Look what we just found! Yet ANOTHER treasure in the Varnum Memorial Armory Museum archives. This is an 1804 ship’s passport signed by President Thomas Jefferson AND then Secretary of State James Madison.
Christmas came early for the Varnum Memorial Armory Museum. We just acquired several wonderful identified artifacts from the 1st Rhode Island Cavalry, a hard-fighting unit in the Army of the Potomac during the Civil War. Thank you, Brendan Synnamon and your shop, The Union Drummer Boy, for putting all these things together!
HISTORY: 1st Rhode Island Cavalry
The regiment was organized between December 1861 and March 1862 at Pawtucket as the 1st New England Cavalry. Late in that month, the regiment was sent to Washington D.C. and initially assigned to Hatch’s cavalry brigade in Nathaniel Banks’ V Corps in the Department of the Shenandoah. Throughout the war, the regiment would be a part of many reorganizations of the cavalry, although the majority of its service was with the Army of the Potomac.
Most of the regiment’s service in 1862 was in northern Virginia, where it served as scouts to determine enemy movements, as well as foraging for supplies and screening infantry movements. The troopers saw action contesting Stonewall Jackson’s cavalry in the Valley Campaign. They fought in the Second Bull Run Campaign, as well as many other battles of note, including service in the cavalry actions surrounding the Battle of Fredericksburg.
In 1863, they participated in the Chancellorsville Campaign, and played an important role in the opening battle of the Gettysburg Campaign at Brandy Station. Shortly thereafter, isolated and alone deep in Confederate territory on a scouting mission, they lost nearly 240 of their 280 remaining men at the June 17 skirmish at Middleburg. The regiment was refitted with new recruits and performed scouting and outpost duty along the upper Potomac River until September, when they rejoined the Army of the Potomac, participating in the Bristoe Campaign and Mine Run Campaign.
The following year, the 1st Rhode Island served in the defenses of Washington D.C. before eventually returning to the Shenandoah Valley under the command of Philip H. Sheridan. Due to heavy battle losses, the regiment was consolidated to a battalion of four companies on January 1, 1865. They continued serving in the valley for much of the rest of the war before being mustered out at Baltimore, Maryland on August 3, 1865.
During the war, the regiment lost 1 officer and 16 enlisted men killed and mortally wounded, and 2 officers and 77 enlisted men to disease. Hundreds more were wounded or captured. A total of 2,124 different men served in the regiment at various times, although its field strength normally was less than 500 effectives.
The charge up San Juan Hill on July 1, 1898, is looked upon as one of the high points of the emotion-charged Spanish American War. But for many American soldiers on the ground, it was a nightmare. American troops faced Spanish forces equipped with one of the finest rifles then available: the Model 1893 Mauser. The charger-loaded 7mm Mauser was the standard weapon for the Spanish Army. It was equipped with a box-magazine holding five cartridges and was highly accurate over long ranges.
American forces were at a disadvantage, as many volunteer units carried old Springfield 1873 trapdoor, single-shot rifles. A number of Regular Army units, though, were equipped with the Springfield Model 1892, a Norwegian designed, bolt action .30 caliber weapon commonly known as the “Krag-Jorgensen.” The Krag, like the Mauser, also used smokeless powder, a distinct advantage over the old trapdoors that advertised their presence to the enemy with large clouds of smoke in every volley. Spanish defenders of San Juan Hill retreated only when they ran out of ammunition. Otherwise, their superior weapon might have resulted in a different outcome to the battle that brought fame to Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders, who were armed with the Krag carbines.
The Varnum Memorial Armory Museum collection includes examples of the German and Norwegian armorers as well as representative weapons from the Springfield Armory. Let’s take a look at the evolution of these rifles that changed the course of infantry weaponry over a period that extended through and beyond World War II.
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Brothers Paul and Wilhelm Mauser, starting in the 1860s, made several major advances in rifle design. In the early 1870s, they were manufacturing a single-shot .11mm caliber rifle (one of which is owned by the Varnum Armory). By 1889, the brothers had introduced the first successful, small-bore smokeless powder weapon, chambered for 7.65mm (.53 caliber) ammunition and incorporating a charger-loaded, 5-shot magazine. Because the magazine protruded below the stock, it was prone to damage. The Model 1892 with additional improvements to the extractor to prevent double feeding and a flush-mounted box magazine, allowed easier, faster loading and feeding of the cartridges. This concept was to influence military and sporting rifles down to the present day. The rifle was chambered for 7x57mm resulting in greater velocity, accuracy, and penetration than any other weapon of its time.
