150 Years Ago This Week: The men who tried to burn New York

November 1864

Harper’s Weekly (Dec. 17, 1864) depicted a Confederate agent setting a fire in Room 108 of the Tammany Hotel, one of many venues targeted for arson by the Confederates on Nov. 25.
Harper’s Weekly (Dec. 17, 1864) depicted a Confederate agent setting a fire in Room 108 of the Tammany Hotel, one of many venues targeted for arson by the Confederates on Nov. 25.

On Monday, Nov. 21, Gen. John B. Hood moved his Confederate Army of Tennessee out of Florence, Ala., and headed for Tennessee. His objective was to place his force between the Federals at Pulaski and Nashville.

Maj. Gen. Benjamin Cheatham’s corps led the advance, followed by the two corps of Lt. Gen. Stephen Lee and Lt. Gen. Alexander Stewart. Maj. Gen. Nathan Forrest’s cavalry screened the movement. The Army of Tennessee numbered some 30,000 infantry and 8,000 cavalry.

At same time, in Georgia, Maj. Gen. William Sherman’s army brushed aside Georgia state troops in a quick fight at Griswoldville, with skirmishing going on near Macon and at Gordon and Clinton. The next day, Maj. Gen. Henry Slocum’s troops entered and occupied the Georgia state capital at Milledgeville. The Georgia state legislature hastily met to pass a levy for the troops, and fled the city.

Throughout and along Gen. Sherman’s intended path, local militia put up little or no resistance; the foragers or “bummers” took what they needed from the local inhabitants, and a lot they did not need, especially if the homes and farms had been vacated by the owners. Burning and looting occurred often, and the lasting reputation of what Gen. Sherman’s army did in Georgia was being made.

President Jefferson Davis wired Confederate officers in Georgia “that every effort will be made by destroying bridges, felling trees, planting sub-terra shells and otherwise, to obstruct the advance of the enemy. Supplies in danger are to be destroyed.”

Gen. Braxton Bragg was ordered to go from Wilmington, N.C., to Georgia, to assist Lt. Gen. William Hardee, Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard and other commanders. At Milledgeville, on Nov. 23, much of Gen. Sherman’s army was concentrated, and Gen. Hardee arrived to take command of the Confederate and state troops in that area. It was a difficult task, since he did not know Gen. Sherman’s intended route of march, and he lacked the troops even to block one road. In Washington, Lt. Gen. Ulysses Grant arrived in Washington from City Point to confer with President Lincoln and members of the Cabinet. Attorney General Edward Bates resigned his post; he had been gradually finding himself out of place in Lincoln’s official family.

On Nov. 25, arsonists authorized by Confederate agents in Canada arrived in New York City from Toronto, Canada, with plans to burn the city to the ground, starting with the major hotels. The Confederate agents, led by Capt. Robert C. Kennedy and Lt. John Headley, fanned out across lower Manhattan. At the same time acclaimed actors John Wilkes Booth and his brothers Edwin and Junius were acting for the first time together on stage that night, in a benefit performance of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” at the Winter Garden Theatre — which reportedly had nothing to do with what transpired around the city.

Around 10 p.m., the cry of “fire!” arose simultaneously from crowded venues. The Confederate agents in each of 12 large hotels and along the Hudson River docks had piled together furniture, carpeting, bedding, draperies, linens and towels, and used a highly flammable chemical, called Greek Fire, to ignite quickly burning fires. Fires were set at the St. James Hotel, Fifth-Avenue Hotel, LaFarge House, St. Nicholas Hotel, Metropolitan Hotel (next door to the Winter Garden Theatre), Tammany Hotel, Barnum’s Museum, Lovejoy’s Hotel, Astor House, Belmont Hotel, Howard Hotel, the United States Hotel and at the Hudson River docks.

At the Winter Garden Theatre, Edwin Booth had just broken off his lines as Brutus in the play; he stood center stage by the footlights, and, with upraised arms, called for calm and order. The audience, however, was already at the doors, pushing to get out of the theatre. A quick response from the overwhelmed New York Fire Department prevented a major conflagration in the city.

All of the Confederate agents managed to escape; Capt. Kennedy, who set the fire at Barnum’s Museum, was about to cross the Canadian border at Niagara Falls, on his way back to Toronto, when he was surprised and captured by Union agents. He was destined to be the last Confederate spy to be tried and executed before the end of the war. Before Kennedy’s execution, in March 1865, he wrote the following about his  motives for the burning of New York: “We wanted to let the people of the North understand that there are two sides to this war, and that they can’t be rolling in wealth and comfort, while we at the South are bearing all the hardship and privations.”

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Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 193 Articles
A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.