Carter Jones, Special Projects Coordinator, S.C. State Firefighters Association
On February 17 and 18, 2018, South Carolina and the will observe “The Burning of Columbia” by the Union Army, under the command of. During the nearly forty-eight-hour siege, General Sherman and his troops ravaged more than half the City by fire and destroyed much of its infrastructure. When the fires and smoke had cleared, most, if not all, of the City’s fire apparatus and equipment lay in ruin.
Many graphic accounts of Columbia’s indiscriminate destruction by the Union Army have already been written, but little narrative is spent describing the heroic efforts of the volunteer firemen of the day to control and suppress the many fires that preyed on the symbols of politics, military, education, religion, enterprise, and private properties.
It is important to remember that Columbia hosted the Secession Convention at the First Baptist Church on December 20, 1860, and was the capital of the first seceding state, which withdrew from the Federal Union. It was well known that the Union Army had a score to settle with South Carolina, and specifically the City of Columbia.
The Independent Fire Engine Company of Columbia was one of several fire companies located throughout the City that played a prominent role during the burning of our Capital City. But, the history of this struggling fire company, in my opinion, is probably more rich and absorbing than any in the City.
Now, To The Rest of The Story
According to The Burning of Columbia, the destruction of our Capital City was a major event in American history. By February 1865, the had turned against the Confederacy, and no significant Confederate forces were left to give serious challenge to General Sherman’s determination to demoralize the population. During the evening of February 17 and the morning of the 18th, Columbia experienced almost total destruction by the invasion of General Sherman’s troops. It is reported that Sherman’s troops lit bales of cotton that were situated in the middle of Richardson Street. Accounts say “the wind being quite fresh, the flames increased and spread with fearful rapidity and, in short time, the whole, or at least the greater part, was in a blaze. The fire engines of the City were brought to the spot as expeditiously as possible and the fire was extinguished in the course of an hour.”
As has already been noted, the Independent Fire Engine Company played a major role in the attempted control of fires during Columbia’s onslaught by the Union Army. In the end, practically all of the City’s fire equipment and apparatus were destroyed. Accounts of hardships experienced by the fire companies of Columbia were reported in the March 23, 1865, edition of The Columbia Phoenix. “The experience of the firemen in putting out the fires in the cotton and jail building were of a sort to discourage their further efforts. They were thwarted and embarrassed by continued interference of the soldiery. Finally, their hose was chopped with swords and axes or pierced with bayonets, so as to be rendered useless. The engines were in some cases demolished also.”
Again, The Burning of Columbia reports that “the engines were taken from their captains, and so injured as to be useless. The hose was cut, as testified to by Captains Stanley and McKenzie of the fire companies of the City, and the town lay helpless before them. Captain Stanley was the captain of one of the fire companies, and whilst working at the fire in the rear of the Commercial Bank, fifteen or twenty armed soldiers forcibly took possession of the hose, stuck their bayonets into them, carried off the pipes, and beat in the air vessel of the engine.”
As one can imagine, the reorganization of the fire companies of Columbia was a challenge of monumental proportions. Captain Stanley, mentioned above, was later appointed to Chief of Department in1866 and tasked to inventory the apparatus and equipment destroyed, develop a plan to rebuild station houses, and devise measures to replace all that was lost, even with no financial resources to do so. It’s interesting to note that the City of Charleston responded to Chief Stanley’s requests for assistance by loaning the department a used hand-drawn pumper (hand tub), which is believed to have later been sold to the Town of Walhalla and is now on display in their headquarters station in working condition.
Word spread quickly during the ensuing days that Columbia was in desperate need of rebuilding its fire department. Through the determination and skillful networking of the department’s leaders, the New York Firemen’s Association responded with great generosity by raising nearly $3,000 for the purchase of a hand-drawn hose carriage, designated to be given to the Independent Fire Engine Company. The “Sickles” carriage was built by Messrs. Adams and Conne’s Carriage Repository of No. 684 Broadway in New York City, a leading manufacturer of fire apparatus.
