The Varnum Continentals are excited to work with the Rhode Island Foundation, Rhode Island Historical Society, and the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society to introduce teachers to a new public school curriculum on the famed First Rhode Island Regiment of the Revolutionary War. Artifacts from the Varnum Armory Museum are a part of the program.
The Varnum House Museum will be open to the public for the 2022 tour season on Sundays from 1:00 PM to 3:00 PM weekly starting on July 10, 2022. Tours for groups are available by appointment.
Visit the 1773 mansion of General James Mitchell Varnum, a prominent figure in the Revolutionary War and early-American politics. An on-site colonial herb garden includes dye and medicinal plants that are appropriate to the era.
Open to the public on Sundays from 1:00 to 3:00 PM.
Available by appointment.
401-884-1776 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
If you weren’t able to watch the PBS documentary “A Stitch in Time” on it’s original May 29 air date, we’ve got you covered!
Follow the link to watch this fascinating half-hour documentary showing the journey of America’s oldest colonial militia flag, from the First Company of Bristol County Militia in the 1690s to the present day, as it undergoes delicate conservation at the Varnum Memorial Armory Museum under the eye of an expert textile conservator.
Watch the full documentary here:
There are few military exercises as thrilling as the charge of a cavalry unit, sabers flashing as they face off against the enemy. Of course, with today’s advanced military weaponry, the saber or sword has been relegated to ceremonial use.
However, as recently as the early days of World War II, you could have witnessed a cavalry charge. Two such events, considered to have been the last of them, took place in 1942. In January, the U.S. 26th Cavalry mounted a charge and scattered a group of Japanese troops 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 enemy forces). On August 23 (or 24), 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 the Varnum Memorial Armory Museum collection, we have an outstanding representation of American and foreign saber evolution. Among them is the last American design: the M1913 Army 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 and 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 straight blade designed for thrusting at an opponent, rather than the slashing motion used in a traditional saber attack. The blade is 35.25-inches long and the overall weight is 2 pounds, 13 ounces.
In the early 20th century, the U.S. Army had decided to replace the cavalry saber model that had been in use since 1861 (see below). 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, George Patton was known among his peers as “Saber George.” On his return from training with the best fencing master in Europe, Monsieur Clery, Patton told the Army’s Adjutant General, “The whole French system of mounted saber fencing is concentrated in the word, ‘attack!’” (Napoleon at the Battle of Wagram, before the cavalry of the guard passed in review prior to a charge, the French Emperor called to them, “Don’t Cut! The Point! The Point!”. In other words, attack your enemy with your saber. That single word “Attack!” would become synonymous with Patton’s entire Army service.
While at Fort Riley, Patton designed a radical new weapon and prepared a detailed training manual for its mounted and dismounted use. The official manual he authored in 1914 outlined both mounted and dismounted saber techniques emphasizing the aggressive “cut and thrust” attack. 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 U.S. Cavalry units up until the acceptance of Patton’s saber was the M1906, which had changed little from the curved weapons carried by U.S. cavalry units in the American Civil, Western Indian, and Spanish-American Wars. In 1846, the preferred weapon of Army officers was the saber and West Point cadets were drilled in its use. The Varnum Memorial Armory Museum is also home to a Model 1872 officer’s saber, which is representative of the style of weapon that immediately preceded the implementation of Patton’s design.
But the Patton weapon did not have a long use. At the beginning of the American involvement in World War I, several U.S. 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 (examples of both are also in the Varnum Armory collection). 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. 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. Patton had gone to war as an aide to General Pershing with whom he had also fought in the pre-war punitive action against Mexican outlaws. The fiery Patton was not interested in a rear echelon position and was able to secure a role in organizing the Army’s tank warfare program. Wounded in action, he successfully demonstrated the effectiveness of the tank in battle and ended the war as a Lieutenant Colonel. Typical of Patton, he visualized the future role of armor in warfare and continued to advocate for its use between the two world wars. (On a side note, Patton joined with Dwight D. Eisenhower in the early development of tank warfare during and after World War I.
