Monday, December 19, 2011

On the Civil War Trail

War is the scribe of history, and its imprint smudges the news of the day in every generation. Last week the Iraq war was declared over, but our country’s military engagement continues around the world, a reminder of the shadow that always accompanies the season of peace and light.

The story of Rhode Island in wartime has been sporadically documented. A couple of weeks ago this blog focused on Christian M. McBurney’s “The Rhode Island Campaign: The First French and American Operation in the Revolutionary War,” a book that contributes significantly to the Ocean State’s historical narrative. The Revolutionary War, at least in New England, has always been a primary concern. There are trails with landmarks and burial grounds telling the Patriot story scattered throughout the six states, and all New England schoolchildren grow up with a fundamental understanding of the region’s importance to the emerging nation’s aspirations and sense of identity – even though Massachusetts gets most of the ink.

Recent scholarly excursions into King Philip’s War have expanded our understanding of Colonial-era Rhode Island and the surrounding Puritan New England colonies as well. From June 1675 to August 1676, the war was fought between the growing population of New Englanders (aided by some local tribes) against Native American tribes comprising the Narragansett, Wampanoag, Nipmuck and others.

The World Wars are commemorated in monuments. All Rhode Islanders know the World War I monument, a towering shaft of Westerly granite that used to occupy the crazed DownCity roundabout known as “suicide circle” until it was relocated to its current position in front of the Superior Court building in the 1980s when Providence moved its rivers. World War II left a legacy in V-J Day, now known as Victory Day, denoting the date when the Japanese surrendered. Rhode Island remains the only state in the U.S. to mark the date with a holiday. A Rhode Islander is also purportedly the young sailor depicted in the world’s most famous photograph of a kiss. Alfred Einsentaedt’s signature image of World War II, of the sailor kissing a nurse in a white dress, taken on V-J Day in Times Square, is one of the iconic American scenes, even though in recent years other veterans have laid claim to putting their lips on the moment.

Given the level of fascination with all things historical in these parts, it’s surprising that Rhode Island shows such scant interest in a war that much of the rest of the country can’t get enough of – the Civil War. Especially since by the time of the War Between the States, Rhode Island was a hub of manufacturing, with many of the mills generating fabrics for Southern plantations then switching over to produce material for the Union cause. Rhode Island regiments served with distinction in the Civil War, and yet even this year’s 150th anniversary of the war’s beginning didn’t generate much play in a state that saw its capital celebrate its 375th anniversary.

A new organization in Massachusetts is trying to bring more attention to New England’s role in the Civil War. The New England Civil War Foundation is seeking to create a New England Civil War Discovery Trail that will spotlight houses of historical significance (such as the residence of Gen. Ambrose Burnside – whom we have to thank for “sideburns” – on Benefit Street in Providence), places of maritime activity (such as Newport), and factories that made products for Union soldiers, including uniforms and guns. The only Rhode Island location mentioned to date on the Web site is the Mill at Shady Lea in North Kingstown. According to the site, blankets were made there for Union soldiers. Also, several POWs from the South, who were stationed at Fort Adams in Newport, ended up working there, with many of them staying on and settling in the area.

The South County Museum in Narragansett and the Pettaquamscutt Historical Society in Kingston are just two of the local historical landmarks that contain objects and ephemera detailing Rhode Island’s involvement with the Civil War. Anyone who wants to nominate historic spots for the New England Civil War Discovery Trail should e-mail

What was Rhode Island’s most significant contribution to the Civil War?

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