamen, has set an amateur historian on a quest to learn more about the signatories and their demands.

Thomas Clark, a New York native now working as the chief financial officer of Georgetown Law School in Washington, D.C., has put months of research into the petition and the controversy behind it. And he could use the public’s help in identifying the men and researching their histories.

“I love the mystery and learning who these people were,” Clark said recently. “And I love the research.”

Over the past decade, Clark has investigated and written about a wide range of otherwise forgotten events.

One of his current projects is a book on the 141 members of the 15th Regiment of the N.H. Militia, most of whom were from Claremont. The men had signed a petition demanding the elevation of one of their members to the rank of colonel after their previous commander was dismissed by the governor and arrested.

Clark’s subjects are diverse, but he has a keen interest in lesser known shipwrecks, including the Powahattan, an 1854 New Jersey shipwreck, and the 1833 sinking of Lady of the Lake, an Irish immigrant ship. He posts his writings to his two websites: theforgottenandfound.com and thomasgclark.net/articles-ive-written. The latter site has a link to Clark’s research on the 15th Regiment.

Most of his subjects hail from the 19th century. In addition to the websites, he has self-published three books, including Knuckled Under, about Irish boxer Simon Byrne, who was carried from the ring unconscious and died days after an 1833 bout lasting more than three hours.

“Did I mention the last thing I ever wanted to do was write?” Clark said in a recent email. “I must have bumped my head when I turned 55 and for some unknown reason started researching, writing and contributing no-fee history articles to newspapers.”

His foray into writing began while he was reading the history of mills where he lived in north New Jersey and came across the story of the Powahattan, a ship that ran aground during a storm off the coast of New Jersey in 1854. It was pounded by waves for hours before breaking apart, killing an estimated 300 people. The bodies that washed up on shore were buried in unmarked graves, allegedly because the “wreck master” on the beach stole from their money belts then buried the belts, which held the identification of the passengers.

“What bothered me were the unmarked graves,” Clark said. “It just really bothered me that those graves had no names.”

He went on a nearly 10-year quest to find the names and was eventually able to locate a passenger list — in an Indiana newspaper of all places. It was a Eureka moment.

“I connected with the custodian of one grave-site,” said Clark. “I told him, I have the names of all 300 passengers! I did the genealogy on 15 or 20 and found some immigration records so I could confirm where they had come from. I will help publish it. We have to get this straightened out.”

An eBay Find

Though he does not regard himself as an accomplished writer or historian, Clark is a dogged researcher. He finds his subjects by scouring old newspapers online and eBay has been fertile ground for documents and old letters.

It was on eBay that Clark stumbled on a petition from New Hampshire dated 1845. He was searching the auction site for “single folded letters” from the early 1800s. SFLs, as Clark explains in the preface of a draft of The Forgotten Fifteenth: New Hampshire’s 1845 Militia, were letters in which the envelope and writing paper were one and the same. When folded properly and sealed with wax, the back of the paper became the envelope.

Clark placed a winning bid of $12 and a few weeks later the petition arrived in a large envelope.

“I opened it and out spilled two thick sheets of paper attached by sealing wax,” Clark writes. “I unfolded the document to its full length: 2 feet, the paper of heavy cloth stock. And there they were. Dozens and dozens of clearly legible names spelled out.

“My first thoughts were: Who were these individuals and what were they petitioning for.”

The briefly worded petition sought the promotion of Philemon Tolles from lieutenant colonel to colonel following the removal and arrest of Col. Henry Cummings, which was ordered by Gov. Henry Hubbard.

The seeds for the petition appear to have been sown in a feud between Hubbard and one of the state’s most prominent newspapers of the day, the National Eagle, published in Claremont.

Clark researched the purpose of the petition and the result, and now is focused on documenting biographies of the signers.

“I have got to get their stories out,” Clark said in a phone interview about his reasons for writing the book. “I can’t have this sit in a drawer. That would be a travesty. This was too important.”

Gov. Hubbard And the ‘National Eagle’

The book, currently in draft form, begins the story of the 15th Regiment’s petition with the men arriving at Claremont Town Hall — where the Opera House now stands — in June 1845.

“On this particular morning, a thick fog lay over the Upper Connecticut River Valley, adding to the early morning chill that the farmers were well acquainted with,” Clark writes. “Soon after the men had assembled, the front door was thrust open. The militiamen shuffled through, tracking in a layer of mud.”

Charles Colby, the regiment’s adjunct, an appointed position that assists the commanding officer with the unit’s administration, presided over the gathering. He urged the militiamen to sign legibly, so the petition wouldn’t be challenged on technical grounds, a request that would aid Clark’s inquiries nearly 175 years later.