The Patton Saber in the Varnum Armory Museum collection is 44-inches long overall, hilt to blade tip. The blade is two-edged, straight and tapered, and made of forged steel. The front edge runs the whole length of the blade and is double-edged for half its length. It has bloodletting grooves running down each side of the blade to within 4 ¾ inches of the point. The grips are hard black rubber. The basket guard is sheet steel. The hickory wood scabbard is covered with rawhide and 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 (Remember, “The point! The point!”). However, Patton himself never had the opportunity to use his weapon in battle.
The Model M1913 was also known as the Enlisted Cavalry Saber and between 1913 and 1918, the Springfield (Massachusetts) Armory produced over 35,000 units. These were marked “SA” and carried a serial number. Only a few thousand of these remain and are avid sought by militaria collectors. Another 93,000 were produced by a civilian contractor, Landers, Frary, and Clark between 1917 and 1918. These carry no serial number but are marked with the letters LF&A to distinguish them. At the outbreak of World War II, many of the Patton Swords were cut up for use as trench knives by soldiers and drop knives used by OSS agents. These weapons are also collectable.
In 1934, the Adjutant General’s office discontinued issuing the saber to the cavalry. Its days 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 was already gearing up for massive production of the Army’s Garand rifle.
As noted, Patton went on to polish his reputation as a commander who transferred his assertive saber technique to the fast-moving armored warfare through the course of World War II. He replaced his saber with his trademark ivory handled pistols. Always at the head of his commands, Patton was instrumental in giving the Army armor its nickname of “hell on wheels.”
Today, in the hands of a trained expert, the saber still presents a powerful reminder of its role in war. The “Master of the Sword” still exists in the U.S. Army. At the West Point Military Academy, the head of the Department of Physical Education who is responsible for both an academic and non-academic physical program carries the title. Patton held the title at Fort Riley simultaneously to the officer assigned to the role at West Point where the “Master” or MOSH as he (or she) is known, has existed since the academy’s first Master of the Sword, Pierre Thomas, was appointed in 1814. And, yes, a woman has held the position. Col. Maureen LeBoeuf served as MOSH between 1997 to 2004.
The entire Varnum Memorial Armory Museum collection of swords and sabers, including the Patton Saber, can excite the imagination, calling to mind the skill and training required to successfully use these weapons in combat as well as their use as ceremonial accessories.
The Varnum Continentals are pleased to announce that Members Meetings have resumed!
Varnum Trustee Brian L. Wallin leads our return to monthly member meetings with a presentation on “Jamestown and the Military.” Incorporated in 1678, Jamestown has a long, diverse military history. From early colonial days into the 20th century, Jamestown has experienced occupation (and devastation) by the British during the American Revolution, as well as U.S. Civil War encampments, major coastal fortifications, highly classified military research and communications facilities, and even a pair of top-secret World War II German POW camps. This lecture includes numerous, rare visual images and anecdotes.
PLEASE NOTE: Reservations are required and MUST be received by NOON, Friday, April 8. NO WALK-INS ALLOWED!
RSVP to Scott Seaback at 401-413-6277 or email@example.com.
WHEN: Monday, April 11, 5:30 pm (social hour); 6:30 (dinner followed by program).
WHERE: Varnum Memorial Armory Museum, 6 Main Street, East Greenwich, RI
MENU: Steak filet steak tips, garlic mashed potatoes, salad, dessert & coffee
CASH BAR: wine, beer, and soft drinks only.
About Brian L. Wallin
Brian L. Wallin is a 1965 graduate of Stonehill College, and earned his master’s degree in 1968 from American International College. He retired in 2009 as Vice President of Kent Hospital in Warwick, RI where he remains active on several hospital committees. He has held appointments in numerous civic and professional organizations. He is a past president of the New England Society for Healthcare Communications and of the North Kingstown (RI) Rotary Club. He has been a member of the Varnum Armory & Varnum House Museums since 2008 and was named a trustee in 2013. Married in 1968, he and his wife Gail have one son and two grandsons. Brian is an avid guitarist, model railroader and marine model builder. He continues to do free-lance commercial and documentary voice-over narrations.
