The plot to burn New York City was an attempt by the Confederate secret service to bring some of the destruction of the Civil War to the streets of Manhattan. Originally envisioned as an attack designed to disrupt the election of 1864, it was postponed until late November.
On Friday evening, November 25, 1864, the night after Thanksgiving, conspirators set fires in 13 major hotels in Manhattan, as well as in public buildings such as theaters and one of the most popular attractions in the country, the museum run by Phineas T. Barnum.
The crowd poured into the streets during the simultaneous attacks, but the panic faded when the fires were quickly extinguished. The chaos was immediately assumed to be some sort of Confederate plot, and the authorities began hunting for the perpetrators.
While the incendiary plot was little more than a peculiar diversion in the war, there is evidence that operatives of the Confederate government had been planning a far more destructive operation to strike New York and other northern cities.
The Confederate Plan to Disrupt the Election of 1864
In the summer of 1864, the reelection of Abraham Lincoln was in doubt. Factions in the North were weary of the war and eager for peace. And the Confederate government, naturally motivated to create discord in the North, was hoping to create widespread disturbances on the scale of the New York City Draft Riots of the previous year.
A grandiose plan was devised to infiltrate Confederate agents into northern cities, including Chicago and New York, and commit widespread acts of arson. In the resulting confusion, it was hoped that southern sympathizers, known as Copperheads, could seize control of important buildings in the cities.
The original plot for New York City, as outlandish as it seems, was to occupy federal buildings, obtain weapons from arsenals, and arm a crowd of supporters. The insurgents would then raise a Confederate flag over City Hall and declare that New York City had left the Union and had aligned itself with the Confederate government in Richmond.
By some accounts, the plan was said to be developed enough that Union double-agents heard about it and informed the governor of New York, who refused to take the warning seriously.
A handful of Confederate officers entered the United States at Buffalo, New York, and traveled to New York in the fall. But their plans to disrupt the election, which was to be held on November 8, 1864, were thwarted when the Lincoln administration sent thousands of federal troops to New York to ensure a peaceful election.
With the city crawling with Union soldiers, the Confederate infiltrators could only mingle in the crowds and observe the torchlight parades organized by supporters of President Lincoln and his opponent, Gen. George B. McClellan. On election day the voting went smoothly in New York City, and though Lincoln did not carry the city, he was elected to a second term.
The Incendiary Plot Unfolded In Late November 1864
About a half-dozen Confederate agents in New York decided to go ahead with an improvised plan to set fires after the election. It seems the purpose changed from the wildly ambitious plot to split New York City off from the United States to simply exacting some revenge for the destructive actions of the Union Army as it kept moving deeper into the South.
One of the conspirators who participated in the plot and successfully evaded capture, John W. Headley, wrote about his adventures decades later. While some of what he wrote seems fanciful, his account of the setting of fires on the night of November 25, 1864 generally aligns with newspaper reports.
Headley said he had taken rooms in four separate hotels, and the other conspirators also took rooms in multiple hotels. They had obtained a chemical concoction dubbed "Greek fire" which was supposed to ignite when jars containing it were opened and the substance came into contact with the air.
Armed with these incendiary devices, at about 8:00 p.m. on a busy Friday night the Confederate agents began setting fires in hotel rooms. Headley claimed he set four fires in hotels and said 19 fires were set altogether.
Though the Confederate agents later claimed they did not mean to take human lives, one of them, Captain Robert C. Kennedy, entered Barnum's Museum, which was packed with patrons, and set a fire in a stairwell. A panic ensued, with people rushing out of the building in a stampede, but no one was killed or seriously injured. The fire was quickly extinguished.
In the hotels, the results were much the same. The fires did not spread beyond any of the rooms in which they had been set, and the entire plot seemed to fail because of ineptitude.
As some of the conspirators mixed with New Yorkers in the streets that night, they overhead people already talking about how it must be a Confederate plot. And by the next morning newspapers were reporting that detectives were looking for the plotters.
The Conspirators Escaped to Canada
All the Confederate officers involved in the plot boarded a train the following night and were able to elude the manhunt for them. They reached Albany, New York, then continued on to Buffalo, where they crossed the suspension bridge into Canada.
After a few weeks in Canada, where they kept a low profile, the conspirators all left to return to the South. Robert C. Kennedy, who had set the fire in Barnum's Museum, was captured after crossing back into the United States by train. He was taken to New York City and imprisoned at Fort Lafayette, a harbor fort in New York City.
Kennedy was tried by a military commission, found to have been a captain in the Confederate service, and sentenced to death. He confessed to setting the fire at Barnum's Museum. Kennedy was hanged at Fort Lafayette on March 25, 1865. (Incidentally, Fort Lafayette no longer exists, but it stood in the harbor on a natural rock formation at the present site of the Brooklyn tower of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.)
Had the original plot to disrupt the election and create a Copperhead rebellion in New York had gone forward, it is doubtful it could have succeeded. But it might have created a diversion to pull Union troops away from the front, and it's possible it could have had an impact on the course of the war. As it was, the plot to burn the city was an odd sideshow to the final year of the war.