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.
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.
Tired and tempted to just throw it all away, I stuck my hand one more time into a large moldy cardboard box filled with random receipts, notes, and other mid-20th-century detritus. It had belonged to one of our founding members who had long since passed. Digging through this old box was part of a (still on-going) gargantuan effort to properly re-pack everything in storage at the Varnum Memorial Armory Museum located at 6 Main St. here in East Greenwich, RI.
Anyway, I grabbed another fistful of paper from the box. But, this time, my fingers felt something… different… OLD paper? I carefully pulled it out. This was clearly 18th-century paper and it appeared to be a letter. Torn in four pieces, the fragile document had been crudely glued to a more modern piece of white paper. What I read, blew my mind.
The following transcription contains the letter’s original spelling, punctuation, and grammar:
“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 badge 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”
Freed from enslavement in exchange for his service in Colonel Christopher Greene’s First Rhode Island Regiment, African American Thomas Nichols had written (by dictating to an unknown person) this letter to his former “master and mistress”, Benjamin & Phoebe Nichols of Warwick, RI. They owned a farm near the town line with East Greenwich at the time. Thomas is asking for their help in getting a discharge from service since the Revolutionary War had been, as he said, “very disagreeable to [his] mind as well as destructive to [his] health.” Thomas signs the letter with his mark, “N”, making it clear that he had dictated it to someone else. Perhaps the scribe was the surgeon’s mate, who is mentioned at the end of the letter as having received “these lines” and noting that Thomas is unfit for continued military service and will likely remain so into the future. It’s not clear if “these lines” refer to the preceding or subsequent content (or both?). I think “these lines” refers to the statement starting with “whereas…”.
Sadly, Thomas would not be granted a discharge. Instead, he was transferred on March 1, 1781 to the Corps of Invalids – at half pay – then located at Boston, MA. The Invalid Corps was created as a means for sick or wounded soldiers to continue to serve (mostly as guards) if their condition was deemed not too severe. Although both a doctor and surgeon’s mate had suggested he go to the Invalid Corps, Thomas said he didn’t want to go without first getting advice from his former master. However, we do not know if Benjamin or Phoebe Nichols ever responded to his plea for help. What happened to Thomas after his transfer is also not known. What did he do in the Invalid Corps? Did he survive the Revolutionary War? Did he return home and live out his life as a free man? Did he marry and have a family? Are there direct descendants alive today? I’m still hoping to find answers to these questions and more.
We do know that Thomas became free from enslavement when he enlisted into the 1st Rhode Island Regiment on May 22, 1778 at Warwick, RI. He went through training and drill in East Greenwich, RI. After the devastation of the Philadelphia campaign and the long winter at Valley Forge, General James Mitchell Varnum of East Greenwich had presented to General Washington a plan to raise more troops in Rhode Island by granting freedom to enslaved people in exchange for their service. Washington did not oppose the plan. The Rhode Island General Assembly soon put it into law and included a provision to pay slaveholders for the loss of their “property”. The policy to allow “every able-bodied negro, mulatto, or Indian man slave” to serve turned out to be quite unpopular. And so, the policy was ended in June of that same year. With only this small window of opportunity, less than 200 African Americans ended up serving in the unit.
Just 3 months after enlisting, Thomas would experience his first, and probably last, combat at the Battle of Rhode Island on August 29. After a failed attempt to besiege Newport and force the evacuation of the Crown forces from Aquidneck Island, American forces began withdrawing to the north. The green, untested 1st Rhode Island Regiment played a role in helping to hold off attacks by British and Hessian forces as the main American force under General Sullivan’s command retreated. The 1st Rhode Island had 3 men killed, 9 wounded, and 11 were missing in action. Thomas Nichols was among the wounded. How he was wounded and how severely is unknown. This combat experience may very well be the explanation for the mentions of his “old fits”. Perhaps there was some sort of neurological damage caused by a Crown musket ball. And/or maybe the experience left him mentally affected. He did say specifically that “War [was] very disagreeable to [his] mind…”.
This letter, written 2 years after the Battle of Rhode Island, is emotionally charged. He pitifully says he has “no money nor clothes fit to wear”. And reading that everyone is a stranger to him leaves me with the impression he is feeling helpless, scared, and alone. You can’t help but feel sad for Thomas’s plight and his desperate wish to go home. How bad could things have been for him to wish he could “return to [his] Master”? Did Thomas know whether this meant returning to a state of enslavement? Was he suffering from PTSD?
Historical letters and documents can raise more questions than they answer sometimes. Regardless, this ragged old little piece of paper gives us an incredibly rare and unique view inside the life of a Black soldier serving and fighting for the American cause in its War of Independence. Roughly 7,000 African Americans served that cause between 1775 and 1783.
It is worth noting that very little material culture and written records exist today from the Revolutionary War compared to more recent military conflicts. This lack of primary source material makes it much more difficult for us to have a full and accurate understanding of our shared birth and national development as Americans. As you might imagine, there is even less original source material related to the experiences of people of color and their important contributions during this period. Because of all this, we believe that this letter a national treasure.
This astoundingly rare artifact highlighting the horrors, misery, and drudgery of war has been conserved by a professional document conservator and properly framed for long-term display. This work was generously funded by the Rhode Island Sons of the American Revolution. It is now on display in our 18th Century Room at the Varnum Armory Museum.