On December 17, 2021, we marked the 273rd birthday of General James Mitchell Varnum. One of George Washington’s most trusted officers during the American Revolution, he achieved a remarkable career before his untimely passing. One of his inspired accomplishments was the establishment of a then unique military unit, the 1st Rhode Island Regiment. On February 9, 2022, Rhode Island’s congressional delegation, joined by a number of congressmen and senators from both parties, introduced legislation (H.R.6660/S.3607) to award a posthumous Congressional Gold Medal (CGM) honoring the First Rhode Island. The regiment would become known as Varnum’s Continentals from which we take our name as a historic state militia.
In introducing the legislation in the House, Congressman David Cicilline noted “despite their honorable service to our nation, many of those who fought in the First Rhode Island Regiment did not receive the recognition they deserved…many were forced to resist efforts at re-enslavement while at the same time having to fight for back wages from the Rhode Island General Assembly.” General Varnum used his influence and legal skills to do all he could to support post-war recognition of the 1st RI veterans.
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse said the bi-partisan legislation “will finally recognize the heroic efforts of the 1st Rhode Island…this long-overdue honor is a small step toward securing their rightful place in the history of our state and of our nation.” If approved, the CGM would be presented to the Rhode Island State Library for display, research, and ceremonial purposes. To bring this proposed recognition into perspective, it is helpful to go back in time and follow General Varnum’s leadership role during the American Revolution and his innovative creation.
The first shots of the American Revolution echoed down from Lexington and Concord in April of 1775. But the men of East Greenwich, RI, were already prepared to respond. In August of 1774, the Military Independent Company of East Greenwich was organized. The group hired some ex-military men to teach them the rudiments of military science. Twenty-five-year-old James Varnum, who had already gained fame and respect as a skilled lawyer and orator, was placed in charge of the needed financial support. Varnum received formal approval from the colonial General Assembly for the company to function as an official militia unit on October 24, 1774, and the group took the name “Kentish Guards.” They first met at the Allen Tavern, known as the “Bunch of Grapes” and openly drilled in the community to attract new recruits (today, the tavern’s site on Main Street is occupied by the Greenwich Hotel).
Varnum was elected Captain (later advanced to Colonel by the General Assembly), Richard Fry as First Lieutenant, Christopher Greene as Second Lieutenant and Hopkins Cook as Ensign. Varnum’s very close friend, Nathanael Greene, an ardent supporter of the unit, was not chosen as an officer. Some felt it was because a deformity caused him to walk with a slight limp. Greene, who had secretly purchased a musket in Boston, bore no malice and gladly enrolled as a private. During the war, he was to become George Washington’s Quartermaster and has been acknowledged by some historians as perhaps the best general of the American Revolution.
On April 22, 1775, the Rhode Island General Assembly created a 1,500-man “Army of Observation” brigade under command of a Brigadier General. Although earlier rejected as officer material by the Kentish Guards, Nathanael Greene was named to the post. Just why he was chosen has remained a mystery for many historians, but history proved the Assembly made a wise decision. Colonel Varnum immediately pledged his full support to his good friend. Varnum was given command of the brigade’s 3rd Regiment, comprised of men from Kent and King’s (later Washington) Counties. It is from this appointment that Varnum’s Regiment dates its history, with seniority from the date of May 3, 1775, in the still existing Rhode Island Militia.
When Varnum’s unit was taken into the Continental Army, it became the 12th Continentals or simply, Varnum’s Continentals. Under overall command of Nathanael Greene, the Rhode Islanders took part in the Siege of Boston between July and December of 1775. At that point, their initial period of enlistment ended. In response to strong requests from Generals Washington and Greene, however, most of the men remained with the Continental forces, joining the 9th Continentals, remaining under Varnum’s command.
The regiment marched to New York where they took part in fighting through the summer of 1776. Varnum had hoped to be promoted to Brigadier General and lobbied for the rank. For mostly political reasons, his advancement was not forthcoming. His complaints to Washington went unanswered and in December Varnum made good on repeated threats to resign and returned to Rhode Island. His regiment remained with the Continental Army and fought well at the Battles of Trenton and Patterson in New Jersey. In January of 1777, Col. Christopher Greene became commander of the 1st Rhode Island. (the unit was later merged into the 2nd RI, Continental Line, created from Varnum’s disbanded 9th Continentals). It would be reconstituted as the 1st Rhode Island, or the “Black Regiment” in the spring of 1778. Greene would essentially remain in overall command until he was killed in 1781.
The British, with support from Hessian troops, had occupied Newport in late 1776 and burned the town of Jamestown in December of that year. Over the next couple of years, their suppression of trade and forays against the rest of the colony created significant anger, hardship, and frustration among the populace. The General Assembly called on Governor Nicholas Cooke to raise a brigade of infantry to defend the colony. Varnum was given the rank of Major General and took command of all Rhode Island militia infantry. He briefly remained in that post before being recalled by Washington on February 21, 1777, and promoted to Brigadier General in the Continental Army.
Varnum’s troops, like most of the colonial forces at the time, were in bad shape. They were ill paid, ill clothed, ill fed, and ill supplied. His brigade should have numbered 1,200 men in four regiments (two from Rhode Island and two from Connecticut), but only about 600 could be mustered. Varnum and his top officers, Colonels Christopher Greene and Israel Angell, complained to Generals Washington and Nathanael Greene, but the entire Continental Army was in the same poor straits.
In 1777, the British hatched a plan for a major offensive along the Hudson River. Instead, in a confusing state of affairs, British General William Howe decided to occupy Philadelphia, PA, in September of 1777. This led to the Battle of Red Bank, New Jersey with American defenses under General Varnum. In the Varnum Memorial Armory Museum is a letter from Washington to Varnum ordering Colonels Christopher Greene and Israel Angell to come Red Bank as quickly as possible. During the battle, Greene’s 400-man force defeated 1,200 Hessian troops at Fort Mercer. The Continental Congress later awarded him a ceremonial sword for personal bravery.
During the winter of 1777-78, American troops, including the Rhode Islanders, survived an arduous winter at Valley Forge. Varnum remained strongly motivated to address the brutal British occupation of Newport and defended his home state’s reluctance to provide more troops to the Continental Army given the British presence. It is here that the 1st Rhode Island, the “Black Regiment,” was born. Varnum convinced George Washington of the merit of recruiting enslaved Blacks and freedmen as well as Native Americans from Rhode Island into a military unit. Consolidating the 1st and 2nd Rhode Island Regiments at Valley Forge, Colonel Christopher Greene, Lt. Col. Jeremiah Olney, and Major Samuel Ward were sent back to Rhode Island to raise the regiment.
The General Assembly, in spite of vocal opposition by slave owners from the southern part of the state, agreed to the plan in February 1778. By order of the assembly, “every able-bodied negro, mulatto, or Indian man slave that chose to enlist would be freed on their acceptance into the unit and completion of military service.” Slave owners were to be compensated by the Rhode Island Assembly who would then be reimbursed by the Continental Congress (or so it was hoped) for the market value of the individual enslaved recruits.
Col. Greene and his fellow officers recruited 225 men, of whom fewer than 140 were slaves or freedmen. The 1st Rhode Island initially became the only regiment of the Continental Army to have segregated companies (some other regiments were integrated). However, even though the 1st Rhode Island became known as “The Black Regiment,” Caucasians were later recruited to fill vacancies and became integrated by necessity.
Following training in East Greenwich, RI, the unit’s first engagement was at the Battle of Rhode Island which took place at the northern end of Aquidneck Island in August of 1778 under command of General John Sullivan. For a detailed account of the battle and surrounding events, this writer suggests The RI Bicentennial Foundation’s 1980 book “The Rhode Island Campaign of 1778, Inauspicious Dawn of Alliance” by Paul Dearden and Robert Geake’s book “From Slaves to Soldiers”. Also, take a look at my fellow historian Christian McBurney’s 2011 book “The Rhode Island Campaign”.
Even though this engagement (the only land battle of the Revolution to be fought in the Ocean State) is considered a defeat for Continental forces, the Black Regiment averted a complete rout. Because weather conditions prevented expected support by newly arrived French naval forces, Sullivan knew he could not press a large confrontation with the well-entrenched enemy forces defending Newport. The American forces were arrayed in three elements. The men of the 1st Rhode Island under Col. Greene held the line against repeated attacks by British and Hessian troops on the west flank.
At one point, the Hessians charged again and again. Historian Samuel Greene Arnold in his 1859 “History of the State of Rhode Island,” recounted that the regiment “…distinguished itself in deeds of desperate valor. Posted behind a thicket in the valley, three times they drove back the Hessians, who charged repeatedly down the hill to dislodge them.” The Hessian colonel commanding later applied for a transfer, claiming his men would likely shoot him for having caused them so much loss. History loves legend and according to one tale, an unnamed African American artillerist, wounded in the arm, exchanged places with a white soldier telling him, “I’ve got one arm to fight for my country.” As he took up his place, he was shot and killed on the spot. A monument at Patriot’s Park in Portsmouth, RI, commemorates the bravery of the men of the 1st Rhode Island, including many black soldiers.
Although Aquidneck Island remained in British hands, Sullivan was able to complete an orderly withdrawal of his 5,000-man force to Bristol and Tiverton (thanks especially to the heroic efforts of Greene’s troops). The September 15, 1778, the New Hampshire Gazette reported the retreat made “in perfect order and safety, not leaving behind the smallest article of provision, camp equipage or military stores.”
In March 1779, James Mitchell Varnum, for economic reasons, resigned his commission in the Continental Army for the final time, returned to his wife Martha in East Greenwich and resumed his law practice. He did so after making sure that Washington would not be displeased. On his return, he was placed in command of the Rhode Island militia. In October, the British pulled out of Newport and French troops arrived in large numbers in Rhode Island to aid the colonials.
Elements of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment spent time in Rhode Island and in New Jersey before being consolidated with the 2nd Rhode Island, Col. Christopher Greene still commanding. They were sent to defend an area on the northern bank of the Croton River in New York. On May 14, 1781, the British attacked in a lightening raid, According to the July 4, 1781 edition of the American Journal and General Advertiser, the raid killed 14 colonials, wounded 4 (2 later died), and 2 officers and 22 enlisted men were captured. Col. Greene was killed by multiple saber wounds, his body carried off and later discovered mutilated. Some historians consider it an act of revenge by the British for Greene’s efforts in commanding Black troops. The Rhode Island Regiment was again reconstituted and placed under the command of Lt. Col. Olney who would retain that post until the unit was disbanded after the war. The regiment took part in the Siege of Yorktown and was present for that last major battle of the Revolution in October of 1781.
Following the end of hostilities, the unit served its final duty in Saratoga until the men were finally discharged on December 25, 1783. White soldiers were granted land and a pension. Black soldiers who had been slaves were granted their freedom, as promised by the Rhode Island General Assembly. Col. Olney formally returned the regiment’s colors (they remain today at the Rhode Island State House).
For nine years after Varnum returned to Rhode Island, he and Martha remained in their handsome residence on Peirce Street (Varnum House Museum). The Varnums entertained many notables, including Washington, Lafayette, Rochambeau, and Generals Nathanael Greene and John Sullivan. Varnum served his state in various capacities including twice as a member of the Continental Congress. Although we know Lafayette stayed overnight at Peirce Street, we’re not quite sure about Washington. The 1907 Varnum family history “Varnums of Dracutt“ (written by James Marshall Varnum) quotes an 1892 article by Dr. William Bowen that says Washington did visit the Varnums in East Greenwich on March 15, 1781 while returning from Boston. Supposedly, he dined and supped with them and even enjoyed an afternoon siesta. But, there is no formal evidence that he spent the night in the house.
