The Burning Questions of Slavery & Secession

  Though the attack on Fort Sumter that started the Civil War did not occur until April 12, 1861, John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry served as a catalyst to fuel the anti-slavery and pro-slavery factions into a more drastic action. As part of the...


  Though the attack on Fort Sumter that started the Civil War did not occur until April 12, 1861, John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry served as a catalyst to fuel the anti-slavery and pro-slavery factions into a more drastic action. As part of the violence of the "Bleeding Kansas...


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Though the attack on Fort Sumter that started the Civil War did not occur until April 12, 1861, John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry served as a catalyst to fuel the anti-slavery and pro-slavery factions into a more drastic action. As part of the violence of the "Bleeding Kansas" confrontations, John Brown and his party had already used terror in the name of abolishing slavery in the nation's heartland. The 1857, the "Dred Scott Decision" handed down by Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney fueled the passion of John Brown to further promote the anti-slavery cause.

On Oct. 16, 1859, the small town of Harpers Ferry, VA, was suddenly raided by abolitionists to help promote the cause of anti-slavery in the Potomac Valley. They seized the military arsenal and used the fire engine house to hold local prisoners. (At the time of the raid, Harpers Ferry was part of Virginia. What is now West Virginia became a state during the Civil War.)

On Oct. 17, 1859, word was received in Frederick, MD, of a possible raid on Harpers Ferry and military help was needed. Marines were summoned, but the local volunteer fire companies in Frederick answered the alarm — not to fight a fire, but to help quell an insurrection.

In 1859, three volunteer fire companies existed in the growing agricultural crossroads of Frederick. At the time, the town was second only to Baltimore in population and was enjoying continued growth as rails and roads continued to develop west. But, Frederick was also amid the unrest of the day with strong opinions for and against the issue of slavery.

A young Frederick lawyer, Taney had married the sister of Francis Scott Key, who wrote the words to "The Star-Spangled Banner." Taney moved his law practice out of Frederick and became a noted jurist. His legal opinions and political savvy ultimately catapulted him to the U.S. Supreme Court, where, in 1859, he sat as chief justice.

The volunteer fire companies in Frederick can be traced back to 1764, when the town fathers purchased the first fire engine, called "Grandfather," and assigned it to the Frederick Hose Company. In 1818, Independent Hose Company No. 1 was organized and remains in operation as the oldest continuously operating fire company in Maryland.

In 1838, a group of young men gathered at Dr. Mantz's drug store in Frederick with the purpose of organizing another fire company to help protect the growing city. Junior Fire Company No. 2, dubbed the "Young Men's Fire Company," was formally organized that year and continues to provide fire protection to the citizens of Frederick.

Militia Formed

The Washington Hose Company was organized in 1837, but was unable to maintain membership. This company was ultimately re-organized in 1845 as the United Fire Company No. 3 in a swampy area south of Frederick. The new firehouse was constructed in the swampy marsh, and the townfolk dubbed the firehouse the "Swamp Hall" and called the firemen "Swampers."

It was the membership of this company that felt the need to help the local police maintain peace and order in the town. In 1858, Captain John Sinn approached the membership of the Uniteds and suggested the company organize a militia. The idea was met with rousing support and the United Guard was formally organized. One of the first assignments of the new militia was to help maintain peace during a public hanging.

The other two companies in Frederick soon organized their own militia units; the Junior Defenders and Independent Rifles. Together, these volunteer firefighters combined to become an unexpected witness to the most devastating conflict to ever occur on our nation's soil.

The history of United Fire Company No. 3, written by Frederick historians Paul and Rita Gordon, notes when a train reached Frederick Junction, word was brought to Frederick of an insurrection in Harpers Ferry. Stationmaster John T. Quynn hurried to Frederick to summon help and sound the alarm.

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