Monday, April 26, 2010

New---Rebel Agents Plot Terror Against NYC Financial District

A Vast and Fiendish Plot: The Confederate Attack on New York City, Clint Johnson, Citadel Press, 308 pp., index, 25 illustrations, selected bibliography, notes, $15.95.

The Confederate agents' attempt to burn Manhattan is one of the Civil War's intriguing and compelling stories. Clint Johnson's story of the attack on the city is an engaging presentation of motivations and personalities. The chemistry of the incendiaries is broadly covered and the reasons for the non-ignition of the devices. Solid, yet fast moving, the narrative does not linger to long on any one character or activity.

During the night of November 25, 1864 an incendiary chemical, known as Greek Fire, was planned to ignite spontaneously on contact with air at almost 20 hotels. The reasons for the failure in part the chemistry of the devices, the planning by the principals, and the nature of the plan. Johnson states if the schedule had been pushed back from 8p to 3a then the fires would not have been discovered by guest.
If the docks had been targeted then oxygen supply for the ignition would not have been a problem.

The motivation was payback for a Federal raid that took the life of Confederate cavalry leader, John Hunt Morgan who was out of uniform at the time of his death, and retribution for the destruction of barns in the Shenandoah Valley by the Federal army under Sheridan in 1864. The feelings behind the fires are similar to Jubal Early's burning of Chambersburg Pennsylvania in the summer of 1864 in response to Federal burning of the Virginia Military Institute in the late spring of 1864. Johnson sets the Confederate mis-adventure within the war's path through civilian populations.

Hoping to damage the Lincoln administration, the Confederate cabinet coached the agents top decided make the assault before election day. Help from Copperheads was expected. Discovery of the plot five days the fires were to occur promoted the administration to rush Federal troops into the city. As the Copperheads back out of the plan two of eight Confederate agents retreated into Canada. The remaining six agents went ahead with the attempt.

Early in the story, Johnson dwells on how New York financial powers were tied to the South and why Copperheads were prevalent in New York City. The credit, insurance, and merchant marine industries were closely linked to The Cotton Kingdom before the war. Yet, it is hard to understand the link between the agents, the financial districts interest in terminating the war and the selection of targets. Why burn the financial district when it was the financial district that most desired peace and could pressure the administration to produce it?

Johnson sometimes introduces topics, characters and incidents which appear to lead away from the main thrust of the story, such as the Battle of Gettysburg. Also, there are some unsupported generalizations regarding John Hunt Morgan's death as being a genuine contributing factor to the agents desire to burn New York City. Post-war memoirs are taken at face value by Johnson and at times don't seem to bear very well the weight of some conclusions. Yet, the book is enjoyable and is readily accessible to most readers.

Text by CWL.

Second Image: The Lost Museum Archive

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