ON OCTOBER 10, 1864, Bennett Young stepped off the train from Canada, and into the train depot at St. Albans, Vermont, 15 miles south of the border. Young, a handsome, clean-shaven 21-year-old divinity student, took a room at the Tremont House on Main Street and spent the next few days familiarizing himself with the town. But Young was not what he seemed. He was a native of Kentucky, not Canada, and a Confederate officer recently escaped from a prisoner-of-war camp. He was here in this bustling railroad center of about 4,000 residents to change the course of the war.
It had been fewer than five days since Young received a message from C.C. Clay Jr., a former US senator from Alabama. Clay, sent to Canada in 1864 by Confederate President Jefferson Davis to build a network of secret agents, had written: “Your suggestion for a raid upon the most accessible towns in Vermont, commencing with St. Albans, is approved, and you are authorized and required to act in conformity with that suggestion.”
Davis himself had approved the bold series of raids. The South was clearly losing the Civil War. Atlanta had fallen to General William T. Sherman a month earlier. General Ulysses S. Grant’s forces were hounding Robert E. Lee’s Army of Virginia. The port of Mobile, Alabama, had been blockaded by Rear Admiral David Farragut. The hope was that several dramatic raids from Canada into the North would at the least force Union troops north to defend the border, easing pressure on Lee. If Union troops chased the raiders into Canada, it might help draw neutral Canada and Great Britain into the war on the side of the Confederates. And if things went really well, it might demoralize Northern voters so much that they would elect a Democrat as president instead of the Republican incumbent, Abraham Lincoln. Plus, the Confederacy needed cash.
Over the next nine days, some 20 more men from Canada arrived in groups of twos and threes. Like Young, they were also Confederate soldiers posing as Canadian civilians in St. Albans for business or relaxation. These men, only two of whom were older than 30, made polite inquiries about horses they could rent and guns they could borrow for a bit of hunting. Some took day trips to nearby towns, to play out the ruse and scout other targets to raid. Others wandered into the town’s banks, striking up conversations with the locals or inquiring about the price of gold. Their real interest was determining how many employees each bank had. Some occasionally met with Young clandestinely at his hotel, to share information and discuss the outlines of their mission.
Young, meanwhile, played his part with flair. He courted a woman staying at his hotel, impressed the villagers with his conspicuous Bible reading, and visited the home of the governor of Vermont, railroad magnate J. Gregory Smith. Smith was in Montpelier at the time, so his wife, Ann Eliza Smith, showed Young around the grounds. She thought Young “a nice mannered man,” not realizing he intended to burn the mansion down as retribution for the burning of Southern governors’ mansions.
Young had determined two potential escape routes for the bold plan, which would turn out to be the northernmost action of the Civil War. But he also saw a threat: Just a couple of blocks west of Main Street was a busy railway station and foundry, employing dozens of men who might leap into action. Still, he was confident — the raiders were going to need 30 minutes, at most, to rob several banks, torch the town with bottles of an incendiary liquid called Greek fire, and run. In the commotion, Young hoped to also set fire to the governor’s mansion, then raid Swanton, another town, on the way back to Canada.
He fixed Wednesday, October 19, as the day of the attack.
AT 3 P.M. ON THE 19th, St. Albans’ church bells rang to mark the hour. Under leaden skies that threatened rain, Young strolled down Main Street, then climbed a couple of steps onto a hotel porch. Reaching inside his coat, he pulled out his Navy Colt revolver and raised it over his head. “I’m an officer of the Confederate Service,” he shouted. “I am going to take this town and shoot the first person that resists!”
At first, St. Albans residents within earshot thought Young was joking. They stared at him until he pointed his gun at them and other raiders herded them onto the village green. Other Confederates went to get horses, and three groups of them headed to the town’s banks: Franklin County Bank on Main Street, St. Albans Bank at the corner of Main and Kingman, and the First National Bank on Fairfield. They were barely more than a block apart, all near the town common.
Young climbed on a horse and trotted up and down Main Street, overseeing the roundup of prisoners and monitoring his men’s assault on the banks. He knew his two revolvers had only six shots each, and would be difficult to reload while on horseback. So whenever he saw someone emerge from a building, he’d point his gun at them and tell them to get back inside, intimidating them before they made trouble.
Collins Huntington, though, on his way to pick up his children from school, ignored Young’s threats, thinking he was drunk. Young leveled his revolver and shot at him, inflicting a glancing wound along Huntington’s rib cage.
Inside the Franklin County Bank, a cashier saw a neatly dressed man named William Hutchinson approach the counter. Assuming Hutchinson was a customer, the cashier, Marcus Beardsley, asked how he could help. Hutchinson pulled a revolver from his coat. “We are Confederate soldiers,” he said. “We have come to rob your banks and burn your town. There are a hundred of us here. You must keep quiet and hand over all your money.”
