1845: Winfield Scott Belton to Rebecca Dawson Todd

Dolly Madison, ca 1848

This letter was written by Winfield Scott Belton (1820-1889), the son of Francis Smith Belton (1791-1861) and Harriet Kirby (1798-1873). Winfield’s father, a career military officer, attempted to get Winfield an appointment to West Point in 1836 and it appears that he was accepted in 1837. Winfield wrote the letter in 1845 to his future wife Rebecca Dawson Todd (1827-1892), the daughter of Samuel and Rebecca (Dawson) Todd. At the time, he appeared to be residing in Philadelphia and waiting for an appointment. His parents were residing in Norfok, Virginia.

Rebecca was the daughter of Samuel Poultney Todd (1791-1858), a purser in the United States Navy. Samuel’s uncle was John Todd (1764-1793) who married Dolley Payne (1767-1849) in 1790. After John Todd died of yellow fever in 1793, Dolly married James Madison in 1794. Rebecca Todd and her great-aunt Dolly Madison were frequent correspondents and, we learn from this letter, that on the occasion of President Polk’s inauguration and ball, she was Dolly’s houseguest and a member of her entourage.

Winfield and Rebecca were married 29 April 1847 in Philadelphia. In 1850, they were enumerated in the household of Rebecca’s father, Samuel P. Todd in Brooklyn, New York. Winfield’s occupation is given at U.S. Navy. Belton fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War.

Stampless Cover

Addressed to Miss Rebecca Todd, Care of Samuel P. Todd, Purser U.S. Navy, Washington D.C.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Monday, 3d March 1845

My dear, dear Rebeckah,

It is now 4 P.M. and I pray you are safe in Baltimore and I hope have had a pleasant trip tho’ I fear you were very lonely in the cars. You have been absent but a few hours yet it seems as if it were a week since we parted so lonely have I felt since you left me. Those sweet kisses that morning acted like a charm and indeed I do not think we could have parted without them and the affectionate glance you gave me as the cars rattled by — will be remembered for years. Ward — who was standing by my side when you passed — exclaimed “she did not see me” and looked for the moment as if he really felt out; but I reminded him that I was the tallest which could account for the oversight. I returned home immediately from the Depot and after taking a cup of coffee (for I could not eat), I read until 11 o’clock when, as I could not pay you a visit, I sent to sleep and dreamed of you — a very [good] dream it was, yet I cannot remember it all. But I thought we were married and very happy as of course we will be.

I have not been out but have promised hard to walk down Chestnut and see if Bower left this morning which he seems to think doubtful. I will spend the evening with our mother tho’ I fear I will be very very dull. I shall miss my dear Rebeckah so much. Here is Ward and I must cease writing for a time.

10 P.M. I have been up to see our mother. I stayed but a short time for I felt the whole while as if you ought to make your appearance. I could scarcely realize that you were away, so I thought I would be more agreeably employed by writing to you in my own room.

Ward & myself called at Bower’s house this afternoon and were informed that he had left in the 4 o’clock train. You may imagine our astonishment to see him walk in about six o’clock. The following is the account he gave of himself. Yesterday he went into the country to take care of some relations and the rain prevented his returning to the city until about 12. Today when he received my note informing him of your intended departure, the poor fellow seemed dreadfully worried on your account and said he would not of had it happen for the world. He did not have time to call and explain things but intended to have written me. The cars went off without him this afternoon and he is to occupy a vacant room here tonight and will leave at 8 tomorrow. I was wrong is saying he was a nephew of Mr. Polk’s. It is Mr. Tyler who is his uncle — a vast difference at the present time. Nevertheless, he is a very fine fellow and a perfect gentleman. I will now to bed, beloved one, to dream of you. You are now with Mrs. Madison and I trust well and in good spirits. Good night, dear, dear wife.

