Research How did troops set fire to buildings?

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Rhea Cole

First Sergeant
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Nov 2, 2019
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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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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

Captain
Joined
Mar 22, 2009
Location
Collierville, TN
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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Jan 16, 2015
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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Collierville, TN
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drezac

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The Ordnance manual has instructions for manufacturing various types of incendiary devices, including torches ( which I think would be the most likely item that they would have had in the field).
 
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