Research How did troops set fire to buildings?

Rhea Cole

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Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
Period structures were balloon framed, i.e., there was a gap between the studs that ran uninterrupted to the attic. They had wood shingles & roofing that left air passages around them. Even a small fire would quickly spread & become catastrophic in a shocking short period of time. As to how to start a fire, everybody used fireplaces. Kindling & firewood was readily at hand. In my experience, it didn't take much to set one of those houses on fire. The front part of our house is 1840's, there are burned spots on the floor in front of the fireplaces in every room. It is a wonder that they didn't all burn down.
 
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Joined
Jan 29, 2019
Based on what I have read, they torched towns and buildings simply by throwing lit torches through the windows and open doorways. The small and medium sized towns during the civil war, especially in the south, were mostly built of dry timber and once placed under the torch the fire would become an inferno and would spread quickly from structure to structure throughout the entire town. If they were to fire a fort or barracks, such as at Pensacola they would fill the structure with dry lumber and torch it, or they would use gun powder.

During the evacuation of Pensacola, FL. on the night of 9 May 1862, Companies "B", "C" and "F", 2nd Alabama Cavalry, and two companies belonging to Capt. Thomas J. Meyers` Battalion Florida Cavalry, were ordered by Col. Thomas M. Jones and Col. John R. F. Tattnall to burn the Warrington Navy Yard, Fort McRee, Fort Barrancas, the Army Barracks and the Navy Hospital as well as an Oil Factory containing a considerable quantity of resin, the quartermaster's store-houses, some small boats, and three small steamers used as guard boats and transports at Pensacola during the evacuation so that nothing would be left to the Federals when they arrived. Below is an excerpt of Col. Thomas M. Jones` official report a few days later, describing how they burned Fort McRee and Fort Barrancas among other structures at the Warrington Navy Yard:

"As soon as the enemy could possibly man their guns and load them, they opened upon us with the greatest fury, and seemed to increase his charges as his anger increased. But in spite of bursting shell, which were thrown with great rapidity and in every direction, the cavalry proceeded with the greatest coolness to make the work of destruction thorough and complete, and see that all orders were implicitly obeyed. Their orders were to destroy all the camp tents, Forts McRee and Barrancas, as far as possible, the hospital, the houses in the navy-yard, the steamer Fulton, the coal left in the yard, all the machinery for drawing out ships, the trays, shears, in fact everything which could be made useful to the enemy. The large piles of coal were filled with wood and other combustibles and loaded shells put all through it, so that when once on fire the enemy would not dare to attempt to extinguish it. Loaded shell were also placed in the houses for the same purpose, and the few small smooth-bore guns I was compelled to leave were double shotted, wedged, and spiked, and carriage-chassis burned. The shears in the navy-yard were cut half in two, and the spars and masts of the Fulton were cut to pieces... The casemates and galleys of Fort McRee were filled with old lumber and many loaded with shell and fired. The galleries and implement rooms at Barrancas were similarly dealt with, and the destruction at both places was as complete as it could be with out the use of gunpowder. This I did not deem it necessary or proper to use for this purpose."

Even though no private property was supposed to have been destroyed the fires became so hot that it spread to numerous houses, buildings and other structures located on private property in both locations and utterly destroyed the property of many private citizens.

To keep the Federals from trying to put out the fires and save some of the structure of the Forts; "...(they) were filled with wood and other combustibles and loaded shells put all through it, so that when once on fire the enemy would not dare to attempt to extinguish it. Loaded shell were also placed in the houses for the same purpose..."

Some towns were lit by Federals burning hundreds of bales of confiscated Confederate cotton in the town squares, which quickly turned into an inferno and spread to other structures and engulfed the whole town.
 
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DixieRifles

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Did they douse the structures with some kind of accelerant like turpentine? Did they carry torches or matches?
At the Battle of Collierville, the Confederate cavalrymen boarded General Sherman's train and attempted to set it on fire. I assume they had matches(answer to one of your Q's). They looked for good kindling and found a trunk of fine officer's shirts. They attempted to use this to get a fire started, but it didn't catch fire before Union troops extinguished it. I imagine burning a RR car is more difficult than a house.

