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.
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.
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.
"Old Lady" was built for the Mechanical Company in Philadelphia in 1821. In 1847, the pumper was totally rebuilt by the Rogers Company in Baltimore. In 1860, the Mechanical Company took delivery of a steam pumper and sold "Old Lady" to the United Fire Company of Frederick. "Old Lady" was purchased for $400 and arrived in Frederick on April 19, 1860.
During the Civil War, the "Swamp Hall" was used by the Union forces and the fire company was reimbursed $168 from the federal government. According to the book One Vast Hospital: The Civil War Hospital Sites in Frederick, Maryland After Antietam by Terry Reimer, the Junior Hall was used as part of General Hospital No. 6 to treat soldiers from the Battle of Antietam.
During the Civil War, the militia units of the volunteer fire companies eventually disbanded, probably due to allegiance to both the Union and Confederacy by the company members. According to Englebrecht's diary, "Brengle's Home Guards" were organized on April 24, 1861. No doubt, many of the members of this civilian militia unit were members of the former fire company militias. Later in that year, the Englebrecht diary notes the "Frederick Zouaves" were mustered. In the diary are familiar names from the local fire companies. As many "Zouave" units in the Northeast were organized by fire companies, it appears the members of the Frederick fire companies were active participants in this unit throughout the Civil War.
The early fire service of our nation has a proud and colorful history. Much has been written of the efforts to provide fire protection in the earliest settlements, but the contributions of the fire service go well beyond fire protection. Throughout our history, fire companies have responded to the needs of our country. Though little has been written, the contributions of the brave members of the fire companies at Harpers Ferry and throughout the Civil War are a testimony to the instinct of every firefighter to respond, even when it is "not to fight a fire."
CLARENCE "CHIP" JEWELL is director of the Frederick County, MD, Department of Emergency Communications. He has been active in the fire service of Frederick County for 42 years and is a life member of Junior Fire Company No. 2 and life member and assistant chief of the Libertytown Volunteer Fire Department. Jewell is president of the Frederick County Fire & Rescue Museum, which opens this month in Emmitsburg, MD. He is co-author of Firefighting in Frederick and author of Firefighting in Frederick County, published by Arcadia Publishing, and he performs a living history of the Frederick County fire service. He is a member of the Frederick County Historical Society and chairman of the Historical and Archives Committee of the Maryland State Firemen's Association. Jewell is a member of the Frederick County Fire/Rescue and Maryland State Firemen's Association Hall of Fame. He is a Level III fire service instructor and a field instructor for the Maryland Fire/Rescue Institute (MFRI).
COMMEMORATIONS & RE-ENACTMENTS
On Oct. 17, 2009, a commemoration of the response to Harpers Ferry was held with Lieutenant John Arnold of the United Fire Company ringing the original "Swamp Bell" mounted atop the United Fire Company at exactly 10 A.M., 150 years to the minute of the original summons.
On April 30, 2011, a re-enactment of the special session of the Maryland Legislature in Frederick will be held with activities throughout the day. On Sunday, May 1, 2011, a commemoration of the Frederick Court House fire will be held with the "Old Lady" on display and possibly restored to pumping condition.
The original "Old Lady" was also in service in Libertytown from 1880 to 1932. "Old Lady" is presently owned by the Libertytown Volunteer Fire Department and displayed at the Frederick County Fire & Rescue Museum at 300 South Seton Ave. in Emmitsburg, a block north of the National Fire Academy.