(This essay was originally published in the Newport Daily News, May 26, 2012)
After the South’s bombardment of Fort Sumter, on April 12, 1861, President Lincoln issued a call to arms on April 15 and established Rhode Island’s quota at 780 men. Governor William Sprague called the General Assembly into special session on April 17, and both Houses quickly passed unanimously a resolution to meet the quota. Various state banks came forward and offered loans to meet the financial requirements. Finally, acts reviving the charters of the Providence Horse Guards, the Narragansett Guards, the City Guards of Providence, and the Wickford Pioneers were approved.
During the period April 18-24, Rhode Island sent its first units off to war. On April 18, the Providence Marine Corps Artillery left Providence. Following this unit were two detachments composing the First Regiment, Rhode Island Detached Militia, commanded by Colonel Ambrose E. Burnside. On April 20, the first contingent, 530 men, under the command of Burnside departed on the Steamer Empire State. These men came from the ten companies making up the regiment, six from Providence and one each from Pawtucket, Woonsocket, Westerly, and our own Newport. As the ship passed Newport Harbor, salutes were fired from the city and Fort Adams to honor the departure. The second contingent of 510 men, under the command of Colonel Joseph T. Pitman, departed Providence by steamer on April 24. As they marched to the Fox Point pier, they sang their regimental song:
“The gallant young men of Rhode Island
Are marching in haste to the wars:
Full girded for strife, they are hazarding life
In defense of our banner and stars.”
Second Detachment of the First RI Regiment departing Providence, April 24, 1861
Burnside eventually became the most renowned Rhode Island Civil War hero. Born in Indiana, he graduated West Point, served in the Mexican War (1846-48), married Mary Fisher from Providence, and invented and manufactured in Bristol a breech-loading rifle. Shortly after Fort Sumter, Governor Sprague asked him to lead the First Rhode Island Regiment. He gave his name to the style whiskers which he wore.
Burnside reported to the governor that during the final marches to the nation’s capital: “Nothing whatever occurred to detract from the good reputation of the State, whose patriotism had called into active service the fine body of men whom I esteem it an honor to lead.”
On April 29, the First Detachment welcomed their fellow soldiers from the Second Detachment and escorted them to the Patent Office grounds where they had temporary quarters. That same day the entire regiment marched to the White House and was there welcomed by President Lincoln, Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, the Army Commander in Chief, Secretary of State Seward and Secretary of War Cameron.
On May 2 the entire regiment was paraded with Governor Sprague, President Lincoln, and many spectators observing. It was then marched to the Capitol where the regiment was mustered into service for the United States for a period of three months. Each soldier recited the following oath of allegiance:
“I ___________, do solemnly swear, that I will bear true allegiance to the United States of America and that I will serve honestly and faithfully against all their enemies or opposers whatsoever, and observe and obey the orders of the President of the United States, and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to the rules and regulations for the government of the armies of the United States.”
Colonel Burnside reported that “eleven hundred voices rose in one volume upon the air.”
In his first official report to Governor Sprague on May 23, Burnside closed by saying, “I cheerfully bear testimony to the general good conduct and character of the men composing this Regiment. It is with the greatest satisfaction, that I can commend them to the favor and generosity of the people of the State whose honor they are engaged in upholding, and whose good name they are determined to maintain.”
It would be this good name that would be put to the test when the First Rhode Island Regiment took part in its first combat at the First Battle of Bull Run in July, 1861.
For more information, please visit the state’s Civil War Sesquicentennial Commemoration Commission website: www.rhodeislandcivilwar150.org.