James Mitchell Varnum, recognized as an eminent jurist of his time, achieved further fame for his 1786 defense in Trevett v. Weeden. His reasoning on behalf of John Weeden was used by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall in the famed 1803 Marbury v. Madison decision that became the basis of the Court’s claim to the power of protecting the Constitution by determining the constitutionality of a legislative act.
In 1787, Varnum was appointed a justice of the Supreme Court of the Northwest Territory in Marietta, Ohio. Varnum died there of consumption on January 9, 1789 less than a month after his 40th birthday. His college classmate, the distinguished physician Solomon Drowne, eulogized Varnum in an oration marking the one-year anniversary of the founding of Marietta, saying “…O Varnum! They name shall not be forgotten, while gratitude and generosity continue to be the characteristics of those inhabiting the country, once thy care. Thy fair name is deeply rooted in our fostering memories…”. He was most certainly held in such esteem by the soldiers who served under him in his various commands.
But what of the black veterans? For some time, they received no government pay or pension for their service. This bothered Varnum immensely and he campaigned unsuccessfully on their behalf, as did Col. Olney. In 1794, thirteen of the veterans hired Samuel Emory to present their claims to the War Department in Washington. The Rhode Island General Assembly had previously passed an act to support “paupers, who were formerly slaves and enlisted in the Continental battalions.” Local town governments were mandated to provide for the indigent veterans. Most remained in Rhode Island, but some moved onto the 100 acres of bounty land they were promised in New York state or the Ohio territory. In 1818, the veterans of the Black Regiment were finally granted Federal pensions (as were all veterans who could prove their service).
One Black veteran and East Greenwich resident of whom we know a fair amount was Ichabod Northup. Bruce MacGunnigle compiled a biography of Northup for the Rhode Island Genealogical Society’s “RI Roots” publication (Ichabod Northrup, “Soldier of the Revolution” and His Descendants by Bruce C. MacGunnigle. Rhode Island Roots 34:3 (Sep 2008) p. 113-132. also 34:4 (Dec 2008) p. 169-188).
Born a slave around 1745, Northup enlisted in the 1st Rhode Island in 1778 and served as a fifer. Northup served honorably and was among those captured at Croton, New York, when Christopher Greene was killed. He spent the remainder of the war as a prisoner of the British. On the basis of some five years of service, he was granted a pension under an Act of Congress effective in 1818. Despite a handicap from a wartime wound, he worked as a laborer in Warwick and East Greenwich and managed to buy a home for his wife and eight children. Their handsome little house at 110 Division Street was occupied by his descendants and by other families of color for many years. When he died in 1821, Northup was given an obituary in the local newspaper (unusual for a black man at the time), which referred to him as a “Soldier in the Revolution”.
The pending federal legislation to award the Congressional Gold Medal has been endorsed by the NAACP Providence, the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society (RIBHS), and the Newport County Branch NAACP. Theresa Stokes, Executive Director of the RIBHS noted that the African heritage and indigenous soldiers that comprised the 1st Rhode Island “fought for an earned a newfound sense of pride and determination that would later set the stage to advance freedom and equality for all Americans.” General Varnum would have been proud.
Wrapped in newspaper for about 140 years and kept on a dirt floor garage in Daytona, Florida, this American Civil War cap had bits of paper fused to the heat-melted cap visor. It was in pretty rough shape when it arrived at the Varnum Memorial Armory Museum.
This artifact was worn by T. Fred Brown of Battery B 1st Rhode Island Light Artillery during the U.S. Civil War. Our textile conservator, Maria Vazquez, has done extensive work to recover this piece from over a century of poor storage. We’re excited to put this on display when the restoration is completed.
