As I’ve demonstrated several times before in other posts… finding a rare book is great, but finding the story of the original owner of the rare book is even better.
Some time ago, I had the opportunity to land a first edition (American) copy of Sir Walter Scott’s Lady of the Lake.
With Mr. Scott, as he presents himself to the world in the character of a poet, our readers are so well acquainted, that the mere naming of the author were perhaps enough to send them one and all to the booksellers for the Lady of the Lake. But as reviewers, we feel ourselves bound to take somewhat more than a passing notice of a poem, which in the perusal, as by some thrilling charm, has entrances us with the contemplation of “Knighthood’s dauntless deed, and Beauty’s matchless eye.”
The Lady of the Lake, if it should not brighten, can never, we think, tarnish the lustre of those armorial bearings, which as the finest poet of the age, and a lineal descendant in poetick feeling from Mr. Spenser, Mr. Scott may justly challenge for his own, by a better title than letters patent or blood.
I’ve written a little about Sir Walter Scott in the past, but putting emphasis on Scott to the side for a bit, I’d like to focus a little more on the owner of this little book.
Of course, the association with the US Navy had me going from the start. Needless to say, I was quick to begin my search into who this “S.W. LeCompte” was and what his story might tell.
Born on November 24, 1796, in Maryland, a son of Moses and Elizabeth Woodward LeCompte, Samuel was a descendant of Huguenots who had found refuge first in England, and later in eastern Maryland.
While I don’t know much about his early life, on June 4, 1812, he secured a commission as a midshipman in the US Navy. Though a veteran of the War of 1812, there seems to be little in the way of details on his service during the time. The single exception appears to be a claim submitted by LeCompte in 1830, which indicates he served, in 1813, aboard the “gun boat No. 164”.*
Moving toward the end of that same decade, however, subsequent sea service included duty on the USS Franklin (1818-1819), and after receiving his commission as a lieutenant (March 28, 1820), aboard the USS Erie (1820-1821). Strange to say, he was back on the rolls of midshipmen from 1820-1822, and then once off the list, late in 1822, began serving as a lieutenant aboard the USS Hornet.
Shore duty seemed to follow, when LeCompte was stationed in in New York in 1823, but the stint was short, LeCompte returned to sea in 1824, with another tour aboard Erie. In November 1823, Erie sailed from New York to serve in the Mediterranean, until 1826. The following year, LeCompte was on a leave of absence, and, by 1828, was awaiting orders. On July 1 of that same year, he married Mary Richardson Eccleston). With yet another gap in service, in 1830, LeCompte petitioned the Navy for compensation, “praying for remuneration for his losses, occasioned by the wreck of the gun boat No. 164”, in 1813 (Regretfully, I found nothing as to the success of his petition). And, in 1832, LeCompte was again on a leave of absence.
In 1833, he finally returned to sea aboard the USS Constellation, which soon after reported to the Mediterranean. In November 1834, however, with an outbreak of cholera in the area, Constellation was recalled to the United States (I saw a letter, not long ago, on Ebay, written by the surgeon aboard the Constellation, and the notation that it had been properly smoked/fumigated before being sent to the US).
While writing this post, I happened to run across a transcription of one of the LeCompte’s Constellation letters (source):
4 p.m., April 14, 1832
My dearest wife:
I closed my letter abt. T—, but the wind moderated immediately after, and we did not discharge the pilot, till this moment, and true to my word, as I inted to be in all my acts, I embrace the only opportunity to contribute to your gratification’s in my power. for the present, we are now at sea the ship has considerable motion and contrary to the usual effect. I am. with the exception of a light head-ache, in excellent health. I hope this will find you and my dear child (Cmily Eccleston LeCompte, born in 1831) enjoying health and every other comfort this life can afford. Take good care of yourself Dearest Wife, and recollect you are my life, my soul, in fact, everything that a good wife can be to her affectionate and devoted husband. May God in His mercy bless and preserve you, is my most sincere prayer. In Haste, LeCompte
After returning Stateside, LeCompte took another leave of absence, and in 1835 and 1836, was again shown awaiting orders.
