Historic Museum and Armory in East Greenwich, RI

April Speaker: Don Hagist, author of "The Revolution's Last Men: The Soldiers Behind the Photographs"

Monday, April 13, 2015

Don HagistThe American Revolution was fought by thousands of soldiers, as most wars are. But, with few exceptions, it was the leaders and policymakers who were remembered, while the soldiers remained almost anonymous. A quirk of fate changed that for six men who were only teenagers when they served in the war that created their nation. In 1864 an innocuous budget report from the Federal government revealed that only a handful of Revolutionary War veterans were still alive and collecting pensions. When a photographer and a clergyman-activist learned how few of these men remained, the race was on to capture their images and words before the opportunity was lost.

Near the end of 1864, an innovative book – Last Men of the Revolution – was published. It contained biographies of the last six Revolutionary War pensioners and, more remarkably, a photograph of each one. The book had great visual appeal, but the biographical content was sorely lacking. For nearly 150 years, these error-ridden biographies were accepted and repeated.

Two years ago, Westholme Publishing asked Don Hagist if he could research the men profiled in the 1864 book and compose a new volume telling their real stories. Mr. Hagist accepted that challenge, and conducted extensive research that revealed a wealth of previously unpublished information about each man, and also a new perspective on the 1864 photographs and the 1864 book. This fascinating new history was published earlier this year: The Revolution's Last Men: the Soldiers Behind the Photographs (Westholme, March 2015).

Mr. Hagist will discuss his book and research at the April Varnum dinner meeting. Please join us on Monday, April 13 for an inside look at history revealed.


RSVP … Social hour begins at 5:30, followed by STEAK FRY at 6:30 p.m. (Fee is $15.) Please RSVP to Sue Hawksley at 401/732-9805 or by email at shawksley@aol.com by Friday, Aoril 10.

This event is only open to Varnum Continental members. If you would like to join the Varnum Continentals ($35/year), please visit this link.


Protecting our Collection

Over the next few weeks, we will take a major step towards ensuring our valued collection in the Armory Museum is protected from environmental damage. A new ductless air conditioning/ dehumidification and heat pump system is being installed in the lower level of the Armory covering the Art Room, Curator's Office, Pool Room, Commander's Office and the Lounge. The system will also dehumidify the basement below. Completion will require installing storm windows in the Art Room, sealing storm windows on the bottom level and providing an air containment device at the entry point to the covered area.

The state-of-the-art system will control the climate and humidity levels in these areas to prevent the growth of mold and rust as well as protect against moths that have endangered our collection over the past decades. The heat pump will also result in energy savings. The entire project is estimated at $25,000-$28,000. It will be covered from our building fund and from the sale of de-accessed items in our collection. "This is a vitally needed step and part of our strategic planning to preserve the special treasures present in our collection," said Varnum President Chris Feisthamel. "We will be looking at a similar system in the future for the Varnum House." Trustee and Collections Chairman Patrick Donovan added his enthusiastic support, noting "this project is a must if we are to provide an attractive, safe and efficient setting now and in the future so we can ensure that members, visitors and researchers will be able to appropriately view the unique historic resources present in the Armory."

Completion of the work by the contractor, Ocean State Air Solutions of Portsmouth, RI, is expected within a matter of weeks. This reputable and highly experienced vendor recently completed a similar project for the Jamestown Historical Society.


Varnum Marching Unit

Varnum Continentals, Circa 1919


Rhode Island's Albert Martin, A Hero of the Alamo

By Varnum Member & Trustee Brian Wallin

One of the most famous documents in American history, "To the People of Texas and All Americans in the World," was written by Lt. Col. William B. Travis as a plea for reinforcements to defend the Alamo against Mexican forces during the Texas Revolution in 1836. Intimately connected with the letter is Albert Martin, born in 1808 in Providence.


Martin's two grandfathers fought in the American Revolution and his fervent support of liberty was not surprising. After attending Norwich University in Vermont, he followed his father and brothers to Tennessee and later to New Orleans, eventually settling his family in Gonzales, Texas, in 1835. He opened a general store affiliated with the family business, Martin, Coffin & Company. The Texas Revolution broke out in 1835. Albert was involved in the defense of Gonzales (about 70 miles from the Alamo) and in Bexar (the original name of San Antonio) where he was wounded.

