Historic Rhode Island Battle Flag Legislation Signed into Law

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The Varnum Armory Museum and National Museum of the US Army join forces to conserve and display Rhode Island’s historic Revolutionary War battle flags.

By Patrick Donovan

President, Varnum Continentals Inc.

“RIsland Regiment” flag carried at Battle of Yorktown.
Likely 1st RI Regiment (The Black Regiment) flag.

A few years ago, I learned about the State Battle Flag collection that had once hung on flag poles in the Rhode Island State House rotunda for many decades. Unfortunately, they were displayed without climate or lighting controls. There are 83 flags including all the silk State Regimental flags of the Civil War and even two Revolutionary War banners that were carried at Yorktown by the RI Regiment of 1781 under Colonel Jeremiah Olney. Shortly after the War, Olney presented the two flags to the State Legislature for safe keeping. Incidentally (and amazingly), one of those two flags is believed to be the original regimental flag of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment of 1778, better known as the famed “Black Regiment” comprised of formerly enslaved people, free Blacks, and Native Americans. Just prior to the Yorktown Campaign, the remnants of the Black Regiment and the 2nd RI Regiment were combined into one segregated unit, known then as “The RI Regiment”. They would go on to serve with distinction in that final and successful campaign of our War for Independence.

The two flags are described in the excellent reference book, “Standards and Colors of the American Revolution.” By the time I came to know of this collection, these now badly deteriorating flags had been taken down, stabilized, packed by a textile conservator, and put into long-term storage at a facility in Massachusetts…. with no plans or funding to conserve and publicly display them ever again.

As the Executive Director of the Varnum Armory Museum and Textile Conservation Lab, I made it my mission to conserve and safely display these historic flags once again for the public. Since we have the proper skills, expertise, experience, and facilities to safely conserve and display these historic textiles, I decided to focus first on the two most rare and historically significant flags: the RI Regiment flags of 1781. At this time, we had been developing a partnership with the National Museum of the US Army (NMUSA) located at Ft. Belvoir, Virginia, just outside of Washington DC. The Varnum Armory Museum will be supporting the US Army’s 250th Anniversary in 2025 by loaning a few Rhode Island items to them for their 5,500 square foot exhibit on the birth of the Army during the Revolutionary War. This positive experience led me to asking if they would be willing to partner with us to conserve and display the two flags. They enthusiastically agreed.

Our joint proposal to the State was for NMUSA to conserve and display the 1st RI flag at their expense in their museum for a period of 2 years. The RI Regiment flag would be conserved and displayed by the Varnum Armory Museum at our expense, all pending a review of a detailed conservation statement of work and loan agreement. This would be a huge win-win for the State and museums in that we would be working together to save precious American history and to then share that with the public at NO EXPENSE to the RI taxpayer.

We began conversations with the RI Department of Administration (DOA) and its Department of Capital Asset Maintenance and Management (DCAMM) who have day-to-day management and responsibility for the Battle Flag collection. They were very accommodating and they supported our plan.

But, alas, I was a bit naïve about what it takes to get things done in state government. RI law does NOT allow us to borrow and display the flags. Before we could commit to spending a lot of the money to conserve the flags, we needed assurances that we would be able to have the flags loaned to us for display. So, we had to change the law. The DOA took up the responsibility of drafting the legislation. But how were we going to push it through? I spent a lot of time sending emails all over the place, trying to map out who all the key stakeholders were, building the sales pitch, and developing relationships with who I thought were the key decision makers. I learned quickly that I couldn’t do it all alone.

Thankfully, we received letters of support from the Battle of Rhode Island Association and many others that were sent to key legislators. State Representative Mike Chippendale and his Chief of Staff, Sue Stenhouse, played a huge role in socializing the legislation with key members of the legislature, the Governor’s office, and in working with Senator Walter Felag to get the legislation through that side of State House. Also, a Varnum Trustee, Jason Roomes whose ancestor had fought in the Black Regiment as a formerly enslaved person, did a lot of lobbying in support of our cause. Thanks to this fantastic team effort, I’m excited to announce the legislation passed the House and Senate unanimously and Governor Dan McKee signed the legislation into law last week! A review of loan agreements, statements of work, and insurance coverage is next.

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