U.S. #C38 – One New York paper called the plot, “one of the most fiendish and inhuman acts known to modern times.”

Confederates Burn Manhattan

On November 25, 1864, a group of Confederate operatives set several fires in New York City, as retaliation for damage done in the South by Union troops.

Though far away from the battlefields and bloodshed, New York City was a hotbed of activity during the Civil War. Early on, the South had hoped it would secede and join them as a city state. In July 1863, the New York Draft Riots claimed 119 lives. Weary soldiers from Gettysburg marched into the city to end the riots. After that, Major General John Dix was given military control of the city.

U.S. #998 – The Confederate government claimed it wasn’t involved in the attack. One Southern paper stated, “If there is any place in the North that ought to be spared, that place is New York.”

During the summer and fall of 1861, Confederate operatives made their way to Canada, from where they would launch attacks on the Union. These attacks were planned as retribution for the damage done to the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. According to one of the conspirators, “our purpose to set the city on fire… and let the government at Washington understand that burning homes in the South might find a counterpart in the North.”

U.S. #4898-4905 – Some 2,500 people were in Barnum’s museum watching a play when the fire broke out there.

The initial attack was set to take place on election day, November 8. However, word of the plot leaked all the way to Washington, D.C. Secretary of State William Seward sent a telegram to New York’s mayor, warning of the conspiracy. Thousands of Federal troops then marched into the city while gunboats stood at the ready on the surrounding rivers. The attack was postponed, and Union troops left the city on November 15. The conspirators met that same day and renewed plans for the attack 10 days later.

U.S. #1908 – One conspirator claimed “The way to bring the North to its senses to burn Northern cities.”
November 25 was a day of special significance to New York City. It had been celebrated as Evacuation Day for more than 80 years – the day the British abandoned the city during the Revolutionary War. That night also marked the first and only time that the three acting brothers Edwin Booth, Junius Booth, Jr., and John Wilkes Booth performed together. (They were appearing in Julius Caesar as a fund raiser to build a bronze statue of William Shakespeare in Central Park.)

In the days leading up the attack, the conspirators entered New York City and checked into hotels under fake names. At least one wore a wig and fake mustache, leading the staff to become suspicious, though they rented him a room anyway. Then, at about 8:45, the first fire was set at the St. James Hotel. A guest saw smoke coming from the room and alerted the staff. They broke down the locked door and put the fire out in a matter of seconds.

U.S. #971 – They used “Greek Fire” – a mix of sulphur, naphtha, and quicklime that catches fire when exposed to air.

Over the next two and a half hours, the Southerners set fire to 19 hotels, a theater, and P.T. Barnum’s American Museum. The museum wasn’t one of the planned targets, but one of the conspirators thought it would “be fun to start a scare.” The fire alarms rang, and firemen were kept busy around town putting out fires. Though the conspirators managed to create a bit of a frenzy, they didn’t cause any significant damage, and luckily, no one was hurt or killed. In fact, they all closed the windows and doors of the rooms they attempted to burn, so none of the fires received enough oxygen to spread. Northerners were outraged at the attempt, nevertheless. City officials expected to have the conspirators in custody in a matter of days. But they all managed to catch trains to Canada before they could be caught. One of the men, Robert Cobb Kennedy, was later apprehended in Detroit and hanged for his crime. He was the last soldier of the war to be executed.

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    1. WOW! That occurred in my hometown? Really?
      Was never taught that in History class.
      Interesting………..Strange, but True!

  1. Wow. I grew up in NYC and had never heard of this. I read “This Day . . .” every day and usually learn a few new details to facts already common place, but this was a real eye opener. I didn’t know about “Evacuation Day” either. I suppose it’s one of those holidays that has passed out of our history.

  2. Interesting Not being a History buff, I had not known of these actions. Can always depend on Mystic to furnish us with some facts of the past. Keep it up.

  3. Again, this day in history has presented in a readable manner an event in our national history. It also shows the depth of feelings during the War Between the States. It also appears that Confederate operatives were busy during the draft riots. We can not forget that the War even reached into Vermont. The War had changed the nation in so many ways. I would hope that the quality of presentation by Mystic Stamps will continue. Prof. James J. Cooke, Professor Emeritus of History, The University of Mississippi (Oxford, MS)

  4. Just thinking that if I didn’t learn this part of the story back in the day (50-60’s) how much of this story are the kids getting today? Wait – I know – none.
    Well done Mystic – I enjoy your daily history lessons.

  5. Lived in NY most of my life and did not know about Evacuation Day celebration there. Now live in MA and Evacuation Day is a holiday is still celebrated.

  6. Fantastic! I’ve owned thes e stamps for many many years and never realized their significance. So grateful that you pointed this part of history out to me. I never want to stop learning.

  7. Another enlightening history lesson! Sadly, it had a similarity to the current world situation—attack me and I will attack you. Some things just do ‘t change.

  8. I was born in upstate New York and never knew this part of history.. Since receiving your emails I
    Have more interest in my stamp collection.
    Thank you and keep them coming.

  9. This is a wonderful daily history lesson. This history of New York is fascinating. I love these “Day in History” essays. Please keep them coming.

  10. Terrorists then and terrorists now. Except now instead of “Greek Fire,” they are using hijacked commercial aircraft, suicide bomb vests and AK-47’s. Madmen then in support of revenge, slavery and anti-unionization of the states; Madmen now in support of revenge, religious fanaticism, tribal affiliation, and so many other forms of skewed thinking. Thanks Mystic for this look back in history. The quote is true, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” In New York, in 1864, no one was hurt or killed. Now it is the whole purpose of terrorism; to seek change by frightening and killing as many people as possible with no notice and with malignant indifference. I hope someday people will begin to remember and use every means possible to avoid repeating what has come before, in peaceful union with everyone else in the world. “Imagine…”

  11. They hung Kennedy for his “Crime”. It wasn’t a crime, it was an act during war time.
    Did they hang Sherman or any other Union Officer for the burning and looting
    that they ordered?

  12. I look forward every morning to this little history lesson and have passed the column along to my grandsons. With all that’s going on in the world today we need more of these uplifting reminders of our wonderful past.
    My interest in my collection has been refreshed. I hope whoever initiated this column got a big raise and promotion! Terrific idea. Thanks.

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