The 1864 Plot To Burn Down New York City
From our partners at Gothamist: Last night’s season finale was literally fiery: The Confederates’ plot to destroy New York City by setting a series of blazes in various hotels and venues was set in motion on November 25, the day after Thanksgiving. Luckily, Corcoran and other members of NYC’s police department were able to thwart the plan. In real life, the sabotage was stopped by the police as well as the War Department.
A double agent amongst the Confederate soldiers had passed on information that there were plans to firebomb the city’s hotels on Election Day, November 8, 1864. The Confederates were relying on northern Confederate sympathizers called Copperheads, but the Copperheads’ aid fell through and Election Day was uneventful. Then the same double agent notified the War Department about a Thanksgiving Day plot. While some, including Major General John Dix and New York Police Superintendent Joseph Kennedy, thought the new plot might be a hoax, the War Department felt confident of its source.
David Homer Bates, who worked in the War Department’s Telegraph Office at the time, recounted that the Major Thomas Eckert managed to convince federal and local authorities of the plot after meeting with the double agent, who “had hurried from Toronto to New York to communicate to the War Department the fact that the conspirators intended to set fire to twelve or more New York hotels, whose names he gave, that very Friday evening.” Bates also said that when Eckert presented the new information, “…both the military and civil authorities then accepted the situation and took immediate steps to thwart the plans of the conspirators. Plain-clothes men, policemen and soldiers by the hundred were quickly distributed about the city, with particular reference to the hotels that had been specially named by our spy as starting-points for the general conflagration.” The hotels targeted were the 5th Avenue Hotel, Lovejoys Hotel, Howard Hotel, Astor House, Belmont Hotel, St. James Hotel, La Farge House, Metropolitan Hotel, St. Nicholas Hotel, Tamany Hotel, United States Hotel and 5th Ward Museum Hotel.
The fires were set by Confederates who would check into a room, move furniture around, spread the “Greek fire” around the room, and then close the door. Here’s how the NY Times, which headlined its article, “THE REBEL PLOT; ATTEMPT TO BURN THE CITY,” described the destruction:
The plan adopted by the incendiaries was to set fire at once, or nearly at once, to the principal hotels and other public buildings in the city. At seventeen minutes of nine the St. James Hotel was discovered to be on fire in one of the rooms. On examination it was discovered that the bed and several other articles of furniture had been saturated with phosphorous and set on fire. A few minutes afterward Barnum’s Museum was discovered to be on fire; but the flames were soon extinguished, and the building sustained very little damage. At five minutes of nine fire was discovered in rooms No. 138, 139, 140, and 174 of the St. Nicholas Hotel. The fire was got under without much difficulty by the fire department of the hotel, but not until the furniture and the rooms had been damaged to the amount of about $2,500. The beds in this case, also, were found to be saturated with inflammatory materials. At twenty minutes past nine the inmates of the Lafarge House were alarmed by the cry of fire; but the flames were extinguished without much difficulty, and the damage received was comparatively slight.
A non-hotel venue for firebombing was Barnum’s American Museum, a popular attraction, which was packed with visitors. Luckily, a fire set in the stairwell was quickly extinguished, though patrons did panic to get out. Additionally, the Winter Garden Theatre, where the Booth Brothers. were performing their fund-raiser for a Central Park’s Shakespeare Statue, was also another target.
Robert Cobb Kennedy was the only person captured and convicted in the plot to burn New York City. He and the other conspirators fled the city to Canada after the failed scheme but Kennedy returned soon after and was arrested in Cleveland, Ohio. He was tried at Fort Lafayette (in current day Brooklyn) in January 1865 and hanged in March 1865.
Historian Clint Johnson, author of A Vast and Fiendish Plot, about the failed terror attempt, says that the Confederates were terrible saboteurs, “All of the fires either fizzled out on their own, or were discovered by hotel staff. The Greek fire never flamed up as it should have because the Confederates left their hotel windows closed, thus robbing the flames of a steady supply of oxygen.”
Johnson also points out that the plotters never visited New York before the plot, “A sure disaster would have occurred if the Confederates had set 144 separate fires, all on the west side of the city, on a windy night, at all those choice targets of highly flammable lumber yards and fuel distilleries. What if the conspirators had studied the properties of coal gas, then gained access to the Manhattan Gas Works?” What if indeed!