President Polk’s Inauguration — a rainy day

Tuesday morning, 4th March — or Inauguration day — and a very cloudy day it is, my dear one. I trust tho’ that you will have fine weather in Washington. Dreamed of you according to promise and locomotive steam boats and officers and military reviews were prominent features in all my dreams. I arose early and Ward and myself accompanied Bower to the cars and saw him off. While there, we witnessed a scene which it is beyond my power to describe but by which I was nevertheless very much affected. I had noticed a very handsome young man with a beautiful man’s [mu]stach (and whom I have often met) standing on the platform of one of the cars conversing with a beautiful little girl of about sixteen. I immediately suspected that they were lovers and being somewhat interested in such matters I watched them closely and several times I detected him in the act of raising her veil and giving her a kiss when he supposed they were unwatched. They both looked sad and almost heart-broken but with all that there was an appearance of perfect resignation to their fate. She was to accompany her friends perhaps on some visit while he, poor fellow, was to remain at home. At last the bell sang [and] her pent up feelings then burst forth. They could no longer be resisted. She there her arms passionately around his neck & burst into tears exclaiming that she could not leave him. He reasoned with her [and] her friends unlocked her arms from his neck. The cars moved — she appeared to yield — he gave one fervent, “soul-stirring kiss” and stept from the platform. The cars were now fully in motion when with one bound she was by his side. Cars and friends passed on. She was aft with her lover. The woman had triumphed. The last I saw of them they were trudging down Market Street arm-in-arm and perhaps ‘ere this are man and wife. My heart sympathized with them both — poor creatures — but my head made this reflection, “How awfully I should have felt had Beck made such a fool of herself yesterday.”

It is now ¼ past 11 and I must dress and go and pay my tailor’s bill. Mr. Stone left last Tuesday for Washington and do not know how long he is to remain but will call on Mrs. Stone today and find out all about it.

5 P.M. I have just finished a nice little nap and feel in a much better mood to continue my letter. I called on Mrs. Stone after dinner but she was not at home, altho’ it was raining quite hard at the time. She is certainly a great Gad about. I shall spend this evening with our mother and hope to be informed of your safe arrival at Washington. The inauguration proceedings are over by this time and I suppose you are thinking of the face that is to be and no doubt wishing that your husband was with you to enjoy all the fun. I hope you have had pleasant weather. We have had a horrid gloomy day and about 2 o’clock a misty drizzling rain commenced which has continued ever since.

The United States Hotel is bowed today for Mr. [Thomas C.] Rea ¹ — son of the proprietor — who was buried today. I am undecided yet whether to get a black or a blue dress coat. I believe I will wait for your decision. You may be able to tell me from the state of affairs in Washington which will be most advisable. A blue could easily be altered into a uniform. I feel quite sanguine today as regards my appointment. This is perhaps because I know I have such a warm friend at court.

I wish I could take a peep at you tonight. I have a great mind to apply to some “Professor of Mesmerism” and request him to allow me to pay you a visit in the magnetic state. I have written you such a miserable, dull, uninteresting letter that I fear you may believe me partially magnetized when it was written. I, of course, am anxious to hold you again in my arms but if you have a chance, I would like you to pay a visit to Norfolk before you return home. So great is my desire that you should pass some time with my parents, I would willingly sacrifice many hours of my own pleasure to have it gratified.

An 1849 daguerreotype by Langenheim of John and Lissie McAllister

Mag de Bree’s daguerreotype still hangs in the United States Hotel. It is certainly a most excellent likeness and when you return, I intend Mr. Langenheim ² to take yours. If I had it now, it would be a great comfort to me and beguile many a weary hour. I think it is really very selfish in Doley not to let me have your miniature but I intend to coax mother to let me have a look at it tonight.

If the weather is good tomorrow, I intend to pay off some of the visits which have so long been due. I have not yet made one & have seen no one since you left — not even Mr. Mooney. I may go to the Asylum tomorrow but at all events I will inform you of whatever I do. The darkness and the edge of my paper admonish me to close my letter. I will take it to mother before sealing it and if she has any news, I will then add it. Till then, adored one, adieu. Thine devotedly, — Winfield

Dear Bec,

I am much disappointed not hearing from you tonight. Tell your father Jim expected to get the amount of the draft today & hopes if he has not already sent it, that he will not fail to do so upon receipt of this. — R.A.T. [Rebecca Ann Todd, wife of Samuel P. Todd]

[Winfield resumes]

1/2 past nine. — I have just returned from Vine Street and am much disappointed as are they all — that I have not heard of your arrival. I have not been to the [post] office to enquire for myself for I know you have not had time to write me — but your mother expected to have received a letter from your father. They are all well. I shall expect a letter from you on Thursday morning and will go to the office at that time. Take good care of your health, dearest, and do not expose yourself to the night air with your head uncovered. Think how I should be worried were you to take sick.

