|US military led this fire operation in Alexandria in 1863 (Library of Congress)|
Before the Civil War broke out and hordes of Federal soldiers crossed the Potomac River to occupy the city, volunteer firefighters in Alexandria, Va., brimmed with pride and purpose.
|19th century firefighter (Library of Congress)|
Firefighting companies – Friendship, Hydraulion, Relief, Star and Sun, among them – maintained equipment and kept their fellow residents safe from infernos that could rampage through a row of homes or businesses in no time.
It wasn’t just about saving lives and property: The companies were part of the fabric of the community.
“They were involved in boosterism and came out for parades and such,” said Kristin Lloyd, acting director of the Friendship Firehouse Museum in Historic Alexandria. “If there was a fire, everybody in the community helped. We had laws on how many buckets each household had to have to fight a fire.”
Friendship, the oldest of the fraternal groups, was formed in 1774.
There was a lot of prestige in which company got to a fire first (mind you, the men ran – horses were not yet in use) or threw quenching water the farthest. A strong performance could get you written up in the local newspaper -- so there was occasional competition and raucous moments.
But those good old days faded quickly on May 24, 1861, a day after Virginia seceded from the Union. Thousands of Union troops poured in from Washington and turned the bucolic river port into a major military supply and hospital center. Martial law was declared. A curfew was enforced. And one very famous incident led to the first death of a Union officer in the conflict.
|Suction pumper at Friendship Firehouse Museum (City of Alexandria)|
Once some administration took hold and it became apparent it needed to become involved -- in part because so many able-bodied residents were gone -- the Union army took over firefighting in the city.
The 11th New York Infantry, known informally as the First Fire Zouaves, for a time took the lead.
While the military occupation did modernize firefighting – the Federals brought in the first two steam pumpers – it put a lot of locals on the defensive, requiring them to take an oath of allegiance to the United States or use a password to assist in putting out a blaze.
That uneasy relationship is the subject of the "We've Been Burned: Alexandria Firefighters During the Civil War" walking tour this Saturday. Participants will learn how the volunteer companies were treated and what happened to their firehouses, among other topics. The city tour will stop by four surviving firehouses in the charming downtown historic district.
Participants will learn that several of the volunteer companies disbanded by 1863, partly because so many members were fighting for the Confederacy.
|Friendship museum (City of Alexandria)|
But there was at least one other reason for the decline in the volunteer efforts, according to a history of firefighting in the city: “Company disbanded … due to destruction wrought by Yankees on equipment.”
The venerable Alexandria Gazette wrote glowingly about Federal troops and local firefighters harmoniously working together. But records kept by volunteer companies often painted another picture, said Catherine Weinraub, a museum aide for Historic Alexandria who will lead the biannual tour.
A Friendship notation speaks volumes about its members’ smoldering resentment:
"When a fire occurred the military assumed control of the fire apparatus and directed its action while old and efficient firemen were rebuked, annoyed [sic] and sometimes knocked down by men who were wholly ignorant of the mode of attaching to plugs or Engine or of judiciously using the pipe when a suply [sic] of water had been secured.”
Firefighting was a whole lot different
The United States has seen quite a transformation in how its communities fight fires. Following rudimentary “bucket brigades” during colonial days, volunteer companies sprang up, fostering a celebration of youth, heroism and camaraderie.
It soon became a business in some cities, such as in New York and Baltimore, where street gangs used firefighting as a way of fighting each other and to control turf. Insurance companies often had contracts with private or volunteer crews.
A colum written in 2011 for Huffington Post had this to say: “The way it functioned was the first club at the scene got money from the insurance company. So, they had an incentive to get there fast. They also had an incentive to sabotage competition. They also often ended up getting in fights over territory and many times buildings would burn down before the issue was resolved. They were glorified looters.”
|Postwar Hydraulion volunteers (Alexandria Fire Department)|
Lloyd said there was no evidence of such chaos in Alexandria. There are no known insurance company plaques on buildings, she added.
Alexandria was divided into four wards. Every station had its own bell. The closest person (to the fire) would ring the bell in the ward in which it was discovered. While there was an attempt to organize response by company, firefighters would rush to just about any fire after grabbing equipment at their firehouse (this was before they would be stationed around the clock in a building).
The fastest member of a company would run to a fire plug, or hydrant, and try to hold it until his colleagues showed up with equipment. That meant keeping other units from tapping in. “He is not going to let that happen,” Weinraub told the Picket.
Firefighting could be a dangerous occupation: In 1855, six members of the Star company and one with Friendship were killed in a warehouse wall collapse on King Street. The fire was the work of an arsonist. The tragedy hit the town hard.
Local boys were disenchanted
Six years after that tragedy, tension in Alexandria reached the boiling point over President Abraham Lincoln’s election and the secession vote.
