- Historic Sites
“New York Is Worth Twenty Richmonds”
October 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 6
One day in late October of 1864, as the Civil War was moving into its final stages, eight young men in civilian clothes arrived in New York City from Toronto by train. Though they spoke with southern accents, they were quickly caught up in the swirl of the city’s life, for there were thousands of Southerners in New York—businessmen and planters who had come north to protect their interests; families fleeing from ruin; and ex-Confederate soldiers, prisoners of war on parole, looking for a way to return home. If these eight men acted out of the ordinary at all, their behavior went unnoticed.
They were, in fact, Confederate officers, volunteers in a desperate plot to force the North to accept southern independence in return for peace. The story of how close they came to succeeding underscores a major dread of any nation at war within itself: sabotage by an enemy who looks and acts like a friend.
Earlier that year, in the spring, Jefferson Davis had charged three men with carrying out Confederate designs from across the Union’s weakest frontier, the more than one-thousand-mile border with Canada. Heading the mission was Colonel Jacob Thompson, a former aide to General P. G. T. Beauregard. A well-to-do Mississippian, Thompson before the war had been a congressman and Secretary of the Interior in Buchanan’s Cabinet.
Canada was decidedly pro-Southern, although officially neutral. Toronto, where Thompson made his headquarters, was full of southern refugees—Kentuckians, Missourians, Marylanders, and Virginians especially. The city was also the roosting nest of spies and informers. “The bane and curse of carrying out anything in this country is the surveillance under which we act,” Thompson complained in a letter to Confederate Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin. “Detectives or those ready to give information stand at every street corner. Two or three can not interchange ideas without a reporter.” He warned against “any stranger who might claim an acquaintance, etc., as a swarm of detectives from the United States, male and female, [are] quartered in Toronto.”
Thompson nevertheless plotted on, convinced that “nothing but violence can terminate the war.” The result was a series of ill-conceived exploits, ail divulged in advance by informers at his elbow or spies behind his back. An elaborate scheme to promote a Northwest Confederacy was attempted in conjunction with Northern Copperheads, so-called “Peace” Democrats—and fizzled. Raids on Maine, the seizure of ships on the Great Lakes, the freeing of thousands of Confederate officers imprisoned at Johnson’s Island in Lake Erie, an uprising in Chicago timed to coincide with the Democratic National Convention, a financial crisis to be brought on by pushing up the price of gold -not one scheme succeeded. Worse still, a minor raid on St. Albans, Vermont, caused such a furor that Canada soon became a questionable port of refuge. [See “The Hit-and-run Raid,” A MERICAN H ERITAGE , August 1961.]
In a last-ditch attempt to stave off defeat, the Confederate government in 1864 set in motion a startling plan of destruction
Something approaching madness seemed to infect the schemes and the schemers. Surprisingly, Thompson was undeterred by the timidity shown by the Copperheads in the Midwest and grew no more cautious regarding his confidants despite the disclosures that stymied every operation. If anything, he was more determined than ever to succeed by the fall of 1864, for the war was going badly—Sheridan was devastating the Shenandoah Valley, and Sherman had seized Atlanta. Then, on October 15, an editorial appeared in the Richmond Whig and was reprinted in its entirety by the New-York Times . It said, in part: Sheridan reports to Grant that, in moving down the Valley to Woodstock, he has burned over two thousand barns filled with wheat, hay and farming implements, and over seventy mills filled with flour and wheat. … There is one effectual way, and only one that we know of, to arrest and prevent this and every other sort of atrocity —and that is to burn one of the chief cities of the enemy … and let its fate hang over the others as a warning of what may be done, and will be done to them, if the present system of war on the part of the enemy is continued. … New York is worth twenty Richmonds. …
Whether this was a signal from Richmond has never been determined. The idea of setting fire to New York and other northern cities had been considered for some time; the forthcoming Presidential election in the North, scheduled for November 8, provided the catalyst.
