Tag Archives: Greek Fire

The Plot to Burn New York

November 25, 1864 – Lieutenant John W. Headley and seven Confederate agents attempted to burn New York City in retaliation for Federal depredations in Atlanta and the Shenandoah Valley.

The Confederate Secret Service, based in Canada and led by Jacob Thompson (former U.S. interior secretary under President James Buchanan), had devised several plots to disrupt the Federal war effort and inspire northern Confederate sympathizers to join their cause. Most of these plots involved working with the Sons of Liberty, a Copperhead organization, to free Confederates from northern prison camps.

Prior to the Federal elections, a band of conspirators was formed to both overthrow Chicago leaders and burn New York. According to Headley:

“The tangible prospects were best for an uprising at Chicago and New York. The forces of the ‘Sons of Liberty’ were not only organized, but arms had been distributed. It had been deemed surest to rely upon the attempt to organize a Northwestern Confederacy with Chicago as the capital.”

The idea to burn New York had been introduced by Colonel Robert C. Martin and suggested to Thompson by Robert C. Kennedy, an escaped Confederate prisoner. They believed that the fires would inspire the vast Copperhead population in the city to rise up while they freed the Confederates imprisoned at Fort Lafayette.

The original plan was to set fire to New York just before the election. The eight conspirators arrived in New York at different times and lodged in different hotels. Headley stated, “It was determined that a number of fires should be started in different parts of the city, which would bring the population to the streets and prevent any sort of resistance to our movement.” The conspirators believed that New York Governor Horatio Seymour–

“… would not use the militia to suppress the insurrection in the city, but would leave that duty to the authorities at Washington. Indeed, we were to have the support of the Governor’s official neutrality. We were also told that upon the success of the revolution here a convention of delegates from New York, New Jersey, and the New England States would be held in New York City to form a Confederacy which would cooperate with the Confederates States and Northwestern Confederacy.”

However, Major General Benjamin F. Butler deployed 10,000 Federal troops in New York just before the election to maintain order. Headley wrote, “The leaders in our conspiracy were at once demoralized by this sudden advent of General Butler and his troops. They felt that he must be aware of their purposes and many of them began to fear arrest, while others were defiant.”

The plot to take Chicago was foiled as well. Nonetheless, Martin insisted that the conspirators go through with burning New York, regardless of the election results. But the Confederate Secret Service refused, and as Headley wrote, “This left us practically at sea.” The agents therefore resolved “to set the city on fire and give the people a scare if nothing else, and let the Government at Washington understand that burning homes in the South might find a counterpart in the North.”

On the night of the 24th, the Confederates obtained 402 bottles of a highly flammable liquid called “Greek fire” from an elderly chemist. Headley stated, “None of the party knew anything about Greek fire, except that the moment it was exposed to the air it would blaze and burn everything it touched.” The conspirators planned to set fire to their hotel rooms, hoping that the flames would spread to other buildings until the entire city was burned in “one dazzling conflagration.”

The saboteurs set fire to 19 hotels, including the prominent Astor House. In addition, Kennedy set fire to Barnum’s Museum. City officials quickly determined that this was a Confederate plot, and just as quickly the fire department and private citizens extinguished the blazes. Their biggest challenge was to douse the flames at Barnum’s because the hay for the animals had caught fire.

New York’s prominent Astor House | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Failing to destroy New York, the conspirators accused the chemist of blending an impotent batch of Greek fire. However, most of the perpetrators had failed to leave the doors and windows open in their hotel rooms when they set the fires, thus minimizing the ventilation needed for the flames to spread. When investigators began closing in on them, the conspirators left New York and returned to their headquarters at Toronto.

Kennedy later tried returning to his army unit, but Federal authorities arrested him at Detroit. A military tribunal convicted him of masterminding the plot to burn New York, and he was hanged in March 1865. Headley confessed to his role in the plot after the war but was not arrested. Martin, who devised the scheme but was not directly involved, was arrested after the war but acquitted due to lack of evidence.

The plot made sensational headlines, as reported in the New York Times:

“The plan was excellently well conceived, and evidently prepared with great care, and had it been executed with one-half the ability with which it was drawn up, no human power could have saved this city from utter destruction… But fortunately, thanks to the Police, Fire Department, and the bungling manner in which the plan was executed by the conspirators, it proved a complete and miserable failure.”

However, this failed effort did little to either damage New York or affect the war.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Cochran, Michael T., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 532; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 492; Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 322; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 15200-19; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 523; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 600-01; New York Times article of 27 Nov 1864; Time-Life Editors, Spies, Scouts and Raiders: Irregular Operations (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 62

The St. Albans Raid

October 19, 1864 – Raiders targeted a Vermont town just over the Canadian border in what became the northernmost Confederate attack on Federal soil.

Bennett H. Young | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

The Confederate government had authorized Lieutenant Bennett H. Young and 20 of his fellow escaped or exchanged prisoners of war to attack Federal towns from Canada. It was hoped that this would divert Federal attention from other theaters of war and inspire Confederate sympathizers to rise up against Federal authority in the North.

Over the course of several days, Young and his raiders arrived at the town of St. Albans, about 20 miles from Canada. Posing as vacationers and hunters, they were given lodging at various town hotels and boardinghouses. The raiders planned to burn the town and, if possible, rob the banks before attacking similar towns along the border.

They gathered on the village green at 3 p.m. on the 19th, where Young announced that he was seizing the town on behalf of the Confederacy. Residents ignored him, thinking it was a joke, until the raiders fired their pistols. Some people resisted, resulting in the killing of one resident (ironically a Confederate sympathizer) and the wounding of another.

Instead of burning the town first, the raiders broke off into groups of threes and robbed the town’s three banks. Armed villagers soon began firing at the raiders from the buildings ringing the square, wounding three. The Confederates burned several buildings with Greek fire, but no substantial damage was done. They then raced off to Canada with $200,000 from the banks.

A Federal captain on furlough quickly organized a civilian posse to hunt down Young and his men, who had broken off into small groups. The posse captured a few of these groups, but since they were in Canada, Canadian officials quickly took charge of the prisoners. Ultimately Young and 12 of his men were apprehended by Canadian authorities, and about $75,000 was recovered.

Federal officials requested that Canada extradite the raiders to the U.S. However, the Canadians put the men on trial and, after ruling that they were soldiers acting under orders, they were released on bond. They were never tried in the U.S. The St. Albans raid caused a sensation in the press, but it did nothing to divert Federal attention or inspire Confederate sympathizers.

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References

Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 477; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 12292-302; Fowler, Robert H., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 651; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 510-11; Klein, Frederic S., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 780; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 585-86; Time-Life Editors, Spies, Scouts and Raiders: Irregular Operations (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 60-61