In the fall of 1864, Vermont seemed far removed from the bloody battlefields of the American Civil War. Although as many as a tenth of the state’s 300,000 residents were in uniform, the actual fighting raged elsewhere. Yet the peaceful Green Mountain state, which had thus far escaped the war unscathed, was about to play host to one of the strangest chapters of the whole of the four-year conflict. Rebel raiders sheltered just over the border in neutral Canada were about to mount a daring foray into the heart of Vermont. Cathryn J. Prince, journalist, historian and author of the book Burn the Town and Sack the Banks: Confederates Attack Vermont! describes the incident, which would go down in history as the northernmost ground action of the entire war.
By Cathryn J. Prince.
The rain came down hard on the town of St. Albans, Vermont on the afternoon of Oct.19, 1864. Shortly before 3 p.m., Bennet H. Young climbed the wet steps of the American Hotel. Flanking the hazel-eyed horseman stood several other strangers. Each wore a pair of Navy six-guns belted to the outside of their jackets.
Young, 21, turned to some random passersby, drew his pistol declaring that he was a Confederate officer and had come to take the town. The locals stopped dead in their tracks — surely the man in the long gray coat had a strange sense of humor. He ordered the residents to head for the town green. Some shook their heads in disbelief. The instant Young pulled the trigger the crowd realized this was no joke.
WHO WERE THOSE MASKED MEN?
Young was a die-hard rebel, fully committed to the Southern cause. When he came of fighting age, the teenaged Kentuckian joined John Hunt Morgan’s raiders – the same outfit that in 1863 terrorized Indiana and southern Ohio. Captured during the Battle of Salinevill, Young escaped federal custody and fled north into Canada, at the time a British colony. There he made was his way to Montreal, which, along with Toronto, was a haven for Confederate agents, smugglers and spies. In fact, hotels in both Canadian cities featured Mint Juleps on their menus in honour of their many southern guests. And while the Union took note of the presence of rebel agents just over the border – diplomatic cables from that time refer to various plots – Washington lacked the wherewithal to force the British to expel the operatives from its North American territories.
While sheltered in the city, Young recognized the vulnerability of nearby states like Vermont. When he returned to the South, he pitched a plan to mount a campaign from Canadian soil. Rebel commanders approved and in 1864, Young was back in Quebec organizing the operation.
A CUNNING PLAN
Why did The junior raider choose the sleepy town of St. Albans as his objective? Location, location, location. It was only 10 miles from the Canadian-U.S. border and less than a day’s ride from Montreal.
The attack, which would target local banks, was intended to raise money for the cash-starved Confederacy. It would also divert Union troops north to the Canadian border and possibly create a two front war. Such an assault might even serve to disrupt the 1864 presidential election happening in November.
During one of his many pre-mission reconnaissance forays into St. Albans, Young actually visited the home of Governor John Gregory Smith and his wife Anna. He told the couple he was a theology student from Montreal. Quite taken with Young, Mrs. Smith escorted her guest about the mansion and beautifully kept grounds – even pointing out the stables. Those same horses would help provide Young and his men the perfect escape after the raid.
As early as July 1864, Union spies in Canada were picking up details about Confederate plans to attack cities on Lake Champlain. The threat was dire enough that the governor requested 5,000 rifled muskets, a large supply of ammunition and the authority to station troops at three Vermont cities: Burlington, St. Albans and Swanton. The preparations would be too little too late.
On Oct. 19, Young and 20 southern riders struck St. Albans. Gunmen rounded up as many civilians as they could and held them in the centre of the town. Others seized the villagers’ horses. The balance of the rebels fanned out through the streets and plundered three of St. Albans’ banks. All told, they hauled off more than $200,000. Amazingly, the raiders had to leave even more money behind. Young also tried to burn the town with Greek fire, an ancient oil-based incendiary weapon. However, the buildings were wet from the rain and the sticky chemical failed to ignite. One local resident who tried to resist was gunned down.
FOLLOW THAT HORSE!
Their mission mostly accomplished, the group galloped from town with their booty and made their way across the border to safety. A 50-man posse of Vermonters set off in hot pursuit – to no avail. The raiders had escaped. Acutely aware of the international incident that was brewing, Britain’s Canadian authorities blocked the Yankees from entering the colony to capture Young and his followers, choosing instead to arrest the Confederates themselves. Meanwhile, redcoats were rushed to the border to deter any retaliation against the colony. Much of the money was recovered by police. Young and his followers would stand trial for their crimes, but in a Canadian court.
THE TRIAL OF THE CENTURY
The proceedings were a national sensation. Seats in the Montreal courtroom were hard to come by and spectators spilled into the hallway. Young and his men faced charges ranging from robbery and arson to homicide. None of them denied that the raid had taken place; the issue was whether the Rebels had been carrying out official Confederate orders.
Washington wanted the rebels handed over under terms of the Webster-Ashburton Treaty, which permitted extradition in cases of murder, assault, arson and other offenses. The Crown refused the entreaties though and eventually the raiders were acquitted.
While tactically insignificant, the raid shocked the Union states. For the first time Yankee soldiers worried about those they left behind at home. The operation also revealed the extreme vulnerability of the nation’s northern border. After the incident, citizens in New England lived in a state of fear and remained on high alert. In six months however, the South would surrender.
Washington considered Young a criminal and refused to offer him the amnesty extended to other Confederates after the war. He moved to Ireland and the U.K. and eventually returned to the United States where he practiced law, became an author and founded an orphanage in Louisville, Kentucky. He died in 1919 at the age of 76.
Cathryn J. Prince is a journalist, historian and the author of the books Burn the Town and Sack the Banks: Confederates Attack Vermont! and most recently Death in the Baltic: The World War II Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff. She teaches at Quinnipiac University in Hamden Connecticut and is a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor.