By October 1864, the Confederate States of America faced an increasing prospect of defeat in the Civil War. Union Armies had captured Atlanta, Georgia in September and were engaged in siege operations at Petersburg, Virginia. The U.S. had gained control of the Mississippi River and split the Confederacy the previous year. October 19th was a cloudy, drizzly day in St. Albans, Vermont, a town 15 miles south of the Canadian border. It was a long way from the battlefields, but on that day, the war came to St. Albans.
Planning the St. Albans Raid
In the summer of 1863, the Confederate government sent operatives to Canada for the purpose of organizing raids to be unleashed against the northern United States. This new tactic had several goals. One goal was to draw Federal troops away from the fighting in the south to secure the border. It was also hoped that violations of Canadian neutrality resulting from border incursions by the U.S. Army would draw Great Britain into a war with the United States. Another goal was to aquire money for the Confederate government.
Bennett H. Young was a Kentucky cavalryman who was captured in July 1863 and sent to Camp Douglas in Chicago as a prisoner of war. Young escaped and made his way to Canada. In Montreal, Young made contact with Jacob Thompson and Clement Clay, two of the Confederacy’s top officials in Canada, and offered his services for raids into the U.S. Young also proposed plans for raids, including one against St. Albans, where a team of raiders would rob the town’s banks before burning the town in retaliation for U.S. depredations in the south. Confederate Secretary of War James Sedden approved Young’s plan. Young was authorized to take 20 men with him on the raid, all of whom were former prisoners of war.
The Raiders Infiltrate St. Albans
Posing as a theology student, Young made three trips to St. Albans to check out the town and the roads between the border and the town. He also scouted the location of the town’s three banks. He returned to stay on October 10th, accompanied by two other men. Over the next several days, the rest of the men arrived in groups of two or three and checked into the town’s three hotels. All of them were in town by October 18th.
The raiders posed as hunters, horse traders, and tourists in their dealings with the townspeople. They found the livery stables and locations of other horses for escaping after the raid. They blended in well and did not arouse suspicion.
Young met with the leader of each group on October 18th. He set the time of the raid for three o’clock on the afternoon of the 19th. At that time they would simultaneously rob all three banks. While that was going on, horses would be secured for the escape back to Canada. Finally, they would burn the town using bottles of Greek Fire, an incendiary concoction probably consisting of a mixture of phosphorus, naptha, sulfur, and other ingredients.
Robbing the St. Albans Banks
At three o’clock small groups of raiders each armed with two Colt navy revolvers hidden under their coats and haversacks on their shoulders simultaneously entered the three banks located within a block of each other in the center of town. They closed the outer doors of the banks and approached the bank tellers.
At The First National Bank, raider Caleb Wallace approached the counter, drew his revolvers and said to cashier Albert Sowles “if you offer any resistance, I will shoot you dead. You are my prisoner.” Three others, James Doty, Alamanda Bruce, and Joseph McGorty quickly stuffed the contents of the bank’s safe into their haversacks. When they finished, they began to march Sowles out the door to Taylor Park across the street to be placed under guard with other townspeople. As they were leaving, William H. Blaisdell, a local clothier and bank customer came into the bank and asked what was going on. When told the bank was being robbed, Blaisdell confronted Wallace on the steps of the bank, knocked him down and jumped on him. While the two fought with each other on the ground, McGorty stuck his revolver close to Blaisdell’s head and ended the fight. Blaisdell was taken to Taylor Park.
Another group of raiders robbed the St. Albans Bank. Before they left, raider Thomas Collins forced bank employees Cyrus Bishop and Martin Seymour to swear an oath of allegiance to the Confederacy.
At the Franklin County Bank, cashier Marcus W. Beardsley found himself staring at revolvers pointed at his head. “We are Confederate soldiers sir” raider William Hutchinson told Beardsley. “We have come to rob your banks and burn your town and we are going to do it.” After grabbing all the money they could find, the raiders locked Beardsley and another man in the bank’s vault. The three bank robberies netted $208,000 .
Outside the Banks
Meanwhile, townspeople in the area continued to be herded into Taylor Park at gunpoint. Local citizen Collins Huntington refused Young’s order to go to the park, thinking the Confederate raider was just some drunk. Young shot Huntington in the back near the spine; the bullet followed a rib and came out the side, resulting in a flesh wound. Huntington recovered from his wound. Elias Morrison, a building contractor from Manchester, New Hampshire, was not as lucky. Morrison and livery stable owner E.D. Fuller were crouching in a doorway while Fuller aimed a gun at Young. Fuller was enraged that his horses had been stolen and had attempted to shoot Young moments earlier only to have his pistol misfire. Another raider fired at the two men, hitting Morrison in the abdomen. Morrison died on October 21st, the only known fatality of the St. Albans Raid.
With the banks robbed and enough horses secured, the raiders prepared to escape. The plan to burn the town failed. The bottles of Greek Fire failed to ignite or just smoldered, causing little damage. The townspeople were now fully aware of the raid and were shooting back at the raiders. The telegraph operator wired a message to the state capitol that the town was under attack. The Confederate raiders headed out of town toward Canada. As they were leaving, St. Albans resident Wilder Gilson fired his rifle at raider Charles Higbee, hitting him in the side. Higbee, the only Confederate shot during the raid, apparently recovered from his wounds, although there were unconfirmed reports he died later that winter.
Cavalry Captain George Conger quickly organized a posse of townspeople to chase down the raiders. With the posse in close pursuit, the Confederates crossed the border into Canada and split up. Without authorization, Conger and about half the posse crossed the border, a violation of Canada’s, and Great Britain’s, neutrality. Later, Major General John Dix, the officer in charge of the army in the Eastern District of the U.S. ordered those who were chasing the raiders to “pursue into Canada if necessary and destroy them”. Dix had greatly exceeded his authority. This order could have triggered war with Great Britain and President Abraham Lincoln rescinded it.
Realizing they had a diplomatic mess on their hands, the Canadians acted quickly. Fourteen of the raiders, including Bennett Young, were arrested and jailed in Montreal. One raider actually made it to the Confederacy, reportedly by traveling disguised as a woman. Legal proceedings regarding the captured St. Albans raiders dragged on for months, with the U.S. arguing the raid was a criminal act by civilians who should be extradited to Vermont. The Canadian courts disagreed, stating the raid was a military operation carried out under orders. The Canadian government did send gold equivalent in value to $88,000 in U.S. currency to the St. Albans banks to cover the amount of money found on the captured raiders. Charges were eventually dropped, and the raiders were released. By this time, the war was over.
The St. Albans Raid was the northernmost land action of the Civil War. Bennett Young eventually returned to Kentucky after the war and became a successful lawyer and author. The only time he wrote about the raid were some remarks in the January 1902 issue of The Vermonter Magazine. Insisting he was a soldier following orders he wrote: “Acting under these orders, I have nothing to regret, explain, or modify”.
“Fury in Vermont” by Ron Soodalter. America’s Civil War, November 2009.
History of the St. Albans Raid: Annual Address Before the Vermont Historical Society, October 17, 1876 by Edward A. Sowles. St. Albans, Vermont: Messenger Printing Works, 1876.
“The Hit and Run Raid” by Charles Morrow Wilson. American Heritage, August 1961.
St. Albans Raid, October 19, 1864 by John Branch, et al. St. Albans Historical Society, 1987.
“The St. Albans Raid: Rebels in Vermont!” by John Woodard. Blue and Gray Magazine, December 1990.
“Secret History of the St. Albans Raid” by Bennett H. Young. The Vermonter Magazine, January 1902.
The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. United States War Department, Washington, DC: 1880-1901.