The Newspaper Editorial that COULD
Have Won the Civil War For the Confederates
By R. J. Brown, Editor-in-Chief
The words of newspaper editorials have been known at times to spark a reader's imagination -- "Yes
Virginia, there is a Santa Claus." Some have perhaps even been the motivation to get a new bill passed --
or rejected. At times in journalism history editorials have even caused riots or duels. An editorial in
the October 15, 1864 edition of the Richmond Whig, and reprinted in the New York Times, almost brought
defeat to the Union forces. If the plan had worked, the Confederacy would have won the Civil War! This
editorial brought about mass destruction of New York City -- not from the actual words but rather because
its appearance was the signal to set a pre planned Confederate plot in motion.
To refresh your memory, the Confederates had lost many of the battles. Then in March,
1864, the Confederates viewed Grant's appointment as Commander of all Union Armies as doom to Lee in the East.
The Richmond government decided that at that point the best way to beat the Union was to terrorize the North
into peace and by fostering revolution. Many secret meetings were held to formulate a master plan. Various
chapters of the Northern Copperheads, identifying themselves at times as Knights of the Golden Circle, the
Order of American Knights, and the Sons of Liberty, formulated a common plan over long distance. Getting
messages back and forth between the North and South was becoming increasingly difficult. Spies and blockade
runners were utilized to transmit messages from one order to another. At times, even personal ads that had
been specially coded were printed in the Richmond Whig with a notation that "New York papers please copy."
Such messages were invariably reprinted by at least the New York Daily News as the paper was a Southern
It was an incredible scheme. When finalized, New York City was their target and the
plot was thus:. One group was to be responsible for setting off a series of fires as a diversion while another
group was to seize Federal buildings and municipal offices, still another to take control of the police department,
and yet another to free prisoners from Fort Lafayette and throw the Army Commander in New York, Major General
John Adams Dix, into a dungeon. By sunset a Confederate flag would surely fly over New York City. This would
surely be a coup for the Confederacy!
About the time the plot was finalized, Richmond learned from its spies that Washington
was beginning to obtain bits and pieces of the plan to capture the North. It was then decided that, since
everything but the date had been formalized, no more messages would be sent by runners. It was further decided
that for two reasons carrying out the plot would wait. One reason was to "lay low" to give Washington the
impression that the plot had died, and, two, the most opportune time to best capture the North off guard
would be soon after another Union victory. Since Southern newspapers could still freely travel to Canada, members
were instructed to keep reading the Richmond newspaper for an editorial advising that a "Northern city" should
be burned in retaliation. (It is not known just how it was accomplished, but the same editorial also appeared
in the New York Times a few days later!) At that time they were to congregate in New York's St. Dennis Hotel
and begin to put the plot in motion.
The October 15, 1864 edition of the Richmond Whig carried the awaited for word.
The leader of the "fire brigade" was a Confederate by the name of Robert Kennedy -- any
relation? At any rate, Kennedy and the rest of his group met at the St. Dennis Hotel like planned. At that time
final coordinates were made. Over the next few days his men were to each register for a weeks stay in several
assigned hotels each -- using assumed names and towns of course. This was to gain them access to rooms in the
Arrangements had been previously made with a chemist residing in New York, but a Southern
Sympathizer, to pick up a load of "Greek fire." This was a special chemical combination that looked like water but,
when exposed to air, after a delay, would ignite in flames. When Kennedy picked up the valise, he found it contained
dozens of small bottles of the liquid and each bottle was sealed with plaster of Paris. Instructions were to use
the bed in each room, pile it with clothing, rugs, drapes, newspapers, and anything else that would burn, Next,
hey were to empty two bottles of the "Greek fire" on top of the pile. In about five minutes, flames would ignite
the pile. This delay gave them plenty of time to escape unnoticed before the fire started. After starting one fire,
the man would then proceed to the next location and do the same. Each man would thus be capable of setting off
several fires blocks from each other.
Still making final arrangements on November 2 to finish the deed, a disturbing telegram was
sent by Secretary of State William Seward to the Mayor of New York. It read: This Department has received information
from British Provinces to the effect that there is a conspiracy on foot to set fire to the principle cities in the
Northern States on the day of - the Presidential election. It is my duty to communicate this information to you."
Later that afternoon the telegram was made public. (The same telegram was also sent to the mayors of other major
Northern cities like Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland.) At this time MOST of the Order members decided to abandon
the plan and get out of the city in an attempt to save their own lives -- ALL that is except for Kennedy and five
of the seven members of his band.
After several meetings, it was decided by Kennedy and the rest of his gang to go ahead with
the plan and set New York City on fire. They wouldn't be in a position to capture New York after all but at least
they could retaliate for Sherman's March to the Sea.
On the evening of November 25, 1864 the fires began. Before the night was over almost every
hotel in New York City had been set ablaze. These hotels included the St. Nicholas, St. James, Fifth Avenue, La
Farge, Metropolitan, Tammany, Hudson River Park, Astor House, Howard, United States, Lovejoy's, New England, and
the Belmont. There were also fires on the Hudson River docks and a lumber yard. As a last minute thought, Kennedy
decided to go into Barnum's museum and up to the fifth floor where he could obtain a good view of Broadway and
several of the fires. After watching for several minutes, Kennedy started going down the stairs. The remaining
bottle of "Greek fire" dropped from his coat pocket and broke in the stairwell. Wasting no time, Kennedy ran from
the museum, out the front door and on down Broadway.
Meeting his band of men the next morning at the Exchange Hotel, one of the few that they
hadn't set fire to, Kennedy and his men read the morning papers. While there were some reports of the fires, the
news didn't fill the front page like they hoped it would. Both the Times and the Herald however headed the news
of the fires as a "Rebel Plot."
Kennedy and his men managed to get out of New York City on November 28. Soon a $25,000 reward
was offered. This, combined with Kennedy's boasting of his role in setting the fires, led to his capture three months
later. After a short trial, Kennedy was found guilty on all counts. At this time, Kennedy signed a confession but
refused to name anyone else involved in the plot. On March 25, 1865, -- just three weeks prior the Lincoln's
assassination -- Kennedy was hung.
(Despite being off the subject, but as a result of researching the above article, I must
divulge some interesting tidbits I learned about the Lincoln assassination. John Wilkes Booth arrived in New York
the same day that Robert Kennedy did and they had a couple of meetings together. Robert Martin, a member of Kennedy's
gang in New York, but who didn't get caught, was a member of Booth's gang that attempted to kidnap Lincoln barely a
month before the assassination was carried out. This leaves me to wonder that if Kennedy hadn't been caught for the
arson in New York would he have also been with Booth on April 14, 1865?)
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