It was an ambitious plot. A small force of Confederate officers, smuggled into New York, was to set off a series of fires on Election Day as a diversion while Copperheads seized federal buildings and municipal offices, took control of the police department, freed prisoners from Fort Lafayette in New York Harbor, and threw the Army commander in New York, Major General John Adams Dix, into a dungeon. By sunset the Confederate flag would fly over City Hall. Following the success of the “revolution,” a convention of delegates from New York, New Jersey, and the New England states, where other insurrections were to be held, would be staged in New York to form a confederacy to cooperate with the government in Richmond. The plan appeared valid to Thompson. New York was a Copperhead city, its politics feeding on the downtrodden and the corrupt, its philosophy a mixture of states’ rights, appeasement, and outright support for the South. More than seven hundred thousand persons lived in the city, and they rejected Lincoln in 1860 by a two-to-one vote and would do so again.
The draft riots of July, 1863, had indicated how easily the embittered lower classes could be incited to riot and how ineffectual were New York’s small police force and the token federal detachment stationed there. Moreover, fire fighting was in the hands of 125 volunteer companies whose members seemed more interested in racing each other than in putting out blazes; they insisted on dragging their cumbersome equipment through the streets by hand instead of using horses.
Of vital importance to the Confederates was the existence in New York of an active ring of Copperheads of considerable power and influence. Prominent among them were the two Wood brothers, both congressmen who would later vote against the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery. Before the war they had run a lottery in Louisiana. Fernando Wood, the older of the two and one-time mayor of New York, was an immaculately dressed, pokerfaced corrupter who had risen to power on the shoulders of “two-penny” politicians; as mayor he had suggested, after the fall of Fort Sumter, that the city should secede from the Union. His brother Benjamin was publisher of one of the most virulent of anti-Lincoln newspapers, the Daily News , which had been instrumental in fanning the hatred that led to the draft riots.
There were others who were considered trustworthy, too: James A. McMaster, editor and publisher of the weekly Freeman’s Journal and Catholic Register ; Representative James Brooks, co-owner of the Evening Express ; Rushmore G. Horton, editor of the Weekly Day-Book ; and Hiram Cranston, proprietor of the New-York Hotel. In addition, it was believed that Governor Horatio Seymour, an opponent of abolition and the draft, might aid the plan.
The leader of the small Confederate band being sent to New York was Colonel Robert M. Martin of Kentucky. He and a fellow Kentuckian, Lieutenant John W. Headley, had served with the famed raider John Hunt Morgan. They had been sent by Richmond to Toronto that September to aid in military operations against the North. Martin, in his mid-twenties, had steel blue eyes and wore a mustache and goatee. He was six feet tall but walked slightly bent over because of a bullet wound in his right lung. Headley, whose memoirs were later to disclose the details of their exploits together, was known as Martin’s boyish-looking “assistant adjutant general.”
Besides Martin and Headley the group included Captain Robert Kennedy. Kennedy, a profane, hard-drinking Louisianian, had recently escaped from the military prison on Johnson’s Island; he had been wounded in the thigh during the Battle of Shiloh two years earlier and walked with a pronounced limp. All the others in the Confederate force were lieutenants—John T. Ashbrook, James T. Harrington, and James Chenault of Kentucky, John M. Price of Virginia, and a fifth whose name is unknown.
Greek fire was to be used. This was a mixture of phosphorus in a bisulfide of carbon that was commonly used in hand grenades, supposedly igniting spontaneously on contact with the air. It had been employed in an attack on shipping at St. Louis and in the St. Albans raid, though both times with unsatisfactory results. A Captain E. Longmire of Missouri was already in New York arranging for a supply of Greek fire when the eight Confederates, all in civilian clothes, boarded a train in Toronto in the last week of October. Each carried false papers.
After the Rebels arrived in New York, they immediately dispersed among several hotels and boarding houses to avoid suspicion. On Friday, October 28, with the national elections only ten days away, Martin, Headley, and Kennedy went to the Freeman’s Journal to make contact with their Copperhead liaison, McMaster. The publisher was a big man—six feet three—and his piercing eyes and deep voice suggested power. Encouraged by his boast that the Copperheads had enlisted “about twenty thousand” men and had already distributed smuggled-in arms, the Rebels assured him in turn of “open, bold, and unflinching action when the hour arrived for crucial duty.”
