"A Vast and Fiendish Plot": The Confederate Attack on New York City

by Clint Johnson


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This terrifying scenario almost became a reality following what the New York Herald declared "a vast and fiendish plot." Infuriated by the Union's killing of their beloved General John Hunt Morgan and the burning of the Shenandoah Valley, eight Confederate officers swore revenge. Their method: Greek fire. Their target: Manhattan's commercial district. The daring mission could have changed the course of American history.

In the first book to bring to life this bold conspiracy in full detail, Civil War expert Clint Johnson reveals shocking facts about the treacherous alliances and rivalries that threatened nineteenth-century America. Here is the truth about this stunning event, the spirit that fueled it, and the near destruction of the world's most influential city.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806531311
Publisher: Kensington
Publication date: 03/01/2010
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.10(d)

Table of Contents

Introduction xi

Prologue: "A Born Gentleman to the Tips of His Fingers" 1

Part I The South's Secessionist Sister City

Chapter 1 "Decayed Is Here" 15

Chapter 2 "A Traffic in Enslaved Africans" 22

Chapter 3 "A Great Distribution Point for Cotton" 31

Chapter 4 "Money Is Plenty, Business Is Brisk" 41

Chapter 5 "The Meetings of These Madmen" 53

Chapter 6 "The City of New York Belongs to the South" 62

Chapter 7 "That Which Comes Easy Goes Easy" 73

Part II The South Seethes

Chapter 8 "How Sad Is This Life" 89

Chapter 9 "A Fire in the Rear Will Be Opened" 99

Chapter 10 "State Governments Will Be Seized" 109

Chapter 11 "The People Have Lost All Confidence in Lincoln" 122

Part III The Plan

Chapter 12 "Organize Only in 'the Territory of the Enemy'" 137

Chapter 13 "New York Is Worth Twenty Richmonds" 149

Chapter 14 "Set Fire to Cities on Election Day" 161

Chapter 15 "Rebel Agents in Canada" 174

Part IV Burn New York

Chapter 16 "Something Dead in That Valise" 189

Chapter 17 "Do the Greatest Damage in the Business District" 196

Chapter 18 "It Blazed Up Instantly" 207

Chapter 19 "A Vast and Fiendish Plot" 219

Part V The Aftermath

Chapter 20 "If Convicted, They Will Be Executed" 233

Chapter 21 "Trust to Luck" 242

Chapter 22 "A Terror for Our Citizens" 253

Chapter 23 "They Sacrificed Everything" 263

Epilogue: What Happened to the Principal Characters 272

Acknowledgments 276

Source Notes 278

Selected Bibliography 293

Index 297

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"A Vast and Fiendish Plot": The Confederate Attack on New York City 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
James_Durney More than 1 year ago
The Civil War has any number of small areas that lack studies. There are many reasons for this the major one being that people tend not to buy books about these items. For this reason, any book on these areas requires the serious student of the war to consider it. This book falls into this category. The failed attempt to burn New York City rated very little ink during the war of after it. However, this area can be an absorbing look at the war behind the lines. The publisher's marketing is not a complete picture of this book. First, Clint Johnson is a competent author writing a readable enjoyable book that is informative without being stuffy. Second, this book covers much more than the plot to burn New York. When cotton was king, New York was the king's banker. The city handled the international cotton trade acting as broker, banker and shipper. Southern cotton arrived on the cities' docks to be loaded onto transatlantic vessels. Luxuries from Europe were loaded onto costal vessels for shipment to the South. The city grew rich on cotton and was active in the slave trade long after it was legal to do so. The first thing we look at is the history of the cities' relationship with the South. While background, this section of the book gives the reader a valuable understanding of politics during the war years. The second major item is the Confederate Secret Service in Canada a mixture of wistful thinking, outright mismanagement and sheer stupidity. The author walks us through a series of operations, some downright silly to some that worked. The Saint Albans raid and bank robberies are a substantial part of this story. This is a history that we see in bit and pieces, presented in a reasonable detail here. Next, we have a look at Manhattan during the war years. This is a loving recreation of a city and a time. The author's prose paints a picture of a bustling metropolis where wealth and poverty coexist. The infamous Draft Riot is covered to the extent needed to help us understand the environment the arsonists are operating in. Lat we have the plot itself. The author uses all of the above to give us a complete picture of the environment and history of the plot. With this foundation, we understand the failure and the bumbling. This is a combination of the keystone cops and the gang that couldn't shoot straight that could have turned deadly. This is a readable enjoyable book with an attractive price that is worth reading.
nbmars on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I¿m always glad to discover something new. In this case, I discovered I actually could be bored by a book on the Civil War. This book by a Civil War aficionado ultimately concerns the actions of the Confederate Secret Service and the attempt by some of its agents to bring down the Union by burning New York. But it takes a meandering and dilatory path to get to that point. Johnson begins by cataloging all the ways in which antebellum New York City was actually the South¿s best friend; certainly, as Johnson avers, ¿the city had grown wealthy trading Southern cotton and financing Southern slave purchases.¿ Additionally, Northern textile mills made use of more than 80 percent of the cotton shipped to New York; New York benefited as the intermediary for all these transactions. Thus, many in New York City was opposed to abolition, insofar as it was so interdependent on the South and the slave system for its wealth.But in spite of New York¿s support prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, the Confederate agents mobilizing in Canada could think of no better target for their planned terrorist action. (Indeed, the appeal to terrorists trying to win glory by attacking New York hasn¿t changed over the centuries.) Thus, a plot was hatched to ignite fires in hotel rooms across the city. The plan fizzled out however without much damage because of the ineptitude of the saboteurs. Johnson does not go so far to claim to be disappointed, but the book has a bit of a ¿the romantic South¿ bias, and the author does end with a detailed discussion on what factors the Confederates should have taken into account in order for their mission to have succeeded. His last two chapters end in sort of breathless, excited italics: ¿Fire would have consumed New York City.¿ and ¿New York City would have burned down.¿My recommendation? Skip this one.
