In 1864, Confederate agents conspired to burn New York City by starting fires with the chemical phosphorus. What prevented these small fires of engulfing and destroying the city?
#123622. Asked by star_gazer. (Sep 25 11 9:03 PM)
Two theories (a) all the rooms which were set alight had no draft (they were closed); aka the fires lacked oxygen, and/or (b) the chemist who made the fire bombs designed them to self-extinguish. |
American History: 1864 Attack on New York
All in all, the saboteurs set more than a dozen buildings ablaze that night, but none of them burned long. That was mainly because the raiders, in their desire to remain undetected, made one major mistake: 'It was noticed that in every room where the phosphorus was found the windows and all apertures for the admission of air and ventilation were tightly closed,' the Herald reported. Without a draft, the fires didn't have the oxygen they needed to reach dangerous levels.
Jaquess met a disaffected Southerner who told him about a Confederate plot to burn northern cities and shipping. From this Southerner, Jaquess learned the identity of the Rebel chemist who was making the incendiary bombs, and where the Colonel could locate him. This information motivated Jaquess to "smuggle" himself through enemy lines on a third trip to the Confederacy. When he talked with the Confederate chemist, Jaquess learned that this man had become "opposed to the whole thing" and believed that the weapon that he was creating was "not sanctioned by the laws of War." Colonel Jaquess, who had taught chemistry during his first college presidency, worked with the unnamed chemist to alter the chemical ingredients of the bombs. Together they created a formula that would catch fire when exposed to the air, burn brightly for a short time, and then extinguish itself. The Colonel told the Committee that he had spent between $1200 and $1300 on the ingredients for the new bomb formula. Jaquess maintained that the southern spies failed in their plans because their bombs did not work.
The Colonel's account offers one explanation for the failure of the Confederate spies to burn New York City on November 23, 1864, the day before Thanksgiving. It was claimed at the time that the fires in several hotels and the Barnum Museum died because they were set in closed areas with insufficient oxygen. Another explanation was that those individuals who accidentally discovered the fires simply put them out. However, Jaquess maintained that the fires went out because the new chemical formula included a means of "self-extinguishment." John W. Headley, one of the Confederate spies who tried to burn New York City, agrees that the bombs did not work properly. He writes: "It seemed to us that there was something wrong with our Greek fire.... We came to the conclusion that [the] manufacturing chemist had put up a job on us."
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