History: November 25, 1864: Confederate Special Ops Tries to Burn New York

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A Brief History

On November 25, 1864, a group of Confederate special forces operatives attempted to burn down New York City by starting fires in a plot orchestrated by Jacob Thompson, Inspector General of the Confederate States Army.  The 8 Confederates ambitiously started fires in 19 hotels across the city, as well as PT Barnum’s American Museum and a theater.  The diabolical plan was to cause so many fires the firefighting men and apparatus would be overwhelmed, resulting in mass destruction.

Digging Deeper

Obviously, the plan failed or you would be reading about the Great New York Fire of 1864!  Adding insult to injury, these men, calling themselves The Confederate Army of Manhattan, chose their attack date to coincide with “Evacuation Day,” the day in 1783 when British forces left New York after occupying the city for almost the entire American Revolutionary War.  The targets chosen were the most prestigious hotels of the time.

This tiny “army” had infiltrated into New York by going through Canada.  Most of the fires they started just did not take hold or were quickly put out.  Of the eight soldiers, only 1 was prosecuted, a Robert Cobb Kennedy and that was in 1865 when he attempted to flee to Richmond, Virginia from Canada where he had fled after escaping from Johnson’s Island Military Prison while awaiting trial. (Johnson’s Island is located in Lake Erie’s Sandusky Bay, near present day Cedar Point Amusement Park, Ohio.)  Kennedy and the others had originally escaped to Canada where they met up with other Confederates, but Kennedy was captured when he tried to get back to the US through Detroit.  Kennedy was executed for his participation in the fire plot, doing himself no favors by various admissions and writing letters in which he talked about the plot.  Kennedy had attended West Point (US Military Academy) prior to the Civil War, leaving the institution for an unspecified physical or mental condition.

Although the Confederates failed to burn down Barnum’s American Museum, the great attraction did indeed burn down on July 13, 1865 in a spectacular blaze.  During the years the museum was open (1841-1865) over 18 million people had gazed at its wonders, including 2 Beluga whales that boiled in their tank during the fire!  At times 15,000 people a day visited the museum.

Other raids and covert operations were planned and executed by both sides during the Civil War, but this has to be one of the most ambitious, though a failure by any measure.  What Civil War raids and secret operations are your favorites? Please share your thoughts with our other readers.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.