Daniel Divver: An Irish Fireman in the American Civil War

The Irish community in New York has long links to the Fire Service. Large numbers of immigrant Irishmen served in the city’s Engine, Hose and Hook & Ladder companies during the 1850s and 1860s. In an era where insurance firms paid independent companies to put out fires, rivalry between firemen was often fierce. However, when war came, many of these fireman chose to march off to war together- men like Second Lieutenant Daniel Divver of the 11th New York Infantry, otherwise known as the First Fire Zouaves. 

The American Fireman, 1858 by Currier & Ives (Library of Congress)

The American Fireman, 1858 by Currier & Ives (Library of Congress)

It is apparent that being a volunteer fireman in ante-bellum New York was far more than just a job. Members of the same company were extremely close-knit, and had to be prepared to defend their territory as well as fight flames. As we have seen previously on the site, many chose to permanently display their affiliations by tattooing the number of their fire company on their bodies. When they went to war these affiliations remained a source of great pride to the men.

There were two major regiments of New York firemen during the Civil War, the 11th New York (FIrst FIre Zouaves) and the 73rd New York (Second Fire Zouaves). Many Irish firemen enlisted in these regiments; the 73rd New York was even commanded for part of the war by Irishman Colonel Michael Burns. There was no more famous body of firemen who donned uniform during the conflict than the 11th New York, initially commanded by Colonel Elmer E. Ellsworth, a personal friend of Abraham Lincoln. Ellsworth became an instant martyr for the Union when he was shot and killed while removing a Confederate flag from a house in Alexandria, Virginia on 24th May 1861.

The Death of Colonel Elmer Ellsworth (Currier & Ives)

The Death of Colonel Elmer Ellsworth (Currier & Ives)

One of Ellsworth’s recruits was Daniel Divver. He had been born in the northern half of Ireland in 1839, most probably in Co. Donegal. Emigrating with his family when he was a boy, Daniel and his family lived in Lower Manhattan’s Fourth Ward. He attended public school and learned his trade as a tanner in the area known as the ‘Swamp.’ By the late 1850s his father John had died and his older siblings married, making Daniel primarily responsible for his mother Ann and younger brother Pat’s support (Pat would later go on to be an Alderman in the Fourth Ward, and was part of the Tammany Hall organisation). (1)

The 1860 Census found 21-year-old Daniel working as a Morocco Dresser (Morocco being a type of goatskin leather) and living with his 50-year-old mother Ann and 16-year-old brother Pat. By that time Daniel had also become a volunteer fireman. In 1859 he had joined Eagle Engine Company No. 13, based at 5 Duane Street in Lower Manhattan. He was a natural at the job, and soon became popular among the men in his company. In becoming a fireman Daniel had clearly found something which he loved and for which he felt a great attachment. At some point between 1859 and 1861 he had an image recorded of himself, in which he is seated with his arm resting on his fireman’s helmet. When the American Civil War broke out he enlisted alongside many of the men from Engine 13, and was elected to Second Lieutenant in Company G of the Fire Zouaves. This company was commanded by Captain Michael Tagen, also of Engine 13, who went to war wearing Engine 13’s badge number on his uniform. (2)

Daniel Divver with his helmet from Eagle Engine 13 (Our Firemen)

Daniel Divver with his helmet from Eagle Engine 13 (Our Firemen)

The 11th New York Fire Zouaves were one of the regiments engaged at Bull Run on 21st July 1861, the first major battle of the war. Daniel’s participation is described as follows:

On the march to the battlefield of Bull Run he divested himself of all superfluous garments, entering the field with his gallant comrades in his shirt sleeves, and they rolled above the elbows, sword in hand, and, with the familiar yell of the old engine company, “Get down, Old Hague!” he rushed forward to his death. When the excitement of the charge (the Rebels being driven back into the woods) was over, Lieutenant Divver was found on the field, his life blood ebbing away from over a dozen fatal wounds. He was carried off by some of his faithful comrades and was taken into a wheelwright shop by Paul Chappell and others by direction of Surgeon Gray of the regiment, where he expired almost immediately. The Rebels, being reinforced, made another sally, and all those in and around the wheelwright shop who were able to do so, were off to resist the charge. Those who were left behind were eventually taken prisoners. Lieutenant Divver’s body was never recovered, though many efforts were made by his family. he met the death of a gallant soldier at the head of his men, and lies in an unmarked grave with his fallen comrades. (3)

The fact that Daniel Divver went to his death shouting the motto of his Engine Company speaks volumes about the social importance the fire companies held for many in New York, not least the Irishmen who found a strong sense of belonging in their ranks. Daniel’s beloved Engine 13 did not long outlast him. It moved to 261 William Street in 1864, but was disbanded in 1865 as the fire service in New York prepared to enter a new era. (4)

Daniel Divver’s story also reveals something else about the Irish of 1860s New York. It is clear that many Irish immigrants to the United States maintained close ties with people who hailed from the same part of Ireland. This is particularly noticeable in Widow’s Pension applications, where deponents are often family friends who had known those concerned when they still lived in Ireland. Following Daniel’s death at Bull Run, his mother Ann sought a pension as he had lived with her and helped with her support prior to the war. Her deponents in 1863 were James Friel, who had known Ann for 12 years, and Catherine O’Donnell, who had known her for 13 years. In this case neither James or Ann had known the Divver family in Ireland, but had grown close to them in New York. What is interesting here is that Divver (or Diver) is a surname that originated in Donegal, and today remains most strongly associated with counties Donegal and Derry in north-west Ireland. Friel and O’Donnell are also both Donegal names. There seems a strong possibility that the Divver family in 1850s and 1860s New York were not just part of an Irish community, but were also members of a sub-set of that community based around families from the Irish north-west. These families, familiar as they were with the same people and places in Ireland, could ease the acclimatization process for new immigrants from their area and also provide an additional support network in times of trouble. Such appears to have been the case for Ann Divver, who found solace from among this community just as her son Daniel had taken strength from his community of firemen. (5)

Prisoners of War of the 11th New York Fire Zouaves captured at Bull Run. The image was taken at Castle Pinckney, South Carolina (www.myrtle-avenue.com)

Prisoners of War of the 11th New York Fire Zouaves captured at Bull Run. The image was taken at Castle Pinckney, South Carolina (www.myrtle-avenue.com)

*I am indebted to Marc Hermann who runs the excellent 11th New York Fire Zouave site here, for bringing the ‘Our Fireman’ book to my attention.

(1) Costello 1887: 730, 1860 US Federal Census, New York Times 1st February 1903; (2) 1860 US Federal Census, Costello 1887: 590, Myrtle-Avenue.com; (3) Costello 1887: 730; (4) Costello 1887: 590; (5) Daniel Divver Widow’s Pension File;

References

Costello, Augustine E. 1887. Our Firemen: A History of the New York Fire Departments

1860 US Federal Census

New York Times 1st February 1903. Patrick Divver Buried

Myrtle Avenue.com Eagle Engine No.13

Daniel Divver Widow’s Pension File WC11048

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Categories: Battle of Bull Run, Donegal, New York

Author:Damian Shiels

I am an archaeologist based in Ireland, specialising in conflict archaeology.

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2 Comments on “Daniel Divver: An Irish Fireman in the American Civil War”

  1. October 19, 2013 at 1:57 pm #

    Brilliant stuff, thanks again Damian!

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