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War College Museum focuses on naval history of Narragansett Bay

The Naval War College Museum is in Founders Hall, the former Newport Asylum for the Poor and the college’s first home.

David Lyon for The Boston Globe

The Naval War College Museum is in Founders Hall, the former Newport Asylum for the Poor and the college’s first home.

One in a series on National Historic Landmarks in New England.

NEWPORT — Visitors have to go through channels to visit the Naval War College Museum here on Coasters Harbor Island, 2 miles north of downtown. Not only do they have to make advance reservations, once they arrive they have to pull into the gatehouse and show photo identification to get a temporary vehicle pass that they must display at the entry gate checkpoint.

“Some people not accustomed to the military are put off,” says John Hattendorf, professor of maritime history and director of the Naval War College Museum. “But they shouldn’t be deterred. It’s their history, too, and we do get 40,000 visitors a year.”

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The museum sits in the former Newport Asylum for the Poor, a once-abandoned building that the Navy transformed into the Naval War College in 1884. “This is as close as the general public can get to the War College,” says Hattendorf. “It’s the highest level of professional education in the Navy. Twenty sitting chiefs of navy around the world are graduates. We have a worldwide viewpoint.”

The museum, however, focuses closer to home — specifically on the naval history of the Narragansett Bay. Exhibits on Newport during the Revolution are a wakeup call to Bostonians who might think that the Revolution ended when the British were chased from Boston Harbor and Suffolk County got Evacuation Day as a holiday. The British Navy occupied Newport’s strategic harbor — it controls the northeast entrance into Long Island Sound — until 1779. As soon as his majesty’s ships were driven out, they were replaced by our allies, the French. Either way, hard-strapped Newporters had to find firewood and food for all those sailors.

Newport developed torpedoes for the Navy -- and they proved a powerful recruiting tool.

David Lyon for The Boston Globe

Newport developed torpedoes for the Navy -- and they proved a powerful recruiting tool.

One recent museum acquisition is a detailed scale model of the Duc de Bourgogne, the flagship of the squadron that carried the Comte de Rochambeau from France to fight for the American revolutionaries. In fact, the museum is filled with striking ships’ models, including the sloop Providence, the first command of young Continental Navy officer John Paul Jones, and the warship Bonhomme Richard, the famed vessel put at Jones’s disposal in 1779 by Louis XVI of France.

“Through the models we can tell the story of the development of our Navy,” explains John W. Kennedy, the director of museum education and public outreach.

Scale models give way to actual weapons in the torpedo exhibition. The Navy took over Goat Island in 1869 as a torpedo research station and developed the first torpedo model by 1871.

“This is where it all began,” says Kennedy. “They did all the brain work here.”

From relatively crude explosive devices slingshotted from their launch vessels, they grew to increasingly sophisticated, self-powered weapons. Examples in the exhibit illustrate the difficulties of design. The magnetic detonator on the Mark 14 torpedo, for example, malfunctioned early in its deployment, sinking three US submarines during World War II.

The entrance to the Naval War College Museum.

David Lyon for The Boston Globe

The entrance to the Naval War College Museum.

Visitors continue to the second deck (or to us landlubbers, second floor) where Alfred Thayer Mahan delivered his influential talks on sea power in the 1880s. His thinking on geostrategy helped launch a naval arms race in Europe and remains influential today. “The lectures are why we are on the National Register of Historic Places,” Kennedy says.

Strategic thinking remains the forte of the Naval War College. Models of the gymnasium-sized war games maneuver boards show how hypothetical strategies used to be practiced in the days before computer modeling. A 20-minute film on the same level reflects the history of the college and explains how its various components operate — including the Naval Command College international program that integrates naval officers from around the world in studies with officers of the US Navy.

Noting that those studies are “as much about peace and diplomacy as about war,” the video makes the key point that “prevention of war is the cornerstone of the mission of the Naval Command College.”

Naval War College Museum  686 Cushing Road, 401-841-4052, www.usnwc.edu/About/NWC-Museum.aspx. Open all year Mon-Fri 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m.
Also June-September Sat-Sun noon-4:30. Hours subject to change due to federal budget furlough; call to confirm. US citizens must make reservations one working day in advance, foreign nationals 14 days in advance. Free.

Patricia Harris and David
Lyon can be reached at harris.lyon@verizon.net.

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