New York Fires


Robert Cobb Kennedy

Though he wasn't the only conspirator, Robert Cobb Kennedy was the only man caught and tried for one of the most daring covert acts of the Confederate rebellion, the planned destruction by fire of New York City, in retaliation for the federal ravaging of the Shenandoah Valley and the devastation of Atlanta. The fires, set on November 25, 1864, ensnared Manhattan's busiest hotels and theaters and caused panic and looting throughout the city, but failed to do the extent of damage intended.

Confederate Col. Robert M. Martin of Kentucky obtained permission from Confederate Secret Service headquarters to ignite all the city's hotels with "Greek Fire," a highly flammable substance, in hopes of causing a general conflagration. A chemist furnished the eight Confederate agents involved in the plot with a sizable supply of the substance, but none had experience using the mixture. The raiders, toting 402 bottles of Greek Fire, checked into various hotels and set to work. Rubbish and clothing were set afire, but they did not burn as expected, and the fires were extinguished by midnight. A spectacular blaze was set at Barnum's Museum, however. Miraculously, not one of the 2,500 people gathered there for a lecture was injured.

Most of the conspirators escaped into Canada, with only Kennedy, a former West Point student from Louisiana, being caught. The judgment on Kennedy from the commission of General John A. Dix, commander of the Department of the East, was harsh. It read, in part: "The attempt to set fire to the city of New York is one of the greatest atrocities of the age. There is nothing in the annals of barbarism which evinces greater vindictiveness. It was not a mere attempt to destroy the city, but to set fire to crowded hotels and places of public resort, in order to secure the greatest possible destruction of human life." The punishment was equally harsh: "Robert C. Kennedy will be hanged from the neck till he is dead at Fort Lafayette, New York Harbor, on Saturday, the 25th day of March."

After the hood was lowered, just before he was hanged, Kennedy sang: "Trust to luck, trust to luck, Stare Fate in the face, For your heart will be easy, If it's in the right place...."