Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments

Chapter 42, Part II

By Holice and Debbie

Many of the old firemen of twenty-five years ago are to-day buried in the soldiers' cemeteries at Gettysburg and Antietam. After the glorious fever of that time "they sleep well;" scarcely a battle ground of the old Army of the Potomac but is reddened with the life blood of some of them, who in spite of the obstacles placed in the way of their patriotic efforts to serve their country, at last achieved the renown that must ever attached to those who have fought and died for "God and native land."

In fact, not over two hundred of the old regiment that left New York on the twenty-ninth of April, 1861, are still living. Many of the survivors have been reunited in the Farnham Post of the Grand Army of he Republic, which was organized with the approval of Col. Leoser by Private O'Rorke mentioned above. It counts today two hundred and twenty-five members in good standing, with Col. Leoser in command.

Among the prominent members are Gen. Newton, Brig.-Gen. Fitzgerald, now commanding the First Brigade, Police Superintendent Murray, Order of Arrest Clerk Martin, Alderman Cowie, of the present board, and Chief Engineer George W. Magee, now on duty in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Colonel Clark, Seventh Regiment, Colonel Farnham's two brothers, etc. The rosters of but few regiments can make a better showing of its old members who have achieved distinction in civil life.

Of the First Fire Zouaves as a whole, nothing worse could be said when they took the lead in that grand military advance on Washington--the first fruits of one of the most remarkable national uprisings known to history--than that, in the words of one of their number, they were "a reckless harum-skarum lot." Although mostly very young men, they were thoroughly imbued with the esprit du corps that distinguished the Old fire Department of New York to an extraordinary degree. If they were good for service of any kind, it was to be pushed to the very front of the fighting as soon as they had been accustomed to the routine of army life, and their duties as soldiers. To select such a regiment, composed of elements so peculiar and so thoroughly permeated with the spirit of intrepid bravery--a spirit that regards the most heroic deeds in the light of everyday achievements--for the full routine of permanent garrison duty, was a blunder as great, in the opposite direction, as that which was responsible for the famous, but fatal charge at Balaklava.

In referring to the Zouaves, Col. Leoser, said recently that were he called upon to recruit a regiment to-morrow, he would prefer, had he his choice of material, to recruit it from the old firemen of New York. It was also his opinion that if they made any failures during their brief regimental existence, it was due tot he mistakes of the officers, and not to any lack of bravery on the part of the rank and file. Col. Leoser's relations to the regiment were of the most agreeable character, and he was both esteemed and beloved by his men.

Frank E. Brownell, who so gallantly avenged the killing of the heroic Ellsworth, has given this account of the tragedy:

"It was on the night of the twenty-third of May, about ten o'clock, that Colonel Ellsworth called the regiment out, and he said: 'Boys, I heard this morning that a movement was to be made on Alexandria. I went to General Mansfield and told him that, as we were the first volunteer regiment mustered into the service for the war, we would consider it a deep affront if we were not allowed the right of the line. Prepare yourselves for a night raid, with perhaps a skirmish at the end of it. When we arrive in Alexandria, I want you to act like men, and show the enemy that we are gentlemen as well as soldiers. Not a shot must be fired without orders.'

"We were camped at Giesboro Point, and between two and three o'clock next morning the boats to convey us to Alexandria arrived. As we approached Alexandria, we found the gunboat 'Pawnee' lying off the town, and as our steamers moved up to the wharf, a boat put off from the 'Pawnee' with a white flag flying. Upon the landing, the officer in command of this boat had a consultation with Colonel Ellsworth, and I have always understood, informed him that the city had been placed under a flag of truce, or at least been given a certain time ot surrender. At all events, the town was under a flag of truce from the officer commanding the 'Pawnee,' and for tha treason it was not deemed imprudent for Colonel Ellsworth to leave his regiment, and go up into the city. We landed at the foot of Cameron Street, and as the regiment disembarked, Colonel Ellsworth started up into the town accompanied by our chaplain and the correspondents of the New York Times and Tribune. As he passed the right of the regiment it was suggested by some one that he take a guard with him. He called for the first group on the right of the first company to follow him, which was made up of a sergeant, two corporals and two privates. As we turned into King Street, the first thing that met our gaze was the Rebel flag floating over the Marshall House. When he saw the Rebel flag, Ellsworth turned to the sergeant and told him to hurry back to Captain Coyle, who commanded Company A, and tell him to hurry up there with his men as soon as possible. We were on the opposite side of the street from the hotel; and after passing the house, however, the colonel stopped for a moment or two, and then turned across the street and entered the building. There was a man behind the office counter, and Colonel Ellsworth asked him if he was the proprietor. He replied that he was not. Colonel Ellsworth then started up the stairway for the roof followed by the whole of out party. We pulled down the flag and started back. I was in advance, and as I made the turn between the third and second stories, I saw Jackson standing at the head of the flight wing to the next story. I jumped towards him, and with my musket struck down his gun. As my weapon slid off his, I sprang backward and lost my footing, and just at that moment colonel Ellsworth appeared around the turn of the stairs coming down. Jackson raised his gun and turned to give me the other barrel. I had recovered my feet, however, and fired upon him first, immediately following up my shot with the bayonet, my thrust pushing him down the stairs, the other barrel of his gun going off as he fell."