The Spanish government recognized the superior qualities of the new Mauser and ordered large quantities for both Army and Navy use (some 200,000 all told). It was this weapon that faced first guerilla forces in Cuba, then American troops in the Spanish-American War. Many European observers mistakenly discounted the effectiveness of the Mauser in this conflict, a mistake for which they would pay during World War I.
When American forces were mobilized to go to Cuba, they initially relied on equipment that, in some cases, dated back to the Civil War. (Some soldiers actually carried Civil War issue canteens and knapsacks.) The primary weapon of the volunteer infantryman was the Model 1873 Springfield, a trap door rifle using black powder, as noted above. In 1892, the Army had held a competition to select a new infantry rifle, involving more than 40 designers including the Mauser brothers. The Krag-Jorgenson, a .30 caliber, magazine-fed bolt-action weapon firing smokeless ammunition, emerged the winner. Production began in 1894 at the Springfield Armory. Immediate design changes led to an 1896 model that was the Regular Army’s standard weapon in the Spanish-American conflict and the Philippine-American War. Variations of the Krag continued to be used until 1907 when they were replaced by the famed Springfield 1903. Some 500,000 Krags were produced overall.
Nevertheless, the Mauser clearly outclassed the more complex designed Krag in the tropical climates of Cuba and the Philippines. The German rifle was easy to maintain and able to put out more powerful, sustained, and highly effective fire. American soldiers simply couldn’t match the volume and accuracy. That said, according to some historians, the Americans had one unexpected ally on their side: disease. Spanish troops had been ravaged by malaria, dysentery, and other illnesses during the guerilla war. This continued when they faced American troops. Of the estimated 60,000 Spanish deaths between 1895 and 1898, 90% were disease related. American casualties on the battlefield number 332 with another 2,957 coming from disease.
The Americans’ overall negative experience with the Krag and their exposure to the much more effective Mauser led to a reverse-engineering effort after the war. The result was one of the best rifles ever made: the Springfield 1903, a worthy opponent to the Mauser. So much so that the German company wound up suing the American government for patent infringement.
The Mauser continued to be recognized worldwide for its excellence. The Model 1898 was the standard German infantry rifle in World War I. After the war, it became one of the most widely used military rifles in the world and influenced the design of the Japanese Arisaka Type 99 of WWII, arguably one of the finer infantry rifles in that conflict, along with the dependable Mauser 1898, still the standard weapon of the German foot soldier in World War II.
As you look over the Varnum Memorial Armory Museum displays, you will find a number of examples of these weapons. As part of our renewed efforts to preserve and protect our valued collection, Armory VP Patrick Donovan and several member volunteers have been cleaning and restoring these artifacts for viewing in our newly environmentally protected exhibit space.
By Varnum Trustee & Member Brian Wallin
There’s nothing like a good detective story. When coupled with the history of a Revolutionary War weapon, it gets even more interesting. Special thanks go to Russell Malcolm, Patrick Donovan, and Don Hagist for their help in telling this one.
Hanging on the wall of our Members Lounge in the Varnum Memorial Armory Museum (click here to book a tour) is a rare English Carbine (a scaled-down version of the British Land Pattern Musket) commonly known as the “Brown Bess.” From 1722 to 1838, the British Army used the Land Pattern worldwide, and some were used by colonists as well. Smoothbore flintlock muskets were not particularly accurate over distance. At a range of up to 50 yards, they could hit a man-sized target. Meanwhile, weapons with rifled barrels had a much longer range and greater accuracy. But muskets were relatively easy to load, required less cleaning while in action, and could be fired up to four times a minute by a skilled foot soldier. Many variations were produced, including lighter-weight models called carbines.
In 1770, a new Pattern Carbine was developed for non-commissioned officers in grenadier and light infantry companies. Since NCOs were charged with maintaining order in the firing lines, they were often in positions of close combat; hence the need for a smaller, lighter weapon (which was not fitted with a bayonet). In a typical British regiment of 500 men, only about a half-dozen carbines were issued.
Our carbine belonged to the 24th Regiment of Foot, one of the British units that fought in the Battles of Saratoga. Originally formed in 1689, it was sent to Quebec in 1776 following the outbreak of war in America. In 1777, the regiment was part of the British effort to cut off New England from the rest of the colonies. A complicated series of campaigns culminated with the Battles of Saratoga in which the British were defeated. In October of 1777, General John Burgoyne surrendered some 5000 English and Hessian troops who remained prisoners until the end of hostilities in 1783.
