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Gilbert: Conspiracy to Burn

One hundred and fifty years ago this month things were not going well for the Confederacy. And so in a desperate attempt to force the Union to accept Southern independence in return for peace, a group of conspirators came up with a plan to burn New York – to start numerous fires simultaneously around the city.  Their goal:  to spread fear in the North and influence the presidential election.

Many New Yorkers were sympathetic to the South, including numerous prominent politicians and newspapermen; in the 1860 presidential election, New York City had voted two-to-one against Lincoln and would do so again in 1864. The conspirators thought that when their attack began, thousands of New Yorkers would rally to their cause and take over key buildings. They also thought they’d inspire other insurrections around the eastern United States.

They had originally planned to implement their scheme on election day, but five of the eight conspirators got cold feet. Federal agents had learned of the conspiracy, and several thousand Union troops were moved to the city. The conspirators should hardly have been surprised: in mid October an editorial had run in a Richmond newspaper, perhaps as a warning to the North, and it was reprinted in The New York Times. It said that the “one effectual way” to stop Union military action such as burning Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley was [quote] “to burn one of the chief cities of the enemy . . . and let its fate hang over the others as a warning of what may be done, and will be done to them, if the present system of war on the part of the enemy is continued.”

The editorial bluntly asserted that, [quote] “New York… is worth twenty Richmonds. . .”

The conspirators decided to delay the attack until November 25th, the day after Thanksgiving, which would be after the Union troops had left. Beginning about 8:45 that night, the conspirators tried to start fires in 19 hotels, a theater, and P.T. Barnum’s museum, which was packed with people.

But the fires failed to catch or were quickly extinguished; the conspirators had no experience using their 400 bottles of accelerant, called Greek Fire, and they knew little about fires: they left the hotel room windows closed, thereby starving the fires of the oxygen they needed to spread. The men hadn’t even visited the city before implementing their plan.

It’s been noted that if they’d thought to target the Manhattan Gas Works’ facility that converted coal to gas, or lumber yards, or started fires on the west side of the city on a windy night, the outcome might have been very different.

Only one conspirator was prosecuted.  Robert Cobb Kennedy made it safely back to Canada, where the conspirators had started, but was apprehended when he reentered the United States in an attempt to get to Richmond.  He was tried, convicted, and on March 25, 1865, executed at Fort Lafayette in the harbor of the city he had tried to burn.

Peter Gilbert is executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council.
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