Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Unwelcome Visitors to St. Albans, Vermont

Some of the raiders pose while in Canadian custody.  Lt Bennett Young at right in cavalry boots.

Compared to the industrial scale horror of many of the battle fields of the Civil War, it was a trifle.  Hardly even a skirmish—one dead on each side, a handful of injuries, one shed burned, and a few locals thrown into a panic.  Indeed outside of the Green Mountain state where it is something of a big deal, it has been relegated to a mere footnote in the central epic of American history.
But I guess the actual invasion of Vermont by Confederate cavalry on October 18, 1864 merits a few spilled electrons here.
By October of 1864 things looked grim for the Rebels.  Robert E. Lee’s increasingly bedraggled Army of Northern Virginia was losing a war of attrition but was putting up a desperate resistance behind the earthen work defenses to Petersburg, gate way to Richmond itself.  Sherman was cutting loose from recently fallen Atlanta and making his March to the Sea.  The West had been cut off for more than a year since the fall of Vicksburg and total Union control of the Mississippi.  Most important Confederate ports had either already fallen were effectively blockaded.  The Southern economy was in shambles, its limited industrial capacity largely smashed, and her people exhausted.  Yet they fought on, desperate for a miracle.
In such a situation President Jefferson Davis was eager to try anything, no matter how outlandish and desperate.  His attention turned to Canada where Confederate agents swarmed concocting fantastic plots the main aim of which was to exploit Northern war weariness and somehow defeat Abraham Lincoln in the November election and replace him with a peace Democrat who would negotiate and end to the war.
To that end they had been advising and arming a small number of radical Copperheads, nominally led by Ohio Congressman Clement Vallandigham and his political organization The Sons of Liberty.  Most of the Sons were simply anti-war, but I minority did hatch some plots with the aid those Canadian efforts—attempts to stir an uprising in Chicago coincidental to the Democratic Party Convention there.  The plot had been exposed, and Republican propagandists made a field day of exaggerating the threat and denouncing copperhead treason.  Vallandigham himself was deported to Canada. 
Meanwhile other plots included a plan to seize the only Navy Gunboat on Lake Eerie, the U.S.S Michigan which was guarding a sizable prisoner of war camp on Johnson’s Island.  Armed agents seized a steamboat and planned to intercept the Michigan whose officers were supposed to be drugged by saboteurs.  That plot also was exposed and the rebels had to high tail it to Canadian shores on their commandeered boat.
So it was not surprising that Davis eagerly accepted a plan laid out to him by a young cavalryman.  Bennett H. Young was the teen age son of a Kentucky aristocrat when he had enlisted in the 8th Kentucky Cavalry.  He was only 20 when he was captured in Ohio during General John Hunt Morgan’s raid deep into Yankee territory.  After a short time as a prisoner of war, he escaped and made his way to Canada.  From there he went all the way to Halifax, Nova Scotia where he booked passage to Bermuda and from there back south on a blockade runner.  During the daring do of these adventures, he laid out the plans he eventually laid out to President Davis.
He proposed to return to Canada and once there recruit a force from the large numbers of escaped POW’s there, then stage a raid of a fat and under protected U.S. border town.  The immediate objective would be to rob banks and secure desperately needed specie—hard currency in the form of gold.  The raid would also perhaps force the Union government to divert troops from the southern fronts to protect the exposed northern frontier.  It might be enough of a blow to Northern moral to help tip the November election to George McClelland and the Democrats. 
Perhaps the wildest hope was that the raid would provoke an over-reaction and a hot pursuit of the raiders across the border causing an international incident.  With luck it might even blow up into something that would finally bring British intervention into the Civil War either on the side of the South or as a neutral peace keeper which would separate the forces and recognize the South—a long cherished Confederate dream.
Davis was sold.  He commissioned Young a lieutenant, provided a small purse to help finance his plan and sent him back to Canada with order to meet up with Confederate agents there.  Returning north by the same perilous route, Young was soon enough busy recruiting his force.
Eventually he gathered 21 other young adventurers, most of them, like himself, cavalrymen, the others expert horsemen.  After a brief period of training, they began to slip across the porous and undefended border by ones and twos, most by train.
Their objective was the prosperous rail junction town of St. Albans fifteen miles from the border.  It major attraction was three fat banks clustered near the center of town. 
On October 10, Young and one companion checked into a local hotel explaining their long guns by claiming to be on a hunting trip from St. John’s.  Over the next few days the others arrived with similar stories.  Although it is a mystery to me how so many armed young men, many of whom had to have obviously Southern accents could come into a small town without arising at least some suspicion.  But then St. Albans was far from the war, and perhaps only its sons and husbands in the Union service had ever heard a Southerner speak.
As his troops assembled, Young spent time scouting the surrounding area and all possible roads in and out of town in all directions under the cover of hunting trips.  The handsome and charming young man also found time to dally with the affections of a local belle and was even welcomed into the home of Governor J. Gregory Smith and given a tour by his wife, Anna
Finally, all was in place.  About 3 pm October 19, Young strode the steps of the American Hotel, drew his pistol and announced the astonished men gathered there ““I take possession of this town in the name of the Confederate States of America.  Anyone resisting will be shot.”  By coincidence he had the good fortune of picking a day when the local Sheriff and as many as 50 other leading local citizens were attending court at the county seat and Gov. Smith was attending state business in Montpelier.  The men most likely to organize an effective resistance were gone.
