Firefighters’ Last Call

Currier & Ives titled this 1858 lithograph “The American Firefighter: Facing the Enemy.” Many volunteer firefighters from Rockland enlisted to battle a different enemy during the Civil War. (Library of Congress)

During their “regular monthly meeting” held in Rockland on Monday, October 5, 1863, firefighters from Dirigo Engine Co. No. 3 honored three fallen comrades with a mid-19th century version of “Last Call.”

Rockland was wicked young then, formerly East Thomaston and incorporated as a town only in 1848 and as a city only in 1854. A rough-and-tumble and busy seaport compared to today, Rockland offered basic services. In an era when most everything was wood-built the city relied on volunteer firefighters to protect Rocklanders and their property.

Firefighters belonged to specific associations, such as Dirigo Engine No. 3, and took great pride in their equipment and being the first firefighters arriving at a fire. These men — no women firefighters then — held other jobs, but like the volunteer firefighters so vital to most 21st-century Maine towns, responded when alarms sounded.

Dirigo Engine Co. No. 3 had sent some, perhaps many members into uniform, starting with foreman Elijah Walker recruiting a 4th Maine Infantry company in spring 1861 and taking it to war as its captain. More Dirigo firefighters had joined up since then, including three who served with the 28th Maine Infantry, created in autumn 1862 as a nine-month regiment.

Rockland men belonging to the city’s firefighting associations would have dressed similarly to this 1858 firefighter when responding to Lime City fires. (Library of Congress)

Hailing from Rockland, privates Nahum H. Hall and Alfred N. Keller and Sgt. William H. Morse all enlisted in September 10, ’62 and mustered at Augusta on October 10. They headed out with Co. G when the 28th Maine shipped off to Louisiana.

Hall, 33 and married and a “trader,” made corporal. Standing 5-11, he had gray eyes, a dark hair, and a dark complexion. Keller, a “mariner,” had dark eyes, black hair, and a dark complexion; also standing 5-11, he was 22 and married. Also a “trader,” the 5-9 Morse was single and 23; he had black eyes, dark hair, and a dark complexion.

So besides their civilian occupations at home in Rockland, Hall, Keller, and Morse voluntarily fought fires. The pay was abysmal, if existent, the work was dangerous, but they willingly turned out.

The same principle applies to modern Maine volunteer firefighters.

Sunset on Saturday, June 27, 1863, found companies C, F, and G of the 28th Maine and flotsam and jetsam from other Yankee outfits garrisoning Fort Butler at Donaldsonville, a town in Ascension Parish upriver from New Orleans.

The gunboat USS Princess Royal helped repel a June 28, 1863 attacked against Mainer-held Fort Butler at Donaldsonville, La. (Courtesy USS Navy)

Two under-strength Confederate Texas brigades led by Brig. Gen. Jean Alfred Mouton approached Butler after midnight and attacked in the post-midnight darkness. Running into the spirited resistance made by thoroughly irritated Mainers, an unexpectedly wide ditch, and steady shelling from the Navy gunboat USS Princess Royal, the Confederates lost 301 men and withdrew.

Union casualties totaled 23 men, including Rockland firefighters Keller and Morse, “killed” as shown on their respective Soldier’s Files. Nahum Hall survived and received an honorable discharge on August 31.

He soon returned to Rockland and rejoined Dirigo Engine Co. No. 3, but death caused “by disease contracted while in the service of his country” caught up with Hall some weeks later.

Acknowledging that “by a sad dispensation of divine Providence, our Brothers, and fellow-firemen,” Hallm Kellar, and Morse, “have been called to their last home,” the Dirigo Engine No, 3 firefighters resolved on October 5 that “we, the members of this association as a mark of respect to the gallant soldiers and patriots and of sympathy with the bereaved families, concur” among other matters:

• “That we recall to our minds with feelings of pain those qualities of mind and heart which endeared them to all with whom they were acquainted.”

• “That as firemen, they were first in the discharge of their duties, and their example commends itself to the members of the Co. as a guide for them.”

• “That as deeply as we feel the loss of our friends, still are we sustained by a reliance on the wisdom of that Great Disposer who doeth all things well.”

Fireman B.P. Brackley signed the document, which contained a “preamble and resolutions.” Copies went into Dirigo No. 3’s books, the Fireman’s Advocate, and local newspapers.

Sources: Rockland Gazette, October 10, 1863; Soldier’s Files for Hall, Keller, and Morse, Maine State Archives, Augusta

If you enjoy reading the adventures of Mainers caught up in the Civil War, be sure to like Maine at War on Facebook and get a copy of the new Maine at War Volume 1: Bladensburg to Sharpsburg, available online at Amazon and all major book retailers, including Books-A-Million and Barnes & Noble. —————————————————————————————————————–

Brian Swartz can be reached at He enjoys hearing from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at