Rhode Island's Military -- 06/12/02

On Sunday I briefly aluded to the Gaspee, a British sloop that had run aground while chasing a small Rhode Island merchant ship on June 9th in 1772. Angry colonists -- this state was populated by free-thinkers who were not above augmenting their other incomes and striking out against the unpopular British taxes and duties at the same time by engaging in a bit of smuggling now and then -- descended upon the British vessel and burned her. This was considered to be Rhode Island's version of Boston's Tea Party.

And in an entry last year that had a bit of a naval theme, I had also mentioned the affair of the Gaspee. In addition to the Gaspee, I had written about my namesake who gave the U.S. Navy its motto: Don't give up the ship. I also mentioned the Providence, the first vessel in the U.S. Navy.

On a bit of an historical note, this being the anniversary of the founding of the Rhode Island Navy, I thought I might present a miniature history lesson about those days. June 12, 1775 -- a year before the Declaration of Independance -- the General Assembly of Rhode Island passed a resolution creating the Rhode Island Navy. The resolution authorized purchase of the sloop Katy (or Catey as its owner wrote in his semi-phonetic spelling) and outfitting it with ten four-pounder guns plus a variety of swivel guns and small arms. The resolution further authorized a smaller vessel, the Washington.

Three days later, the Katy, under the command of Captain Abraham Whipple, Commodore of the Rhode Island Navy, captured the British sloop Diana in the first official combat operation of the new navy. (The Diana had been a colonial merchant vessel, seized by the British, armed, and set to intercept colonial shipping -- which would have avoided an obvious British naval vessel but which would not be afraid upon seeing what appeared to be another colonial ship.)

That August, a Rhode Island delegate to the Continental Congress introduced a bill to create an navy. In October Congress passed that bill and the Katy of the Rhode Island Navy was authorized as the first sloop in the Contintental Navy. Renamed as Providence she went on to set a number of firsts: first American ship to land marines in combat action, first to fly the stars and stripes while visiting a foreign shore, and served as the first naval combat command of John Paul Jones. The Providence captured more than forty enemy ships and survived longer than any other ship from the founding days of the navy.

Rhode Island no longer has its own navy, but we do still have an active militia unit that is even older. The Kentish Guards were formed on September 24, 1774 to protect the town of East Greenwich (Kent County, Rhode Island) from attacks by Tory forces. They build and garrisoned a fort guarding the entrance to Greenwich Cove (on Narragansett Bay). Washington was extremely impressed by their training and discipline and the Kentish Guards eventually supplied almost three dozen officers to the Continental Army. They took part in a number of actions in Rhode Island in 1777 and '78 and '79.

They also served during Dorr's Rebellion in 1842 -- when Rhode Island had two rival state governments -- putting down armed rioters in Pawtucket, the bloodiest battle of Rhode Island's constitutional crisis. Two decades later they served during the Civil War, providing two companies for service in the Union army. They were also called to alert during the Spanish-American War when it was feared that the Spanish might raid American ports.

The National Guard system was set up early in the 20th century and the various state militias were incorporated into the National Guard system, but not the Kentish Guards. They opted to remain organized under their old charter. Okay, so today they are really a community service group who dress up in uniforms patterned after the ones they wore two centuries ago and march in various patriotic parades; however, technically they are still an active military unit, empowered by their original charter and under the command of the Governor of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. (Okay, Connecticut and Massachusetts, you had better not annoy Rhode Island, we've got our own army.)

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