The controversy that led to the petition began with the March 1842 election of Henry Hubbard, of Charlestown, as governor. A Dartmouth graduate, Hubbard began a career in law before venturing into politics in the early 1800s. He served in the New Hampshire House of Representatives and rose to speaker before serving three terms in the U.S. House and one in the Senate. He then came home to run for governor. He was re-elected in 1843, when New Hampshire had one-year terms, but did not run the following year. He was also a selectman in Charlestown and a probate judge in Sullivan County.

Initially endorsed by the National Eagle, Hubbard had not even begun his term as governor when he when he fell out of favor with the paper’s editors, who claimed he had changed his stance on various issues. Subsequent commentaries were equally critical and the Eagle went so far as to endorse his opponent, Jon White, even before Hubbard’s term began, Clark writes.

“If the Eagle’s commentary was calculated to enrage Hubbard, it succeeded, and the governor-elect now channeled his anger against the Eagle and anything else related to Claremont, which included the 15th Regiment.”

Muster Controversy

The 15th’s muster — a public showing of the militia’s military skills and equipment — became a flashpoint. Cummings planned to hold the muster in his hometown of Cornish in October 1942. Hubbard, who would personally review the troops, wanted to hold it in Claremont, before a larger crowd.

“Hubbard may also have had another agenda: to win over the populace of Claremont, the town that harbored the Eagle, which sought to excoriate him at every turn,” Clark writes.

When Cummings would not bow to the governor’s wishes and move the muster, he was dismissed and arrested and Tolles assumed command.

“The official grounds for Cummings’ arrest were vague — perhaps insubordination — but the action was clearly politically motivated and Hubbard’s fingerprints were all over the directive,” Clark continues.

During Hubbard’s two years in office, the Eagle kept up its relentless drumbeat against him until he left office in 1844.

But the effort to promote Tolles continued while Cummings, released from his arrest, sought reinstatement on his own through the Legislature.

Ultimately, neither man won the coveted appointment and Clark concludes that the Tolles petition likely was never forwarded to the Legislature.

“Hence it remained in private hands and not in the State Archives,” he writes.

Biographies of the 15th

Clark has written biographies of some of the troops, drawing on a wide range of source material, including Census records, an 1894 history of Claremont and ancestry.com, where he will first verify a date of birth, then sometimes place a note in the message board under the name, hoping for a response.

Most of his book’s entries for the troops give just the name and the signature from the petition. Clark has supplied more information, including hometown and occupation, for some of them, while a few of the biographies are more complete, such as Alpheus Snow, who was a Harvard Law School graduate and practiced in Charlestown.

Now Clark is hoping Sullivan County residents might have records that shed light on the petition’s signers.

“It is an opportunity for families to come forward and fill in the blank pages,” he said. “That would be pretty exciting for me.”

At this point, Clark is not sure how he will go about collecting and compiling the biographical information. He said he is still deciding how to make a document that’s easily accessible and can be revised and updated. “I really have not thought that through.”

Clark anticipates this project will take years to complete, but as with the names of the Powahattan passengers, he is prepared for long hours of research.

“It provides one last opportunity for the voices of these men to be heard once again and to reveal some lost history of the city of Claremont,” Clark writes.

The New Hampshire Historical Society welcomes research and publications by those “not trained as professional historians,” said Sarah E. Galligan, the society’s library director.

“We have a lot of members (who are volunteers) doing research on family genealogy and have a interest in history,” Galligan said. “They enjoy doing the research and sharing it. Anyone doing history on New Hampshire, we appreciate.”

Galligan said Clark’s book would likely be added to the Society’s collection, which includes a lot of self-published books, because it is a New Hampshire story and others may find it useful.

“As long as he cites his sources with conclusions that are his own,” Galligan said.

When he’s finished the book, Clark said he will give the petition to the Claremont Historical Society, then move on to a new project: Researching a collection of about 15 personal letters written by Pvt. Willis Green of Kirkland, Wash., to his wife during World War II. Clark paid $30 for them.

“Buried in the listing,” Clark wrote in an email, “was a photo of the entire 60-man unit of the 82nd Infantry Group which had numbers listed next to each soldier.”

On the reverse side were the signatures and addresses of each soldier.

Were it not for eBay and someone hoping to make a few dollars, the documents most certainly would have ended up in the trash, Clark said.

“It is a shame that so much of our written history is being discarded and neglected.”

Anyone interested in contributing to the book can contact Clark at ThomasClark1234@gmail.com

Patrick O’Grady can be reached at pogclmt@gmail.com.