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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On the morning of Oct. 17, 1859, bells rang atop the firehouses and churches in Frederick summoning the volunteers, not to fight a fire, but to help quell an insurrection. The volunteers gathered at the B&O Railroad passenger station across from the United Fire Company and boarded a train to Harpers Ferry.
According to Jacob Englebrecht's diary, "Monday, October 17, 10 o'clock AM. — Harpers Ferry Riot — The Independent Bell & the United or Swamp Bell are both now ringing (Swamp first) calling together the military companies of our city." He continued his diary with the entry, "Monday October 17, ½ past 3 o'clock — Our three town companies, Captain Sinn, Captain Ritchie & Captain Hobbs just started for the cars at the Depot for the scene of War — Harpers Ferry."
The militia units of the Frederick volunteer fire companies were among the first, if not the first, military units to arrive in Harpers Ferry. Under the leadership of Robert E. Lee, U.S. Marines arrived to secure the scene with the assistance of the local militia. Documents also indicate the United Guard, and in particular Captain John Thomas Sinn, guarded John Brown and his men. In fact, Captain Sinn developed such a close relationship with John Brown that he was asked to testify as a character witness for Brown at his trial in Charlestown.
According to the history of the United Fire Company No. 3, Captain Sinn requested medical attention for John Brown's men by summoning Dr. Tyler from Frederick to respond to Harpers Ferry. However, upon arrival, Dr. Tyler was denied access to the rebellious battalion and the wounds were left untreated.
The history states all three of the fire company militia units returned to Frederick on Oct. 18, at 2:45 P.M. The United Guard were said to return carrying John Brown's pikes as honored trophies of their actions.
The three companies were also assigned other military duties. The Junior Defenders guarded the railroad bridge entering Harpers Ferry throughout the night. They also guarded the arsenal at the Maryland School for the Deaf in Frederick and the railroad bridge at Monocacy Junction. Later that year, the United Guard was once again dispatched to Harpers Ferry to guard the railroad bridge.
The United history also states that in 1860, the Maryland Legislature voted to pay each Frederick fire company $200 for the efforts of the militia units. The Uniteds were also awarded an additional $200 for the return to Harpers Ferry.
The involvement of the local fire companies would continue to play critical roles during the Civil War. A special session of the legislature was called by the governor to address whether Maryland would continue to remain a part of the Union.
A recent attack of Union soldiers in Baltimore by a Pro-Southern forces resulted in the deaths of both Union soldiers and civilians. As a result, Governor Thomas Hicks felt it necessary to move the legislature to Frederick. The legislative session was initially conducted in the court house, but later moved to Kemp Hall to provide enough capacity for both houses of the legislature.
An unsuccessful vote to support the secession of Maryland from the Union was conducted on May 4, 1861. Though the state was torn with citizens expressing allegiance to both the North and the South, Maryland remained loyal to the Union. However, later in the year, pro-South members of the legislature were arrested.
In the early hours of May 8, 1861, a fire mysteriously broke out in the county courthouse. Once again, the volunteer fire companies of Frederick responded and attempted to save the seat of county government. Though never officially recorded as arson, it has been suspected the fire was deliberately set by local Southern sympathizers in retaliation for the legislature voting against secession while in Frederick. Perhaps it is no coincidence that a local unit of the Confederate Army was organized in Frederick the very next day.
To fight the fire, each volunteer fire company was equipped with a hand pumper, the largest of which was "Old Lady," owned by the United Fire Company. In 1860, the Uniteds purchased "Old Lady" from Mechanical Fire Company No. 1 of Baltimore. This company was an offshoot of the Ancient and Honorable Mechanical Company, which was organized in 1763 and still meets annually, boasting claim to the oldest continuously meeting civic organization in the nation.