Fires, Firemen and Fire Companies in the Civil War

When President Lincoln asked for 75,000 volunteers to defend the Union on April 15, 1861, many volunteer firefighters responded.

In Chicago, twenty-four-year-old Elmer E. Ellsworth eagerly answered the call. Ellsworth wanted to attend West Point but lacked an appointment. He moved to Chicago and served as a captain in the state militia. Ellsworth undertook a detailed study of the Crimean War. He was particularly interested in the French Zouaves (who were the be-all and end-all of military at that time) who wore fancy dress. The French Zouaves uniform consisted of: short blue jackets, baggy bloomer-like red trousers, reddish brown boots and red fez. He felt they exemplified the way all wars should be fought. In 1859, Ellworth organized the Chicago Zouaves and they quickly became a highly disciplined unit and an excellent drill team. Upon hearing Lincoln’s plea for volunteers, Ellsworth rushed to New York City. Though Ellsworth was not a fireman, he wanted to recruit volunteer firefighters. He realized firemen were disciplined, brave and physically fit. They might provide financial support as well. Five days after Lincoln’s announcement 1,200 men had enlisted. On April 30, 1861, the First New York Zouaves headed to Washington, D.C. Everyone called the First New York Zouaves the Fire Zouaves. The Fire Zouaves, wore red firemen’s shirts, gray jackets, and flowing gray trousers tucked into their boots. These colorful uniforms would make the firefighters now turned soldiers into easy targets during battles.

Upon their arrival in Washington, D.C. the Zouaves established barracks in the House of Representatives. The Willard Hotel, a famous landmark in Washington, D.C. was struck by fire on May 9, 1861. Ellsworth ordered 100 of his men to assist. Though he was their leader he was not a firefighter. The entire regiment responded. The Zouaves performed daring feats to battle the blaze. They had no ladders. Drawings at the time depict them hanging by their heels or standing on each other’s shoulders to better reach the fire. The New York firemen impressed the people of the District of Columbia with their firefighting abilities.

Later the same month Ellsworth and his regiment approached the city of Alexandria, Virginia. Spotting a Confederate flag flying at a hotel, Ellsworth rushed inside and removed it. As he left the building, the manager of the inn, James T. Jackson, pulled out his shotgun and fired at Ellsworth, killing him instan

Another unit of firemen in New York formed the Second New York Fire Zouaves. This regiment suffered losses at Williamsburg, Second Bull Run, and at Gettysburg.

In Philadelphia, firemen volunteered immediately. Six days after Lincoln sent out the call firemen formed the 23rd Regiment. They were the first unit to leave the city. Though their tour was only three months, they chose to reorganize and remained a unit throughout the war. They were known as Birney’s Fire Zouaves. An additional 1,600 men from Philadelphia fire companies became the 72nd Regiment and were known as Baxter’s Philadelphia Fire Zouaves. These regiments also wore showy uniforms and focused on precision drilling. On July 3, 1863, at the Battle of Gettysburg, the Baxter’s Philadelphia Fire Zouaves now numbering 458 lost 192 of their men.

Lancaster, Pennsylvania had a unit called the Union Guards. Many members of Lancaster’s Union Fire Company fought in this regiment and provided financial support as well.

Little information is available about firefighters who fought for the South. It is recorded that in Atlanta, Mechanic Fire Co. No. 2 formed a unit and served under that name during the war and in Norfolk, Virginia volunteers made up a large percentage of the crew for the ironclad Merrimack.

On June 27, 1863 the citizens of Lancaster and York counties had a devastating fire when the Union soldiers dynamited the world’s longest covered bridge. It spanned the Susquehanna River between Wrightsville, York County and Columbia Borough, Lancaster. The Northern troops wanted to prevent Confederate troops from attacking Lancaster. The original intent was to destroy only one section of the bridge. But when the bridge was not destroyed by explosives the order came to burn it. The bridge included both a roadway and railroad tracks and acted as a wind tunnel. Soon the huge fire became a concern for the communities. In Columbia, crews raced onto the bridge and tried to cut a fire break but they were unsuccessful. The fire did set one building ablaze. Firemen were assisted by soldiers and residents and the fire did not spread. In Wrightsville, the Confederate troops wanted to save the bridge but the residents provided no assistance. Finally, as the fire roared toward the town, the townspeople broke out the fire buckets. Due to the delay several commercial and residential buildings were lost.

When the North realized more men were needed in the military they issued a draft notice. Every male between the ages of 30 and 45 was eligible for the draft. You could provide an acceptable substitute or pay a fee of $300. This enabled the wealthy to avoid the draft. In New York City, in July 1863, anti-draft riots spread throughout the city. Most of the rioters were foreign-born laborers and Southern sympathizers. The mob numbered in the thousands. The rioters started several fires. When the few firefighters remaining in the city arrived to extinguish the fires they were beaten, their fire hoses were slashed and their engines were destroyed. Collins reports: “The mob’s reasoning for this anti-Negro attitude was that the war was calling upon ‘whites to be cannon-fodder to free the slaves.’” The disgruntled citizens targeted the Orphan Asylum for Colored Children. The Orphan Asylum was a three-story building which occupied nearly an entire block. Rioters beat children and lynched several blacks. Establishments who hired Negro workers also were torched. Homes and apartments occupied by blacks were set afire. Firefighters hid the African Americans in their stations. John Decker, a New York fire chief was nearly hanged. The rioters had already placed a rope around his neck when he saved himself by saying, “What good will it do you to hang me? You will only stop my draft, not the Government’s.” The startled rioters burst into laughter and he escaped the noose. The riots lasted 4 days and required military intervention to bring control. Approximately 1,200 people lost their lives. Of those about 150 were blacks. The estimated cost of damage at that time was close to $2,000,000. After the riots, the conscription act was amended allowing only conscientious objectors to be exempt from the draft.

Atlanta was a rail center for the South and a major supplier of troops for the Confederate Army. For six weeks General Sherman attacked the city. In early September, the Yankees entered the city. After two months the Northerners left Atlanta but set it ablaze behind them.

The fleeing Confederate soldiers set fire to warehouses with supplies in Charleston. The fire spread to an ammunition dump where an explosion killed 150 people.

In Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate troops again torched their supplies to keep them out of the hands of the enemy. The fire spread and when the small force of firemen tried to extinguish the blaze they were deterred by high winds and mobs of looters at the scene. When the Union troops arrived at the scene their first job was to fight the fires. Most of the central city was destroyed by fire.

Fireman Bill Post of New York’s Columbian Engine Company No. 14 served as a spy during the war. He was 41 years old and spoke fluent French and German. He worked as a New York policeman. He came to the attention of War Secretary Edwin M. Stanton after his detective work led to the seizure of Confederate bank note plates and $300 million worth of Confederate currency. Stanton contacted the Prussian government who commissioned Post to wear the guise of a Prussian agent, Adolphus Post. He served as a neutral observer for the welfare of Northern prisoners. In this role he crossed Confederate lines numerous times. When visiting Georgia’s Andersonville prison, a volunteer firefighter from the Columbian Engine Company No. 14 recognized him and called out to him. Post managed to avoid detection of his true identity and continued to operate as a spy until the end of the war.

During the Civil War, volunteer firefighters in Philadelphia showed compassion for the wounded. When the military ambulances could not adequately provide service, Southwark Hose Company No. 9 purchased a modern ambulance for $1,000. Other volunteer companies obtained ambulances and soon the fire departments owned 35 of them. A special “ambulance call” alarm was created. When the bells tolled nine times and then an additional six times (“9-6”) firemen appeared at the train station ready to transport the sick and injured soldiers. In a period of five days in December 1862, 2,500 patients were moved to hospitals. During the war, the volunteers transferred a total of 120,000 in their ambulances. The volunteer firehouses became medical stations when the hospitals ran out of space. Ditzel states: “Philadelphia’s was the first fire-department-operated ambulance service in the United States.”

Fire equipment was affected by the Civil War. In Atlanta, Georgia, a fire company awaited a hook and ladder ordered from Philadelphia builder Samuel Lenoir. Lenoir refused to ship the truck to the South and firemen in Lebanon, Pennsylvania purchased the truck when they found it was available.

Northern soldiers destroyed fire apparatus in the South. General Sherman’s army severely damaged the Blue Dick Engine and they commandeered Tallulah’s equipment to protect Union supplies in Chattanooga.

After the War, The New York Fire Zouaves returned to their city with a beautiful engine that had belonged to the Valley Forge Engine Company of Alexandria, Virginia.

When the war was over the soldiers became firefighters again. Members of Independence Hose Company No. 1 of Columbia, South Carolina contacted New York volunteers when they found they no longer had firefighting equipment. Before the war, the firefighters from South Carolina had visited New York City. The firemen of Columbia asked for old fire hose and a cast-off engine. But the New Yorkers wanted to do more. Within a week the New York Firemen’s Association raised $5,000 for a silver-plated hose carriage, 500 feet of new hose, 100 helmets, and uniforms. These were placed aboard the steamer Andalusia. The volunteers decided to travel by rail to present their gifts. Upon their arrival, they discovered the steamer had burned and sunk at sea. The volunteers headed back to New York and raised an additional $5,000 for Independence Hose Company No. 1. In a short time the Columbia fire company received the new apparatus and uniforms.

Once again, firefighters were invaluable assets whether they were fighting wars or fires.


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.