I suppose you are by this time at the Ball and perhaps leading off with the President. — Eh bien! For once I envy Mr. Polk if he is so fortunate as to have received your hand for the next quadrille.³  I think my letter is nearly full. I do not like to run the risk of making it illegible by crossing it. I could fill pages with love for you.

It is with reluctance I part with you beloved one, but I will commence another epistle tomorrow. Write me when I am to expect your letters and above all when I am to expect you for I must be at the cars when you arrive. Thine ever devoted, — Winfield

A carriage stands in front of the United States Hotel on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia, 1840.

¹ Thomas C. Rea was the proprietor of the United States Hotel in Philadelphia. In the lithograph at right, looking east down Chestnut Street, the United States Hotel can be seen “which was opened in 1826 following the conversion by John Rea of several properties at 419-423 Chestnut Street. Gentlemen convene near the entranceway and portico of the hotel in front of which a carriage is parked. On the north side of the street, east of the hotel, several individuals, including couples and families, promenade and converse on the several blocks of businesses visible to the riverfront. Opposite the hotel, on the south side of the street, a couple promenades and boys play marbles in front of the Custom House (420 Chestnut) as another couple and several shadowy figures of pedestrians walk down the sidewalks in the back ground. In the street, a couple on horseback, an omnibus, and carriage travels. Also shows a partial view of the Farmers & Mechanics Bank (425-429) adjacent the hotel and a few trees and street lamps landscaping the street. A patron ascends the stairs to the bank. The hotel, altered in 1840, was demolished in 1856 for the erection of the new building for the Bank of Pennsylvania. Thomas C. Rea, son of John Rea, operated the property until his death in 1846.” — The Library Company of Philadelphia

² William Langenheim (1807-74) and his brother Frederick (1809-79), German-born American photographers, amongst the most respected daguerreotypists of the 1840s, operating studios in Philadelphia and New York. William emigrated from Brunswick in 1834, settling first in Texas, where he fought in the Texas War. In 1840 he settled in Philadelphia, only to find that his brother Frederick had arrived just previously. A German brother-in-law sent them a Voigtländer camera and instructions on the daguerreotype process, which they soon mastered. Voigtländer in 1845 also married into the family, and the Langenheims became his representatives in America, promoting and selling his lenses. They maintained other links with Europe and in 1845 produced eight copies of a five-plate panorama of Niagara Falls, sending examples to Daguerre, Queen Victoria, the kings of Bavaria and Prussia, and other notables, receiving praise from all. The brothers experimented widely in photographic processes, first in 1849 with Talbot’s calotype process, an experiment that proved financially disastrous; then with their own hyalotype process, patented in 1850, which allowed images to be produced on glass for lantern-slide projectors.

³ It is doubtful that President Polk danced with anyone at his inaugural ball, held at the National Theater in Washington D.C. Polk’s wife, Sarah, forbade her husband to dance as it was against her religious beliefs. Reports from the occasion state that music and dancing was halted at the affair during the time the Polk’s were present, out of respect for Sarah.


4 responses to “1845: Winfield Scott Belton to Rebecca Dawson Todd

  • Holly C. Shulman

    Could you please tell me the provenance of this letter. It is quite interesting to me but I cannot use it unless I can cite it and I fear that spared and shared does not carry the necessary academic authority.

    • Griff

      I transcribe and research letters for an acquaintance of mine who buys and sells thousands of letters on e-bay every year. In exchange for this service, he authorizes me to post them on one of my many blog sites. I receive no compensation for this service — only the satisfaction of knowing that I have preserved a piece of history. He generally acquires his letters through on-line auction sales or, less frequently, by attending conventions where letters and other ephemera are sold. Spared & Shared is my own creation; I have no affiliation with any university and these sites, perhaps, lack the “academic authority” you seek. I can only assure you that the letter is genuine and add that other authors have cited letters posted from the Spared & Shared Blogsites in their publications. — William J. Griffing (“Griff”)

  • Holly C. Shulman

    Is he a professional mss dealer. If so, what is his company’s name, did he advertise the letter in question, and when? Thanks

    • Griff

      His “business” of buying and selling (letters primarily) is a side business on his own hook — he is not affiliated with any company in the sale of these items. It is a “hobby” of his; he is currently an employee of a major manufacturing facility in Illinois. The letter was most likely sold on e-bay two or three years ago as are the bulk of his letters. Occasionally, by my encouragement, he donates as historically significant letter to a library or historical institution that I recommend.

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