Today was a busy day at the Varnum Memorial Armory in East Greenwich, RI! Members Mark Trimmer, Tim “Action” Jackson, and Armory Curator Patrick Donovan spent a day of “hard labor” removing weeds, stray trees, scrap wood, and discarded trash from the back of the armory and canon shed. It looks great after all their hard work!
Few military exercises are as thrilling as the charge of a cavalry unit, sabers flashing as they face off against the enemy. Of course, in today’s advanced military arsenals, the saber has been relegated to ceremonial use. But as recently as the early days of World War II, you could have witnessed a cavalry charge. Considered to have been the last of them, a charge took place on August 23 (or 24), 1942, when a unit of Italian cavalry using sabers and hand grenades conducted a successful charge against Soviet troops armed with machine guns and mortars in a battle along the Don River. In January of the same year, the US 26th Cavalry mounted a charge and scattered a group of Japanese in a skirmish on the Bataan Peninsula in the Philippines (later, the starving cavalrymen were forced to eat their horses as they fought against superior Japanese forces).
In the Varnum Museum collection, we have an outstanding representation of American and foreign saber evolution. Among them is the last American design: the M1913 model, designed and advocated by none other than General (at the time, Lieutenant) George S. Patton, Jr. His design in the strict sense is a sword, not a saber since it employs a straight, rather than curved blade. It was based on the British M1908 weapon. Patton’s relatively lightweight saber uses a large, basket-shaped hilt and a double-edged blade designed for thrusting at an opponent, rather than slashing.
In the early 20th century, the Army had decided to replace the cavalry saber model that had been in use since 1861. At the time, Patton, a passionate believer in the power of the saber, was “Master of the Sword” at the Mounted Service School, at Fort Riley, Kansas. A highly accomplished swordsman who had competed in the Olympics and trained in Europe where he perfected his aggressive thrust attack pattern, Patton was known among his peers as “Saber George”. He designed a radical new weapon and prepared a detailed training manual for its mounted and dismounted use. With his typical assertive style, he managed to have his saber approved for general issue.
Quoting from then Lieutenant Patton’s report:
In the Peninsula War the English nearly always used the sword for cutting. The French dragoons, on the contrary, used only the point which, with their long straight swords caused almost always a fatal wound. This made the English protest that the French did not fight fair. Marshal Saxe wished to arm the French cavalry with a blade of a triangular cross section so as to make the use of the point obligatory. At Wagram, when the cavalry of the guard passed in review before a charge, Napoleon called to them, ‘Don’t cut! The point! The point!’
The saber commonly used by US Cavalry units up until the acceptance of Patton’s saber was the M1907, which had changed little from the curved weapons carried by US cavalry units in the Civil, Western Indian and Spanish-American Wars. The Varnum Museum’s Lounge is home to a Model 1872 officer’s saber, representative of the style of weapon that preceded the implementation of Patton’s design.
But his new weapon did not have a long use. At the beginning of U.S. involvement in World War I, several American cavalry units armed with the M1913 were sent to the front, but they were held back. Horse-mounted troops were easy prey for enemy troops equipped with Gewehr 98 rifles and MG08 machine guns. Those cavalrymen who saw combat did so dismounted, using their horses only to travel.
Although an avid swordsman, Patton readily recognized that warfare was rapidly changing, and he adapted his style of “move forward and attack” to his use of tanks in battle, a technique that became his trademark combat style in World War II. (On a side note, Patton joined with Dwight Eisenhower in the early development of tank warfare during and after World War I.
The Patton Saber in the Armory Museum collection is 44″ overall, with a 35″ blade and weighs two and one-half pounds. The blade is two-edged, straight and tapered, made of forged steel the front edge running the whole length of the blade and double-edged for half its length. It has bloodletting grooves running down each side of the blade to within 4 3/4 inches of the point. The grips are hard black rubber. The basket guard is sheet steel. The entire weapon weights about two pounds. The hickory wood scabbard is covered with rawhide and then waterproofed olive drab canvas, woven to eliminate a seam. Considering the weight of the bell and grip assembly, it is balanced much closer to the hand than the typical weapon associated with the name “cavalry saber,” reinforcing Patton’s intention that it was to be used to thrust, rather than slash at an opponent.