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.
Although other hotels throughout the city were less ostentatious, they were almost always busy, too, because of the comings and goings spurred by the war. Lovejoy’s, on Park Row opposite City Hall Park, catered to transient businessmen and travellers en route to other parts of the Union. The Tammany, a block away, was a favorite lunching spot for merchants. The United States, on Fulton Street near the East River, was a creaky but comfortable old hotel always filled with ship’s captains. Businessmen in the Wall Street area lunched regularly at the Howard, one of the largest and best conducted of the older downtown hotels.
Each of the Confederates was assigned four hotels. Rooms were taken in advance when possible, under a variety of fictitious names. Meetings were held regularly at Headley’s quarters, Room 204 at the Astor, where he had registered as “W. S. Haines.” (Afterward the chambermaid would recall that the fireplace had been used unusually often to keep the room warm for his frequent visitors.) On Thanksgiving Day, November 24, as the North rejoiced over the prospect of victory over the South, Headley, acting on instructions left by Longmire, went to the chemist’s basement shop in Greenwich Village and collected a suitcase filled with dozens of vials of a colorless liquid, the Greek fire.
The date now fixed for carrying out the plot was the next day, Friday. Like Thanksgiving, it also was a holiday in New York—Evacuation Day, celebrating the departure of the last British troops from the city after the Revolution. Barnum’s Museum had scheduled an extra performance of the London drama Waiting for the Verdict in anticipation of large holiday crowds. The Booth brothers- Edwin, Junius Brutus, and John Wilkes—were to appear together for the first time in Julius Caesar at the Winter Garden in a benefit performance to raise money for a statue of Shakespeare to be erected in Central Park. Niblo’s Garden was featuring William Wheatley in the new rave melodrama The Corsican Brothers .
The Confederates planned to start the fires from 8 P.M. onward. The arson, they decided, would be confined chiefly to the business districts, but Headley was also to set several fires along the wharves of the Hudson to confuse the fire department and to destroy valuable cargoes.
By six o’clock Friday evening, when the Rebels met for the last time, most of them had booked rooms at several of their assigned hotels. The rest of the rooms were to be taken that night, as the men circulated about the city. Each was instructed to pile all the bedding and the mattress atop the bed and then to douse the heap with the Greek fire. To avoid detection windows, shutters, and doors were to be shut tight while they worked, and the doors carefully closed upon leaving. As the Rebels packed the vials of Greek fire into cheap black carpetbags, Martin appeared in the uniform of a federal officer; he had brought it from Toronto in a trunk.
The first fire alarm sounded from the St. James Hotel, at Broadway and Twenty-sixth Street, at 8:43 P.M. A guest in Room 85, on the topmost floor, smelled a peculiar odor. On opening his door he found the hallway full of smoke. He ran down the stairs calling for help. Within minutes the second alarm was sounded at the St. Nicholas Hotel, at Broadway and Spring Street, when a guest saw smoke coming from under the door to Room 174.
Instead of the customary nine o’clock all-clear gong, the watchman at the City Hall fire tower was repeatedly plunging the lever that rang the enormous twenty-three-thousand-pound bell: one ring for the First Fire District, a pause, four rings for the Fourth Fire District, a pause; then the cycle was repeated over and over again. The tolling was picked up by watchmen at the other fire towers in the city. Soon they interspersed eight rings for the Eighth Fire District.
