The original plan to burn down New York City called for the arsonists to set fires just prior to the 1864 Presidential Election. Confederate President Jefferson Davis believed that the conflagration would demoralize the United States. The disillusioned voters might then be motivated to vote for Abraham Lincoln’s opponent, Democrat George McClellan.
The secessionists thought that the former Union general was in favor of a cease-fire and negotiated settlement to ultimately allow the peaceful existance of the Confederate States of America. A co-benefit of the arsons would be the crippling of the Union’s major military post and financial center. Plus, there was the need to avenge the burning of the Shenandoah Valley and the destruction of Atlanta.
The plot had been developed by southern spy Robert C. Kennedy. He was born in Louisiana and received his military training at West Point. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Captain Kennedy enlisted in the Confederate Army. He was assigned to the corps of spies and secret agents. Kennedy was reputed to be one of the most reliable, daring spies for the South.
The plotters were to rent rooms in several Manhattan hotels. They were then to open bottles of phosphorus-bisufide incendiary chemicals and set the beds alight. The agents were to then quickly exit the hotels, undetected. The plotters believed the New York volunteer fire department would be taxed beyond their limits and a massive conflagration would follow. Furthermore, a great many Confederate sympathizers lived in New York City. Jefferson Davis and Kennedy hoped that the city’s turncoats could take control of the city while chaos ensued.
Rumors of the plot were heard in Washington D.C., so the War Department dispatched a large contingent of troops to New York City, under the command of General Ben Butler. Because of the great numbers of Union soldiers in the city, Kennedy and his co-conspirators decided to postpone the terrorism. Interestingly, Lincoln lost New York by a landslide, but won the rest of the nation’s vote for re-election.
The terrorists still had the destruction of New York on the agenda. So, on November 25, 1864, Captain Kennedy and six other operatives checked into their separate hotels. At a pre-arranged time, the incendiaries were triggered. The agents also torched several retail stores and theatres. In similar acts of sabotage, some shipping facilities and docks were set alight along the Hudson River.
As a result of the fires, there was considerable damage, but nobody was killed. The blazes were controlled quickly by New York’s volunteer fire companies. Employees of the hotels, theatres, shops and shipping companies were also credited with quickly extinguishing the blazes. Another reason that the fires were easier to fight is that in the efforts for the Confederate agents to escape without detection is that the spies were told to close the windows and doors to their rooms. That ultimately meant that the fires were deprived of fresh oxygen, slowing down the progress of each blaze. All of the Confederate agents managed to escape to Canada.
Then, in March of 1865, Kennedy received orders to deliver a message to officers in Richmond, Virginia. Union counter-spies followed Kennedy to the train station. Soon after the train crossed the border into the United States, Kennedy was captured at gunpoint. He was imprisoned and interrogated at Fort Lafayette, New York. Information was discovered about the New York City arson plot and the plans for more arson terror aimed at other Union cities.
Kennedy was tried as a spy and a terrorist. An army court found him guilty of all charges and he was sentenced to death. Robert C. Kennedy was executed by hanging at Fort Lafayette on March 25, 1865. He was the last Confederate soldier to be executed by the United States.
The Blue Jay of Happiness notes that the Civil War between the States came to an end May 10, 1865, two weeks after Kennedy’s execution.