This American Revolutionary War commission document at the Varnum Memorial Armory Museum was presented to James Mitchell Varnum of East Greenwich, RI (Varnum House Museum) on May 10, 1779, naming him Major General of all Rhode Island Militia forces opposing the Crown troops of Britain. It is now properly framed and on display for the first time thanks to the generous donations made by our Facebook followers. Thank you!
At the Varnum Memorial Armory Museum, we have the wool undershirt worn by East Greenwich-native Sergeant George Byron Bennett (of the 1st Rhode Island Cavalry) in the last year of the American Civil War. It’s in amazing condition, and wear and staining reveals a lot about the soldier, his habits, and his day-to-day life.
Visible on the shirt are sweat, dirt, and urine stains. You can see that the shirt was worn tucked in (and that he wiped his hands on his stomach…). The urine stains appear at the bottom-center where it would be tucked in over his crotch.
At the Varnum Memorial Armory Museum, we have the .44-caliber New Model Army revolver that was carried by Sergeant George Byron Bennett (of the 1st Rhode Island Cavalry) in the last year or two of the American Civil War. It is marked with his initials.
The pistol was made by Eliphalet Remington & Sons in Ilion, NY, in 1863 or early 1864. Over 230,000 were made with many being purchased for military use (as the Colt M1860 revolver became hard to get due to massive fire at their factory in Hartford, CT). Cavalrymen were heavily armed, so Bennett also would have carried a sword and a breech-loading carbine.
Now in the Varnum Memorial Armory Museum collection, this is classic four-pull “spyglass” used by East Greenwich-native Sergeant George Byron Bennett (of the 1st Rhode Island Cavalry) during the American Civil War. A primary role of the Cavalry was scouting and reconnaissance, where a telescope like this would be very useful.
The Rhode Island Historical Society (RIHS) and Varnum Continentals have joined forces to save and bring home a unique piece of Rhode Island American Civil War and African American history! It will soon be on display at the Varnum Memorial Armory Museum. This is an excerpt from an upcoming issue of the “Rhode Island History Journal”:
“Written just two weeks after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, this letter was sent to Governor William Sprague (1830–1915) from Lorenzo Thomas, Adjutant General, inviting Rhode Island to contribute ‘an infantry regiment of volunteers of African descent’ to fight for the Union. Hundreds of black men volunteered for service from Rhode Island and served mostly in the 14th Heavy Artillery regiment, which ultimately joined the astonishing 74% of Northern black men of military age who enlisted as soldiers and sailors to fight for the Union.
The RIHS acquired this letter at auction with the generous support from the Varnum Continentals, which owns both the Varnum House Museum and the Varnum Memorial Armory & Military Museum.”
The Varnum Continentals look forward to hosting this amazing exhibit of national importance at the Varnum Memorial Armory Museum!
At the Varnum Memorial Armory Museum, we have discovered an American Revolutionary War-period letter written (dictated) by African American Thomas Nichols and signed with “his mark”. Freed from enslavement to serve in the First Rhode Island Regiment, Thomas writes to his former “master and mistress” asking for help in getting a discharge since the Revolutionary War had been “very disagreeable to my mind as well as destructive to my health.”
Thomas fought at the Battle of Rhode Island 2 years earlier and was wounded while helping to repel three Hessian charges. The letter is powerful … you can’t help but feel bad for Thomas’s plight and his desperate wish to go home. He appears to be suffering from PTSD. This is an astoundingly rare artifact from the beginnings of our nation. It also reminds us that many of the men serving and fighting for their freedom and country were people of color.
This is an astoundingly rare artifact. To our knowledge, only one other war-time letter from an African American in the American Revolutionary War exists. And, this may be the only one written by a former slave. This letter is a State and National treasure. However, it requires professional conservation work that will cost approximately $990. This work will stabilize the document physically, make it more readable, and most importantly, will make it possible to safely put it on long term display in our climate-controlled, secure museum. Framing and matting with archival grade materials and the highest quality museum glass will likely cost an additional $500 for an estimated total of $1490.
We also experienced a fantastic moment of serendipity regarding this particular letter. On the exact day that we met our fundraising goal, we were recently joined by two U.S. Army veterans and their daughter. They were moved by many exhibits in our collection, but this letter proved to be the focal point of their tour. Moments like this is why we work so hard to preserve our local and national U.S. history!
