The New York Fire Zouaves save Willard's Hotel from burning

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Retired Moderator
Feb 13, 2011
Howard County, Maryland
Another regiment of New Yorkers attracted quite as much attention as the Seventh, though for totally different reasons. Elmer Ellsworth, discouraged in his aspirations to a War Department post by the jealous antagonism of Army officers, had hurried up to New York to recruit a regiment from the volunteer fire departments. He returned early in May with a gang of roughs, dressed in gray, scarlet and blue Zouave costumes, armed with rifles and huge bowie knives, and encumbered with handsome presentation flags.

After the Fire Zouaves had spent a week at the Capitol, they had an opportunity to distinguish themselves. Early one morning, a fire broke out in a tailor shop next door to Willard’s. As the Washington fire companies were notorious for letting buildings burn to their foundations, Colonel Joseph Mansfield, commanding the Department of Washington, gave orders to call out a detachment of the New Yorkers. Colonel Ellsworth detailed ten men from each company, and led them on a run down the Avenue. They broke down the door of the Franklin engine house, and dashed across the street, followed by most of the remaining members of the regiment, who had knocked down the sentries at the doors and leapt from the windows of the Capitol at the cry of fire.


A large crowd on the Avenue, including the guests of the hotel in varied wardrobes, watched the Zouaves expertly mounting lightning rods, and climbing into windows. They formed themselves into human ladders for passing up water buckets, and one man was suspended head first from the burning roof to reach the hose line. Suddenly, a Union flag on the roof quivered and fell. Secessionists in the crowd made mocking comments, but some Zouaves caught the flag and waved it, and Willard’s hastily ran up two flags in a roar of cheers. With an exhibition fire drill and a patriotic demonstration, a calamity was averted. The tailor shop was in ruins, but Willard’s was saved.

Margaret Leech "Reveille in Washington: 1860-1865"
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