“New York Is Worth Twenty Richmonds”


Further meetings with McMaster were held over the next five days. At one, a man he identified as Governor Seymour’s private secretary appeared, bringing with him the assurance that the Governor would cooperate. Then, on Thursday, November 3, with only five days left before the election, the first inkling that federal agents had uncovered the conspiracy came to light. That afternoon City Hall made public a telegram from Secretary of State William H. Seward. Similar wires had been sent to the mayors of thirteen other cities: This Department has received information from the British Provinces to the effect that there is a conspiracy on foot to set fire to the principal cities in the Northern States on the day of the Presidential election. It is my duty to communicate this information to you.

The Copperheads grew more apprehensive of continuing in the plot when Major General Benjamin F. Butler arrived in the city the next day leading several thousand troops who had been hurriedly transferred from the front lines in Virginia. As Election Day neared, Butler set up a cordon around Manhattan. Two commandeered ferryboats filled with infantrymen were stationed in the Hudson River, another two in the East River. Artillery batteries, with their horses in harness, were put on board a vessel on the Jersey side of the Hudson. Gunboats were stationed off the Battery to protect the federal buildings and the Arsenal downtown; one also patrolled High Bridge on the Harlem River, guarding the Croton Aqueduct link with the new reservoir in Central Park.


The Copperheads were thoroughly demoralized by the sudden turn in events. McMaster reported that only two others besides himself wanted to go ahead with the Election Day uprising. Accordingly, it was decided to postpone any action until Butler and his troops had left the city, after Election Day. As the days went by, the Copperheads grew even more reluctant to proceed. Martin pressed McMaster to set a new date, Thanksgiving Day, November 24. Before McMaster could return with an answer, the question was settled by General William Tecumseh Sherman, who set out with sixty thousand troops from Atlanta in mid-November, leaving that city in ruins, his destination unknown. On hearing the news McMaster and his colleagues immediately withdrew from any further connection with the conspiracy, arguing that it was doomed to failure. Two of the Confederate officers—Price and the one whose name is unknown—also backed out and returned to Canada. Longmire, the Missourian who had arranged with a chemist for supplies of the combustibles, disappeared.

Despite these setbacks, Sherman’s destruction of Atlanta only served to incense the six remaining Confederate officers. As Kennedy declared later: “We wanted to let the people of the North understand that there are two sides to this war & that they cant be rolling in wealth & comfort, while we at the South are bearing all the hardship & privations.” Thompson in Toronto had been told “he could expect to hear from us in New York, no matter what might be done in other cities,” Headley said. “He seemed to approve our determination and hoped for no more failures, and especially now when our last card was to be played.”

The Confederates laid their plans at a small cottage near Central Park loaned to them by a friend of Longmire’s, a woman refugee from the South. From the start they decided to ignore federal and municipal buildings because they were guarded. The easiest places of access, as they had discovered in their wanderings around Manhattan, were the city’s hotels. There were more than 125 of them, the most opulent on Broadway. The Astor House, across from City Hall Park, was the grande dame of them all; the largest hotel in the nation when it opened in 1836, it could accommodate four hundred guests. A little farther north on Broadway was the St. Nicholas Hotel, ideally situated near many theatres; built at a cost of more than one million dollars in 1854, the St. Nicholas was six stories tall and divided into three wings, with six hundred rooms that held upward of one thousand persons. Nearby, next door to Niblo’s Garden, was the Metropolitan Hotel, which boasted thirteen thousand yards of carpeting and twelve miles of water and gas pipes; it handled six hundred lodgers with ease and had “sky parlors” from which lady guests could watch the promenade on Broadway below. A few blocks uptown was the marblefaced La Farge House, adjoining the Winter Garden Theatre; considered an “elegant resort” for the “floating population of the New World,” the La Farge could accommodate more than five hundred persons.∗ Perhaps the most impressive hotel of all was the “new” Fifth-Avenue, which faced Madison Square, where Broadway came together with Fifth Avenue; it had rooms for eight hundred guests and a “perpendicular railway,” an innovation especially popular with the elderly and with ladies.

∗ Of all the hotels, only the La Farge House still stands. Now called the Broadway Central Hotel, it has in recent years housed public-welfare recipients.