Rhode Island (and especially East Greenwich, RI) is justifiably proud of its reputation as the birthplace of the American Navy. On June 12, 1772, the General Assembly created the first formal colonial navy by authorizing two vessels, the flagship Katy and the gunboat Washington and placed them under the command of Captain (later Commodore) Abraham Whipple. On June 15, 1775, Whipple and the men of the Katy captured the tender to the notorious HMS Rose off Jamestown, RI. The Katy would be taken into the Continental Navy when it was established in 1775 and renamed Providence. But it was not until the American Civil War, that the Ocean State would have a warship named in its honor. The tradition has continued into the 21st century… and maybe beyond.
The first ship to bear the name Rhode Island was a side-wheeler, built in New York as the commercial steamship John P. King. She was launched in 1860 and soon after was serious damaged by fire. Rebuilt and renamed Eagle, she was purchased by the Navy in June of 1861 and commissioned USS Rhode Island. She served primarily as a supply ship operating out of various ports on the East Coast (she also called in her namesake state visiting Newport, RI). She did engage and capture the Confederate blockade runner Venus and later caused a British contraband carrier ashore in 1862.
But, Rhode Island entered the history books in December of 1862. She had been ordered to tow the USS Monitor from Virginia to North Carolina. On the night of December 31, the two ships ran into stormy seas. The low-freeboard Monitor quickly began to take on water. The crew could not control the flooding with pumps and the vessel foundered and sank, taking 12 sailors and four officers to their deaths. The crew of the Rhode Island was credited with saving 47 men including the Monitor’s captain, John Bankhead, the last man off the sinking warship. The Monitor lay in her watery grave until August of 1973 when she was found. Over the next decades, a combination of government and private organizations worked to recover artifacts. Portions of the ship have undergone extensive conservation efforts, which continue. The remains of several of the crew were interred at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors in 2013. But what of the Rhode Island?
Several of the Rhode Island’s crew were awarded the Medal of Honor for their valor in the incident. After the loss of the Monitor, the 236-foot Rhode Island was converted to an auxiliary cruiser and armed with one 11-inch and eight 8-inch guns, a 30-pound Parrot rifle and a 12-pounder rifle. She went on to serve out the war along the Atlantic Coast, capturing another blockade runner in 1864 and taking part in the naval assault on Fort Fisher in 1865. In 1867, she was decommissioned and returned to commercial service as the SS Charleston and was finally abandoned in 1885.
The second warship to bear the name USS Rhode Island (BB-17), was a state-of-the-art battleship launched at the Fore River Shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts, in 1904. At her launching, she ran aground in a mud bank and it took two days to free her. She was commissioned on February 19, 1906 in time to participate in the round-the-world cruise of the Great White Fleet. The 16-thousand ton Rhode Island, manned by a crew of 812, carried four 12-inch guns in twin fore and aft turrets and eight 8-inch guns. She also carried a number of smaller caliber guns for close-in defense and, typical of battleship design of the times, carried four 21-inch submerged torpedo tubes. She could achieve a top speed of 19 knots from her twin, triple expansion steam engines that generated 19-thousand horsepower to her twin screws. Although she was launched with heavy masts, these were replaced with the familiar cage masts of the pre-World War II battleships.
She spent the bulk of her service life in the Atlantic Fleet in training activities and was sent to the Caribbean on two occasions between 1914 and 1916 to show the flag during the Mexican Revolution. Rhode Island served in anti-submarine patrols along the Atlantic coastline during World War I. At the end of hostilities, she brought home more than five thousand American troops in five crossings from Europe. She was briefly transferred to the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet in 1919, before being decommissioned a year later. Rhode Island fell victim to the terms of the Washington Naval Treaty of 1923 and was sold for scrap on November of that year. Her ship’s bell remains on display at the Rhode Island State House.
No capital ship bore the name of the Ocean State in World War II, and it was not until July 9, 1994 that the Navy commissioned an Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine as USS Rhode Island (SSBN-740). At 16-thousand tons and built at Electric Boat, she displaces as much as her early 20th century battleship namesake and 560 feet in length is over a hundred feet longer. She carries Mk48 torpedoes and is armed with 24 Trident II ballistic missiles. Also, Stephen Colbert made the submarine the official vessel of his satirical television show back in 2007 after the crew sent him photos of a “Colbert Nation” poster taken in various (unclassified) areas of the sub (one of the ship’s crew was engaged to Colbert’s cousin).
During her service, Rhode Island has earned a coveted Battle “E” for Submarine Squadron 20 and the Omaha Trophy for superior performance and Fleet standards in strategic deterrence. She underwent nuclear refueling and modernization in 2018. In 2019, she launched an unarmed Trident II off Cape Canaveral, marking the 172nd consecutive successful submarine-launching of a ballistic (SBLM) test flight. Rhode Island is currently home-ported at the Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, Georgia.
But what will the future hold? Here, imagination takes over. Now that the United States military has a Space Force, maybe there will be a futuristic vessel named in our state’s honor. At least, that was the thinking of creative minds in Hollywood.
Meet the starship USS Rhode Island NCC-72701. Back in 2001, in the 7th season of the series “Star Trek: Voyager” titled “Endgame” (the series finale), viewers were introduced to the Nova-class science ship Rhode Island. According to her fictional biography, she entered service in the year 2409 and was armed with phasers and photon torpedoes (even though she was a science ship, things were wild and wooly in outer space).
She was also the first of her class to be equipped with a photonic displacer module, capable of generating a holographic sensor decoy to fool enemy craft. Rhode Island was also capable of modifying its hull appearance to further stymie opponents. All of that seems to question where her role as a science vessel ended and as a warcraft began. But, that is up to the imagination of science fiction writers, and besides, one really doesn’t have to be concerned for another four centuries or so.
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!