The Varnum Continentals is a non-profit historic and patriotic organization that owns Varnum House Museum and the Varnum Armory and Military Museum. They are named in honor of James Varnum who served as Brigadier General in the Continental Army.

Varnum Continentals Image by Jay Killian

Varnum’s military career began with the Kentish Guards who were chartered as a militia by the Rhode Island General Assembly in 1774 as a unit of the Rhode Island Militia. Varnum was one of the founders of the Kentish Guards and he was elected their first commanding officer.

With the outbreak of the War for Independence, Varnum was commissioned by the RI Assembly as a Colonel of the First Regiment of Infantry. He served in the Continental Army as a Brigadier General from 1777-1779. He served in the siege of Boston, the battles of Long Island, White Plains, Red Bank (New Jersey), at Valley Forge and the Battle of Rhode Island. During the Battle of Rhode Island, Varnum’s Brigade – stretched across West Main Road and faced Turkey Hill. It was comprised of four continental regiments – 2nd Rhode Island, Livingston’s 1st Canadian, Sherburne’s and Webb’s. In all, Varnum commanded 800 Continentals in the Battle of Rhode Island.

Varnum was an advocate for the establishment of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment (known as the Black Regiment). This is his letter to Washington proposing the unit.

From Brigadier General James Mitchell Varnum
Camp [Valley Forge] Janry 2d 177[8]

The two Battalions from the State of Rhode Island being small, & there being a Necessity of the State’s furnishing an additional Number to make up their Proportion in the continental Army; The Field Officers have represented to me the Propriety of making one temporary Battalion from the two, so that one intire Core of Officers may repair to Rhode Island, in order to receive & prepare the Recruits for the Field. It is imagined that a Battalion of Negroes can be easily raised there. Should that Measure be adopted, or recruits obtained upon any other Principle, the Service will be advanced. The Field Officers who go upon this Command are Colo. Greene, Lt Colo. Olney and Major Ward: Seven Captains, Twelve Lieuts., six Ensigns, one Pay Master, one Surgeon & Mate, One Adjutant & one Chaplin. I am your Excellency’s most obdt Servt
J. M. Varnum

In 1907 a group of local men -(many had formerly been members of the Kentish Guard) – chartered the Varnum Continentals “to perpetuate the customs, uniform and traditions of the period [of the American Revolution], and thereby, and in other ways, to encourage patriotism in the people.” On December 31, 1992, Bruce Sundlun (Governor and Captain General of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations) formally reactivated Varnum’s Regiment of May 4, 1775, as a unit of the Rhode Island Militia.


McBurney, Christian. The Rhode Island Campaign. Westholme Publishing, Yardley PA, 2011.