Letter transcription (preserving the original spelling and punctuation):
“Windham January 18th 1781
Onered Master & Mistress I take this opportunity to inform you of my citiation att this time & desire your ade = after I drove 3 waggons as far as Windham I hade waggoner tookaway my bath[?] of driving & ordered me to gard ye waggons which I refused & turned back to colonel green att Covintree & ye wagoner sent back two men after me Ye Colonal did not blame me but told ye men and me to go on again & that I should take my waggon again but being over worried with this tramp I got but 3 miles further than where I left ye waggons in So. Windham att ye house of one Dan Murdock where I have been confined with my old fits But have good care taken of me But I have a desire to Return to you Not having any money Nor Clows fit to wair & all strangers to me makes it something difficult for me I have had a Doctor and a Surgans mate to me which advize me to go to xxx corps of invalids at Boston where I may be under half pay During Life Remaining in this poor State of Body But I ante able to go thether Neither do I incline to with out advice from you But I have a desire that Master or Mistress would go to Colonel Green & see if you cant git me Discharged from ye War it being very Disagreabell to my mind as well as Destructive to my helth I suppose I could ride on a horse or att least in a Slay if you could obtain a Discharge for me So that I may Return to my Master and his family again baring[?] the will of god & your pleasure So No more att this time But I Remain your humble & dutiful Thomas “N” His mark
December 31 1780 These lines I recv’d from ye Surgeon’s mate where as Thomas Nickols a soldier belonging to ye first Regiment in Rhode Island State hath been for some time attended with fits in this place & still likely to Remain unfit for military life”
Endnote on Thomas
Sadly, Thomas didn’t get to go home then. He was transferred to the Invalid Corps in February 1781 to serve in whatever capacity his illness allowed (at half pay). More research is needed to determine what his ultimate fate was during and after the War.
We have a new acquisition for the Varnum Memorial Armory Museum! A large collection of American Civil War items used by East Greenwich native, Sergeant George Byron Bennett (of the 1st Rhode Island Cavalry) is being put on long term loan with us.
George served for the duration of the U.S. Civil War experiencing many campaigns and battles. He was captured at Middleburg, VA, and served time as a prisoner of war (POW).
The collection includes several rarely seen items. Via Varnum friend Stephen Heinstrom working with George’s great-grandson and his wife (who live in NH), the decision was made to keep everything together in the Varnum Armory museum and shared with the public. We will share individual exhibits here as we catalog them, so stay tuned!
The Varnum Continentals continue to closely track the Covid-19 pandemic and follow requirements set by both CDC and the State of Rhode Island. At this time, we are open for tours at the Varnum Memorial Armory Museum!
TOURS AT THE VARNUM MEMORIAL ARMORY MUSEUM
With a limited relaxation of stay-at-home and social distancing measures, we’re pleased to announce that the Varnum Memorial Armory Museum is open for tours, but with restrictions as follows:
— Tour groups are limited to 10 or fewer guests.
— Tour participants and tour guides are required to wear masks.
— Six-foot social distancing is required during the tour.
Museum tours will be configured to minimize the degree to which participants will come into contact with potential transmission points (door knobs, etc.). Between tours, the museum’s possible transmission points, bathrooms, and other areas will be thoroughly cleaned by museum personnel before another tour takes place. When booking your tour, we strongly encourage you to communicate any special circumstances or concerns to museum staff.
We just found this amazing 1975 National Guard recruiting poster deep in our archives at the Varnum Memorial Armory Museum. The caption at the bottom reads:
“You Belong. You and William H. Carney share a unique American Heritage. Like this Medal of Honor recipient and Sergeant in the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry Regiment during the Civil War, citizen-soldiers like you have been protecting our country and communities since 1636.”
At the Varnum Memorial Armory Museum, we have a period “carte de visite” of East Greenwich, RI, native, Major General Silas Casey, featured along with his actual autograph. Silas was a West Point graduate and a veteran of the Second Seminole War and Mexican-American War. He would go on to command men in battle during the American Civil War. He is buried at Casey Farm in Saunderstown, RI.
Casey is perhaps best known today for writing the famed three-volume “System of Infantry Tactics” known colloquially as “Casey’s Tactics”. The books were widely read by both sides in the American Civil War to turn citizens into soldiers.