ElizabethChapman on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Received via LibraryThing Early ReviewersThe struggles of Lee and Grant on the battlefields of the Civil War are familiar to many people, but author Clint Johnson brings to light a much less well-known aspect of the war between the states: the activities of the Confederate Secret Service, and especially its ¿vast and fiendish plot¿ to destroy the city of New York by burning it to the ground.Don¿t expect brilliant writing -- the poetry of David McCullough or the plumbing of psychological depths of Annette Gordon-Reed. This is meat and potatoes history, marshaling facts and dates in a straightforward narrative that recounts the who, what, when, where, and how (and to be fair, a good dose of the why) of past events. Johnson sets the stage for the plot to burn New York with a meticulous, and often surprising, examination of the relationship between the great commercial metropolis of the North and the cotton-producing South. That New York would be an ardent supporter of the South ¿ and staunchly anti-Lincoln -- seems incongruous to a modern reader. But there were slaves in New York before Jamestown, and the Northern port grew very rich indeed off cotton: nearly 40 cents of every dollar made in the cotton trade went into the pockets of New Yorkers. Reading of New York¿s complicity in slavery is unsettling and challenges any complacent belief that the North has always been a bastion of progressive thought.Johnson uses a mass of detail (you don¿t actually get to the plan to destroy New York until well into the book), to make the case for why Confederate agents would feel justified in trying to wipe New York off the map. When he examines the plot itself, he makes clear just how inept the conspirators were. They used ¿Greek Fire,¿ a liquid that ignites when exposed to air, to set fires in hotel rooms across the city ¿ but didn¿t experiment with how to use the flammable liquid before hand. They ignored locations that would have burned readily and caused mass destruction ¿ a gas factory, warehouses packed with combustibles, a turpentine distillery -- in favor of hotels filled with people who could detect a fire before it raged out of control. They set their fires in the early evening when the whole city was awake, rather than the wee hours of the morning when response would have been much more slow. As a result, most of the fires petered out on their own or were quenched before they did much damage. But if the agents had been more strategic, New York might just have gone up in an unstoppable inferno.Throughout the book Johnson stops short of being an apologist for the South, but he makes clear just how true the old adage is: history is written by the winners. You¿re likely to think a bit differently about the North, and the South, after reading A Vast and Fiendish Plot. And changing our sense of the world is just what good history should do.
harpua on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I found this book interesting yet a tough read to get through. This was interesting because it was a bit if micro-history that I was not aware of before. This is something they just don't teach in school. I typically love these kind of accounts as it gets to the heart of individuals involved and in this case I speculate how this event, if successful, would have changed the path of the Civil War. This was a tough read however, as there was just too much background information before we get to the actual plot. While this background is probably essential and necessary to get a true picture of the 'whys' and 'hows' of the plot, for someone like me who is not a historian, but just someone with an interest in historical events like this, it just was too much. For a professional historian, this may have been an awesome book, but for someone who is not, this just was too hard to get into.
vespasia on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A little disappointed in this book. Very slow going just to get to the main story. Background is necessary but when the book becomes more about the background than the story, I lose interest. Had it not been an early reviewer book, I most likely would not have finished reading it.
cwflatt on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a very interesting book on the Confederacy Secret Service, its members and reasonings. It talks much more about the people and events leading up the attack on New York city that the attack itself which leaves you to wonder if it had gone as planned would things after that point in the war be any different.
comfypants on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I read about a quarter of the book before stopping out of boredom. It reads like a term paper. The author's idea of making the story engaging is to throw in a surprising bit of trivia now and then. But mostly I was bored because, 78 pages in, the book was still not about "the Confederate attack on New York City," as the subtitle promises. It talks about New York's economics and politics as they relate to the South, which I'm sure is good background information for the promised subject, and probably many people might find it interesting. If it was a reasonably well-written book, I might have gotten through that part (presumably it does get around to the "vast and fiendish plot" eventually). But it's not well-written; it's essentially a list of facts and statistics. And I just don't care.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago