Most of the history books, when relating events in the American Civil War, tend to provide information about battles and the presidency. There was at least one major event that wasn’t a battle that usually is not covered at all - the plot to burn New York City. A fascinating twist to this plot is that a personals ad was the signal to set the plan in motion.
In March, 1864, the Confederates viewed Grant's appointment as Commander of all Union Armies as doom to Lee in the East. The Richmond government decided that at that point the best way to beat the Union was to terrorize the North. Many secret meetings were held to formulate a master plan. Various chapters of the Northern Copperheads formulated a common plan over long distance. Getting messages back and forth between the North and South was becoming increasingly difficult. Spies and blockade runners were utilized to transmit messages from one order to another. At times, even personal ads that had been specially coded were printed in the Richmond Whig with a notation that "New York papers please copy." Such messages were invariably reprinted by at least the New York Daily News as the paper was a Southern Sympathizer.
It was an incredible scheme. When finalized, New York City was their target and the plot was thus: One group was to be responsible for setting off a series of fires as a diversion while another group was to seize Federal buildings and municipal offices, still another to take control of the police department, and yet another to free prisoners from Fort Lafayette and throw the Army Commander in New York, Major General John Adams Dix, into a dungeon. By sunset a Confederate flag would surely fly over New York City. This would surely be a coup for the Confederacy!
About the time the plot was finalized, Richmond learned from its spies that Washington was beginning to obtain bits and pieces of the plan to capture the North. It was then decided that, since everything but the date had been formalized, no more messages would be sent by runners. It was further decided that for two reasons carrying out the plot would wait. One reason was to lay low to give Washington the impression that the plot had died, and, two, the most opportune time to best capture the North off guard would be soon after another Union victory. Since Southern newspapers could still freely travel to Canada, members were instructed to keep reading the Richmond newspaper for an editorial advising that a "Northern city" should be burned in retaliation. (It is not known just how it was accomplished, but the same personals ad also appeared in the New York Times a few days later!) At that time they were to congregate in New York's St. Dennis Hotel and begin to put the plot in motion.
The October 15, 1864 edition of the Richmond Whig carried the awaited for word. The leader of the fire brigade was a Confederate by the name of Robert Kennedy. Kennedy and the rest of his group met at the St. Dennis Hotel like planned. At that time final coordinates were made. Over the next few days his men were to each register for a weeks stay in several assigned hotels each -- using assumed names and towns of course. This was to gain them access to rooms in the hotels.
Arrangements had been previously made with a chemist residing in New York, but a Southern Sympathizer, to pick up a load of Greek fire. This was a special chemical combination that looked like water but, when exposed to air, after a delay, would ignite in flames. When Kennedy picked up the valise, he found it contained dozens of small bottles of the liquid and each bottle was sealed with plaster of Paris. Instructions were to use the bed in each room, pile it with clothing, rugs, drapes, newspapers, and anything else that would burn, Next, they were to empty two bottles of the Greek fire on top of the pile. In about five minutes, flames would ignite the pile. This delay gave them plenty of time to escape unnoticed before the fire started. After starting one fire, the man would then proceed to the next location and do the same. Each man would thus be capable of setting off several fires blocks from each other.
Still making final arrangements on November 2 to casrry out the deed, a disturbing telegram was sent by Secretary of State William Seward to the Mayor of New York. It read: This Department has received information from British Provinces to the effect that there is a conspiracy on foot to set fire to the principle cities in the Northern States on the day of - the Presidential election. It is my duty to communicate this information to you." Later that afternoon the telegram was made public. (The same telegram was also sent to the mayors of other major Northern cities like Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland.) At this time MOST of the Order members decided to abandon the plan and get out of the city in an attempt to save their own lives -- ALL that is except for Kennedy and five of the seven members of his band.
After several meetings, it was decided by Kennedy and the rest of his gang to go ahead with the plan and set New York City on fire. They wouldn't be in a position to capture New York after all but at least they could retaliate for Sherman's March to the Sea.
On the evening of November 25, 1864 the fires began. Before the night was over almost every hotel in New York City had been set ablaze. These hotels included the St. Nicholas, St. James, Fifth Avenue, La Farge, Metropolitan, Tammany, Hudson River Park, Astor House, Howard, United States, Lovejoy's, New England, and the Belmont. There were also fires on the Hudson River docks and a lumber yard. As a last minute thought, Kennedy decided to go into Barnum's museum and up to the fifth floor where he could obtain a good view of Broadway and several of the fires. After watching for several minutes, Kennedy started going down the stairs. The remaining bottle of Greek fire dropped from his coat pocket and broke in the stairwell. Wasting no time, Kennedy ran from the museum, out the front door and on down Broadway.
Meeting his band of men the next morning at the Exchange Hotel, one of the few that they hadn't set fire to, Kennedy and his men read the morning papers. While there were some reports of the fires, the news didn't fill the front page like they hoped it would. Both the Times and the Herald however headed the news of the fires as a "Rebel Plot."
Kennedy and his men managed to get out of New York City on November 28. Soon a $25,000 reward was offered. This, combined with Kennedy's boasting of his role in setting the fires, led to his capture three months later. After a short trial, Kennedy was found guilty on all counts. At this time, Kennedy signed a confession but refused to name anyone else involved in the plot. On March 25, 1865, -- just three weeks prior the Lincoln's assassination -- Kennedy was hung.
(Despite being off the subject, but as a result of researching the above article, I must divulge some interesting tidbits I learned about the Lincoln assassination. John Wilkes Booth arrived in New York the same day that Robert Kennedy did and they had a couple of meetings together. Robert Martin, a member of Kennedy's gang in New York, but who didn't get caught, was a member of Booth's gang that attempted to kidnap Lincoln barely a month before the assassination was carried out. This leaves me to wonder that if Kennedy hadn't been caught for the arson in New York would he have also been with Booth on April 14, 1865?)
To read the entire front-page coverage of this event in The New York Herald, click here