"What do you think prompted Colonel Ellsworth to undertake to pull down that flag himself?"

"I have always been under the impression that he did it to prevent any outbreak, and that he was afraid to allow the regiment to see it."

"Do you know anything regarding Colonel Ellsworth's personal character."

"I don't believe, if history were searched through to find a life to hold for the emulation of the youth of our country, that you would find one that better illustrates the character of a true patriot and gentleman than that of Colonel Ellsworth. I have a number of his letters, and what is perhaps the best evidence of his character, his private diary."

Captain Brownell produced a small book bound in red leather. Turning over the leaves, which were filled with neat round handwriting of the dead hero, he read numerous extracts. It was a concise history of the daily life of the young soldier when he was a law student in Chicago, struggling for an honorable position among men, living upon bread and water, and sleeping upon the bare floor of his employer's office. Pages were filled with affectionate allusions to his aged parents and his fond hopes for a future that would shed happiness and comfort over their declining years.

This ia an extract from a letter written by President Lincoln to the bereaved mother of Colonel Ellsworth:

"My acquaintance with him began less than two years ago, yet through the latter half of the intervening period it was as intimate as the disparity of our ages and my engrossing engagements would permit. To me he appeared to have no indulgences or pastimes, and I never heard him utter a profane or intemperate word. The honors he labored for so laudably, and in the sad end so gallantly gave his life, he meant for them no less than himself. In the hope that it may be no intrusion upon the sacredness of your sorrow, I have ventured to address this tribute to the memory of my young friend, and your brave and early fallen child. May God give you the consolation which is beyond earthly power.

Sincerely your friend ina common affliction,

A. Lincoln


John Wildey, an active fireman from 1844 until the dissolution of the Volunteer Department, was foreman of 11 engine at the outbreak of the Rebellion. He assisted in organizing the eleventh Regiment, Fire Zouaves, and went to the front as captain in that command.

Captain Wildey says that while the regiment was forming in line on King Street, news came that Ellsworth was killed. The regiment then marched through the city to the railroad station. The captain went to the Marshall House and took charge of Ellsworth's remains, and then possession of the Rebel flag and the double-barreled shotgun used by Jackson. These trophies were sent North with the colonel's body.

Wildey was with his regiment at shooter's Hill (where a fort was constructed, and named after Ellsworth,) when the order to advance on Manassas was received. For weeks previous to this advance the regiment has been constantly drilled and disciplined by competent officers. Colonel Noah L. Farnham, who succeeded Ellsworth, had been a member of the Seventh N. Y. Regiment, and Adjutant Leoser was a graduate of West Point. In fact, when the regiment started out for Bull Run, it was in a high degree of efficiency, considering its short service; it was easily maneuvered, thoroughly equipped, and possessed of an esprit du corps that would have proved irresistible in any ordinary combat.

In the engagement at Manassas the regiment held the extreme right of the line in the brigade of General Wilcox, and first came under the fire of Rebel battery, and a corps of sharpshooters concealed in rifle pits. On hearing the first "whizz" of bullets, Wildey says he experienced a sensation similar to that felt years before when going into an old-time firemen's fight in front of the Astor House. The Zouaves charged under a murderous fire, drove the enemy out of the rifle pits, and cleared the field in front of them. Their loss, however, was severe. Among the fatally wounded was Colonel Farnham, who received a shot in the head above the ear. Captains Wildey and Purtell carried his body to the rear. He was sent to the hospital, where he died two weeks afterwards. Wildey returned to the front in time to see a body of cavalrymen coming swiftly down towards the right of the line, shouting and waving an American flag. At first it was thought that the cavalrymen were friends, but an order rang out to "lie down and prepare to receive cavalry." The Zouaves instantly dropped to the ground, and the Rebel cavalry, waving captured flags, and yelling like demons, came down at a charge. Suddenly Rickett's Union men and horses, in rear of the Zouaves, opened on the mounted Rebels, killing many men and horses, and throwing them into confusion. Wildey fired his revolver at the leader of the Confederates, and saw him fall. He was Colonel Ashby, of the famous "Black Hose Cavalry." As the Rebels turned to flee, the Zouaves jumped to their feet, and charged furiously into the midst of them. One of the Rebels bore aloft the green flag of the Sixty-ninth Regiment, captured a short time before. His horse was shot and tumbled. As the Rebel sprang off, Captain Wildey was upon him with hi s sword, and snatched the glorious flag away. This was one of the most brilliant individual exploits of the great battle. The flag was returned to the Sixty-ninth, and is still proudly held by that organization.

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

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