The alarm from the Eighth Fire District was sounded at Barnum’s Museum, located on Broadway at Ann Street. Kennedy had made an unscheduled stop there, going upstairs into the building to see from a window in the stairwell whether any fires had taken hold. Upon hearing the first alarm he returned to the street outside and headed for his next assignment. As he went downstairs, he flung a vial of phosphorus back at the stairs “just to scare the people.” Soon afterward, an usher ran out of the building, crying “Fire!” In the Lecture-Room on the fifth floor panic had already seized the audience and members of the cast of Waiting for the Verdict . Cries of “Fire! Fire!” came from every side. Several people slid down the pillars from the gallery to the parquet. Women and children shrieked with fear. As men fought to get by them to the exits, several women fainted. The alarm spread to the floors below, too. Barnum’s seven-foot-tall giantess, her hair flying wildly behind her, lurched down the stairs and out an exit. Turning the corner, she ran down Ann Street and straight into a saloon. Those who reached the street behind her burst out of the museum in a virtual stampede.
Meanwhile, uptown at the La Farge House the servant girl stationed on the third floor passed by Room 104 and saw, through the transom above the door, a light in the room. Its occupant had left a few minutes earlier. Believing he had left the gaslight on by mistake—he had made such a fuss looking for matches to light it—she stopped by the door and was about to open it when a burst of flame suddenly lit up the hallway.
Next door, the second act of Julius Caesar was in progress at the Winter Garden Theatre when someone apparently whispered to a companion, “The La Farge is on fire.” Others nearby heard only the last word- “Fire.” Soon it was being repeated throughout the audience. Several women in the dress circle stood up. When they did, almost the entire audience, from parquet to dome, followed their example. Onstage the play stopped. Edwin Booth broke off his lines to race to the wings. He returned to the stage a few minutes later. Standing in the center by the footlights, his arms outstretched, he pleaded for order. But many persons were already at the doors, pushing and shoving to get out.
It was shortly after ten o’clock when the cry of “Fire” ran through the Metropolitan Hotel, on Broadway at Prince Street. At Niblo’s Garden adjoining it two actors were duelling back and forth across the stage in the dramatic last act of The Corsican Brothers . Someone in the gallery suddenly shouted “Fire!” The audience rose as one to its feet. Women began hoisting their skirts and leaping from chair to chair as they made for the doors. Up in the balcony men tried to hold back others from throwing themselves down to the parquet below. Those nearest exits were already rushing through them.
The pattern seemed clear as midnight approached. Hotels, theatres, and docks—uptown, downtown, from the Hudson to the East River—were being set afire en masse. Shock waves of fear fanned the excitement in the streets. Would-be looters in droves from the grim sections that girded the heart of the city swarmed around the scenes of the alarms, so many appearing so quickly that at first the fires were blamed on them. Then another rumor spread along Broadway—a Confederate attack.
As detachments of police struggled to keep order, new alarms rang through the chill night, sending volunteer firemen scurrying to answer the calls for help. A roundsman from the Second Precinct spotted flames in an upper-story window of the United States Hotel at Fulton and Water streets. Ten blocks north, near the heart of the Bowery, the staff of the New England Hotel, alerted to the possibility of trouble, was checking each room; when the door to Number 58 was opened, a sheet of flame shot out.
A half mile away, on Park Row overlooking City Hall, a guest going up to his room on the fourth floor of Lovejoy’s Hotel saw smoke issuing from under the door of Room 121. At the same time, along the Hudson, a police officer and a dozen sailors were pouring water on the flaming bales of hay stacked on a bulkhead opposite North Moore and Beach streets.
The next alarm came from across town—at Fulton Street again, this time just off Broadway at the Belmont Hotel next door to the Herald Building. The source of the acrid smoke was Room 28 on the second floor; the room, the hotel clerk later remembered, had been taken earlier that night by an Army officer.
A few short blocks away the porter and the bookkeeper of French’s Hotel stood transfixed, looking out from the window of the porter’s attic room. Directly across narrow Frankfort Street, which separated French’s from the Tammany Hotel, they could see a man having trouble, so it appeared, starting a fire with matches in the middle of the room. It was Kennedy; fortified by several drinks, he had evidently forgotten to close the shutters and apparently had decided not to let the phosphorus do its work unassisted. The porter and the bookkeeper raced downstairs and into the street. Outside, along Park Row, volunteer firemen of Peterson Engine Company Number 31 were hauling their pumper, “The White Ghost,” back to its post in densely populated Chrystie Street. On hearing the porter’s cries for help they immediately pulled the pumper into Frankfort Street and began laying hose. Frank Mahedy, the foreman, raced ahead into the Tammany Hotel; he soon emerged with a drowsy young girl in his arms. Then he ran back inside again, this time returning with the girl’s mother. Both had been asleep in the room next to the one that the porter and the bookkeeper had seen being set on fire. In the excitement Kennedy slipped away unnoticed.
