PUBLISHER'S WEEKLY : “A Vast and Fiendish Plot”: The Confederate Attack on New York City


Publishers WeeklyOne of the Civil War's more alarming might-have-beens is reconstructed in this absorbing if padded history. Johnson (Civil War Blunders) recounts the attempt by Confederate secret agents to burn down Manhattan on the night of November 25, 1864, using what they called “Greek fire”—an incendiary concoction that ignited spontaneously on contact with air. The conspiracy went up in a puff of ineptitude—the fires, set in rooms at various hotels around the city, fizzled from lack of oxygen because the arsonists left the windows closed—but the author's meticulous study of Manhattan's 19th-century flammability shows how easily it could have launched a citywide inferno. Johnson makes the incident an index of the war's soaring intensity, setting it in the context of the Union Army's burnings of rebel cities and farms, the bumbling efforts of Confederate agents in Canada to foment insurrection in the North, and the pro-Southern sympathies of prominent New Yorkers who connived at the arson plot. The laxly edited narrative also shovels in extraneous material, including a flashback to Pickett's Charge, to make the story hotter still. Johnson's comprehensive account of this usually footnoted episode shows how close it came to becoming a major tragedy.


KIRKUS REVIEWS ONLINE: “A VAST AND FIENDISH PLOT”: The Confederate Attack on New York City


Kirkus ReviewCivil War Times contributor Johnson (Pursuit: The Chase, Capture, Persecution, and Surprising Release of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, 2008, etc.) examines an overlooked episode of the Civil War. The author spends much of the narrative working up to the attack by members of the Confederate Secret Service in November 1864. Many of the raiders had a history with John Hunt Morgan’s cavalry unit, a Kentucky-based band that had raided Indiana and Ohio with devastating effect in 1863. Morgan’s death during a Union raid on his headquarters made many of his men vow revenge. Several of these men ended up in Canada as part of the Secret Service. New York was a center of commerce, specializing in the shipment of cotton and tobacco from Southern plantations to markets in Europe and New England, with hefty profits remaining in Yankee hands. Many New Yorkers also carried on the slave trade, even after it became illegal. As a result, many in the city’s financial elite strongly favored the Southern cause, even after the war broke out. The vicious draft riots that erupted in 1863 were only the most violent expression of the city’s sympathies. It was against this background that the Secret Service operatives planned an attack on New York, as a measure of revenge for Union burnings of Southern cities. Eight men were chosen to carry out the mission. Armed with an incendiary chemical called Greek fire, they planned to burn several hotels and the Hudson River docks. The attacks fizzled; most of the fires were discovered before they caused serious damage, and none spread beyond their initial sites. Johnson chronicles the raiders’ escape, the public reaction and the subsequent fates of the participants. The author’s Southern sympathies are on full display, especially in his emphasis on the New York merchants’ complicity with the slave trade, but the historical material is largely novel and clearly presented. An interesting addendum to the Civil War library, but should be read with a couple of grains of salt.



To “persuade” the federal government to recognize Confederate independence, the Confederate cabinet decided in 1864 to seize government officials and buildings in New York on election day and thereby bring down the Lincoln administration. They expected help from Union Copperheads, of whom New York was a hotbed. The plot was discovered five days beforehand, federal troops were rushed to the city, the Copperheads quit, and two of eight Confederate agents fled to Canada. The remaining six decided to destroy New York by setting fires in hotels. Johnson masterfully details the plot; his work reads like a thriller. He shows how tightly New York financial powers were tied to the South and why the Copperheads were so influential. New York provided most loans for land and slaves (the latter were traded in New York long after it became illegal) as well as credit, insurance, and transshipping of cotton and manufactured goods to and from the South. Those taken by Johnson’s account may be interested in Maan Meyers’ novel about the conspiracy, The Lucifer Contract (1998).



"This fascinating, exhaustively researched saga ranges from battlefields to backrooms as Johnson recounts the tale of an intrepid band of Confederate agents. In prose that travels at breakneck speed, we meet a colorful cast of swashbucklers, knaves, and conspirators. A rousing good read."

Fergus M. Bordewich - author of Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America 



“A fresh and intriguing addition to Civil War literature.  Johnson shows how Southerners sought to take revenge on a ‘sister city’ they felt betrayed them after the outbreak of hostilities in 1861."

Brion McClanahan - author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Founding Fathers



“Fresh, insightful analysis of an amazing turn of events that nearly set New York City ablaze during the Civil War. Readers will be enthralled by the fast-paced narrative and clear writing that transports them into a dangerous and murky world.”

David J. Eicher - author of The Longest Night



"The history of the Confederate attempt to take the war to New York City with a behind-the-lines attack is a remarkable story overlooked by many students of the Civil War. .  A Vast and Fiendish Plot is sure to keep the reader's interest."

Rod Gragg - author of Confederate Goliath: The Battle of Fort Fisher



“Johnson opens up a new chapter in the annals of Civil War history, as he shines much-needed light on a serious Confederate threat that played out in New York in November of 1864. A must have for everyone’s Civil War bookshelf.”

Marc Leepson - author of Saving Monticello, Flag and Desperate Engagement



“The attack of the Confederate secret service in November 1864 on New York City has never received this detailed a treatment.  The book covers the planning, attack and aftermath in a very readable, informative manner.”

James Durney - reviewer for The Order of Civil War Obsessively Compulsed blog



 “Clint Johnson meticulously details a long-neglected chapter of Civil War history.  His well-researched volume yields a vivid, fast-paced account of the intriguing Confederate attempt to cause mayhem, confusion, and destruction.  Johnson weaves a fascinating story that is sure to captivate readers.”

Daniel W. Barefoot - author of Spirits of '76: Ghost Stories of the American Revolution



“A fascinating book about New York’s first terrorist attack.”

Thomas Fleming - author of The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers



“An entertaining and unsettling book. . . . Popular historian Clint Johnson captures the aggrieved mood among die-hard Confederates in the closing months of the Civil War. His work also suggests the ongoing power such attacks on federal authority continue to exert.”


Jim Cullen - History News Network