Ever read the book Fighting The Flames by R.M. Ballantyne? It’s set in 19th Century England and follows the adventures, dangers, and triumphs of firemen in London. (You should read the book.) Today, we’re not really talking about the history of fire-fighting or chapters in English History…
We’re really talking about flags. But today’s flag is directly connected to fire-fighters in 19th Century America. Once upon a time, firemen from New York City were recruited to defend the Union in the fires of war…and the flag they took to the battlefields was a symbol of the best of their character and determination.
Flags: Making A Statement
Flags are an important part of battlefield communication and direction (as we discussed last week). Thus, they serve a very practical purpose. Flags can also make a statement or show pride – this is true for every era of history when flags/banners/heraldry have been used.
During the American Civil War, regiment flags (particularly) in the north were usually carried with the national flag, especially in the early years of the conflict. Since regiments were comprised of citizen soldiers, enlisting from a particular area or state, the flag designers (some ladies, sometimes the soldiers themselves) often tried to incorporate something unique to their region or background on their regimental flag.
That unique feature – whatever it was – made a statement about the men of the regiment. It might reflect what inspired them, something from their state or region history, ethnic background, or common profession. The flag of 11th New York Infantry certainly made a statement, and there was no question regarding the professional background of those soldiers after seeing their flag.
New York: The Fire Men
In 2001, the world honored the courage of New York’s firemen who rushed into the burning and collapsing World Trade Center Towers to save lives. The profession of a fireman is filled with teamwork, danger, and sacrifice. And the firemen of New York City have a tradition of rushing into the fray to defend Americans. In 1861, with Lincoln calling for volunteers to defend the Union, New York Firemen were recruited into a military regiment.
Fires weren’t uncommon in the crowded cities of the 19th Century, and fire-fighting gear wasn’t what it is today. (A helmet and offensive “weapons” like an axe and water pump were the main tools of the trade.) The profession has always relied on teamwork and trust, but this was even more true 155 years ago when fire-fighting required acrobat-like skills and courage to approach and enter a burning structure without breathing filters and protective “turn-out” suits. Firemen tended to live and work in the same few blocks of the city, training and working together to build an unbreakable team.
11th New York Infantry
Abraham Lincoln had a young friend named Elmer Ellsworth. For several years prior to 1861, Ellsworth had toured America, training militia units or showcasing his Zouave Cadets. When it came time to call out the volunteers in April 1861, Lincoln asked Ellsworth to recruit a regiment. Ellsworth promptly headed to New York, planning to use the teamwork the city’s firemen already possessed to develop a “star” unit.
Within four days, Ellsworth had recruited 2,300 men, mostly firemen, into his new regiment. The 11th New York Infantry got the nickname “Fire Zoauves.” Arriving in Washington D.C. a few weeks later, the regiment got a reputation for mischief and was blamed for every bad thing that happened…until they managed to put out a large fire next to the prominent Willard Hotel.
On May 24th, the regiment crossed the Potomac and occupied Alexandria, Virginia; during the initial occupation, Colonel Ellsworth was shot and killed while trying to remove a Confederate flag from private property.
The regiment fought at the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas) on July 21, 1861, fighting on the Henry House Hill and eventually guarding the rear of the retreating Union army. In August, they returned to New York City to reorganize and recruit, then returned to Virginia.
The 11th New York served in the Peninsular Campaign of 1862 and was formally mustered out of service later that year. Eventually, the regiment was reorganized and helped to suppress the 1863 Draft Riots in New York City.
The unique flag of the 11th New York Regiment prominently displayed the pre-war occupation of its soldiers. By emphasizing their former service as firemen, the flag became a symbolic reminder of the importance of trust and teamwork. The skills and character qualities that had been so crucial while fighting flames would also mold and create a regiment of men who gained a reputation for fearless actions and high morale on the battlefields and in the military camps.
P.S. Let’s take a vote… Any readers interested in the history of fire-fighting for a historical theme of the month?