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1864 December 10: Rebel Agents Try to Fire-Bomb New York City

December 11, 2014

A group of Southern operatives attempted to burn New York City on November 25, 1864.  The plot was orchestrated by Jacob Thompson and the operatives infiltrated Union territory from Canada.  On the night of November 25, the group attempted to simultaneously start fires in 19 hotels, a theater, and P.T. Barnum’s museum. The objective was to overwhelm the city’s firefighting resources by distributing the fires around the city.  Most of the fires either failed to start or were contained quickly.

This account is from the December 10, 1864, issue of The Prescott Journal.

The New York Incendiaryism.

It is ascertained that most of the persons engaged in the recent attempt to burn New York came from Canada—most of them from Toronto and vicinity.  Most of the conspirators were officers in the rebel army, and had served as guerrillas in Kentucky and Missouri.  The movements of the incendiaries were arranged very uniformly.  At each of the hotels they appeared in the character of travelers desiring rooms for a few days.  They carried small black leather valises, put a fictitious name on the hotel books, and carried their own baggage to their rooms.

The buildings fired were the Astor House, Belmont, Hanna, Lovejoy, Tammany, Metropolitan, St. Nicholas, Fifth Avenue, United States, New England, Lafarge and St. James Hotels and Barnum’s Museum.  Fires were also discovered in some vessels at the wharves.

The original plan was to simultaneously fire hotels at the lower and upper portions of the city, and while the fire department and police had their attention attracted to these portions of the city, to fire hotels and other public buildings at more central points.  The next step would have been to have fired shipping, beginning with hay barges alongside ships and steamers.  During this, three of the gang were to attempt the destruction of the iron-clads now in the harbor.  They had provided themselves with numerous appliances, among which was a large quantity of Greek fire.  As nearly as possible, these steps were to be taken together, or so close upon each other as to render detection by the police almost impossible.  The failure in nearly all cases is attributed to the incendiaries neglecting to open windows. In every hotel the windows and transoms were tightly closed, thus giving no air to the flames.

The detectives say the whole force detailed for the work had not arrived in time.  It was fixed for Sunday, December 4th, but fears of discovery and frustration led to the premature attempt.

Among those arrested is the treasurer of the gang, with a considerable sum in gold in his possession.

Gen. Dix [John A. Dix] issued an order in relation to the plot, in which he says :  “A nefarious attempt has been made to set fire to the principal hotels and other places of public resort in this city.  If this attempt had succeeded, it would have resulted in a frightful sacrifice of life and property.  Evidences of extensive combination and other facts disclosed to-day show it to have been the work of rebel emissaries and agents.  All such persons engaged in secret acts of hostility can only be regarded as spies, subject to martial law and to the penalty of death.  If they are detected they will be immediately brought before a court martial or military commission, and if convicted, they will be executed without the delay of a single day.”

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