So, what do we know about our carbine? Quite a bit: the lock is stamped with a crown over the letters “GR” and “Dublin Castle.” This tells us the weapon was made in the Dublin Castle Armory in Ireland. The barrel is stamped with “24 REG” (later called the South Wales Borderers). It weighs 7.2 pounds and fires a 0.68 caliber projectile. An oval escutcheon on the top of the stock behind the lock is marked “4” over “2”. This identifies the carbine as belonging to the 4th company of the regiment with a rack number of 2. Since we know the 24th Regiment fought at Saratoga, it is likely that this weapon was one that was captured at that time. Now, our detective story gets even more interesting.
Don Hagist has a particular interest in British soldiers who fought in the Revolution. Thanks to his research, assignment of the carbine can likely be traced down to one of three NCOs in the 24th Regiment of Foot. On a visit to the Varnum Memorial Armory, Don noticed the carbine hanging on the wall. Recognizing that he was looking at a rare weapon, he asked to take a few photos and then started investigating. According to Don:
I found this to be a rare Pattern 1770 Grenadier Sergeant’s Fusil, one of only a few thousand made at the Tower and Dublin Castle Armories,” he told us. Only about 100 of these carbines would have been among the thousands of muskets surrendered at Saratoga. What makes this weapon especially interesting is the pair of numbers on the wrist plate, as explained above. “British commanders were financially responsible for arms issued to their companies. Marking the weapons identified their unit assignment, facilitating accountability.
Don used a muster roll of the 24th Regiment to trace the likely user.
There were ten companies in the regiment,” he explained, “composing grenadier, light infantry and artillery.” Don noted that grenadiers were usually larger and stronger and were often used in assault operations. They were considered elite units as such. “The grenadier company was fourth in seniority (in the regiment), based on the rank and commission date of the company commander.
The number “4” on our carbine corresponds to this fact. There were three sergeants in the grenadier company when the carbine was issued in 1771. The second of the three, according to the muster roll, was James Hughes. He probably was issued the carbine marked “2”. “By 1777,” Don said, “Hughes was the company’s First Sergeant. There is no reason to think that he would have given up this weapon with his change in seniority.” While there is some possibility that Sergeants Thomas Ford or Henry Fogg might have carried carbine 4/2, Don’s investigation indicated Hughes to be the most logical individual. Don also discovered Hughes was captured at Saratoga and was repatriated to England after the war. Records indicate he applied for a soldier’s pension in 1784 at the age of 52, following some 29 years in the British Army.
We’re still looking into how our Pattern Carbine came into the Varnum collection. While no organized Rhode Island forces fought at Saratoga, some individuals were likely there. The carbine could have come home with them or with one of the many other New Englanders who participated in the battles.
So, there’ll be more to come. Needless to say, with our outstanding array of weaponry, there are countless stories. Stay tuned.
By Varnum Trustee & Member Brian Wallin
Here’s a transcription of our newer exhibits at the Varnum Memorial Armory Museum: George Washington’s letter to General James Mitchell Varnum (written on the eve of the Battle of Red Bank, NJ). This item is currently available for viewing. Just click here to book a tour of the Armory!
IMAGE OF GEORGE WASHINGTON’S LETTER:
This Evening received your favor of this date. The regiments under Cols Greene + Angel are to proceed to Red Bank according to orders. I desire to be in formed of their precise arrival by this head quarters at day light tomorrow, and that you + Genl Huntington will join me with the remainder, as early as you can.
I am forever your most obed servt
October 8 : 1777
- “Col Greene” was RI Christopher Greene. He was later awarded a special sword in 1780 for his bravery and valor at Red Bank. The Varnum Continentals have a copy of his written award in the Commander’s Office at the Varnum Memorial Armory Museum.
- “Frederick Wampole” was a resident of Dotwiler Road, Towamencin Township, PA. His house served as Washington’s headquarters from Oct 8th through the 16th, 1777. His house was demolished in 1881. The Continental Army paid him “28.5.4 pounds for expenses”. The correct spelling of his name is Friedrick Wamboldt.
- The big question is this: did Washington himself write the whole letter or did he just sign it? Via looking at a other Washington letters, it appears to be his hand writing, but this would require expert verification. The signature’s penmanship looks different than the letter itself … but a wide discrepancy between prose penmanship and signature penmanship is not unusual. The pen ink might be different, though; this would also require expert verification.