“The enemy closed down on us several times, and got possession of the rear of the train, from which they succeeded in getting five of our horses, among them my favorite mare Dolly; but our men were cool and practised shots (with great experience acquired at Vicksburg), and drove them back. With their artillery they knocked to pieces our locomotive and several of the cars, and set fire to the train; but we managed to get possession again, and extinguished the fire. Colonel Audenreid, aide-de-camp, was provoked to find that his valise of nice shirts had been used to kindle the fire.”
 

Tom Elmore

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At Gettysburg, when orders came to burn the barn and house of William Bliss: Sergeant Charles A. Hitchcock of the 111th New York volunteered to communicate the order from [Gen.] Hays to burn the buildings. Hitchcock equipped himself with matches and paper from discarded cartridge boxes. ... Captain Samuel A. Moore of Company F, 14th Connecticut, and the men under him were tasked with setting the Bliss barn on fire. They ignited some loose hay and straw in several places. At the same time, First Lieutenant Wilbur D. Fiske of Company F joined the group that proceeded to the house, where they applied a match to a bed of straw emptied on the floor.

During the same battle, the Confederates of Pettigrew's North Carolina brigade burned down the colonial mansion where Amelia Harman and her aunt resided, because it had been used by Union skirmishers. They used old newspapers for kindling, piled on books, rags, and furniture, and applied matches to ignite the pile.

Evidently matches were readily available in stores. Matches were among the items confiscated by the Confederates from Robert McCurdy and Jeremiah Diehl's grain and produce business warehouse in Gettysburg.
 
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DixieRifles

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poorjack

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NC
Matches have been around in some form since about 1200AD and were a common item back then. Get an order to torch a structure, break out the matches, get kindling from the woodpile and go for it. With most buildings of the period being balloon framed, once the fire gets into the wall, it's off and running. That's why modern building and fire codes prohibit balloon framing.

For some interesting reading on match production and working conditions in the 19th century, look up the term "phossy jaw".
 

Polloco

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I recall an old episode of Wagon Train where Wally Cox plays some professor or school teacher. He shows the children on the train how to make various things. One of them is matches. I think he refered to them as "Lucifers". Some of this show was supposed to be occurring in 1869, I think. So matches were around and a familiar item.
 

Viper21

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Period structures were balloon framed, i.e., there was a gap between the studs that ran uninterrupted to the attic. They had wood shingles & roofing that left air passages around them. Even a small fire would quickly spread & become catastrophic in a shocking short period of time. As to how to start a fire, everybody used fireplaces. Kindling & firewood was readily at hand. In my experience, it didn't take much to set one of those houses on fire. The front part of our house is 1840's, there are burned spots on the floor in front of the fireplaces in every room. It is a wonder that they didn't all burn down.
I don't believe Balloon framing was the most popular form of construction in the antebellum period. While there is some evidence of it's use prior to the war period, it didn't really become popular until a bit later. It was most popular from 1880-1930. The fire hazard is from the exterior wall studs going from the foundation, all the way to the attic. The flooring levels in between, are "notched" into the walls, leaving a free flowing air duct the length of the entire wall. A fire could quickly go from first floor to attic. I've worked on plenty of 19th century homes, & have seen balloon framing. However, I haven't seen it on the antebellum houses, I've been on.

The typical roof construction (antebellum) has what we call today, slats, or spaced sheathing. They weren't using plywood. They had boards spanning horizontally across the roof rafters. These boards were spaced anywhere from 1 - 3" apart. Then the wood shingles were installed on top of this surface. The gap between the boards was genius for longevity. The purpose was adequate ventilation, which equals rapid drying of the shingles. Properly installed, wood shingles absorb water, & expand, creating a water proof surface. It is/was not uncommon to look up from inside a wood shingled structure & see daylight. However, once wet, they swell, & seal. The need for great ventilation is somewhat obvious as, if they stay wet all the time, they'll rot out prematurely.

This spaced sheeting, wood shingle design is one of the better roof designs for longevity, & was in use well into the 20th century. I've been in structures that had this design with the original wood shingles that were 50+ yrs old, & still functioning. We don't build them like this anymore, & therefore wood shingles don't last nearly as long today. That design was great for roofing performance yet, terrible for fire prevention. If fire hit the roof, forget about it. It's over. Many local building codes, & insurance companies today, forbid the installation of wood shingles.

