Sunday, December 15, 2013

Fire Bells in the Night


When I was eight years old or so, I was thumbing through a copy of Bruce Catton's The Civil War.  I believe it was published by American Heritage Press.  There was a Civil War timeline included in the appendices.  As I scanned through it, I came across the following entry for November 25, 1864: "Confederate agents try to burn New York City".  For some reason, that caught my eye, so much so that I put a star next to it.  And then I promptly forgot about it.

Fast forward several years (actually about two decades).  I again rediscovered the subject by virtue of research that I was doing on another topic.  Pardon the pun, but this rekindled the fire!  (He who would pun would also pick a pocket!)  I filled two notebooks while investigating this event with the idea towards writing a book about it.  But finally, someone beat me to it.  (See here.)  Not to be deterred, I had always thought this might translate better into a novel anyway.  For that matter, it would make one heck of a movie too!

Eight Confederate officers traveled from Canada to New York City full of promises that the Sons of Liberty (no, not the Revolutionary War ones) would rise up and help them take over the city on election day.  They promised that they had 20,000 armed men just waiting for the signal.  That signal would be a series of fires set by the Confederates at various points throughout the city.  Though hotels were the eventual target, the evidence suggests that the plot actually involved setting fires in other locations.

But the New York City authorities were ready.  They learned their lesson from the Draft Riots.  Certain measures were put in place to prevent any unrest and the "Sons of Liberty" backed out of the plot.  The Confederates decided to return to Canada but then they read stories in the paper about Sherman's March to the Sea.  Suddenly revenge became the motive.  They picked up "Greek Fire" from a chemist in Washington Square.  (Incidentally, the site of another famous fire.....the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.)

On the night of November 25, the men set a series of fires in hotel rooms across Lower Manhattan.  The fire department promptly put them out with very little damage.  The newspapers the following morning had descriptions of all of the men, yet they managed to slip out of the city and made it back to Canada safely.  Later on, one of them, Robert Cobb Kennedy, was apprehended as he tried to cross back into the United States.  He was put on trial, convicted, and hanged on March 25, 1865.

I fear I have not done the topic justice here.  There is a lot more to it than what I have time to write.  One of the men, John Headley, wrote his memoirs "Confederate Operations in Canada and New York" which is available for a free download here.  It makes for some interesting reading, but take it with a grain of salt!  Also, the OR's contain a lot of information too.

One of these days, I'll finish the novel.

My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Civil War Addict.