Tossing Lines: Colonel William Ledyard’s one book
Poet and playwright Oscar Wilde declared “You are what you read.” If that is so, I have discovered a clue to the personality of southeastern Connecticut’s Revolutionary War hero Lt. Col. William Ledyard, opening the lock on history’s narrow infatuation with only his fatal skewering by the British in the Battle of Groton Heights in 1781.
The Colonel’s probate record, filed in 1782 by his wife Anne, lists all his earthly possessions, right down to existing food supplies in the family kitchen on Pleasant Street in Groton. But one thing caught my bibliophilic eye, revealing an unknown side of William Ledyard, and raising questions.
The inventory mysteriously lists only one book: “1 History (Thomson’s Seasons).”
Thomson’s Seasons is actually a poetry book by Scottish poet James Thomson (1700-1748), composed of extended poems for each season of the year. It was first published in 1730, eight years before William was born on Dec. 6, 1738.
Printed in multiple languages, the book was influential and popular for a century after its publication. It celebrated nature’s seasonal landscapes and creatures in all their glory and brutality.
But besides learning that William Ledyard had a sensuous, poetic side, it seems surprising that, in an era when many accomplished men assembled home libraries, a man like Ledyard — successful merchant, state legislator, prominent citizen of Groton — owned only one book.
This was a man elected to his second term in the Connecticut General Assembly amidst the tumultuous, world-changing year of 1776.
The Colonel was a merchant with access to imported books not only through the marketplace of New London, but also the major port cities of New York, Newport and Boston.
And, Ledyard’s probate record shows he could have afforded a library, having acquired expensive, imported household items like a Queensware dining set and fine china. The inventory also notes a bookcase, intriguing for a man with only one book.
Under the tutelage of an educated father, William was surely raised to appreciate reading. So, with encouragement, money, access to books, and a book case, why just one book?
A library might have been looted by British soldiers after the battle, but the costly Queensware would not have been left behind to make the inventory months later. Strange, since British soldiers looted brother Ebenezer’s home yards away at the corner of Pleasant and Thames streets.
Was the Colonel’s home and library burned after the battle along with most of Groton Bank? Oddly, the existence of the probate inventory contents indicates otherwise. Perhaps the brutish British decided that killing him was enough punishment for his wife Anne and their seven children.
Anne might have given a library to Ebenezer or someone else prior to probate, and kept The Seasons for sentimental value, a reminder of William.
Whether or not the Colonel once had a collection of books, it remains a novel historical fact that William Ledyard owned a book of poetry, and that, among all other likely literary possessions, Anne chose to keep that one book.
Of course, Seasons could have been just lying about the house gathering dust like most unread coffee table books, but I think otherwise. Books were valued possessions in the 18th century.
The image of William Ledyard as an aesthete presents an extraordinary contrast to the man whose life ended at age 42 in a brutal, bloody battle, a blade plunged through his torso in rage.
Thomson’s poems exude nature in both violent and fragrant terms. Ledyard could have found its darker verses timely, as the struggle against Britain’s punitive actions filled the colonies with hatred, and consumed his life as a merchant:
“Then dark disgust, and malice, winding wiles,
Sneaking deceit, and coward villainy:
At last deep-rooted hatred, lewd reproach,
Convulsive wrath, and thoughtless fury, quick
To deeds of vilest aim.”
(Did Anne later see her husband’s killing described in such verse?)
Thomson’s softer tones may have spoken to William of Anne, his loving wife of 20 years at the time of his demise in battle:
“Afresh, her beauties on his busy thought,
Her first endearments, twining round the soul,
With all the witchcraft of ensnaring love.”
Having spent most of his adult life amidst the long buildup of discontent leading to America’s War of Independence, Ledyard knew but one season, that of revolution. Discovering the Colonel enjoyed poetry is something no historian has yet considered.
Maybe Thomson’s flowing verse offered some reconciliation of society’s anger and the many difficulties imposed on American merchants like himself, while reassuring him of the beauty in the world, and the love surrounding his home on Groton Bank.
John Steward lives in Waterford. He can be reached at tossinglines.com.
Stories that may interest you
For nearly 40 years, John Russel has lived in a quiet, quaint neighborhood on Robinson Street. But over the last 18 months, he said, "it's become like a war zone."
Group criticizes Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for shifting guidance as the delta variant of the coronavirus fuels increase of COVID-19 cases.
One of the biggest construction projects in downtown history is slated to start next summer.