Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments

Chapter 14, Part II

By Holice and Debbie

Captain Joseph Henry, afterward a judge in Pennsylvania, has given, in his "Campaign against Quebec," a vivid description of "the great fire of 1776." He had just returned from Quebec, and was standing on the deck of the ship in the bay when the fire broke out. Captain Henry writes: "A most luminous and beautiful, but baleful, sight, occurred to us--that is, the city of New York on fire. One night (September 21) the watch on deck gave a loud notice of this disaster. Running from the deck we could perceive a light, which at the distance we were from it (four miles) was apparently of the size of the flame of a candle. This light appeared to me to be burning of an old and noted tavern called the 'Fighting Cocks' (where ere this I had lodged), to the east of the Battery, at this place, because of the wind, increasing rapidly. In a moment we saw another light at a great distance from the first up the North River. The tavern in Broadway called 'Whitehall.' When the fire reached the spire of a large steeple, south of the tavern, which was attached to a large church (Trinity Church), the effect upon the eye was astonishingly grand. If we could have divested ourselves of the knowledge that it was the property of our fellow-citizens which was consuming, the view might have been esteemed sublime, if not pleasing. The deck of our ship, for many hours, was lighted as if at noonday. On the commencement of the conflagration we observed many boats putting off from the float, rowing rapidly toward the city. Our boat was of the number. This circumstance repelled the idea that our enemies were the incendiaries, for indeed they professedly went in aid of the inhabitants. The boat returned about daylight, and from the relation of the officer and the crew we clearly discerned that the burning of New York was the act of some madcap Americans. The sailors told us in their blunt manner, that they had seen one American hanging by the heels dead, having a bayonet wound through his breast. They named him by his Christian and surname, which they saw on his arm. They averred he was caught in the act of firing the houses. They told us also that they had seen on person who was taken in the act tossed into the fire, and that several who were stealing and suspected as incendiaries were bayonetted. Summary justice is at no time laudable, but in this instance it may have been correct. If the Greeks could have been resisted at Persepolis, every soul of them ought to have been massacred. The testimony we received from the sailors, my own view of the distant beginnings of the fire in various spots, remote from each other, and the manner of its spreading, impressed my mind with the belief that the burning of the city was the doing of the most low and vile persons, for the purposes not only of thieving, but of devastation. This seemed, too, the general sense, not only of the British, but that of the prisoners then aboard the transports. Lying directly south of the city and in a range with the Broadway, we had a fair and full view of the whole process. The persons in the ships nearer to the town than we were uniformly held the same opinion. It was not until some years afterward that a doubt was created, but for the honor of our country and its good name, an ascription was made of the firing of the city to accidental circumstances. It may well be that a nation in the heat and turbulence of war should endeavor to promote its interest by propagating reports of its own innocency and prowess, and accusing its enemy of flagrant enormity and dastardliness (as was done in this particular case), but when peace comes let us, in god's name, do justice to them and ourselves."

At this distance of time, it is difficult to say whether the fire was or was not the result of incendiarism on the part of the disaffected Americans. Even reliable contemporaneous writers differ widely in their opinion on the subject, some affirming positively that the city was set afire, and other, again, quite as positively affirming the contrary. Later writers, with all the facts before them and after an impartial survey, are inclined to believe that the fire was the result of a deliberate design; nor, if the newspapers and correspondence of the day can be believed, is there much room left for doubt. According to these authorities one man was seized in the act of setting fire to the College, and he acknowledged to his captors that he had been employed for the purpose. A New England captain, who was seized at the same time with matches in his pocket, also confessed the sam