Federal units, including the 11th New York infantry, were sent to the city, effectively ending the sale of enslaved persons while taking control of buildings and businesses that were of use to the Northern war effort.
|Death of Ellsworth (Library of Congress)|
“Alexandria is filled with ruined people; they walk as strangers through their ancient streets, and their property is no longer theirs to possess,” wrote George Alfred Townsend for the New York Herald in 1863.
The 11th New York was organized by Col. Elmer Ellsworth. “He thought firefighters would make good Zouaves,” said Lloyd. Many firefighters that served in the Union army were of Irish descent.
Ellsworth on May 24, 1861, became the first Union officer to die in the Civil War when he removed a Confederate flag from the roof of the Marshall House in Alexandria because it could be seen from the White House. The owner of the house gunned down Ellsworth before being killed by a Federal soldier.
While the men of the 11th New York Infantry knew how to fight fires, they were soon shipped to the front, leaving the duties in the hands of soldiers with a lot less passion and skill for the work.
“These soldiers were really bored and they didn’t know how to put out fires,” said Weinraub.
Local volunteers were angry because they had to meet so many conditions – including the oath of allegiance, badges, passwords and curfew limitations – in order to take part in firefighting. Sometimes they were just told to go home.
They grumbled about what became of their equipment. This notation was in the Friendship minutes book:
“The Friendship Suction and eleven sections of hose were conveyed to Fort Elsworth and there exposed for weeks to sunshine and rain, and when the Suction was returned at the urgent solicitation of the Company, it was so unsightly and unservieably [sic] that the Company was disinclined to incur any expence [sic] for its repair while subject to such abuse. The eleven sections of hose have not been yet returned, at portion being in use at the Provost Office and the rest at adjacent forts.”
|Quartermaster's Wharf during the war (Library of Congress)|
All this came at a time when the city was teeming with soldiers and civilians who were meeting their primal needs, with venues that included saloons and houses of prostitution.
“There was a military governor. Troops were moving in and out, particularly in the beginning of the war,” Lloyd told the Picket. “They were pretty rowdy and rambunctious. A military governor came in and maintained better order.”
The Gazette did its best to keep the community up on the news and it painted a cheery picture of the cooperation between Yankee and local firefighters.
A January 1865 article described a blaze that broke out on a Royal Street frame house and spread.
“The U.S. steam engine No. 2, and the fire engine companies, Friendship, and Sun, were promptly on the ground, and deserve great credit for the efficient manner in which they succeeded in extinguishing the flames and preventing more damage than was done. The military police were present and prevented any loss of property from the burning building.”
|(Alexandria Fire Department)|
|Columbia firehouse is now a restaurant|
Major changes were on the way
Despite the strain and anguish of being occupied for four years, Alexandria apparently did not have a major fire during that time. And because it was within the extensive Federal defenses of Washington, there was no fighting and, thus, no civilian casualties.
After the war, the population ballooned to nearly 17,000 residents, many of them Northerners and freed blacks, according to a 2011 Washington Post article.
“The impact (of the war) on Alexandria took years to recover as a city, just as the (fire) companies themselves took a while,” Weinraub said.
Major changes were on the way. By the 1860s, with heavier and more expense equipment, and the need for horses to pull it, communities began establishing professional fire crews. Alexandria created its city department in 1866.
|Hose reel at museum (City of Alexandria)|
Most of the volunteer companies reorganized for a time after the war and later ceded the job to the city force. Friendship refused to join because its members wanted to keep their name.
“They went back to fighting fires (but) it was becoming less necessary as the city was involved,” said Lloyd. Friendship stopped fighting fires in the 1880s and the rest of the companies eventually dissolved.
Today, the Friendship Firehouse Museum has equipment, including a giant hose reel, and information on the volunteer companies, among other topics. The building got a boost during the 1950s and was deeded to the city in 1991. It is supported by the Friendship Veterans Fire Engine Association.
“They are involved in helping maintain the preservation of the firehouse and they think of it as their heritage and they support other causes related to firefighting,” said Lloyd.
|The city still uses this Relief station (Alexandria Fire Department)|
Of the other three firehouses on the sidewalk tour, two are private homes and one houses Columbia Firehouse, a restaurant on St. Asaph Street. It got its name from the Columbia Steam Fire Engine Company, which succeeded the Star volunteer group.
The city has a fire station next to the old Relief firehouse, which is one of the residences. It used to feature a tower to dry canvas fire hoses.
The tour is held in the spring and fall.
“We are just hoping to bring more attention to the museum, but also the larger subject of firefighting history and how it is very relevant,” said Lloyd. “All of it informed how firefighting is done to today, how cities are formed today, how codes are formed today.”
The tour lasts from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 13. It begins at the Friendship Firehouse Museum, 107 South Alfred St. The cost is $6 for adults and $4 ages 10-17. Reservations are required, as space is limited. Call 703-746-4994 or 707-746-3891.