“The army is always reorganizing,” General Richard Valente repeats to me with a knowing smile. We sit together in the ground-floor room of the Benefit Street Arsenal, which once served as the training space of the Providence Marine Corps of Artillery (PMCA). The General describes a civil war era newspaper photograph depicting cannons lining the north wall of the drill floor. Today, the walls are decorated with grand military portraits and prints, American flag buntings, and wooden plaques with gold writing commemorating each battle in which the PMCA and 103rd Field Artillery have fought. The dark wood moldings and pale green walls become the space of military history as General Valente walks me around the room, with his small-stepped, military gait and hands folded neatly behind his back.
The Arsenal was constructed in 1842. The PMCA was initially in charge of construction, but the state assumed ownership of the building for $600 within the year, after the group ran out of money. The PMCA now holds the Arsenal on a long-term lease from the state. In 1906, to make way for a Providence Railroad tunnel, the New Haven Railroad paid to move the Arsenal 100 yards north up Benefit Street to where it sits today. Constant reorganization.
General Valente is thorough as he outlines the history of the Arsenal and the PMCA. The Providence Marine Society, a reinsurance company for local ship owners, received its state charter to form a volunteer marine company of artillery in 1801. “The Providence Marine Society felt that cannons would be much better insurance than a piece of paper,” General Valente chuckles. In the 1820s, the PMCA converted from naval-based to land-based artillery and were among the first to answer President Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers at the onset of the Civil War. Since then, the PMCA has been incorporated into the National Guard under many titles, including Battery A, the 103rd Field Artillery, and as part of the 43rd Infantry Division Artillery. Today, while the 103rd has sent soldiers into combat through to the Iraq War, the PMCA and the Arsenal itself mainly house affairs for their veterans.
The historical reorganizations of the PMCA are reflected within the curated, mazelike rooms of the Arsenal. Arranged in glass display cabinets, spread across tables and couches, and hung on the walls in rows reaching to the ceiling, are artifacts from virtually every battle fought by PMCA soldiers. A World War One uniform with a 103rd Field Artillery metal button nestled below the collar, a 1916 War Department order rating 87 National Guard Artillery batteries with Rhode Island’s A battery in the top position by over 3,000 points, the first four shell casings fired by the 103rd Artillery during the Iraq War signed by all the soldiers present, and original recruitment posters for the Rhode Island batteries.
General Valente leads me meticulously through each room, pausing his explanations when I take photographs, and setting himself on the edges of tables and chair arms for longer stories. His reverence for the history of the PMCA manifests in his careful handling of framed photographs and prints, affectionate straightening of retired uniforms, and deep knowledge of each object on display. In the coming months, General Valente plans to reorganize some of the more jumbled display areas according to year, convert one of the upstairs rooms into a military library comprised of donated books, and install a World War One exhibit in a corner of the downstairs former training room.
Walking out of the Arsenal after my tour, through the monumental wooden double doors, I am reminded of what the General has told all 103rd units going overseas since his appointment: “Those doors that you’re going to go out through tonight have seen some of the best artillerymen in the U.S. Army walk through the same doors for the past 160 years.”
by Francesca Gallo
Site: Benefit Street Arsenal, Address: 176 Benefit Street, Providence, RI