Providence 375 Essay Series
by Frank J. Williams, the Chair of the Rhode Island Civil War Sesquicentennial Commemoration Commission and served as Chief Justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court from 2001 to 2008.
On the morning of April 12, 1861, the newly formed Confederate States of America opened fire on the federal garrison at Fort Sumter in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. After thirty-six hours of shelling, the United States Maj. Robert Anderson surrendered the battered fort to his former countrymen. The fall of Fort Sumter touched off four years of a civil war that would kill more than 620,000 soldiers and change forever the culture of Providence, the state, and America.
Departure of First Rhode Island Regiment
from Exchange Place, April 24, 1861.
In 1861, Providence was a city of 50,686, with the entire state's population at 174,620. As with every city in the United States, Providence would participate and be affected by the war. Despite Rhode Island's support of the Southern delegates' attempts to expand slavery at the abortive Peace Convention at the Willard Hotel in Washington during February 1861, Providence backed Abraham Lincoln in the 1860 presidential election - an indication that the city's anti-slavery sentiment was strong despite slavery's role in Providence's textile economy.
After President Lincoln's initial call for volunteers on April 15, Colonel Ambrose E. Burnside and Governor William Sprague led the first attachment of 530 men of the 1st Regiment, Rhode Island Detached Militia from Railroad Hall on Exchange Place where Lincoln had spoken a year earlier after his Cooper Union speech in New York. On April 24, the second wave of 510 men of the 1st Regiment, with Lt. Colonel Joseph T. Pitman commanding, left Providence for Washington. The entire regiment fought under Burnside at Bull Run with forty-seven officers and men killed, wounded or taken prisoner before the unit was discharged in August when their 90-day enlistment expired.
Two other Rhode Island units at Bull Run incurred significant casualties - the 2nd Regiment, Rhode Island Volunteers sustained twenty-eight killed, including its commander Colonel John S. Slocum, with fifty-six wounded and thirty missing, Battery A of the 1st Light Artillery lost a total of sixteen.
There would be eight calls for troops by the Lincoln administration and Rhode Island would exceed its total quota of 18,898 by furnishing 23,236 men - thus avoiding conscription in the state - the first draft in the nation's history. Sixteen would earn the Medal of Honor and 1,685 would die from wounds or disease. Providence would supply nearly half of Rhode Island's fighting men with only 29% of the state's population. Prior to their departure for the war, many Rhode Island units drilled and trained in Providence at the Benefit Street Armory and the Dexter Training Grounds, adjacent the present site of the Cranston Street Armory.
As if to reward the city for supporting the cause, the War Department found many uses for Providence. Three of the largest manufacturing firms - the Burnside Rifle Company, the Providence Tool Company and the Builders Iron Foundry - churned out rifles and cannons, while local mills produced thousands of uniforms for the Union army and navy. The textile industry in Providence would prosper with two woolen plants enriched by the Civil War - the Atlantic Delaine Mills and the Wanskuck Mill. Providence's port traffic doubled during the 1860s, with revenues almost doubling from $541,163.49 to $977,915.58. The Civil War found a willing partner in Providence. The city had been burned, ignored or constricted by previous wars but had finally learned that wars could be profitable. While the distant war raged, those who had not gone off to fight manned the machines, mills and docks. With the war came economic stimulus and willing immigrants from Germany, England, Sweden, Ireland and French Canada joining established populations of English and Irish who were eager to provide the human capital needed to fuel the war effort.
Rhode Island units coming from Providence participated in all major engagements in all theaters of operation - from Bull Run to Appomattox. The 14th Rhode Island Heavy Artillery (Colored) was sent to New Orleans. Overall, Rhode Island provided eight batteries of artillery, three cavalry regiments, three heavy artillery regiments and eight infantry regiments. At home, a branch of the United States Sanitary Commission was established in Providence to collect medicine and other supplies for the Union armies. The Providence Ladies' Volunteer Relief Association was formed to aid in the shipment of clothes, bandages and other necessities. It became an auxiliary of the Sanitary Commission.
Battery B, 1st Rhode Island Light Artillery, fought at Gettysburg and cherished their "Gettysburg Gun", a war scarred relic of the ill-fated Picket's Charge on July 3, 1863. The cannon now resides in the northern foyer of the State Capitol on Smith Hill next to glass cases that hold the regimental flags of units that fought in the war. Emblazoned thereon, even though faded, are battle streamers indicating where the Providence boys had fought - First and Second Bull Run, Yorktown, Williamsburg, Malvern Hill, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, Petersburg, Appomattox, Fort Wagner, New Berne, Front Royal and at many more crossroads across the land.
Mayor Thomas A. Doyle had the greatest influence on the city. Taking office in June 1864, he served until June1869, and then again from June 1870 to January 1881. Under his leadership, many public works projects were completed and city services increased, including the creation of a full-time police department.
As a result, the city's face kept changing. By 1865, streetcar tracks were prominent in the city and horse-drawn carts made regular trips to all corners of the city. This improvement in local transportation enabled workers to live greater distances from their places of employment and, though the ethnic enclaves did not disintegrate, the arrival of public transportation increased everyone's mobility. The city was not only expanding, it was also becoming fluid.
After the war, and as a result, came years of economic growth for Providence and Rhode Island. War industries converted to peace-time businesses. The Burnside Rifle Company, for example, turned to manufacturing locomotives for the booming expanse of the railroads that followed.
Providence, along with every other city and village in America - North and South - built a monument to its war dead. Randolph Rogers's bronze and granite memorial, portraying a 10-foot tall America Militant atop a 30-foot pedestal was dedicated in 1871. It now stands in Kennedy Plaza - the old Exchange Place--not far from the spot where the men of the First Regiment left Providence in 1861 to defend the cause of Union.