It was 2:30 in the morning when a house detective opened the door of Room 148 in the Fifth-Avenue Hotel. He was greeted by a rush of smoke. Several miles away on Broadway, in the Howard Hotel at Maiden Lane, the guest in the room next to Number 44 was roused from his sleep when smoke began to fill his room. Meanwhile, the sailors who had put out the fire on the wharf by the Hudson River were out again in the chill night. This time they were fighting a fire aboard the barge Merchant ; it was berthed only a block away from the site of the earlier fire. And as dawn came up, two workmen at a lumberyard at nearby West and Clarkson streets found stacks of wood beams and the hay in adjacent stables smoldering when they came to work.
Almost twelve hours after the first alarm, the last was sounded. At about nine o’clock on Saturday morning, a smoldering fire was discovered in Room 204, on the fourth floor of the Astor House, on Broadway across from Barnum’s Museum, during a room-by-room inspection by hotel personnel.
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.
In spite of this information, only one of the Rebels was caught and tried. Kennedy, whose limp had been noted at several hotels, was easily spotted as he and Ashbrook purchased tickets in Toronto for a train bound for Detroit. A telegram was dispatched to two of Young’s men there. They boarded the train as it stopped briefly at a junction outside the city. Ashbrook, who was sitting by himself in the same car as Kennedy, saw the two detectives as they were going from car to car looking for the Rebels; he opened the window by his seat and jumped out into the snow outside. The detectives failed to see Ashbrook escape, but they found Kennedy as he limped from the station once the train reached Detroit. He was arrested and returned to New York for trial by a military commission.
While in prison Kennedy wrote appeals for help to a number of Copperheads, McMaster and Benjamin Wood included, but each disavowed any knowledge about him or the plot when confronted by the police, who had intercepted the letters. Only circumstantial evidence was offered by the prosecution at Kennedy’s trial, but the spirit of vindictiveness held sway. Found guilty of spying and of arson, Kennedy was hanged at Fort Lafayette on March 25, 1865.
Of the others, only Martin was ever captured, near the end of the war, as he was trying to help Jefferson Davis to escape. He implicated himself by boasting to a fellow inmate in the military prison at Louisville, Kentucky, about his role in the plot. The other prisoner informed the authorities, and Martin was soon transferred to Fort Lafayette to await trial on charges of being a spy. By then the war was over, and no trial was ever held; a state supreme court judge ruled that since the writ of habeas corpus had been restored, civil law was again paramount to military law. Martin was subsequently turned over to New York authorities for trial on civil charges of arson; this time, a federal judge ruled that there was insufficient evidence to warrant the charges, and Martin was freed.
In the years after the war Martin became a tobacco merchant. He lived first in Indiana and then for several years in New York City before finally settling in Louisville. When the old war wound in his lung began hemorrhaging, he returned to New York for treatment, dying there in 1900. Headley joined Martin in Indiana for a while and eventually also settled in Louisville. He was secretary of state of Kentucky from 1891 to 1896. When last heard of, in 1905, Ashbrook was an insurance broker in Cynthiana, Kentucky. Harrington became a,lawyer for the Southern Pacific Railroad and settled in Los Angeles. What happened to Chenault is unknown.
As for the mastermind of the plot, Thompson, he fled to England but finally returned to the United States, settling in Memphis, Tennessee, with much of his prewar fortune intact.
The night before he was executed, Kennedy, who had maintained his innocence until then, confessed to his part in the plot to burn New York. Had all his comrades “done as I did,” he declared, “we would have … played a huge joke on the Fire Department. … We desired to destroy property, not the lives of women & children although that would of course have followed in its train.”