A customer nearby made a run for the door but stopped when the raiders threatened to shoot. Two raiders pushed him into the vault, then began filling their haversacks with bills. Hutchinson, meanwhile, told Beardsley to give him the money from the counter, then locked Beardsley in the vault, too. The four raiders left the bank with approximately $70,000, the equivalent of about $1.2 million today.
Down the street in the St. Albans Bank, Cyrus Bishop stood, terrified, as raiders on either side of him pointed revolvers at his head. “If you make any resistance or give any further alarm, we’ll blow your brains out,” one told him. One of the raiders pointed his pistol at an assistant cashier and told him, “Not a word out of you. We are Confederate soldiers, we have come to take your town, we shall have your money.”
Then the raiders took the time to do something unexpected: They made Bishop and the assistant cashier swear allegiance to the Confederate States of America. While three more raiders entered the bank and stuffed as much money as they could fit in their pockets and satchels, one of the Confederates guarding the two bank employees lectured them on the destruction of the South by Generals Sheridan and Sherman.
The cashier was having none of it. He said if the robbery was an act of war, he should be allowed to take an inventory so that the bank could be reimbursed by the federal government. “Damn your government, hold up your hands,” hissed the raider.
At that point, someone knocked on the bank’s front door, which the rebels had locked behind them. One of the raiders opened it. In walked Samuel Breck, a merchant looking to make a deposit. A rebel grabbed him by the collar with one hand, pressed a revolver to his head with the other, and said, “I take deposits.” He took $393 from Breck and shoved him in the room with the two bank employees.
Suddenly, the sounds of gunfire erupted outside the bank, and three of the raiders ran out. The last two raiders left the bank more slowly, walking backward with their guns raised. They had been in St. Albans Bank for 12 minutes.
YOUNG DIDN’T KNOW where the shots were coming from. There was at least one St. Albans local, possibly more, firing at his raiders from buildings on Main Street. No one had been hit, but Young hadn’t planned for armed resistance.
He had already fired his revolvers three times — at Collins Huntington; at stable owner Sylvester Field, who’d objected to the theft of his horses (the ball passed through Field’s hat); and at Leonard Bingham, a local who had tried to charge him when Young was climbing onto a horse. Young had hit Bingham, but the ball had been stopped by Bingham’s heavy silver watch, and Bingham had escaped. Young had only nine bullets left, but he was going to have to do something to regain control of a situation that was spiraling out of control.
Leonard Cross heard the commotion and stepped out of his photography studio. “What are you trying to celebrate here?” he asked Young.
“I’ll let you know,” Young said, and shot at Cross, barely missing his head. Eight bullets left.
It was time, he thought, to start setting the town on fire. His raiders began throwing their bottles of Greek fire at buildings.
Over at the First National Bank, the third group of robbers had gathered $58,000 (nearly $1 million in current dollars). The four of them left the bank, escorting an employee toward the common, where they were going to put him with the other captives. As they were leaving, they saw a local business owner, William Blaisdell, approaching the bank. Blaisdell quickly realized what was happening and grabbed a raider, throwing him down onto the boardwalk. But other raiders pointed their pistols at Blaisdell’s head, forcing him to surrender.
Buildings should have been burning by now, Young must have realized. But they weren’t — the bottles of Greek fire had hit their targets, but they merely smoldered. Nothing was burning.
More townspeople had realized St. Albans was under attack. Nearby, at the governor’s residence, a neighbor’s servant girl rushed in to tell Vermont’s first lady, Ann Smith: “The rebels are in town, robbing the banks, burning the houses and killing the people,” the girl exclaimed. “They are on their way up the hill, intending to burn your house.”
Smith and a Scottish servant girl sprung into action, calmly closing the blinds and shades of the house and bolting the doors. Then, Smith found one of her husband’s pistols. It wasn’t loaded, but she hoped the raiders wouldn’t realize that. She carried the gun to the front steps, to stand and wait. She wished she had raised an American flag, so if they went down it would be with colors flying.
BACK IN THE CENTER of town, Erasmus Fuller, a livery owner, grabbed an old six-shooter, pointed it at one of the raiders, and pulled the trigger. Click. Young burst out laughing. “Fetch me some spurs!” he yelled.
Fuller had other ideas. He ducked into Bedard’s Harness Shop and ran to the back door. He started shouting that the town was being attacked, hoping the men who were building a large hotel nearby would come and help him. E.J. Morrison, a Manchester, New Hampshire, man overseeing the hotel’s construction, heard Fuller’s shouts and ran to the stable owner.
Fuller, with Morrison now trailing behind, returned to Main Street. He saw Young, lifted his pistol again, and took aim.
“Look out Cap’n!” shouted one of the raiders. Then he and Young both fired at Fuller. Fuller ducked behind an elm tree, evading their shots.
Not so Morrison, who dropped to the ground, mortally wounded. He would be the raid’s sole fatality, leaving behind a widow and five children. (What the raiders didn’t know is that he was also likely the only man in town sympathetic to the Confederate cause.)
