History of the Rhode Island State Guard

A History of the Rhode Island State Guard

By Jim Ignasher

   

A uniform shoulder patch worn by the Rhode Island State Guard during WWII.

     One has no doubt heard of the Rhode Island National Guard, but how many know of a defunct military organization known as the Rhode Island State Guard? Despite similar names, these were two separate military organizations which existed at the same time.

     The Rhode Island State Guard was created in May of 1918 as a state defense force to fill the void created after Rhode Island’s National Guard troops were called to federal duty in April of 1917.  The State Guard was not subject to federal service, and only operated within Rhode Island. Other states across the country also established state guard units around this time including Connecticut and Massachusetts. 

     Prior to the creation of the State Guard, there were several  Rhode Island militia groups which had been established under the Militia Act of 1903.  Additionally, some municipalities had established auxiliary defense or constabulary units which came under the control of the mayor or chief of police. These organizations were later absorbed into the State Guard. Such units included the Varnum Continentals of East Greenwich, the Bristol Train of Artillery, the Newport Artillery Company, A and B Company of the Cranston Blues, The Providence Train of Artillery, and five companies of the First Light Infantry of Providence, just to name a few.

     The proposal for establishing a State Guard was submitted to the Rhode Island House of Representatives in February of 1918, and originally recommended the establishment of 36 infantry companies each consisting of 75 enlisted men, for a total number of 2,700 troops to be commanded by a cadre of staff officers. The companies would be dispersed throughout the state in the following manner: Providence, thirteen companies; Cranston, two; Woonsocket, two; Westerly, two; Smithfield, one; East Greenwich, two; Arctic, one; Wickford, one; Wakefield and Peace Dale, one; Narragansett Pier, one; Warren, one; Bristol, one; Newport, two; Middletown and Portsmouth, one; and East Providence, one.

     However, the final version that was passed into law called for only 18 infantry companies with a minimum enlistment of 100 men each, all of which were to be grouped into five battalions. Additionally, there was to be a headquarters and supply company, as well as a sanitary company and a machine gun detachment, bringing the total roster to 2,150 officers and enlisted men commanded by Brigadier General Charles W. Abbott, Jr.

     The First Battalion, commanded by Major Charles H. Ledward, consisted of 2nd Company, covering South Kingstown; 4th Company, covering Westerly; 16th Company, covering East Greenwich.

     Second Battalion, commanded by Major Herbert Bliss, consisted of 3rd Company, covering Newport; 13th Company, covering Bristol, and the 15th Company covering East Providence.

     Third Battalion, commanded by Major Walter G. Gatchell, consisted of 1st Company, covering Woonsocket; 6th and 7th Company, covering Pawtucket; and 14th Company covering Smithfield.

     Fourth Battalion, commanded by Major Alonzo R. Williams, consisted of 9th, 10th, and 11th and 12th Company covering Providence.

     Fifth Battalion, commanded by Major Archibald C. Matteson, consisted of 5th and 8th Company of Providence, 17th and 18th Company covering Cranston.

     The Headquarters and Supply Company was commanded by Captain Irvin C. Elmer. Captain E. Merle Bixby was put in command of the machine gun detachment, and Major N. Darrell Harvey in command of the sanitary detachment. These three commands were based in Providence.

     The machine gun detachment was to include thirty motorcycles with side cars, each equipped with tandem seats allowing each motorcycle to carry three men – one driver, two passengers. In this way the unit could be deployed quickly to different parts of the sate at the same time. The company was supplied with revolvers, rifles, and mounted machineguns.        

WWII era State Guard reserve uniform patch.

     In the early stages of its development, the State Guard drilled with weapons of various types until issued Krag Jorgensen rifles by the state, but these were soon replaced by Enfield rifles issued by the federal government. Some guardsmen were also issued pistols. Firearms training was conducted at a range in East Providence.

     Guardsmen wore a military style uniform, but what the uniform looked like is unclear; only that they were not to be confused with uniforms worn by members of the United States Army.  

     Some of those who enlisted in the State Guard included former national guardsmen, middle-aged and older men past the draft age, and younger men who were in a deferred draft status under the Selective Service Law.  While some of the early enlistees signed on for three year enlistments, most were obligated to serve for the duration of the war plus six months.   

     From October 12 to 31, 1918, members of the Third Battalion were called to duty in Pawtucket to assist in the 1918 flu pandemic. 

     World War I ended in November of 1918, but the Rhode Island State Guard remained in operation for more than a year later. In November of 1919, Governor Beeckman announced that due to dwindling numbers in the state’s National Guard, he was going to keep the State Guard on operational status for an undetermined length of time to be ready for immediate service in case of need. The State Guard was finally demobilized on June 1, 1920.

     The Rhode Island State Guard was again authorized to organize again in October of 1940 prior to the United States entry into World War II. This was done because the Rhode Island National Guard had been called to federal duty on August 27, 1940. The State Guard went on active duty after the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor.

     The following year some patriotic citizens organized into local groups to support the State Guard and aid in defense of the home front, but they were not actually part of the State Guard. In most cases these groups were made up of sportsmen. In July of 1942, some of these organizations petitioned the War Department advocating for the creation of a Home Guard, which would be separate and apart from the already established State Guard. Major General Sherman Miles who commanded the First Corps Area of the Army wrote a letter to Rhode Island’s Governor J. Howard McGrath informing him that the War Department would not support the idea. Individual groups functioning independently of established military units would be counter productive, so it was decided to create a State Guard Reserve to incorporate these groups into a centralized command structure.

    Reserve units generally consisted of a platoon assigned to the town in which its members lived in, and provided extra manpower in civil defense measures, minor security roles, and natural disasters. Besides not being paid for their service, these men had to supply their own uniforms, firearms, and ammo.  It’s unknown how many men served in the reserve corps, but it can be surmised that it was a much smaller number than the regular State Guard.  

     During WWII state guardsmen wore a distinctive blue shield-shaped insignia with a gold anchor, photos of which accompany this article. Reserve units were distinguished by the word “reserve” at the bottom of the patch.

    Both regular State Guard and reserve units were disbanded after the war, but the State Guard was reactivated for a brief time at the start of the Korean War in anticipation of National Guard troops being activated for overseas service.  

     At present the Rhode Island State Guard is no longer in existence.

     To see uniform patches worn by other State Guard units during World War II click here: https://www.angelfire.com/md2/patches/stateguards.html

     Sources:

     Providence Journal, “Special Guard Groups Banned” July 16, 1942, page 2.

     Book, “The American Home Guard – The State Militia In The Twentieth Century”, by Barry M. Stentiford, Texas A&M University Press, copyright, 2002.     

     See additional newspaper articles below. 

Norwich Bulletin
February 8, 1918

Norwich Bulletin
June 8, 1918, pg 6

Norwich Bulletin
June 10, 1918, pg. 6

Norwich Bulletin
July 15, 1918
Part 1

Norwich Bulletin
July 15, 1918
Part 2

Norwich Bulletin
July 15, 1918
Part 3

Norwich Bulletin
November 17, 1919

Norwich Bulletin
May 27, 1920, pg. 7

Newport, R. I. Torpedo Station

Click on image to enlarge. 

Vintage Fort Adams Postcards

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Woonsocket, R. I. Armory

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Memorial Day – 2018

Memorial Day, 2018

Deerfield Park, Greenville, R. I.

Photos courtesy of Bill Pilkington, Smithfield, R. I.  

Click on images to enlarge.

 

 

 

 

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