Napatree Point got its name in 1614 thanks to the Dutch explorer Adrian Block. He had sailed up along Long Island Sound and called the narrow land spit jutting out from Watch Hill “Nap of Trees” because of its heavily wooded appearance (which was completely torn away in the Great Gale of 1815). Napatree marks the southernmost point of mainland Rhode Island. The 1.5-mile peninsula forms a barrier beach that was once the site of a well-armed coastal defense facility at the turn of the 20th century and between the 1920s and 1930s, a small colony of summer cottages that lined the dune crest facing the ocean. Napatree is also remembered as the site of a tragic loss of life during the 1938 hurricane.
Today, visitors to the location (now a protected 86-acre conservation area) in addition to viewing a variety of endangered bird species, can find remnants of concrete emplacements that once housed powerful 8-inch and 6-inch guns intended to protect the entrance to Long Island Sound between Watch Hill Point and Fisher’s Island from enemy warships. The military importance of the site had been recognized from early colonial days when it served as one of a series of warning stations that lined the coast to alert of an attack by sea. These were simple installations of a firebox atop a pole. The flames could be seen by night and the smoke by day and relayed point-to-point up the coastline. During the American Revolution, the Westerly militia erected breastworks atop Watch Hill to protect cannoneers, presaging further improvements that would culminate in the late 19th century, when a series of major coast defense facilities were established in Rhode Island. Varnum News has contained stories of several of these defenses, popularly known as Endicott Forts.
In 1884, a joint Army-Navy panel had warned that the Atlantic and Pacific coasts were particularly vulnerable to seaborne attack. A year later, then Secretary of War William Crowninshield Endicott oversaw a board that began a program to establish heavily armed fortifications on the East and West Coasts. His name would become synonymous with the process that continued up to and immediately following the Spanish-American War. As a center of major manufacturing and the location of important naval facilities, Rhode Island became the site of powerful batteries that would continue in varying degrees through World War II.
Among the early fortifications was one to be built at Watch Hill, named in honor of Col. Joseph K.F. Mansfield. He had risen to become Inspector General of the Army and was later killed at the Battle of Antietam in the American Civil War. In 1898, the government bought up some 60 acres of shorefront on the Napatree peninsula and started construction at the edge of Sandy Point, a bend in the Napatree land spit. The 1938 hurricane cut Sandy Point away from Napatree just beyond the site of Fort Mansfield. Today, it is a mile-long, 35-acre islet in Little Narragansett Bay, lying partly within the town of Stonington, Connecticut.
Construction of the fort’s three heavy caliber concrete open gun pits supported by number of wood-framed facilities moved quickly. The main installation was Battery Wooster, housing a pair of 8-inch M1888 disappearing guns (and named for Revolutionary War General David Wooster who was killed at the Battle of Ridgefield, Connecticut).
Battery Crawford (and named for Emmet Crawford, an Army officer killed while pursuing Geronimo in 1886) was armed with a pair of 5-inch M1897 guns on balanced pillar carriages. The pillar mounts proved to be unstable and they were later disabled in the up position.
The third emplacement, Battery Connell (honoring Army officer James Connell who was killed in the Philippine-American War), housed two 5-inch M1900 guns on pedestal mounts. On completion in 1901, the fort was fully manned by some 228 soldiers.
Not long after, it was discovered that it had an insurmountable problem. In July of 1907, a series of well-publicized war games was held to test the effectiveness of the Fort Mansfield defenses. The exercise proved to be quite an attraction to the locals who lined their cars along the beach road and clambered out to the shoreline to watch. At night, searchlights playing on the water looking for imaginary invaders also drew large crowds. A review of the exercise revealed that enemy warships would have been able to approach the coastline on an angle that was not covered by the heavy-caliber 8-inch guns of Battery Wooster. Enemy capital ships could easily destroy the Mansfield fortifications and then proceed to attack New York.
Although the war games may have provided a diversion for vacationers and local residents, they convincingly demonstrated that the fort was vulnerable not only to attack by sea, but by infantry assault on the shoreline. Army Col. Charles Parkhurst, in a review of the mock attacks, said that given the poor angle of the fort’s field of fire, “I could capture Fort Mansfield with a fleet of coal barges equipped with 6-inch guns.” That pretty well sealed the fairly brief service life of Fort Mansfield. Within two years, it was removed from active status and placed under a caretaker force that was by 1916 reduced to only six soldiers. The fort’s guns were pulled in 1917 for potential use overseas during World War I.
