Sarah Bierle’s post yesterday commemorating the sacrifices of New York City’s firemen past and present reminded me of a story I recently found about the firefighters of the 14th Brooklyn now turned soldiers in the Maryland Campaign. The regiment’s motto was “Baptized by Fire,” a reference to their service at the Battle of First Bull Run. General Irvin McDowell bestowed it upon them.
On September 14, 1862, as the Army of the Potomac’s First Corps, including the 14th Brooklyn, marched toward South Mountain, they came across the wreckage of the previous day’s fighting west of Middletown along Catoctin Creek. In their attempt to slow the Federal pursuit, Confederate cavalry under J. E. B. Stuart torched the bridge carrying the National Road over the stream. Without the bridge, the stream still provided little hindrance to the Union army’s advance. Catoctin Creek “was shallow and easily forded,” remembered Private John Jaques of the 83rd New York Infantry. Stuart’s delaying tactic failed but it was not for a lack of effort.
Nearly twenty-four hours after Confederates set fire to the bridge, members of the First Corps still found it smoldering and burning when they crossed the creek on September 14. When Jaques’ regiment reached the stream, they found members of the 14th Brooklyn working a Middletown fire engine to extinguish the burning bridge.
Many New York firemen dropped their water buckets and ladders in exchange for firearms to douse a different kind of fire in the 1860s–a civil war in America. But these Brooklyn men never forgot their trade even while marching into battle.