Civil 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.