The March 16, 1867, headlines of Harpers Weekly read The article says that “the members of the New York Firemen’s Association have lately indulged a commendable effort at the restoration of good feelings between themselves and their Southern brethren. They have purchased a splendid hose carriage, which they intend to present to the Independent Engine Company No. 1 of Columbia as a token of good-will from the firemen of New York.” A further description of the hose carriage reveals that it was built “of the very best materials and in the most substantial manner. The height to the top of the hose reel is about eight feet. On either end of the front box is painted a figure of Liberty, while on the rear box are the coat-of-arms of New York and South Carolina. The front arch is surmounted by an elegant scroll-work of plate and a fine set of Russian sledge bells of silver. The hose reel is ornamented with bouquets of flowers. It holds one thousand feet of the finest hose, made to fit the water hydrants of Columbia.”
A photograph of members of the New York Firemen’s Association standing beside the hose carriage just prior to its shipment captures the pride of their members who sacrificially helped in raising the money for this acquisition. In late February of 1867, the hose carriage was carefully loaded on the merchant steamship, Andalusia, birthed at a dock in the New York harbor. On Saturday, March 2, the ship cast off at 3:10 P.M. under full steam toward its destination of Charleston. Tragically, the Andalusia caught fire the following day off the coast of Cape Hatteras and was destroyed. Four passengers and eight crewmen were lost in the fire and sinking of the Andalusia. Also lost was the hose carriage, equipment, helmets, nozzles, and speaking trumpets being shipped for presentation to the Independent Fire Engine Company of Columbia.
When the Andalusia burned and sank off Cape Hatteras, a committee of the New York Firemen’s Association were traveling by train to meet the steamer in Charleston. Upon learning of the loss, the committee members traveled to Columbia where a reception was held in their honor and to thank them for their efforts in helping to restore fire protection in the City of Columbia. According to The New York Times of March 12, 1867, a dinner was given at the Nickerson Hotel in honor of the committee. A Mr. Wilson, President of the New York Firemen’s Association, arose to make a few comments in which he said, “the loss of the hose reel had caused them a sad disappointment, but that it would be replaced by a far more substantial one. The accomplishment of the object had been frustrated for the present, but only a brief period should elapse ere the lost treasure would be replaced, Providence permitting.”
At the same gathering, former Confederate Colonel Samuel Melton rose to address the group from New York and is quoted as saying, “Should misfortune ever be yours, I hope Columbia would obey that golden rule by which you have been prompted in the performance of this most munificent kindness to a people in distress.”
The New York Firemen’s Association was as good as its word and returned to New York where nearly $3,000 in additional contributions were raised so the Independent Engine Company “should not be a loser by the catastrophe.” (The New York Times, June 2, 1867) A description of the replacement hose carriage again indicates that it was built by J. H. Sickles and painted by Thomas Miller. “The running-gear is of polished iron; the wheels painted in crimson and gold, edged with a blue and lilac stripe; the hose-reel is of polished rosewood, with silver rims; the front and back boxes are of polished rosewood, with silver-plated molding in panels; on the first panel are the words “Organized 1837”, and on the back panel the name of “Independent”’; on the ends of the front box are painting of the coats-of-arms of the City of New York and the City of Columbia, and on the end of the back box a painting of Peace and Plenty; on the front box is a frame mounted with two silver bells of high tone and finish, surmounted by a silver spread eagle. In the centre is a silver plate in shape of the front of a fire cap, with the following inscription: “Presented by the New York Firemen’s Association to Independent Fire Engine Company of Columbia, S. C., June 1867.” The New York Times indicated that the hose carriage would likely be “shipped on the Manhattan, which leaves port on June 20, and would be accompanied by a Committee who would make the presentation in due form.”
Once the hose carriage was delivered to Columbia and formally presented on July 2, 1867, another gala reception was given in honor of the New York delegation. They were welcomed by the Mayor and other dignitaries of Columbia. According to another New York Times article dated July 8, 1867, “they all ate, and drank, and gave speeches together, and enjoyed themselves and the occasion hugely.”