Young and a handful of cohorts began to round up citizens on the streets and herd them into the village green.  When the local church bells sounded 3 pm teams of two or three burst simultaneously into the town’s three banks—the St. Albans Bank, Franklin County Bank, and First National Bank of St. Albans—clustered together conveniently enough on Bank Street.  In each case employees were pistol whipped or threatened and chaotic searches were conducted for cash.  In each case substantial amounts were either not found, left behind or, and lost in the excitement.
The robbers found little hard currency and in one case decided that a bag of silver dollars was too heavy to carry.  Very little gold was taken, but they loaded up on bank notes, green backs, and government bonds. 
Meanwhile as Young held the terrified locals at gun point, other men rounded up and saddle horsed from the local livery stable and from the streets. 
Several shot were fired in the bank robberies and as Young and his men menaced the town.  There were several tussles and a few local managed to get a hold of weapons and fire, mostly ineffectively, at the raiders.  One local man was killed, and another wounded by gunfire.  Two raiders were shot, one of whom later died of his wounds.
Meanwhile, despite the best efforts isolate the center of town, word was getting out that a raid was taking place and men started to arm themselves and prepare to attack the raiders. 
Young planned to set fire to the town, reportedly as revenge for General Philip Sheridan’s devastating raid in the Shenandoah Valley and as a diversion to keep townspeople too busy putting out the flames to pursue them.  To this end the raiders had equipped themselves with four inch glass vials of Greek Fire that were supposed to burst into flames when broken and exposed to the air.  Vials were thrown at the American house and several other businesses, but only a shed ignited and it was quickly extinguished.
Young was overheard to order one of his men to go to Governor Smith’s home and burn it.  A boy slipped away from the crowd and ran to inform Mrs. Smith that the raiders were coming.  She quickly rummaged through the house and found an old horse pistol.  Unfortunately it was unloaded and she did not find any ammunition.  Gamely she hauled the heavy weapon out and took a position in her doorway awaiting the arrival of the Rebels.  Her heart was beating when she heard hoof beats.
Fortunately the horse was ridden Captain George Conger, a recently discharged cavalryman who was organizing a posse.  He left some men behind to guard the governor’s home and then headed to town.  Eventually he gathered a posse of 50 men and F. Stewart Stranahan and John W. Newton gathered another 50.  Both began to close in on the village center.
Realizing that he was pressed and outnumbered, Young had to abandon plans to proceed to two other nearby towns to rob their banks.  He and his men hightailed it out of town not too much in advance of the posses.  In the confusion more bank loot spilled from the raiders’ bags. 
Here his planning and knowledge of the roads paid off the men split up and then split again.  All gained the Canadian border safely, including the two wounded men, one of who would soon die.
Once in Canada it did not take long for local authorities, warned by telegraph to find and round up raiders.  All who actually went on the raid were in custody within 24 hours, although con-conspirators and Confederate agents in Canada were not nabbed.
Canadian authorities were in a quandary about what to do with the men.  At the State Department William S. Seward issued blustery demands for their return, calling the men common criminals.  Young and his men demanded to be treated as combatants of war beyond extradition and criminal punishment.  As predicted the incident did blow up into an incident that threatened US-British relations.  Canadian authorities finally decided that their neutrality prevented them from turning the men over.  They did however return all of the money they recovered—about $88,000 of the estimated $200,000 stolen.  Some of the rest of the money was recovered in St. Albans and along the trail of the fleeing raiders.
While in custody the raiders were treated as celebrities.  They posed for photographs in and out of their jail cells.  Papers both North and South were filled with breathless accounts of their escapades.  Illustrated stories splashed across the pages of weeklies like Harper’s and Frank Leslie’s illustrated. 
But the publicity failed to dishearten the public, who were beginning to get used to Union victories in the field.  A few troops were indeed dispatched to protect the border, but the Union had plenty to spare.  Another Canadian based plot to stage an election day uprising in New York City was revealed and squelched when General Ben Butler arrived in the city with several thousand troops.  The election went off without a hitch.  Lincoln, of course, was re-elected.
The South, however, was cheered by the heroics.  President Davis promoted Young to Brigadier General as he sat in his jail cell.
Eventually all the men were released.  After the war Young was specifically excluded from the General Amnesty offered Confederate troops.  He could not go safely home again until 1868.  He studied law while in exile and back home opened up a prosperous law practice.  He was widely celebrated as a hero and gained both wealth and prestige.  He became noted for his philanthropy including founding the first orphanage for Black children in Louisville, a school for the blind, and much pro bono work for the poor. He became President of the Louisville Southern Railroad, a memoirist, and National Commander of the United Confederate Veterans.  He died in 1919 at the age of 66.
Only one of the three robbed banks still stands.  And it is still a bank building.  But after many mergers and changes of hands it is, somewhat ironically, a branch of a major Canadian bank.
Tailored made as an adventure yarn, the St. Alban’s raid has been the subject of novels and of the 1954 film The Raid starring Van Heflin, Richard Boone, Anne Bancroft, and Lee Marvin.  As you might suspect, the film was only loosely tethered to the facts.
The state of Vermont has heavily promoted the story of the St. Albans Raid.  This is the third and final year of a three year 150th anniversary of the raid which has been marked by scholarly programs, re-enactments, a play and various special events.  The state has found that Civil War buffs nicely supplement the annual pilgrimages of leaf peepers to the state.


  1. It does not aappear that the men were in uniform, so it's a wonder that they were not treated as spies.

    1. If Seward had succeeded in getting them extradited, they would have been charged as spies as well as bank robbery. But the Canadian authorities, ruled they were combatants. It is possible that the fact that they faced execution as spies influenced the decision.