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Lyman/Lafayette project blog #2: Daniel Lyman

The Lyman-Lafayette project at the NHS started with a series of great stories about Daniel Lyman. Lyman was a Continental Army officer, known for intelligence and valor, who married a local Newport girl and became a Rhode Island citizen of considerable importance. Lawyer, judge, industrial revolution entrepreneur, Lyman’s legacy also includes a relationship with some of the most celebrated figures in the American Revolution.  He corresponded with George Washington, and perhaps most notably, his family had preserved since Lyman’s death a silver sword and pair of spurs given to him by the Marquis de Lafayette. The sword was exhibited at two World’s Fairs, and was passed on to a series of descendants as “Lafayette’s sword.” This sword was donated last year to the Newport Historical Society.

In Lyman’s obituary and other short biographies written after his death, it is told that he and his entire class at Yale left school to enroll in the Continental Army, and that he was involved in the surrender of the British troops holding Fort Ticonderoga and other early battles. He was injured (some reports say he had his horse shot from under him), recuperated, graduated from Yale and returned to service. And, at some point, he developed a relationship with Lafayette, and was given the sword.

What a great basis for an historical narrative! And, story-telling is what we public historians do!  But “telling a story” in a history setting is not the same as writing fiction. History narratives must be based in fact, even when we take those facts and, potentially, simplify them for the purposes of telling a recognizable tale.

As we begin to assemble what we can discover about Daniel Lyman and the Lafayette sword, the preponderance of the easily accessible evidence seemed to support the sword’s status. Lyman and Lafayette were both in Rhode Island in 1780, Lyman was documented as being friendly with our French allies, and when Lafayette returned to America in the 1820s, Lyman’s brigade saluted him in Boston, Providence and Newport.

But as the work continues, we are finding that much of what was told cannot be documented. Lyman may never have been at Ticonderoga, and appears to have graduated from Yale before joining the Army. His injury? It was listed as “derangement,” and though he did recuperate and return to active duty, his service appears to have been more like Hamilton’s than Lafayette’s – administrative support to generals, writing, and couriering. And, though Lyman kept a diary of his military service, and records dining with Lafayette, he never mentions a gift.

At this moment, much remains a mystery. Lyman’s letters to Washington after the war was over hint at extraordinary service, but we do not yet know what it was.  And, truth be told, we may never know, as we may never know for sure that Lafayette handed Lyman the sword now in our collections.

In the meanwhile, as our project historian, Taylor Stoermer, assembles a picture of Daniel Lyman’s life and service during the Revolutionary War, we are learning some things we did not know. Lyman was well liked and celebrated by his peers in the Continental Army as a learned man of refined sensibilities. But the sober seeming Revolutionary officer who became a judge in the new Republic was a carousing youth who celebrated Boston’s ladies of the evening and wrote once that he would tell more about a previous evening’s activities if only he could remember them. His love for his future wife Polly Wanton transformed him, and his letters to her are ridiculously romantic.

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The dilemma of historical exploration is also its great pleasure – you simply do not know what you will discover. The story you started with may not be where you land. But, we are developing a fascinating body of information about young people during the Revolution, the war in Rhode Island, and our relationship with the French that will contribute to both scholarly and public understanding of our history.

Next blog post – the sword!