HISTORY OF THE ARTILLERY COMPANY OF NEWPORT
"Let Justice Prevail Though the Heavens May Fall"
To slow and solemn beat of the pace-setting single drum, the formation of silent artillerymen in their blue, scarlet and white uniforms marched in the pale sunshine of early morning, pulling the Paul Revere cannon on its iron wheels rumbling over the dew-wet and gleaming cobblestones of Thames Street. The young boy bearing the lantern brought up the rear.
This Thames Street scene could have taken place in the 20th century, 19th century or even in 1741 when the legislature of His Majesty's Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations granted a charter of incorporation for the establishment of a Military Company to be called the Artillery Company of the Town of Newport to serve as "a nursery school for officers." A complement of one hundred officers and men was authorized and was to provide a trained group of men capable of officering other units should the need arise in this British colony. The uniforms were a blue camelet coat lined with scarlet, white waistcoat and white stockings. The Company's First Sergeant was detached for duty at Fort George on Goat Island, subsequently commissioned and put in command of the small garrison there.
Times of conflict found the Artillery Company "at the ready." In August of 1757, the General Assembly of the Colony levied one fourth of the Company to serve the British in the French and Indian War. Eleven members were chosen by drawing lots - short straws filling the quota - and sent to serve the British in their campaign against French forts at Crown Point and Fort William Henry in upstate New York. All returned to Newport safely.
In early August 1757, the French and Indians laid seige to Fort William Henry, which the British had begun building in September 1755. After a weeklong seige, the British surrendered and the French torched the fort before heading back north to their forts at Ticonderoga and Crown Point. The French never built a fort at the Fort William Henry site, but their forts at Ticonderoga and Crown Point remained in their hands until the summer of 1759.
When unrest in the colonies began to grow increasingly violent in the mid 1700's, colonists began to choose their allegiances. The Artillery Company of Newport elected an ardent patriot, John Malbone, as Captain of the Company. He ordered the Company's standard to be surrendered forthwith and ordered all Company drills to be mandatory with men in full uniform with gun, pouch, ball and cartridges.
When the British ordered Captain Malbone to surrender the City of Newport to them, when they landed on Aquidneck Island in December of 1776, half the membership of the Artillery Company left Newport and joined patriot forces in Tiverton. Those members electing to follow the King, joined Loyalist units.
The British fully destroyed one-third of the buildings in Newport during the harsh years of their occupation and, when the Revolutionary War was over, Newport's position as chief trading port on the Eastern Seaboard was forever lost. Interest in the Artillery Company waned as Newporters were tired of all things connected with war and had little interest in military matters. Even John Malbone, returning to Newport as a general of the continental Army, was war-weary. But the Company's charter was still in effect when President George Washington returned to Newport in 1790 and, the Artillery Company of Newport served as his bodyguard.
In 1792, considering the possibility of reconstructing the Artillery Company of Newport, General John Malbone and George Champlin petitioned the State General Assembly for clarification of the old Royal Charter. The General Assembly ruled that the original charter was still valid. With the charter reestablished, new uniforms and equipment were purchased, and when the new officers were quickly elected - Francis Malbone succeeding his cousin John as Captain - the "oldest active military company operating under its original charter" was revitalized.
The War of 1812 found the Company in a high state of readiness. Artillery Company men were assigned to augment the forces on Goat Island and the North Battery. Roving patrols were formed to check on the island's beaches. Many members of the Artillery Company were detached to join Oliver Hazard Perry as he prepared his expedition to Put-In Bay on Lake Erie, and filled the following positions under his command:
Sailing Master on the U.S. BRIG LAWRENCE
Lieutenant Commandant of the U.S. BRIG CALEDONIA
Chaplain on the U.S. BRIG LAWRENCE
Sailing Master of the U.S. SCHOONER ARIEL.
In 1835 an armory, to serve as home to the Company, was built on a plot of land given to the Artillery Company of Newport for that purpose by Audley Clarke, on a street which now bears Clarke's name.
In 1842, the Artillery Company's right of privilege to serve independently of the Colonel of Militia in the Company's area and the right to take position on the right of the line of assault were earned during the Dorr Rebellion. Colonel William B. Swan, in command of fifty-four men, three officers, and three cannon, was successful in quelling the rebellion. The Artillery Company's post of honor was forever assured.
When in 1861 President Lincoln raised the call for 75,000 volunteers to put down rebellious elements, the Artillery Company increased its strength to one hundred and three men overnight. They left immediately for Providence to enlist as Company "F", the flag company of the First Regiment of the Rhode Island Detached Militia. When the Rhode Island Regiment's 90 day enlistment had expired, they refused to muster out and they fought in the first Battle of Bull Run. Four of the Company's men were killed in the battle.
The Artillery Company experienced the height of its enlistment due to increased popularity following the war. Members served on ceremonial occasions and in parades and even fielded an impressive marching band.
During the Spanish-American War, the Artillery Company served at Fort Adams manning the artillery. In 1908, with the country becoming an international power, the concept of militia serving as the active reserve for a professional army was scrapped, and the National Guard Act was passed providing for well-trained, federally equipped units serving in time of peace under state officers who would be promoted by ability. Although existing militia units were given the opportunity of joining the new National Guard, they would no longer serve under their own officers or maintain their own unique identities.
The Artillery Company volunteered to serve as a unit when the First World War began in 1917. The government was willing to accept the unit but only under federal officers. And so, rather than violate their charter, losing their uniqueness, the Artillery Company of Newport, as a unit, withdrew its offer. Those men who did not detach from the Company to serve with federal units served at home by guarding bridges and patrolling beaches on the island.
With the increase of federal forces in World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam, enlistments in the Artillery Company dwindled.
Today, when the Artillery Company of Newport, dressed in their traditional blue camelet coats lined with scarlet, white waistcoats and boots, march in the slow even cadence of the single drum, drawing their Paul Revere cannon down the narrow streets of Newport, they are marching under the same charter, and embrace the same principals, as their forbears of 1741. Under the same charter as their fathers, grandfathers, great-grandfathers, and great-great-grandfathers had marched in the French and Indian War, the American Revolution, while guarding President George Washington, in 1812, in the Battle of Bull Run, during the Spanish American War, while guarding President Eisenhower when he visited Newport, in the 1973 Inaugural Parade in Washington, and under the original charter when they served as the official welcoming Honor Guard for Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain when she came to Newport.
The Artillery Company of the Town of Newport may never again be called upon as a unit to defend our homes as those who came before them, but they draw our glowing appreciation and applause at every important occasion - civic, religious, and patriotic. They have earned a well-deserved and valuable place in history and continue to serve the ancient motto of the Artillery Company, "Let Justice Prevail Though the Heavens May Fall."