Then comes a long… empty… gap in details of service, until 1855, when LeCompte was finally “dropped” from the Navy, under the operation of the “Set to promote the efficiency of the Navy” (approved February 28, 1855). Less than two years later, on January 16, 1857, LeCompte was “restored, and placed on the retired list, under the authority of the “amendatory Act of January 16, 1857”. The board “convened under the first Act reported no reasons for their recommendations.”
On January 29, 1862, five years after being placed in the retirement rolls, LeCompte died of pneumonia (buried in Christ Episcopal Church Cemetery, Cambridge). Fortunately, his story doesn’t end on that note, but thankfully, there is a pension application, submitted by his wife, Mary, in 1866, which gives us a chance to make sense of those “missing years”.
A key document in this application package is the testimony of Dr. Alexander H. Bayly (1817-1892), who went before the Justice of the Peace in Cambridge, Dorchester Co., Maryland, on November 12, 1878… yes, well over a decade after Mary LeCompte had applied for the pension. In this testimony, Bayly noted:
…that he was well acquainted with the late Samuel W. LeCompte, formerly a Captain [LeCompte was actually a commander (to rank, beginning September 8, 1841), not a captain] in the United States Navy, who also resided in said Cambridge; that he had known him since boyhood, and had been his physician for over thirty years before his death; that Captain LeCompte had been in frail physical condition for many years before his death, from casualty received in the Naval Service, from which he never recovered, and because of which he was was required to do less sea service, as he always understood and believed; that Captain LeCompte was laboring under chronic disease of the stomach and liver, producing an affliction of the brain and heart, subjecting him to sudden attacks of vertigo and heart disease, with slight paralysis; that so sudden and violent were these attacks (and as long ago as the year 1850, or before) that he had frequently known him, upon their occurrence , to be compelled to sit down in the street; that the disease of which he died (pneumonia) though an acute one, was not necessarily fatal, but, in his reduced state of health from the causes hereinbefore stated, rendered him more susceptible of fatal result, and placed him beyond the usual medical remedies, and death was thereby superinduced; that it is his professional opinion from his long personal acquaintance with and medical attendance upon Captain LeCompte, that he died of disease not necessarily fatal, but which I believe was rendered fatal in his case by reason of the impairment of his constitution from accidents and disease contracted in the service and in the line of duty.
In the end, Mary’s application was rejected (Aug 1879), the “evidence on file failing to show that the fatal disease had any connection with service in the line of duty.” Mary died on February 15, 1890… twenty-eight years after her husband, and without (it seems) a Navy widow’s retirement pay.
All-in-all, a fascinating but sad story.
Incidentally, in addition to my little book (and a few other items I’ve learned about), a large “relic” of Cdr. LeCompte remains in a house which still stands in Cambridge, Maryland. Though LeCompte didn’t purchase the house until 1842, it appears he may have died in it… and the house remained in the LeCompte family for several generations thereafter. For those who might indulge in tales of ghosts, a page associated with stories (ghosts and a “curse”) of the house can be found here.
In the end, as I look at the book, I have so many questions. Did he purchase it in Boston, not long after it was published? What did he think about the book and its author, and did he return to its pages several times over? Even more important… at least to me… I’m left wondering if LeCompte took this book with him on one, or several of his sea voyages. Though the stories it might tell will remain forever silent, this old sailor appreciates the connection with another old salt who witnessed over forty years of the Navy’s story in the early 1800s.
Addendum: The following is a scribbled page in the front of LeCompte’s book. For some reason this seems familiar… as in, I think I’ve seen something similar in nautical maneuver charts from the early 19th century. Anyone have… not a guess… but a real explanation of what it might be?
*Thanks to Noel Harrison in pointing out the loss of No. 164, off the coast of Georgia. I looked it up and it apparently took place in mid-September, 1813, within St. Mary’s harbor. While I’m not sure if LeCompte was ashore at the time, but twenty crewmembers were lost with the sinking of No. 164.