On February 23, 1836, a Mexican army numbering some 1500 laid siege to Texians holding the Alamo. Martin, a Captain in the Texas Rangers, returned from Gonzales and was immediately sent by Col. Travis to meet an aide of Mexican General Santa Anna's who refused to see him. The following day, Col. Travis entrusted Martin to deliver an open letter to San Felipe de Austin containing a plea for reinforcements. Texans today revere this stirring language as their version of the Declaration of Independence:


Fellow citizens and compatriots – I am besieged by a thousand or more of the Mexicans under Santa Anna – I have sustained a continual Bombardment and cannonade for 24 hours & have not lost a man. The enemy has demanded surrender at discretion, otherwise the garrison are to be put to the sword, if the fort is taken – I have answered the demand with a cannon shot, & our flag still waves proudly from the walls. I shall never surrender or retreat. Then, I call on you in the name of Liberty, of patriotism & everything dear to the American character, to come to our aid, with all dispatch – The enemy is receiving reinforcements daily & will no doubt increase to three or four thousand in four or five days. If this call is neglected, I am determined to sustain myself as long as possible & die like a soldier who never forgets what is due to his own honor & that of his
country – Victory or Death.

William Barret Travis
Lt. Col. Comdt

P.S.The Lord is on our side – When the enemy appeared in sight we had not three bushels of corn – We have since found in deserted houses 80 or 90 bushels and got into the walls 20 or 30 head of Beeves.

Travis LetterMartin rode through the night back to Gonzales and handed the letter to colleague Lancelot Smithers. On the way, Martin added two personal postscripts. He wrote of his fear that the Mexican army had already launched their attack on the fort and added, "Hurry on all the men you can in haste." The second is hard to read since the letter has frayed along a fold. But, it appears to convey that the Texians were "determined to do or die."

Smithers penned his own postscript to the letter and carried it on to Austin. The letter was widely published, but it took some time for a large force to be assembled. Back in Gonzales, a small relief force of 32 men set out for the Alamo. Against his father's wishes, Martin went with them and on March 1 made it back into the fortress. Five days later Albert was among the 188 men killed in the Battle of the Alamo. In April of 1836, an American army under General Sam Houston defeated Santa Anna at the Battle of San Jacinto. Martin's body was never recovered. It was likely among those burned by the Mexicans who then scattered the ashes of the Alamo defenders. The original Travis letter survived and is now in the Texas State Library in Austin, where a copy is on public display.

In July of 1836, Martin's obituary was published in the New Orleans True American newspaper. It reads, in part:

"Among those who fell in the storming of the Alamo was Albert Martin, a native of Providence, Rhode Island and recently a citizen of this city …He had left the fortress and returned to his residence. In reply to the passionate entreaties of his father, who besought him not to rush into certain destruction, he said 'this is no time for such considerations. I have passed my word to Colonel Travers, that I would return, nor can I forfeit a pledge thus given."

Thus died Albert Martin, a not unapt illustration of New England heroism. He has left a family, and perhaps a Nation to lament his loss and he had bequeathed to that family an example of heroic and high-minded chivalry which can never be forgotten."

There is a cenotaph at the Martin family plot in Providence's North Burial Ground memorializing Albert. Although a pamphlet distributed at the Alamo states Martin was a Rhode Island native, a plaque at the memorial says he is from Tennessee. Officials at the shrine have long been aware of the error, but decline to correct it since in their view, "there are errors all over the place here and we cannot change them all." But, in Rhode Island, we know the true story.

1816 Springfield Musket

A Postscript: The Varnum Museum collection includes a US Model 1816, .69 caliber musket manufactured at the Springfield Armory in 1833 and several others made at the Federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry. This type would have been used by Texians at the Alamo and by the U.S. Army during the Mexican-American War. More 1816 models (675,000) were made than any other flintlock in U.S. history. Many were converted to percussion caps in the period leading up to the Civil War.


Historic East Greenwich Hill & Harbor Scenes!

As part of our Art at the Armory Exhibit earlier this season, the Varnum Continentals released archival fine art reproductions of two beloved paintings from the Varnum House Museum collection. The original oil paintings from which the fine art prints were created were painted ca. 1860 by Dr. Daniel Howland Greene, physician, local historian, and artist. Greene wrote the History of the Town of East Greenwich and Adjacent Territory: From 1677 to 1877.


These fine art prints, on canvas, will be available at Greenwich Gallery (B&H Framing), at 514 Main Street, East Greenwich. The prints are available in two sizes: 16 X 20 and 24 X 30 and may be purchased stretched and ready-to-frame or rolled in a tube, suitable for shipping. Prices range from $125 to $250. Each comes with a certificate of authenticity.

To purchase your print, please visit Greenwich Gallery or call John Adams at 508/735-4283 or

Proceeds from the sale of these prints will help with the cleaning and restoration of artwork in the collections of the Varnum Memorial Armory and Varnum House Museums.


Varnum House Museum (1773), 57 Peirce Street, East Greenwich, RI 02818-3338
Varnum Memorial Armory, 6 Main Street, East Greenwich, RI 02818-3827
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