Link To This PageContact Us

The Plot to Burn New York City

November 25, 1864 in New York City, New York

Confederate Plot Commanded by Robert C. Kennedy
Forces Killed Wounded Captured
8 - - 1

Conclusion: Union Victory


In March, 1864, the Confederates viewed Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's appointment as Commander of all Union Armies as doom to Gen. Robert E. Lee in the East. The Richmond, Virginia government decided that at that point the best way to beat the Union was to terrorize the North into peace and by fostering revolution. Many secret meetings were held to formulate a master plan. Various chapters of the Northern Copperheads, identifying themselves at times as Knights of the Golden Circle, the Order of American Knights, and the Sons of Liberty, 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, Maj. Gen. 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, D.C. 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 2 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. At that time, they were to congregate in New York's St. Dennis Hotel and begin to put the plot in motion.
The October 15th 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. This was to gain them access to rooms in the hotels.
Arrangements had been previously made with a chemist residing in New York, a Confederate 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 2 bottles of the "Greek fire" on top of the pile. In about 5 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 2nd to finish 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. 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 5 of the 7 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 Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman's "March to the Sea."

On the evening of November 25th, 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 5th 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 New York Times and the new York 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 28th. Soon, a $25,000 reward was offered. This, combined with Kennedy's boasting of his role in setting the fires, led to his capture 3 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 3 weeks prior the Lincoln's assassination, Kennedy was hung.

Most of the conspirators escaped into Canada, with only Kennedy- a former West Point student from Louisiana- being caught. The judgment on Kennedy from the commission of Gen. John A. Dix, commander of the Department of the East, was harsh. It read, in part: "The attempt to set fire to the city of New York is one of the greatest atrocities of the age. There is nothing in the annals of barbarism which evinces greater vindictiveness. It was not a mere attempt to destroy the city, but to set fire to crowded hotels and places of public resort, in order to secure the greatest possible destruction of human life." The punishment was equally harsh: "Robert C. Kennedy will be hanged from the neck till he is dead at Fort Lafayette, New York Harbor, on Saturday, the 25th day of March."

Site Map | Copyright © 2012,