First Arriving Network
First Arriving Network

Fire at the Willard Hotel! – 1861

Shortly after arriving in Washington DC, President Lincoln had the Zouaves quartered in the U. S. Capital building.

Construction of the new dome had been suspended and the building was used as a barracks, hospital and bakery.

Early in the morning of May 9, 1861, a fire erupted in a store that was adjacent to the Willard Hotel.

The New York Times provided the story:

The boys had a taste of their former calling this morning, which was highly relished. About 3 o’clock word was sent to Col. ELLSWORTH that a large building on Pennsylvania-avenue, occupied as a clothing store, adjoining WILLARD’s Hotel, was on fire, and the assistance of his men would be grateful.

No sooner was a call made for volunteers, than the lads were ready. About 300 of them started off for the various engine-houses to get the machines, which was done, in many instances, by breaking open the doors, as the Fire Department of the city were not particularly energetic in responding to the alarm.
(rest of story HERE)

District of Columbia volunteer firefighters protected the city with eight engine companies and two truck companies.

Harpers Weekly May 25, 1861


While Colonel Ellsworth had no fire experience, his second and third in command were respected assistant chief engineers in the New York fire department.

All of the company commanders were foreman or assistant foreman.

Ellsworth was commanding operations when a volunteer chief from one of the DC volunteer fire departments challenged Ellsworth’s command of the incident.

His response was a classic reflection of the times:  “Well,” said the Colonel, “if you have more men here than I have, you can take it.”

Harper’s Weekly article from May 25, 1861, was gushy:

They worked like heroes, performing wonderful feats of agility and bravery. They formed pyramids on each other’s shoulders, climbing into windows, sealing lightning-rods, and succeeded in two hours in saving the whole structure. (…)

For want of a ladder, two Zouaves held another down from the eaves, while he, with his head down, played water into the burning building.

By time the Harper’s Weekly article was published, the Zouaves were suffering their first command tragedy.

The Willard Hotel also had a major fire in 2010 [Statter911 HERE] and 1922 [HERE]

next week: Tragedy in Alexandria


(1861, May 11) From the Fire Zouaves.; How the Boys put out the fire at Williard’s. The New York Times accessed 09/05/2010 at

(1861, May 25) Regiment in time to save the hotel. Harper’s Weekly.  Accessed 7/30/2010 from

(1887) The Fire Zouaves. In A. E. Costello: Our Firemen: A History of New York Fire Departments, Volunteer and Paid, from 1609 to 1887. (pp. 286 – 303). New York: A. E. Costello.

Beitler, Stu. (2008 July 23). Washington, DC Willard’s Hotel Fire, May 1861. Accessed 7/26/2010 at from

Embery, Jim (????) The Volunteers and the Federal Fire Department.  Accessed 07/29/2010 from

Hermann, Marc A. and Shaun C. Grenan (2006 January 19) “TIGER! ZOUAVE!”: Portraying the 1st Fire Zouaves (11th New York Volunteers) website accessed 07/26/2010 at

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Mike worked on a project about Reconstruction after the Civil War
This is one in a series of articles about the Metropolitan Fire Department established in Manhattan in 1865.

Mike “FossilMedic” Ward

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