In an article written by former Columbia Fire Chief, John Jansen, he noted that “little did Colonel Melton know that Columbia would step forward and repay that act of kindness from the citizens of New York 134 years later.”
134 Years Later America Attacked on September 11, 2001
September 11, 2001, was a beautiful fall day in most of the northeast. The sky was clear, and the air had the feel of autumn. People were going about their business and had no indication the stage was being set for events that would change our lives forever. At 8:46 a.m., American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the north face of the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City followed in less than 30 minutes by the crash of Flight 175 into the South Tower. At 9:37 a.m., Flight 77 impacts the Pentagon in Washington, and at 10:03 a.m. a plane crashes into a rural countryside in Pennsylvania.
We all know the rest of the story. In a brief 56 minutes after the second plane hit the South Tower, the symbol of America’s prosperity collapsed followed a short time later by the total collapse of the North Tower. Very quickly America knew its liberties were being attacked by Islamic terrorists who were determined to make a statement by creating as much horror, fear, and confusion as possible.
Fires burned throughout buildings in the center of commerce in lower Manhattan; debris and dust spread all over New York; and the shocking degree of destruction and loss of life became apparent. When the events of the day were over and the toll was eventually revealed, America was horrified to learn that nearly 3,000 people were killed, and, of that number, 343 firefighters were killed in the line of duty. So, 134 years later, the Fire Department of New York and the great City it serves, found themselves in much the same plight as Columbia in 1865….only the number of lives lost was distinctly different.
The Chief of Department (Pete Ganci), the First Deputy Fire Commissioner (William Feehan), their beloved Chaplain (Father Mychal Judge), renowned Chief of Tactical Operations (Ray Downey), and other heroes in the department’s rank and file lost their lives serving their City. Nearly 100 engines, ladders, rescues, tactical units, support vehicles, ambulances, and staff cars were destroyed. 75 of their firehouses were touched by at least one member dying in the line of duty, and many others lost entire companies.
Remember the words of Colonel Samuel Melton in 1867? “Should misfortune ever be yours, I hope Columbia would obey the golden rule by which you have been prompted in the performance of this most munificent kindness to a people in distress.” Those words rang loud in the heart of retired Columbia Fire Chief John Jensen who offered his assistance to help raise money to return the favor so graciously given after the Civil War by our brothers in New York. To make a long story brief, the students at White Knoll Middle School wanted to make a difference and approached their principal and other school leaders with the idea of raising money to help purchase a fire truck to give to the FDNY. With the help of Chief Jansen and former Fire Marshal John Reich, along with many benefactors, including the membership of the State Firefighters’ Association, the story of the Independent Fire Engine Company spread like a wildfire. Newspapers, TV and radio stations, and other news outlets picked up on the story. Money began pouring in at the school and at fire departments across the State given by people from all over the country who wanted to help in the cause.
At first, the goal was to raise sufficient funds to purchase an engine for the FDNY, but it soon became apparent that there would be enough money to order a ladder truck. Chief Jansen was asked to select a firehouse in New York to receive the ladder truck. From his younger days as a member of the New York Fire Patrol and an avid fire buff, Chief Jansen suggested that it be assigned to Ladder 101 in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn which lost seven members of that company as well as their truck. On June 1, 2002, a group from South Carolina attended a dedication ceremony at the Red Hook station where the ladder truck was officially placed in service and ceremonially repaid the debt owed over 135 years earlier.
The story of the little Independent Fire Engine Company of Columbia is a remarkable bit of history which affirms that our brotherhood is like no other. As Dan Byrne of the Burton Fire Department once wrote, brotherhood “defines and illustrates the best of who we are.”
Note: A special thanks to the following individuals whose works contributed to this story: Chief Librarian Dan Maye, FDNY Library, Honorary Chief Jack Lerch, FDNY Library, Chief John Jansen (Retired), Fire Marshal John Reich (Retired), Chief Photographer Robert Busbee, Columbia F.D.
Photo Courtesy of Carter Jones
Hose carriage prior to being shipped to South Carolina.