“A Vast and Fiendish Plot”:
The Confederate Attack on New York City
By Clint Johnson
(November 2010 Civil War News)
Illustrated, photographs, notes, bibliography, index, 308 pp., 2010, Citadel Press, www.kensingtonbooks.com, $15.95, softcover.
The word “terrorism” had not entered the American lexicon in 1864. Yet the Confederate attempt to burn New York City to the ground on Nov. 25 of that year would certainly qualify.
It was perhaps the most ambitious of several attempts by the Confederate Secret Service to strike fear into the general non-combatant Northern population. It was hoped that civilian support for the war would be undermined by a destructive fire.
The plan, despite, or perhaps because of, its audacity, didn’t work. Little damage resulted to either property or populace. Inept planning, poor understanding of fundamental arson tactics and failed technology (ineffective “Greek Fire”) combined to prevent a general conflagration.
Perhaps for this reason, and because it occurred after the outcome of the war had been determined, the incident is not prominent in Civil War literature. Even a serious student of the Civil War probably has only a hazy knowledge of it — and then only, and erroneously, as a semi-comedy of cloaked and hooded firebugs furtively scurrying around lower Manhattan throwing bottles of mostly impotent incendiary liquid.
Clint Johnson strives to rectify this problem. Author of several books about the Civil War, Johnson brings formidable research and writing skills to the task. He casts this work as the story of mid-19th century New York City as much as the fire raid.
One of the surprising themes he developed is the principal reason New York was targeted for terrorism: the planter aristocrats of the South believed they had been betrayed by the financial aristocracy of New York.
As the banker for the antebellum South’s cotton industry, New York both financed its production and brokered its sales to the world. Slave ships owned by New York interests operated openly from New York Harbor, and New York was “the center of the slave-ship-outfitting industry.”
Also, New York’s tacit support for the South was reflected in the presidential elections of 1860 and 1864, in which Lincoln lost the city by big margins.
New York’s merchant class eventually supported the Union, and hundreds of thousands of New York soldiers flooded Southern battlefields. Copperhead sentiment in the city, already at a low ebb due to Confederate battlefield setbacks and the fall of Atlanta, vaporized entirely with the appearance of large numbers of Federal troops in the city for the Nov. 8 presidential election.
This development ended the original “Northwest Conspiracy,” a plan for instigation, with Copperhead assistance, of riots and general civil unrest before the election. Then Sherman burned Atlanta. Out of options and with assets in place, the conspirators apparently saw inflicting the same terror upon New York as their only alternative.
In the course of his mostly entertaining narrative, Johnson describes the principal characters, their backgrounds and what happened to them after the war. It is probably not generally understood that all but one of the actual participants likely were veterans of John Hunt Morgan’s Rebel cavalry who left Morgan only upon his destruction of his division at Buffington Island and eventual capture in Columbiana County, Ohio.
Lt. Thomas Hines, “a top Morgan aide,” seems to have been the coordinator in Canada and a go-between with the Confederate commissioners, principally Jacob Thompson, who had the Confederate money. While still with Morgan, Hines seems to have moved easily between Richmond and Morgan’s Division. He was captured with Morgan and escaped with him from the Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus.
Col. Robert M. Martin, a brigade commander under Morgan, was leader of the actual New York participants. Capt. John W. Headly, another Morgan veteran, was second in command. Of the actual participants, Headly wrote the best postwar account. All escaped back into Canada. One, not a Morgan alumnus, was eventually captured and hanged.
Perplexingly, given the Morgan connection of these men, the author leaves the reader with an unanswered question: Could Morgan’s supposed rogue sortie across the Ohio River have been sanctioned, at least tacitly, by Benjamin Judah or other high Richmond officials?
Nearly everything else about this event is treated ably and thoroughly. Johnson clearly enjoys the subject and likes a good story. He uses no footnotes; however, a very useful appendix contains source notes by page for many of the important facts.
A concise bibliography and similarly concise index are welcome as well. Minor lapses of editing are obvious and easily resolved by the reader.
In the end, despite their malevolent intent and best efforts, Martin, Headly and their fellow aspiring terrorists were no more successful than was their erstwhile chief, John Hunt Morgan. The irony was probably lost on them but will certainly impress the reader of this most readable and enjoyable book.
Reviewer: James L. MacDonald
James MacDonald is a retired U. S. Coast Guard officer living in the Pacific Northwest. As all of his great-grandfathers were Ohio veterans of the Union Army, MacDonald considers himself a survivor of the Civil War.