Gerald Carbone: Awaiting the Birth of Benefit Street’s New Museum

Saturday, October 26, 2013


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With the addition of a new museum at the Benefit Street Armory, the East Side could become a beacon for historical tourism that rivals Boston and Philadelphia, believes Gerald Carbone.

The birth of anything generates excitement, worry, and hope, which is how I feel about witnessing the birth of a new museum on Benefit Street.

The cradle for this new museum is the Benefit Street Armory, a gray castle-like structure that has stood closed to the public for 170 years. The armory houses the Providence Marine Corps of Artillery (PMCA), and earlier this week a few of its leaders invited me inside its tall wooden doors to ask my opinion on whether they have the requisite objects and stories to make a nice museum.

There are many people on College Hill more qualified than I to render an opinion, but I’ll offer one: Are you kidding me? Yes!

The three men I spoke with issued these caveats – this will take awhile as they are only in the formative stages; and they insist on being good neighbors. Joseph “Jay” Waller, a retired Air Force General, displayed a touching concern for the armory’s neighbors, pledging to invite them in for discussion.

The History behind the museum

Providence ship captains planted the seed for the PMCA in 1798, when they formed the Providence Marine Society to offer aid for “commanders of vessels” who fell on hard times, and “for the relief of their widows and children.”

Three years later these same ship captains, besieged by Barbary Pirates and privateers, won a charter for a Marine Corps of Artillery that allowed them to place cannons aboard their ships.

Gunners for the PMCA turned into a land-based artillery militia, and they became proficient in horse-drawn, “flying artillery” tactics. These gunners fired the first artillery rounds in the Civil War, at the First Battle of Bull Run. By war’s end, nine of them had won the Medal of Honor, and 379 had been killed, wounded, or captured.

In 1875 the state reorganized its militia; the PMCA’s gunners became part of the National Guard, but the group kept its charter, acting as a booster and keeper of history for Rhode Island’s artillerymen. Those artillerymen have fought on the Mexican border, in both World Wars, and in this century have fought and died in Iraq and Afghanistan as the 103d Field Artillery.

Whenever they’ve come back from wherever they’ve been, Rhode Island artillerists have carried keepsakes, which they deposited in the Benefit Street Armory. The result is an unreal cabinet of curiosities drawn from wars around the globe.

What will be on exhibit?

Here’s a small sampling of what I’ve seen in the armory, and burglars beware: the place is armed, you can’t hide this stuff on the black market, and you don’t want to tick off an artillery battalion:

An original “Confederate Flag” captured by Rhode Islanders in the Battle of New Bern. A group in the South offered to swap a battle flag captured from a Rhode Island unit but one of the men I met with, Gen. Richard Valente, refused, saying, "A lot of men died to put that flag on the wall, and I'm not going to be the one to take it down."

A rare “platinum print” photograph of Civil War Major General Ambrose Burnside.

A basement room stuffed with World II memorabilia including Japanese footlockers, machine guns, and moldering uniforms.

This is a small sample. Waller, Valente, and Paul Lemont told me they have hired a firm to catalogue every object in the armory. I envy the cataloguers. For them, every day will be like Christmas Day.

The PMCA faces many hurdles – textiles such as flags and uniforms present curatorial headaches, as do weaponry and leaking c-rations. But since they asked: This could morph into the museum that gives the East Side the critical mass – when working in concert with the great museums already concentrated there – to become a beacon for historical tourism that rivals Boston and Philadelphia.

Gerald M. Carbone is the author of Nathanael Greene, and was a journalist for twenty-five years, mostly for the Providence Journal. He holds a Master's in Public Humanities from Brown University and has won two of American journalism's most prestigious prizes--the American Society of Newspaper Editors Distinguished Writing Award and a John S. Knight Fellowship at Stanford University. He lives in Warwick, Rhode Island.


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