Col. Robert M. Martin looked the part of a Confederate war hero.
He was one of Gen. John Hunt Morgan’s stalwarts who stood 6-feet-tall with steely blue eyes and mustache and goatee.
Martin, in his mid-20s, was a little stooped from a chest wound he had acquired during a narrow escape in McMinnville, Tenn., but the brave leader of men had survived Morgan’s controversial death, which followed a final, ill-fated raid into Kentucky.
Morgan was shot to death in Greeneville, Tenn. in circumstances still debated today. While his brother-in-law Basil Duke was appointed to fill his place, many of his men were left bitter and ready for retribution.
Among those was the dashing Robert Martin, who like Morgan, would find a bride with Murfreesboro connections. Martin’s marriage would ultimately prove his undoing.
But first came his covert mission to burn New York City down and take the war to the Northeast.
Martin, a Kentuckian, had been assigned by Richmond to Toronto, Canada to help plan paramilitary operations in the Northern United States. He was assisted by another Morgan veteran, Lt. John W. Headley, who had also served with Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Joining the select group was Capt. Robert Kennedy and lieutenants John T. Ashbrook, James T. Harrington, James Chenault and John M. Price of Virginia. A fifth conspirator’s name remains unknown.
Kennedy was the most hard-bitten of the group. He was a hard-drinking, foul-mouth Louisianan, who had escaped from the Federal prison camp at Johnson’s Island.
The conspirators planned what we would call today an act of terrorism with the help of Copperheads in New York City.
The Copperheads were Democrats bitterly opposed to Lincoln. They demanded an immediate end of the war, blaming it on abolitionists. Their resistance to the draft had lead to terrible riots in NYC during July of 1863. A number of powerful businessmen and politicians were Copperheads, including Fernando and Benjamin Wood. Fernando was a former mayor, while his brother, Benjamin was publisher of New York’s most anti-Lincoln newspaper.
James A. McMaster, editor and publisher of the weekly Freeman’s Journal and Catholic Register, was to be the conspirators’ contact within the Copperhead network. It was even believed, New York Gov. Horatio Seymour, an opponent of abolition and the draft, might aid the conspiracy.
The plan was a simple, but audacious one.
The Confederate agents would set a series of fires on Election Day, 1864. The fires would serve as a diversion while Copperheads seized government offices, took control of the police department, freed Confederate prisoners of war and then take the military commander, Gen. John Dix of New York, as a prisoner. By sunset, the Confederate flag would fly over City Hall.
Then New York State, New Jersey and other New England states would join the Copperhead revolution and peace would be sealed with the Confederate States of America.
While the plan seems far-fetched by today’s standards, it was one of several last-ditch efforts to save the CSA. The situation was grim for the Confederacy. By this point, Gen. William T. Sherman had seized Atlanta and Gen. Phil Sheridan was devastating Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.
The Confederates latched upon an ancient weapon of terror, “Greek Fire,” for their attack on New York City. A mysterious mixture of sulphur and other chemicals, “Greek Fire,” was easy to ignite and hard to extinguish.
Martin, Headley and the other agents sneaked into New York, which was teeming with Southerners fleeing the war or working hard to preserve their own financial interests. Joined by Kennedy, they began a series of meetings with McMaster and other Copperhead leaders. McMaster ensured them about 20,000 Copperhead thugs were ready to help take over the city of 750,000.
To some an editorial from the Richmond Times, that was reprinted in full in the New York Times, seemed to signal that the attack was “on.” The editorial, 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 … New York is worth twenty Richmonds. …”
The acts of terrorism were planned for presidential Election Day on Nov. 8. New York voters had cast their ballots two to one against Lincoln in the 1860 election.
But there was either a leak or a Union spy among the Confederate/Copperhead conspirators. Five days before the election, New York City officials released a telegram from U.S. Secretary of State William Stewart:
“This Department has received information from the British Provinces (Canada) 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 following day, a Union detachment of several thousand men, commanded by Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. “The Beast” Butler arrived in NYC and cordoned off Manhattan. Ferryboats filled with infantry were stationed in the East and Hudson Rivers. Gunboats were stationed off the Battery to protect downtown and the new Central Park reservoir was closely guarded.
While ineffectual in the field, Butler was feared because of his strict occupation of New Orleans earlier in the war.
Copperhead support evaporated, leaving the Confederates on their own. Election Day passed peacefully. They attempted to reschedule for Thanksgiving Day, ultimately settling for “Evacuation Day,” a New York holiday that celebrated the British evacuation of New York City during the Revolutionary War.
The constant reversals and the destruction of Atlanta sharpened the remaining conspirators’ resolve.
“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,” Kennedy said later.
With government buildings closely guarded, the conspirators decided that New York’s many hotels were the ideal targets. Each man was assigned four hotels to ignite with the Greek fire. Headley was to set fires on the city’s piers to cause confusion. The attacks were to begin at 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 25, 1864.
A number of hotels were set on fire, as was P.T. Barnum’s famous museum of oddities, but the Greek Fire proved ineffectual and in most cases just smoldered. No one was injured and major damage was averted, but New York was left in a very hostile mood and a widespread search began for the conspirators.
All of them escaped except for Kennedy, whose appearance and limp made him very recognizable. He was captured some weeks later trying to buy a train ticket in Detroit.
He was condemned to death.
“The attempt to set fire to the city of New York,” said General Dix, one of the plot’s intended victims, “is one of the great atrocities of the age. There is nothing in the annals of barbarism, which evinces greater vindictiveness. It was not a mere attempt to destroy the city, but to set fire to crowded hotels and places of public resort, in order to secure the greatest possible destruction of human life.”
Kennedy was executed March 25, 1865 at Fort Lafayette in New York harbor.
As for Martin, he was to die apparently by his wife’s hand as part of the crime of the century.