In 1926, the government managed to unload the now useless land to private ownership. At one point, a developer wanted to build nearly more than 670 cottages on small individual plots. Opposition quickly arose in the local community and in 1928 the land was sold to a private syndicate that sought to preserve the character of Watch Hill. Fort Mansfield’s remaining wooden structures were quickly razed, leaving only the three concrete gun emplacements. Battery Wooster and Crawford are still visible, but Battery Connell has fallen victim to Nature and the erosion that has changed the configuration of Napatree Point over the years. Once in a while, what is left of Connell becomes visible at a low tide.
Napatree became a popular summering spot into the 1930s. A number of comfortable cottages were built facing the oceanfront and the beach was enjoyed by many visitors. On September 21, 1938, New England was struck by the unexpected and devastating hurricane that took hundreds of lives and caused millions in damages across the Northeast. On Napatree Point’s Fort Road, some 42 people were in their houses and 15 were killed when the waters swept over the low-lying landmass leveling the homes. The storm also destroyed Battery Connell and severed Sandy Point from the mainland. In 1940, Sandy Point islet was deeded to a Connecticut man, Alfred Gildersleeve, whose family later donated the islet as a nature preserve. The remainder of Napatree was acquired by the Watch Hill Fire District in 1945.
This writer’s book “World War Two Rhode Island” notes that Watch Hill was included in the state’s coastal defenses. But, in the years between the two world wars it became evident that an enemy attack would come from aircraft, by submarine, or small craft. Watch Hill was defended between 1942-44 by a battery of four mobile 155mm guns placed on circular concrete “Panama” mounts, located at the Oak’s Inn Military Reservation overlooking Misquamicut State Beach (private homes now occupy the site). A 16-inch battery for Watch Hill had been proposed for Misquamicut, but never built. Instead, a pair of the heavy caliber naval guns were installed at Point Judith as part of Fort Greene. Thus, the lower end of Rhode Island and the entrance to Long Island Sound was well protected.
Today, visitors walking the trails of Napatree Point enjoy a serene experience, marked by the still brooding, slowly deteriorating ruins of the Fort Mansfield batteries at the end of the point, some marked with graffiti and subject to the continued effects of nature’s reclamation by wind and water. The non-profit Watch Hill Conservancy and the Watch Hill Fire District cooperatively protect the integrity of the land working with federal agencies to watch over the endangered birds that call the point home. Periodically, volunteers have worked to preserve the remains of the fortifications. Fencing and some additional measures have also been placed by the Fire District to reduce access to the ruins.
Napatree Point remains one of the state’s great, unspoiled treasures thanks to the work of dedicated volunteers and the non-profit Watch Hill Conservancy and Watch Hill Fire District. As with any protected conservation area, there are rules to be followed by visitors.
To learn more, visit the website “thewatchhillconservancy.org”.
The Varnum Memorial Armory Museum‘s exhibit space expansion project is underway! These are demolition images of some office spaces in the Armory that we will restore to its early 20th-century beauty and then fill with many historical artifacts. We plan to use this space for exhibits related to Cold War conflicts and the Global War on Terror, with a focus on Rhode Island’s role and impact.
We deeply appreciate the Champlin Foundation‘s support for this project.
This Grand Army of the Republic Post 6 guidon has just been reunited with one of its former commanders, Lyman Aylesworth, at the Varnum Memorial Armory Museum. This American Civil War flag was acquired thanks to generous donations from our Facebook friends. Thank you! This guidon will be professionally conserved and mounted for display. Reno Post was located at the Kentish Guards Armory in East Greenwich, RI.
Interestingly, when we acquired this artifact via auction, we assumed that there was one flag in the plastic sleeve. It turns out that there were in fact two of these silk flags within the sleeve. As two-fer-one deals go, this worked out well for us!