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Some Rhode Island Hidden History Worth Seeing

By Jim Ignasher

To the casual observer it’s just an old bible, until one learns the story connected to it.

It belonged to Private Alfred G. Gardner of the 1st Rhode Island Light Artillery. On July 3, 1863 his unit was engaged in the Battle of Gettysburg when a confederate shell struck the muzzle of the cannon he was manning and exploded. Pvt. William Jones was killed instantly, and Gardner was mortally wounded. As he lay dying, he produced the bible from his pocket and gave it to his sergeant asking that it be returned to his wife, and to tell her that he “died happy”. Gardner had carried the bible with him since leaving home to fight in the Civil War, and in the margins of its pages are numerous handwritten notations of his thoughts and observations while in the service. Gardner was devoutly religious, and as he passed into eternity he shouted his last words, “Glory to God! Hallelujah! Amen! Amen!”

The bible is but one of the thousands of Rhode Island related military artifacts on display at the Varnum Armory Museum, located at 6 Main Street in East Greenwich. The unique collection is one of our state’s hidden treasures, with historic items dating from the Revolutionary War to modern times.

The museum’s curator and vice president is Patrick Donovan, who for the past six years has maintained, organized, researched, documented, and cataloged the collection. He loves his work, and particularly enjoys relating interesting stories about the artifacts to put them in a historical and human context for the visitor.

“Our goal is to celebrate the individual soldier.” Says Mr. Donovan, “We want to show the everyday soldier’s experience, and their ability to endure and perceiver.”

To that point he directs one’s attention to a pair of age-yellowed white cotton gloves with dark stains on them. They belonged to Private William B. DeBlois of the 1st Rhode Island Detached Militia. On the morning of July 21, 1861, Pvt. DeBlois was wearing the gloves as he cradled the body of his dying lieutenant, Henry A. Prescot, who’d been mortally wounded as he led his men towards Confederate lines at the Battle of Bull Run.

Lt. Prescott had been a father figure to his men, and his death was a horrible shock, but the men rallied, and resumed the attack with tears running down their cheeks.

Perhaps the rarest item in the collection is a hand painted leather cap worn by Captain-Lieutenant Benajah Carpenter of the Rhode Island United Train of Artillery Militia during the Revolutionary War. Kept inside a sealed glass case, the cap is a national treasure, for no others of its kind are known to exist. The headpiece is shaped like a wave, adorned with an anchor and the words “In God We Hope” which was the unit’s motto. The hat was likely worn at the Siege of Boston and the Battle of Long Island in 1776.

The Armory’s collection includes numerous military weapons from all wars. There’s a Revolutionary War musket that one researcher was able to trace to the America soldier who carried it after it was captured from a British officer. There’s a Civil War cannon, the only one in existence with an original carriage, and a model 1883 Colt hand-cranked Gatling gun – a forerunner to the modern machine gun – that was used by the 1st Rhode Island Machine Gun Battery until the early 1900s. The Gatling gun is the size of a Civil War cannon, and despite its age, it still works!

There’s also an impressive assortment of rare items from both World War I & II, including a piece of tail section from a downed Nazi airplane.

Besides the weaponry, there are also great examples of vintage uniforms and battle flags. One flag in particular is a Confederate artillery guidon captured by troops of the 4th Rhode Island infantry at the Battle of New Bern on March 14, 1862.

On that day Colonel Isaac P. Rodman, commander of the 4th R.I. led a charge against Confederate fortifications without any support from other units. As the troops moved forward, the enemy opened up with cannon and grapeshot which tore through the lines, but didn’t stop the advance. The attack was successful, but many lives on both sides were lost defending and capturing that flag.

Another flag worth noting is the Troop L guidon that belonged to the 1st Rhode Island Calvary. On June 17, 1863, it was captured by Confederate Calvary forces led by General Jeb Stuart at the Battle of Middleburg, Virginia. This flag was graciously returned to Rhode Island in 2008.

The medieval-style armory building dates to 1913, and was originally home to “Varnum’s Regiment”, a unit of the state militia. During WWII and afterwards it was used by various units of the Rhode Island National Guard. Today it belongs to the Varnum Continentals, Inc., a private organization dedicated to preserving Rhode Island military history in a non-political way.

Mr. Donovan points out that Rhode Island has no state history museum, nor is there a R. I. National Guard museum, so the Varnum Armory Museum tries to collect and preserve state related military artifacts that otherwise would be lost. To that end Donovan frequently checks various auction websites, historical societies, and antique dealerships, hoping to add to the collection.

Some items come through private donations, and of course, such donations are always welcome. Some recent acquisitions include a book on military organization published in 1916, and copies of newspaper articles relating to some military aircraft accidents which occurred during WWII and the1950s which will go in the armory’s extensive research library.

The museum isn’t open regular hours, but can be seen by appointment, and the large meeting hall on the main floor is available for rent. If you have any items you’d like to donate, or to learn more information, contact Patrick Donovan at Armory@varnumcontinentals.org of 401-884-4110.