“A Vast and Fiendish Plot” – The Confederate Attack on New York City
Last June I attended a reading by Clint Johnson, author of the newly released book “A Vast and Fiendish Plot”. The book focuses on the Confederate government’s attack on New York City in November of 1864, originally planned to disrupt the re-election of President Abraham Lincoln. The plot, funded by the Confederate Secret Service, originated in response to Lincoln’s approval of a full scale assault on the Confederate Capital in Richmond Virginia. Lincoln’s purpose was the assassination of the Confederate cabinet, and it’s President Jefferson Davis.
In 2008 Clint Johnson published the page turner “Pursuit,” about the Union governments capture and mysterious release two years later of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. While reading Pursuit, the author made you feel like you were traveling with Davis after the fall of Richmond, following his dogmatic determination not to dismantle his cabinet. In the end Davis ran the Government from a set of railroad cars, making it not only a government in exile, but a government on wheels.
Johnson’s latest book, “A Vast and Fiendish Plot,” is a story about eight confederate officers who infiltrated New York City for the purpose of setting a series of lethal fires in hotels throughout lower Manhattan on election day in 1864. The result would disrupt Lincoln’s re-election costing him New York’s electoral votes. Their method would be Greek fire, a substance that when painted on walls would ignite when mixed with fire. A similar attack was planned for election day in Chicago.
While in New York, the Confederates did their best to blend in, taking in Democratic Party meetings at Tammany Hall, and participating in a huge march down Broadway to promote the Presidential campaign of Lincoln’s opponent, General George McClellan. A few of the conspirators even took the ferry across the river to Brooklyn to hear abolitionist minister Henry Ward Beecher.
The plot failed to launch and Lincoln was re-elected. But the conspirators were determined and a second attempt to burn Manhattan was planned for a holiday newly created by Lincoln called Thanksgiving.
The fires were set, most quickly doused resulting in nothing more than small property damage. In short, the rebels weren’t very good at setting fires. What the Confederates didn’t realize was that for the phosphorous material they painted on the hotel room walls to be combustible, it simply needed oxygen. After the eight rebels checked into the hotels and set the fires in their rooms, they closed the windows, locked the doors behind them and fled. Some were captured, some convicted, a few later Pardoned. What the author, Clint Johnson, did was describe the kindred spirit New Yorker’s had with the Richmond based government.
As a lifelong New Yorker I just assumed New York was Lincoln country, but I was wrong. The New York City Council voted to secede from the Union in 1861 joining the Confederate States of America, a plan which grinded to a halt when Lincoln started jailing pro secession Newspaper editors.
The relationship between New York and Richmond didn’t make sense till the author succinctly explained that it was New York’s banks that cemented the bond between New York’s ports and the South’s cotton fields. In 1860 New York State alone had over 150 banks, Alabama had 6, and Mississippi had none.
The author brilliantly walks you through the plot which was “Vast and Fiendish,” and details the eight conspirators’ ties to the Confederate Secret Service based in Richmond and Canada.
After the reading the author was generous with his time in fielding questions arranged at a reception. I asked him what event would have changed the outcome of the attack on New York. The author noted it might have made a difference if the rebels had taken a chemistry class. (see clintjohnsonbooks.com)
John O’Hara is an attorney. He lives in Brooklyn.
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