By the 1930s, the days of the saber as a military weapon were over. Despite strong lobbying by many supporters, including Patton who tried valiantly in 1938 to keep the weapon in use, the decision was made just prior to the start of World War II to place the majority of sabers in storage and use them only for ceremonial purposes. In 1941, the Springfield Armory, where many sabers had been manufactured, was gearing up for massive production of the Army’s Garand rifle. Today, in the hands of a trained expert, the saber still presents a powerful reminder of its role in war. The Varnum Armory collection, including the Patton Saber, can still excite the imagination.
Written by Varnum Trustee & Member Brian Wallin
Hanging in the President’s Office is a faded 19th century relic that commemorates a defining moment in Rhode Island history. May 3rd of this year is the 173rd anniversary of the inauguration of Thomas Wilson Dorr as governor of Rhode Island. The only problem was at the time there was already a duly elected governor, Samuel Ward King. In the weeks that followed, the state was subjected to an intense period of civil unrest that led to the failed storming of the state armory in Providence on May 18,, 1842. It has come to be known as The Dorr Rebellion. Here’s a thumbnail sketch of the events and the commemorative flag in our museum.
In 1663, King Charles granted a royal charter that spelled out the form of government to exist in Rhode Island. It stated that the General Assembly membership would be based on the 1663 population distribution and that significant property ownership (valued at a minimum of $134.00) was required to vote. But by the mid 19th century, the state’s demographics had greatly changed, due to the Industrial Revolution, the growth of cities, and immigration. By 1829, 2/3 of the state’s population could not meet the criteria to cast a ballot. Forces for change in voting rights emerged; among those in a leadership role was young well-to-do Providence lawyer Thomas Wilson Dorr.
On April 17, 1841, thousands marched in Providence calling for a dramatic revision in the election process. The General Assembly saw the light and agreed to hold a constitutional convention in May. But, to be on the safe side, the suffragists decided to hold their own convention about the same time. In November, they unveiled their “People’s Constitution,” which favored universal white male suffrage. Dorr and some others had at first favored universal suffrage without racial restriction. Ironically, many black Rhode Islanders later took sides with the loyalists when Dorr and his supporters mounted their rebellion.
In April of 1842, two state elections were held. First, the so-called People’s Party elected the 36-year-old Dorr. Two days later, conservative forces (the Law & Order Party) reelected the incumbent Governor King who then appealed to President Tyler to send federal troops to the state in the event of a rebellion by Dorr supporters. Tyler chose not to get involved, but did send an observer. Dorr felt he had the support of the majority of Rhode Islanders and in the early hours of May 18th he marched with several hundred men to seize the weapons in the state arsenal on Cranston Street in Providence and mount an armed rebellion.
Dorr supporters (including some units of the state’s militia that were loyal to him) attacked the arsenal, but their 70-year old cannon expelled water, not cannon balls. Local Providence militiamen and volunteers inside the walls, including Dorr’s own father, Sullivan Dorr, fought back. With the failure of their cannon, the Dorrites faded into the night. Reinforcements loyal to Governor King arrived after the confrontation but were used to dislodge Dorrites from their encampment on Federal Hill on May 19th. Meanwhile, Dorr and a number of his men had fled to Chepachet. Eventually, he escaped to New Hampshire and later to Massachusetts. He returned in 1843 to face the music, was tried and convicted of treason against the state in 1844 (a strange verdict since treason can technically be only against a country). He was sentenced to a period of house arrest. However, the seeds of a new election process and reform had been sown in the Ocean State, and Thomas Wilson Dorr had gained national recognition as a civil libertarian. Others, to this day, consider him an anarchist.
For our flag story, we go back to September 10, 1842, when victorious supporters of Governor King gathered in Providence to celebrate and to honor those who came to defend the standing government. Militiamen from around the state paraded with 14 artillery pieces down Benefit Street to the Dexter Training Grounds for a day-long event led by the governor, Providence Mayor Thomas Burgess, and numerous dignitaries. Among the units honored was the Kentish Guards, led by Col. George Allen. (They missed the defense of the arsenal because Dorrites had waylaid the Kentish transportation and the Guards had to march on foot to Providence.) However, on June 27th Col. Allen led his men and six other militia units in putting down a large and bloody Dorrite riot in Pawtucket.)
