Christopher Martin, who edits the indispensable blog Quahog.org (a quahog is a clam), notes that on my Lost Providence book page I bemoaned my inability to locate a more substantial image of the arsenal attacked by Thomas Wilson Dorr at the outset of the Dorr Rebellion of 1841-42. Not that a drawing of the “battle” itself is anything to sniff at.
The caption on the rear of the postcard reads:
The Old White Mill was originally a state arsenal; garrisoned in May 1842; unsuccessfully attacked by Thos. W. Dorr and his forces; used in turn as a grist-mill; woolen mill and cotton mill; and purchased by the State of Rhode Island, Dec. 1895. The site is now occupied by the new State Armory, south of Dexter Training Ground, Providence, R.I.
The drawing shows a building, left, considerably smaller than the Old White Mill in the postcard sent by Christopher. I do not know whether the old arsenal in the drawing is the central structure of the postcard, as expanded, or the smaller structure to its left. Evidently, sometime after the Dorr Rebellion the arsenal was sold by the state to a mill owner who, it seems, expanded the arsenal into a factory. Decades later, it was sold, perhaps by a later owner, back to the state. The mill was pulled down to make way for the Cranston Street Armory, completed in 1907, which remains at the south end of the Dexter Training Ground, site of the original arsenal.
From today’s perspective the Dorrites’ attack on the arsenal seems a comical affair. Dorr had been elected governor of Rhode Island in April 1842 under a new constitution designed to expand the sufferage. But the existing governor, elected under the royal charter of 1663 that still ruled Rhode Island long after the Revolution, did not step down.
For six weeks two parallel governors and legislatures co-existed uneasily. Attempting to end the stand-off, Dorr and his “troops” stole two Revolutionary-era cannon from the United Train of Artillery, in the old town meeting house, now the Providence County Superior Court. (Dorr grew up at 109 Benefit St., several blocks to the north.) He marched the night of May 18, 1842, on the other arsenal, in the West End, which was defended by supporters of the charter governor, Samuel Ward King of the Law and Order Party. The defenders included several members of Dorr’s family, who were upset at his shenanigans. The Dorrites tried unsuccessfully to fire one of the ancient cannon, then fled.
This may indeed seem comical, and the Dorr Rebellion fizzled out ignominiously. Dorr returned to the state in 1843 to be tried for treason and was sentenced to prison in 1844. He was released in ill health in 1845 and died in 1854. (The Providence Journal owns a silver tea service given to the paper for supporting the charter government.) Eventually, partly as a result of pressure generated by the rebellion, Rhode Island’s constitution was changed to expand voting rights to native-born citizens, lifting the requisite $134 worth of property to cast a ballot. It was lifted for foreign-born naturalized citizens in 1888.
By the way, Christopher is the co-author, with David Norton Stone, of the fascinating Rhode Island Clam Shacks, published last year by History Press, the same house that published my own book, Lost Providence, a few months after Christopher’s.
[Many thanks to Russell DeSimone for correcting several errors in the initial version of this post.]