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 Posted: Fri Jul 26th, 2013 04:38 am
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Hellcat
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Ok, anyone who saw the Copper TV thread will have seen that I posted a little on the use of Greek fire during the war. I've been thinking for a little bit now that it would be more fitting to discuss it here in the Weapons category and am going to repost my last response from the Copper TV thread. As a heads up, the "aforementioned book" mention in the first sentence is Secret Mission of the Civil War by Philip Van Doren Stern.

Hellcat wrote:
Ok, grabbed my copy of the aforementioned book. Van Doren Stern republished some elements from John W. Headley's book Confederate Operations in Canda and New York which came out in 1906. Headley was rather familiar with some of these operations as he was one of the Confederate agents carrying them out. In fact he was one of the agents in NYC who attempted to burn the city. In the book (on pages 259-260 of Van Doren Stern's book) Headley wrote:

When I lugged it into our cottage the boys were waiting and glad of my safe return. I was given the key with the valise and opened it at once with some curiosity to investigate the contents. None of the party knew anything about Greek Fire, except that the moment it was exposed to the air it would blaze and burn everything it touched. We found it to be a liquid resembling water. It was put up in four-ounce bottles securely sealed. There were twelve dozen bottles in the valise. We were now ready to create a sensation in New York. It had been agreed that our fires would be started in hotels, so as to do the greatest damage in the business district on Broadway. The eight members of our party had each taken a room at three or four hotels. In doing this we would buy a black glazed satchel for $1.00 and put an overcoat in it for baggage. The room at each hotel was used enough to show that it was being occupied. In leaving, of course, the overcoat would be worn and the satchel left behind empty.

It was agreed that our operations should begin promptly at 8 o'clock P.M., so that the guests of the hotels might all escape as we did not want to destroy any lives.

We separated to meet at the same place the next evening at 6 o'clock, and then, as Captain [Robert Cobb] Kennedy remarked to me, "We'll make a spoon or spoil a horn."

... At 6 o'clock promptly on the evening of November 25, 1864, our party met in our cottage headquarters, two failing to report.

The bottle of Greek Fire having been wrapped in paper were put in our coat pockets. Each man took ten bottles. It was agreed that after our operations were over we should secrete ourselves and meet here the next night at 6 o'clock to compare notes and agree on further plans.


Headley does, on page 258 of Van Doren Stern's book, tell us he picked up the valise from an old man with a long beard. All he had to do was tell him a Captain Longmire (Captain E. Longuemare) had sent him.

So according to one of the Confederate agents they were indeed going to use what they called Greek fire. Captain Kennedy was arrested in Michigan trying to go from Canada to Richmond and sentenced to hang March 25, 1865. The morning of his execution he gave a confession that may explain a little as to what Greek Fire was. Van Doren Stern records this confession on page 267 of his book:

"I know that I am to be hung for setting fire to Barnum's Museum, but that was only a joke. I had no idea of doing it. I had been drinking ... and just to scare people, I emptied a bottle of phosphorus on the floor."

Headley does mention Kennedy was at Barnum's Museum on November 25, 1864 and that he had used Greek Fire there as he thought it would be fun to start a scare (page 261 and 262 of Van Doren Stern's book):

The was still a crowd around the Astor House and everywhere, but I edged through and crossed over to City Hall, where I caught a car just starting up town. I got off ... opposite the Metropolitian Hotel to go across and see how Ashbrook and Harrington had succeeded. After walking half a square I observed a man walking ahead of me and recognized him. It was Captain Kennedy. I closed up behind him an slapped him on the shoulder. He squatted and began to draw his pistol, but I laughed and he knew me. He laughed and said he ought to shoot me for giving him such a scare.

We soon related to each other our experience. Kennedy said that after he touched off his hotels he concluded to go down to Barnum's Museum and stay until something turned up, but had only been there a few minutes when alarms began to ring all over the city. He decided to go out, and coming down the stairway, it happened to be clear at a turn and the idea occurred to him that there would be fun to start a scare. He broke a bottle of Greek Fire, he said, on the edge of a step like he would crack an egg. It blazed up an he got out to witness the result. He had been down there in the crowd ever since, and the fires at the Astor House and the City Hotel had both been put out. But he had listened to the talk of the people and heard the opinion expressed generally that Rebels were in the city to destroy it. He thought our presence must be known. Harrington had broken a bottle in the Metropolitan Theater at 8 o'clock just after he fired the Metropolitan Hotel adjoining; and Ashbrook had done likewise in Niblo's Garden Theater adjoining the La Farge Hotel.


So we've got Headley saying Greek fire was a water like liquid that would self combust when it came into contact with the air. And Kennedy saying he poured phosphorus on the floor at PT Barnum's American Museum in NYC Perhaps phosphorus was an ingredient in what was known as Greek Fire during the 19th century.

Greek fire is mentioned again in Donald E. Markle's Spies & Spymasters of the Civil War, this time as being used against both NYC and St Louis. On page 53 concerning the use of Greek Fire by Confederate agents Markle writes:

In the fall of 1864, operatives from Toronto did go to St. Louis, Missouri, to destroy the Union transports used to ferry Union troops and supplies on the Mississippi. They intended to use an inflammatory known as "Greek fire" (a Molotov cocktail), which was only successful about 50 percent of the time. The group did in fact manage to destroy or damage 5 to 10 of the 75 Union transports in port.

Then on page 54 he writes:

On November 25, 1864, Confederate operatives from Toronto came to New York City with the intention of "flaming" the city. They selected 19 hotels as targets and hoped to create a riot similar to the New York City draft riots. While some hotels did in fact sustain fires, in several cases the Greek fire did not ignite and the total effect was not what was desired. All o the operatives did manage to escape from the city which was a neat trick since a double agent, Godfrey Hyams, had informed the Union of the threat to New York.

Ok so we have two important elements to consider on this one. The first is that Markle claims Greek fire was basically a Molotov cocktail. Now a Molotov cocktail is usually some sort of flammable liquid such as gas with a cloth wick that has been dipped in something like kerosene or alcohol. This pretty much doesn't seem to match up with what Headley said about it combusting when coming into contact with air as why would you need a wick when all you could do was just throw it. OR just smash it against something as Kennedy did.

The second is more important is that Greek fire was not dependable more than half the time it was used. So every time it was used you had a 50-50 chance it would work as it was supposed to and damage or destroy the target. Which would certainly explain why NYC didn't burn down as planned.

We then turn to Webb Garrison's Civil War Schemes and Plots. On page 176:

Kennedt or Longuemare or both had earlier made contact with a Confederate chemist who had fled to New York. The paid him an undisclosed sum to generate 144 four ounce bottles of a substance popularly known as Greek fire. Two of its active ingredients, phosphorus and hydrogen sulfide, caused it to flare at the touch of a lighted candle and burn with intense heat.

During the evening of November 24 and the morning of November 25, his handiwork was parceled out among the conspirators. Most of them received eighteen bottles, but since Kennedy's assignments also included the museum, he may have taken some that Ashbrook and Martin expected to receive.

Each participant then returned to the room he ha booked in each hotel, splashed Greek fire on the bed and furniture, and when the flames began to dart upward, dashed out locking the door behind him. Although Greek fire was known to be unreliable, 144 bottles of the compound could have turned the heart of the city into a raging inferno. As it was, the only hotel destroyed was the Saint Nicholas. At the Astor, the Metropolitan, and the Belmont, damage was confined to a few rooms or a single floor. Flames did not level the crowded Barnum's Museum, but they created pandemonium when the elephants, lions, and tigers took fright upon smelling the smoke.


Ok, so we have more of an ingredients list here. But we also have a bit of confussion in that Garrison says that it required the touch of a lighted candle to set it off. Does this mean a wick as Markle's Molotov Cocktail comment would suggest or does it merely mean the heat from a candle flame was enough to do it? It may be more the latter as he goes on to say that the agents splashed Greek fire on furniture and then left the rooms as soon as the flames began to rise up. This would seem to suggest no need for a wick and would fit with Headley's description of contact with the air. BUT he never says they didn't throw a lit candle into the middle of the Greek fire to set it off.

Whatever the case in how the Greek fire ignited, Copper's use of Greek Fire is not weird.


Now by and large I was more hitting on the use of Greek fire in the NYC plot that appearently appears in Copper (never seen it myself but looking things up online I can see it is set in NYC at least in part during the war) which the original poster called "unforgiveable" and a weird idea. But of course all my quotes make it look like it was strictly a Confederate weapon and one not really considered by Federals at any level. However Webb Garrison's Civil War Stories reveals that this wasn't the case. On page 146:

Lincoln, who frequently prodded his commanders to try innovations, was intrigued by an incendiary chemical called "Greek Fire." He put his life at risk by watching two 13-inch shells that were charged with it spew fire over a circular area about fifty feet in diameter. At his insistence, a few of these shells wre used experimentally by Federal forces.

Confederates denounced this early form of chemical warfare as "inhuman." Yet when they sent teams of arsonists into New York City in a plot to burn it's major buildings, Greek Fire was used to start the blazes. The expedition ended in failure because the chemicals didn't ignite properly.


It's interesting to see that the Federal army was using Greek Fire, most likely to shell Confederate cities. I'm going to look at other sources for more in this subject. Already know I can get a little out of the Official records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion that I want to bring up later (for one example of the hit's on the subject read this page from Series I Volume 3 http://ebooks.library.cornell.edu/cgi/t/text/pageviewer-idx?c=moawar;cc=moawar;q1=Greek%20Fire;rgn=full%20text;idno=ofre0003;didno=ofre0003;view=image;seq=0524)

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