An article, rich in the flowery language of the period, appeared in the September 12th edition of the Providence Journal. Thousands at the parade witnessed the presentation of hand-painted commemorative flags commissioned by “the ladies of Providence” to the four chartered militia companies (the Kentish Guards, and the Warren, Bristol and Newport Artilleries) that responded to the call for help from Governor King. The Journal reporter noted,
“the flags were painted by Mr. (Samuel) Bower (of Providence) upon whose skill and taste they reflect great credit. We need not say how dearly they will be cherished, and, if needs be, how bravely they will be defended.”
So who were the Rhode Island Guards? Why did they also get a flag and how did we come into its possession? Members of two unofficial militia units called the Warwick and Coventry Volunteers and the Coventry Volunteers were among those who turned out on May 18th to oppose the Dorrites’ attack on the arsenal. In October of 1842, men from the towns of Warwick, Coventry, and Cranston were formally chartered by the General Assembly as the Rhode Island Guards. A number of their members had been among the loyalist volunteers at the arsenal.
According to a newspaper piece, Rhode Island Historical Society written by the Hon. Henry L. Greene, the newly chartered militia held its first formal meeting on November 19, 1842, in the Greene & Pike’s Schoolhouse in Coventry. John Clarke Harris was elected Captain and Phillip Greene as First Lieutenant. The state later gave the new chartered militia $700 to build a suitable armory adjacent to the schoolhouse.
To recognize the efforts by the earlier volunteers (now official militiamen) ladies in the community, led by the daughters of former Gov. Sprague of Cranston and Captain Elisha Brown of Warwick, presented the Guards with the two-sided, hand-painted flag that now hangs in the Varnum Museum. It reads “Presented by the Ladies of Warwick and Cranston to the Rhode Island Guards for their Patriotic Services on the Eighteenth of May, 1842. Guard the gift as you did the givers.” Style and wording mirror the flags presented earlier to the other militias.
The Kentish Guards and several other units drilled with the Guards, who for a period of time carried weapons that had been provided by the state to the volunteers at the time of the Dorr uprising (these were eventually replaced). The Rhode Island Guards continued in existence until 1849 or 1850 (the last known meeting was held on October 22, 1849, in East Greenwich. Henry Greene’s account indicates there was no record of the official disbanding of the unit (and this author has found none). The armory building was sold in 1852 to the Washington Lodge of the Odd Fellows who constructed their meeting hall on the property.
Mrs. Francis Whittier Greene and Family, descendants of Revolutionary War hero Col. Christopher Greene, donated the flag in the Varnum Museum collection in 1941. The flag had been in the possession of a Rhode Island Guards lieutenant, Lehre Greene, a great grandson of Col. Greene. Frederick Cole Greene, another family member, was one of the founding members of the Varnum Continentals in 1907. So, it seems the mystery of our Dorr flag has been finally solved. Its presence in our collection is a significant reminder of a landmark event in our state’s history.
By Varnum Trustee & Member Brian Wallin
One of the most famous documents in American history, “To the People of Texas and All Americans in the World,” was written by Lt. Col. William B. Travis as a plea for reinforcements to defend the Alamo against Mexican forces during the Texas Revolution in 1836. Intimately connected with the letter is Albert Martin, born in 1808 in Providence.
Martin’s two grandfathers fought in the American Revolution and his fervent support of liberty was not surprising. After attending Norwich University in Vermont, he followed his father and brothers to Tennessee and later to New Orleans, eventually settling his family in Gonzales, Texas, in 1835. He opened a general store affiliated with the family business, Martin, Coffin & Company. The Texas Revolution broke out in 1835. Albert was involved in the defense of Gonzales (about 70 miles from the Alamo) and in Bexar (the original name of San Antonio) where he was wounded.
On February 23, 1836, a Mexican army numbering some 1500 laid siege to Texians holding the Alamo. Martin, a Captain in the Texas Rangers, returned from Gonzales and was immediately sent by Col. Travis to meet an aide of Mexican General Santa Anna’s who refused to see him. The following day, Col. Travis entrusted Martin to deliver an open letter to San Felipe de Austin containing a plea for reinforcements. Texans today revere this stirring language as their version of the Declaration of Independence:
TO THE PEOPLE OF TEXAS & ALL AMERICANS IN THE WORLD:
Fellow citizens and compatriots – I am besieged by a thousand or more of the Mexicans under Santa Anna – I have sustained a continual Bombardment and cannonade for 24 hours & have not lost a man. The enemy has demanded surrender at discretion, otherwise the garrison are to be put to the sword, if the fort is taken – I have answered the demand with a cannon shot, & our flag still waves proudly from the walls. I shall never surrender or retreat. Then, I call on you in the name of Liberty, of patriotism & everything dear to the American character, to come to our aid, with all dispatch – The enemy is receiving reinforcements daily & will no doubt increase to three or four thousand in four or five days. If this call is neglected, I am determined to sustain myself as long as possible & die like a soldier who never forgets what is due to his own honor & that of his country – Victory or Death.
William Barret Travis
Lt. Col. Comdt
P.S.The Lord is on our side – When the enemy appeared in sight we had not three bushels of corn – We have since found in deserted houses 80 or 90 bushels and got into the walls 20 or 30 head of Beeves.
Martin rode through the night back to Gonzales and handed the letter to colleague Lancelot Smithers. On the way, Martin added two personal postscripts. He wrote of his fear that the Mexican army had already launched their attack on the fort and added, “Hurry on all the men you can in haste.” The second is hard to read since the letter has frayed along a fold. But, it appears to convey that the Texians were “determined to do or die.”
Smithers penned his own postscript to the letter and carried it on to Austin. The letter was widely published, but it took some time for a large force to be assembled. Back in Gonzales, a small relief force of 32 men set out for the Alamo. Against his father’s wishes, Martin went with them and on March 1 made it back into the fortress. Five days later Albert was among the 188 men killed in the Battle of the Alamo. In April of 1836, an American army under General Sam Houston defeated Santa Anna at the Battle of San Jacinto.
Martin’s body was never recovered. It was likely among those burned by the Mexicans who then scattered the ashes of the Alamo defenders. The original Travis letter survived and is now in the Texas State Library in Austin, where a copy is on public display.
In July of 1836, Martin’s obituary was published in the New Orleans True American newspaper. It reads, in part: “Among those who fell in the storming of the Alamo was Albert Martin, a native of Providence, Rhode Island and recently a citizen of this city … He had left the fortress and returned to his residence. In reply to the passionate entreaties of his father, who besought him not to rush into certain destruction, he said ‘this is no time for such considerations. I have passed my word to Colonel Travers, that I would return, nor can I forfeit a pledge thus given.’ Thus died Albert Martin, a not unapt illustration of New England heroism. He has left a family, and perhaps a Nation to lament his loss and he had bequeathed to that family an example of heroic and high-minded chivalry which can never be forgotten.”
There is a cenotaph at the Martin family plot in Providence’s North Burial Ground memorializing Albert. Although a pamphlet distributed at the Alamo states Martin was a Rhode Island native, a plaque at the memorial says he is from Tennessee. Officials at the shrine have long been aware of the error, but decline to correct it since in their view, “there are errors all over the place here and we cannot change them all.” But, in Rhode Island, we know the true story.
A Postscript: The Varnum Museum collection includes a US Model 1816, .69 caliber musket manufactured at the Springfield Armory in 1833 and several others made at the Federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry. This type would have been used by Texians at the Alamo and by the U.S. Army during the Mexican-American War. More 1816 models (675,000) were made than any other flintlock in U.S. history. Many were converted to percussion caps in the period leading up to the Civil War.
By Varnum Trustee & Member Brian Wallin
Out on Block Island, there is a small plot of land with a very special memorial: a ship’s bell commemorating the two US Navy aircraft carriers that proudly bore the name USS Block Island. The first, designated CVE-21, was among the Bogue-class of escort carriers that went to sea early in World War II. These relatively small (15,000 tons & 495-feet long and capable of 18 knots), lightly armed ships carried up to 28 fighter aircraft for use in the battle against Nazi U-boats that were devastating Allied convoys in the Atlantic. In the rush to provide a response to the German attacks, the Navy decided to build small aircraft carriers on merchant ship hulls. CVE-21 was planned as a tanker before her conversion to a carrier. The first escorts were delivered to the British (in fact, one of those hulls designated CVE-6 was to be christened as Block Island). However, she was ultimately delivered under “lend-lease” to the Royal Navy as HMS Hunter.
Life aboard an escort carrier, also known as “Jeep Carriers” or “baby flattops,” was Spartan. The ships lacked the amenities of their big sisters, the fleet carriers. They had no air conditioning, were noisy, and pitched wildly in the heavy ocean swells. They relied on their escorts and CAP (combat air patrol) for defense as they carried only two 5-inch, multi-purpose guns and a smattering of 20mm and 40mm anti-aircraft weapons. Nicknamed “The Fighting Block Island” or “FBI,” CVE-21’s planes were credited with sinking two U-boats and shared credit with the escort screen ships for two more during her brief time in service. The ship and her crew earned two battle stars. According to the USS Block Island Association, made up of survivors and family members of the two carriers and their escorts, CVE-21 pioneered the use of HF/DF (high frequency direction finder) gear that enabled surface warships to track U-boats by their radio transmissions. The ship was also the first American carrier to be used in the hunter-killer role and, unfortunately, the only US Navy aircraft carrier to be sunk by enemy action in the Atlantic.
Block Island had a short, but active life. She was placed in commission with the Atlantic Fleet in March of 1943. She transited from the West Coast shipyard where she was built and began her service by ferrying warplanes to Great Britain. Then, she went on the hunt for German submarines. On May 29, 1944, during her fourth war patrol, she was torpedoed without warning by U-549 and sunk in 40 minutes off the Canary Islands. Six men went down with the ship. The remaining 951 crewmen were rescued by escorting destroyers (four pilots of six in the air at the time were also lost with their planes). The German boat was put down for good by two of the Block Island’s escorts.
Now, here’s another twist to the story and a Navy first. It was decided to name a new escort carrier nearing completion on the West Coast after the first Block Island. The crew of CVE-21 was kept together until a second ship was commissioned. The new CVE-106 was launched less than two weeks after her predecessor was sunk. The second USS Block Island was designed from the keel up as an escort carrier. She was larger (24,000+ tons and 557′ long), a little faster at 19 knots and carried a few more aircraft. She was similarly armed as her late sister, but with a few more 40mm guns. As a side-note, she was sponsored at her launching by Mrs. E.J. Hallenbeck, the mother of the famed Marine Pilot Major Greg “Pappy” Boyington, leader of the “Black Sheep” squadron and a Medal of Honor recipient. (At the time, the Japanese were holding him as a POW).
Block Island CVE-106 was commissioned on December 30, 1944, at the same Washington state shipyard where her predecessor had been built. The event program noted “From the commanding officer (Captain F. Massie Hughes) all the way down through the ranks, the ship is manned by the same crew that was aboard the first USS Block Island when she pursued unremitting warfare against the U-boats in the Atlantic – the same men who fought her in her last battle…. So it is with a deep sense of privilege and pride that the ‘Fighting Block Island’s’ men sail again in this greater warship, determined that her name will make yet more history in the annals of naval warfare.”
CVE-106 made it to the Pacific in time for the battle for Okinawa and then fought in the Philippines. She was the first escort carrier to have an all-Marine Air Group. Later, the ship was the first escort carrier to launch radar-equipped night fighters when her Marine pilots participated in the Balikpapan campaign. At war’s end in August of 1945, Block Island had the proud duty of transporting freed Allied prisoners from Taiwan. She was placed in reserve status in 1946 and moved into service as a training ship for the US Naval Academy. In April of 1951, she returned to active duty and assigned to the Atlantic fleet where she carried out a number of cruises. In 1954, Block Island was at last decommissioned and placed in the mothball fleet in Philadelphia. In 1958, she nearly took on a new life when she was re-designated LPH-1 (helicopter assault ship) but before work could be completed, the conversion was cancelled and she was stricken from the Naval Register on 1959. In a final irony, she was sold for scrap – to Japan – the following year.
So, how did her bell wind up back on Block Island? According to Block Islander Robert Downie in his book “BLOCK ISLAND The Sea,” local resident Maizie Rose enlisted the help of Senator Claiborne Pell in tracking down the bell. Remarkably, it was found at the Philadelphia Navy Yard where CVE-106 had been decommissioned.
On May 31, 1971, a ceremony was held at the Island’s Legion Park near the Island Cemetery in New Harbor, a small plot of land that had been transferred to the American Legion Post 36 by the town back in 1939. And there the bell stands today, a fitting tribute to the men who served their country aboard two proud warships of the same name.
By Varnum Trustee & Member Brian Wallin