Fires and Firefighting in the American Revolution

The years leading up to the American Revolution impacted the attitudes of the colonists. In 1760, Boston suffered a major fire that destroyed 174 residences and 175 commercial buildings. The city sought assistance from the British Parliament. Finally, two years later, their request was acknowledged but there is no record they ever received financial aid from Great Britain. Six companies of firefighters in Philadelphia circulated pamphlets urging the boycott of British goods in 1765. During the same year the Stamp Act was issued by the British government. Firefighters in Boston agreed to make no effort to save the stamp office building if it caught fire. Patriots boycotted fire engines made in England and began to build their own. In 1770, a fire alarm sounded in the city of Boston. Samuel Maverick, a seventeen-year-old firefighter rushed to the scene. Tension had been high in the city of Boston with the troops stationed there. The crowd began to taunt the British soldiers. They opened fire and one of the men slain in the Boston Massacre was Maverick. His salvage bag and fire bucket were found lying near him.

The British used fire as a war tactic in the Revolutionary War. The British troops set fire to Charlestown shortly before the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775. Charlestown was located directly across the river from Boston. This fire destroyed 400 structures. The British wanted to divert the attention of the patriots and break the will of the rebels. In September of 1776, New York City experienced a major fire. Most of the city’s volunteer firefighters evacuated the city to serve under George Washington’s command. Only a skeletal department remained. The colonists hid or sabotaged the fire engines. They removed the fire bells and church bells making it difficult to sound an alarm. Fire buckets lacked handles or the bottoms were slashed. When fire struck, the volunteer firefighters who tried to battle the blaze were hindered and attacked by the British and Hessian soldiers. The brutality of the soldiers caused the death of Peter Roome. One third of the city was destroyed before the fire burnt itself out.

American firefighters were exempt from serving in the military because they were badly needed in the communities they protected but many chose to go to war anyway.

Collins, Donald. Our Volunteer Firemen, 1736-1882. Ephrata, PA: Science Press, 1982.
Ditzel, Paul C. Fire Engines, Firefighters: the Men, Equipment, and Machines, from Colonial Days to the Present. New York: Crown, 1976.
Smith, Dennis. Dennis Smith’s History of Firefighting in America: 300 years. New York: Dial, 1978.