George Conger had heard the gunshots and come running. Young saw him, and asked, “Are you a soldier?”
“I am,” Conger replied. He had been a captain in the Union Army and had been wounded at the Second Battle of Bull Run.
“Then you are my prisoner,” Young said. But Conger dashed into the American House hotel, next to the Franklin County Bank, ran through the back and then down Lake Street toward the foundry, yelling, “There is a regular raid on St. Albans. Bring out your guns and fight!” Workers at the foundry and at the railroad grabbed weapons and followed Conger back to the center of town.
Young realized his plot was quickly unraveling. He began to move his men north, shouting, “Keep cool boys, keep cool!”
Conger, gun in hand, tried to shoot at the raiders, but his gun would not fire. The Confederates started firing on him and yelling the rebel yell, but this riled up their horses, which were not used to battle. Over the din, Young was hollering, “There is too great a crowd gathering round here!” He knew they had to get out of town, and quickly.
Spurring his horse around those of his men, he told them to throw their remaining bottles of Greek fire at the closest buildings. Again, they failed to ignite. It was time to go. Once Young was sure his men were all accounted for, they were off at a gallop, occasionally turning to fire pistols behind them.
Conger shouted to all those nearby, “Bring on your horses, men, and arms and we will follow them. If you can’t get arms there is no use, they are going to fight hard!”
On the steps of the governor’s residence, Ann Smith saw a man galloping to her. The hour has come, she thought, the invaders have arrived. But the man on horseback turned out to be her brother-in-law, Stewart Stranahan, who was home on sick leave from the Army of the Potomac. Stranahan told her the raiders had robbed the banks and killed a man, but failed to set St. Albans ablaze. He had come for any weapons he could scrounge.
“Here, take this pistol, it is all I have yet found,” Smith said, feeling rage build inside her. “And, Stewart,” she added, “if you come up with them, kill them! Kill them!”
Soon, Conger and a posse of some 50 men were in pursuit of the raiders, followed quickly by 40 more men led by Stranahan. The Confederate party split up before it reached Canada, to increase the odds of escape. Conger’s militia reached the border and kept going, joining with some Canadian constables. They were able to capture about 13 raiders, including Young, and some of the $208,000 ($3.5 million in today’s money) that was later determined missing.
THE PLAN OF THE St. Albans group was to bring their prisoners back to town to face charges of murder. But as they neared the border, more Canadian authorities arrived at the scene and demanded charge of the rebels. Conger reluctantly agreed. The prisoners were first brought to St. Johns and then transferred to Montreal on October 27. The raiders were well received by a contingent of Canadian Confederate sympathizers, cheered as they were brought to jail.
They gave Young and his men food, clothing, and even liquor. Some of Montreal’s finer restaurants sent over meals and scores of citizens visited them at the jail, where they had been given a large room rather than cells. A relaxed Young wrote to the St. Albans Messenger requesting two copies of the paper be delivered each day. “Your editorials are quite interesting and will furnish considerable amusement to myself and comrades,” he wrote.
Young’s taunting infuriated many Vermonters, and for a short period of time it appeared that the Confederates might succeed in dragging Canada into the war against the Union. The St. Albans Messenger editorial page stated that if the prisoners were not handed over, “The sooner we declare war on our neighbors to the north, the better.” Lincoln’s secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, later called the St. Albans Raid “one of the most important events of the war,” with the potential to draw both Canada and Britain into hostilities.
But over the next few months, a series of contentious court proceedings went against extradition, as Canadian judges ruled that the raid was an act of war, not murder and robbery. All the raiders were eventually freed.
But Bennett Young’s gambit had failed. Perhaps if the Greek fire had worked and more damage had been done, it would have enraged Vermonters more. Or if there had been follow-up raids on Swanton or other towns. But the St. Albans citizens had forced them to abandon those plans. No Union troops were diverted to the border, Canada and Great Britain did not enter the war, Lincoln was reelected, Sherman reached the sea in late December 1864, and on April 9, 1865, Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House. The Canadian government even reimbursed the Vermont banks for the amount of money it found on the raiders, approximately $88,000. The other $120,000 was not accounted for.
After the war, Young was specifically excluded from an amnesty for Confederates. He fled to the United Kingdom, where he studied law. He returned to the United States after a full amnesty was granted in1868, becoming a successful lawyer in Louisville, Kentucky, and was regularly applauded at Confederate reunions and parades.
In 1911, when he was 68, Young took his wife on vacation to Montreal. He contacted the people of St. Albans, saying he would like to meet with them. The town sent a four-man delegation to the Ritz-Carlton, where he was staying. Young put on a Confederate uniform for the session, and told his visitors that “the raid was only the reckless escapade of a flaming youth of 21 years, steeped in patriotism for the South.” Perhaps it was something like an apology. The get-together was friendly and lasted well into the night.