Sunday, November 9, 2014

Civil War Sunday - The 144 Bottles of Terror

"Sooner or later, everything old is new again." - Stephen King

We in the United States fear a terrorist attack on New York City.  It's already happened in the lifetime of most of us now alive - on September 11, 2001.  It's actually happened before that, for example, on September 16, 1920.

Now, think of this scenerio.

People at war with the United States plot in Toronto, aiming to disrupt a Presidential election.  Several cities in the United States are targeted: Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati and New York City.  Their plans are to set fires, using a modern inflammatory chemical, as a distraction and to spread fear.  The election would be disrupted.

The conspirators are homegrown men, not from overseas, the type of attack we fear most.

This is, as the saying goes, "ripped from today's headlines".

New York City, November, 2014?

No, November of 1864, as rebel Confederates plotted to spread terror and get the Union to the negotiation table.

The fascinating story is told here, but to summarize:

As I had blogged about last week, President Abraham Lincoln was up for reelection on November 8, 1864. Things were not looking bright for his reelection.  No President had been reelected since 1832.  His own former commanding general was running against him.  Many in the United States were weary of war, and the Confederates were hoping for a general uprising.  Many in New York City, in particular, would join the uprising - or so the plotters hoped.

The original plot was to set distraction fires, seize treasuries in the cities and raid prison camps to set Confederate prisoners free.   But then Colonel Robert Martin, in charge of the conspirators charged with seting fires in New York City, decided he wanted to burn New York City to the ground.

A retired druggist was hired to concoct an incendiary called Greek Fire - a chemical that had been developed around 672 and was used as a weapon - especially useful in naval warfare as Greek Fire would float on water and burn.

This video shows the power of Greek Fire.  Imagine if this plot had been carried out exactly as planned.

The Greek Fire was packed into 144 bottles and distributed to a network of conspirators.

The fires would be timed in such a time as to cause minimal death - but a lot of destruction.

Some conspirators lost their nerve, And, the plot was found out and Union troops guarded the cities during the election. The election went on as scheduled and Lincoln won.  So, the Confederates decided to try again, setting fires in a series of New York hotels on November 25, 1864 in closed off hotel rooms.

They forgot one crucial fact about Greek Fire - it needs oxygen to burn.  Most of the fires smoldered, and some fires went out on their own, but the New York City fire department had one busy night.  One fire, at the Barnum Museum, was set by a drunk conspirator and was more successful.  Some 2,500 people were in the building, attending a play.  The fire did burn in the open air and, fortunately, no one was killed.

New York City stood unburned.  No one was killed.

If the Confederates had decided to target a local gas works, which contained pressurized tanks full of gas, the result may have been far different.

Would the course of the war have changed if New York City had burned? We will never know.  As it was, only one conspirator was caught (and subsequently was executed).  And, the attempted firing of New York City was condemned by the public.

And the war ended, on its own, several months later.


  1. You're right. 9/11 definitely shadowed the events of that fateful day America lost her innocence.
    Dorit Sasson
    author of Accidental Soldier: What My Service in the Israel Defense Forces Taught Me about Faith, Courage and Love

  2. It really is alarming to see how often history repeats itself. The increasing number of individual or organized terrorist attacks, as well as "copy cat" crimes, are especially disturbing.

  3. Wow, I guess history really does repeat itself. Sad isn't it? Some people just want to destroy things.


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