- Historic Sites
“New York Is Worth Twenty Richmonds”
October 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 6
By then it was clear that the city had been spared from a major disaster by dozens of instances of good luck. Only Headley and Kennedy appeared to have fulfilled their assignments; instead of fires in twenty-four hotels only twelve had been set, and servants or guests had detected the fires before they had gotten out of control. In some hotels, as on the docks, the phosphorus had smoldered for hours, causing in most cases a great deal of smoke but little else. Headley later blamed both Longmire and the chemist who had provided the Greek fire, but the truth was that he and the other Confederates had unwittingly blundered. As Fire Marshal Alfred E. Baker reported after testing the contents of some vials that were discarded in haste at several hotels: The chemist had done his work sagaciously, but in carrying out the plan a blunder was committed which defeated the anticipated results. In each case the doors and windows of the room were left closed, so that when the phosphorous ignited, the fire only smouldered from the want of oxygen necessary to give it activity, thus affording an opportunity for its detection before much harm was done. … Happily, as I have shown, this fiendish plan was defeated by one of those miscalculations which so often interpose to frustrate the designs of evilminded men. …
No lives were lost, no one- amazingly—seriously injured, despite the panics at Barnum’s and the theatres. The volunteer fire companies, to everyone’s further surprise, had behaved meritoriously. The most damage incurred was at the St. Nicholas Hotel; it cost ten thousand dollars to repair. New York City had escaped destruction, but it was frightened and its mood was ugly. Had the plot been executed “with one-half the ability with which it was drawn up,” said the Times , “no human power could have saved this city from utter destruction … the best portion of the city would have been laid in ashes.” The Tribune asserted that “a catastrophe was imminent, without parallel during late years, and only to be compared in magnitude to … the great fire of London, the burning of Rome, or the destruction of Pompeii.” “The wretches who would have destroyed all our principal hotels … by fire, and caused the death of their harmless occupants, deserve no pity,” declared the Herald , “and should they be detected, as we have no doubt they will be, should be hung up in as brief a space as possible and as soon as the law will permit.”
Saturday morning, as the early newspapers carried the first brief accounts of the night before, the Confederates were almost captured. They had assembled at the Exchange Hotel, near the Hudson River, where Kennedy and Chenault boarded, to size up the situation, and were seated in the parlor reading the papers when a burly man entered the hotel lobby. Martin recognized him as Sergeant John S. Young, head of the city’s seventeen-man detective force. “Old” Young, as he was called, had spent the entire night going from hotel to hotel to alert proprietors and see that special watches were set up. He spoke to the manager of the Exchange and then sat down wearily on a banquette next to Martin, who was still wearing the federal officer’s uniform. Kennedy, watching them from nearby, was certain they would all be caught and “expected to die then.” However, after exchanging a few pleasantries with Martin, Young was summoned away by a patrolman, and the Rebels all breathed a sigh of relief.
Later that day Young set up guards outside ferry offices and railroad terminals in the hope of catching the plotters if they hadn’t as yet escaped from the city. In the evening, however, the Confederates cleverly boarded a sleeper to Albany while it was still on a siding. As the car was pulled into the Hudson River Railroad station, they could see from their berths detectives on the platform outside stopping any suspicious-looking passengers before they were allowed aboard. Finally, at ten o’clock the train pulled out of the station, and after a stopover in Albany on Sunday the Rebels returned safely over the border to Toronto without incident, on another train.
Undeterred by his failure to capture the arsonists, Young accurately guessed that they must have been based in Canada. He persuaded both federal authorities and his own superiors to send himself and some of his men after them. Several detectives were quickly dispatched to Toronto; others headed for Port Huron and Detroit to cover the Canadian border with Michigan. Those sent to Canada were quickly able to worm their way into the confidence of one of Jacob Thompson’s closest advisers by posing as southern sympathizers; they cursed Lincoln and spat on the Union flag to prove their loyalty. A meeting was arranged between Young and the Southerner. With amazing naiveté he fell for Young’s ruse. The detective, feigning concern for the plotters, was able to draw from Thompson’s adviser an almost complete account of the plot; the city, he was told, “was to be wrapt in one dazzling conflagration.” More important, the Southerner in all candor told Young that only six men had taken part in actually setting the fires. He said several were preparing to return south, by either running the northern blockade by ship or slipping through Union lines after crossing the Canadian border by train.