I've been a Contractor for nearly 30 yrs. I specialize in roofing, I'm also a carpenter. Just sharing a little bit that I know on the subject.
 
Joined
Aug 1, 2018
Location
Nashville, TN
Matches have been around in some form since about 1200AD and were a common item back then. Get an order to torch a structure, break out the matches, get kindling from the woodpile and go for it. With most buildings of the period being balloon framed, once the fire gets into the wall, it's off and running. That's why modern building and fire codes prohibit balloon framing.

For some interesting reading on match production and working conditions in the 19th century, look up the term "phossy jaw".
Thanks, I will!
 
Joined
Aug 1, 2018
Location
Nashville, TN
I recall an old episode of Wagon Train where Wally Cox plays some professor or school teacher. He shows the children on the train how to make various things. One of them is matches. I think he refered to them as "Lucifers". Some of this show was supposed to be occurring in 1869, I think. So matches were around and a familiar item.
I think I've heard of them calling them "Lucifers" before as well.
 

Rhea Cole

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
I don't believe Balloon framing was the most popular form of construction in the antebellum period. While there is some evidence of it's use prior to the war period, it didn't really become popular until a bit later. It was most popular from 1880-1930. The fire hazard is from the exterior wall studs going from the foundation, all the way to the attic. The flooring levels in between, are "notched" into the walls, leaving a free flowing air duct the length of the entire wall. A fire could quickly go from first floor to attic. I've worked on plenty of 19th century homes, & have seen balloon framing. However, I haven't seen it on the antebellum houses, I've been on.

The typical roof construction (antebellum) has what we call today, slats, or spaced sheathing. They weren't using plywood. They had boards spanning horizontally across the roof rafters. These boards were spaced anywhere from 1 - 3" apart. Then the wood shingles were installed on top of this surface. The gap between the boards was genius for longevity. The purpose was adequate ventilation, which equals rapid drying of the shingles. Properly installed, wood shingles absorb water, & expand, creating a water proof surface. It is/was not uncommon to look up from inside a wood shingled structure & see daylight. However, once wet, they swell, & seal. The need for great ventilation is somewhat obvious as, if they stay wet all the time, they'll rot out prematurely.

This spaced sheeting, wood shingle design is one of the better roof designs for longevity, & was in use well into the 20th century. I've been in structures that had this design with the original wood shingles that were 50+ yrs old, & still functioning. We don't build them like this anymore, & therefore wood shingles don't last nearly as long today. That design was great for roofing performance yet, terrible for fire prevention. If fire hit the roof, forget about it. It's over. Many local building codes, & insurance companies today, forbid the installation of wood shingles.

I've been a Contractor for nearly 30 yrs. I specialize in roofing, I'm also a carpenter. Just sharing a little bit that I know on the subject.
Granted, balloon framing is a wonky term that only folks who work on old houses understand. It is, however, used in a generic way to describe early 19th Century framing because it gives some idea of how they were built. The front of our house is 1840's, was drug here by a bull team after the Civil War It was owned by a Confederate captain whose granddaughter married General Douglas McArthur. He added a room, making the house 'L' shaped in 1866. The house was made square shaped circa 1880. We added a kitchen/family room onto where the burnt detached kitchen once stood. We did the work ourselves. At the end of the last millennium, we have the history of frame built houses all tied up in one building. If I could find the graves of the 1880 carpenters, I would dig them up & smash their bones... a greater display of incompetence has never been my displeasure to undo.
 

Viper21

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If I could find the graves of the 1880 carpenters, I would dig them up & smash their bones... a greater display of incompetence has never been my displeasure to undo.
Could be an isolated example. Generally speaking, I see more incompetence (in construction), from the 1990's on. The more recent building booms, & the labor pool drifting away from skilled trades, as the main cause, imo.
 

Rhea Cole

2nd Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
Could be an isolated example. Generally speaking, I see more incompetence (in construction), from the 1990's on. The more recent building booms, & the labor pool drifting away from skilled trades, as the main cause, imo.
I wish I could agree with you, but decades of working on 19th Century buildings has left me cynical. When people say they sure don't build 'em that way anymore, my response is, "Thank god they don't build them that way anymore!"
 
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