Monday, October 20, 2014

Desperate Times, Desperate Men, Desperate Measures: The St. Albans Raid


By the late summer of 1864, the Confederacy found itself mired in straits of desperation. The glory days of the summer of 1862 were but a distant memory. In a six week period, Grant bludgeoned his way to the gates of Richmond. Further south, Sherman's men moved closer and closer to Atlanta. In the three years since First Manassass, the country witnessed slaughter on an unspeakable scale that only seemed to get worse as the years dragged on. War weary Northerners pressed for an end to the conflict. Groups such as the Order of American Knights, the Sons of Liberty (not the Sam Adams version), and the Knights of the Golden Circle held secret meetings and plotted various ways to force the Lincoln Administration to give up the fight or to unseat him in his upcoming reelection bid. In the South, the Dahlgren Affair forced the Confederate government to the realization that the war was no longer civil. It is worth noting that although the authenticity of the Dahlgren papers has been questioned, the fact remains that key members of the Confederate government believed in their authenticity and thus they acted accordingly. The cherubic Secretary of State, Judah P. Benjamin appropriated a large sum of funds for "secret service" in the aftermath of the raid and dispatched commissioners to Canada with the purpose of carrying out operations from there.

In many ways, members of the Confederate government were long on ideas but short on practicality. They put forward numerous plans, most of them hatched in their safe haven of Montreal but the majority of them fell short of success. They planned to free prisoners from Johnson's Island. They planned to free prisoners from Camp Douglas in Chicago and seize the city in the midst of the Democratic National Convention in August. At least eight men were sent to New York City to work with an estimated 20,000 Sons of Liberty who, the Confederates were told, were stockpiling weapons. On Election Day, the Confederate Agents planned to set fire to government buildings as a signal to rise up and occupy the city. The Sons of Liberty, if there ever even were any, backed out and the Confederates set fire to some hotels instead. The idea behind all of this was to bring the war to the North in a way that, other than Morgan's Raid into Ohio and Lee's invasion of Pennsylvania, they had not seen. And that, Dear Readers, in the genesis of the Confederate Raid on St. Albans, Vermont.

Some of the dashing band of Confederates

Why raid a small town in Vermont? What purpose could that possibly serve towards a Southern victory in the War? Your guess is as good as mine. Some say they wanted to rob the banks in the town to help finance the war. Others have said that the raid was revenge for the mistreatment of Southerners by Northern troops. (Which may be the real reason, at least in the minds of the raiders.) The leader of this intrepid band was a young Lieutenant named Bennett Young, who made his way to Canada after escaping a Northern prison camp, as did many others. But this was to be no Jesse James style raid on a town and its banks. Not at all! The Raiders, allegedly numbering 22 though we only have names for 18, arrived in the town prior to the appointed day. They staggered their arrivals over a ten day period so as not to draw unwanted attention to their presence. Originally, they planned to strike on the 18th of October but they learned that a town festival was planned for that day that might complicated things unnecessarily, so they postponed their strike to the following day.

On the day of the attack, the Confederates wore no uniforms but they were armed with pistols. Some were detailed to steal horses as that is how they planned to make their escape. To kick off the festivities, Young made an announcement to the town in front of the American Hotel. He said "I am an officer of the Confederate States Army. I am going to take the town and shoot the first person who resists." This was met with laughter by those who heard him, thinking it was a joke. But when other Raiders began firing pistols in the air, well, things got a bit more serious.

They forced their way into the town's three banks, taking the occupants hostage and plundering the vaults of all that they could carry. Bank tellers were forced to swear allegiance to the Confederate States of America. I do not think those oaths would be binding in the future as they were given under duress. In the Franklin County Bank, two employees were locked in the vault where they remained for the duration of the raid until bystanders entered and let them out. At the First National Bank, an old deaf man sat reading the newspaper for the duration of the robbery without ever looking up and seeing what was unfolding in front of him! 

I, state your name, do solemnly swear.....

In the meantime, those not detailed to hit the banks guarded hostages on the village green or rounded up horses to be used for the escape. During the round up of people on the street, one man was shot, superficially, by one of the Raiders. More shots were fired as the Raiders mounted their trusty steeds (well, probably not trusty since they were just getting to know them) and attempted to flee town. Lieutenant Young fired a round that fatally wounded one man. Up to this point, all the shots were fired by the Confederates. But that was about to change as armed townspeople arrived to fight back. One Raider was seriously wounded as they galloped away, tossing bottles of Greek Fire (an incendiary mixture) at buildings on their way out of town. None of the bottles ignited.

In a move worthy of a Western film, a recently discharged cavalry officer named George Conger organized a posse of around fifty men to pursue the dastardly Rebel bandits. The Raiders split up, which was perhaps a smart thing to do given the circumstances. But here is where the story gets a little strange. The posse pursued them across the international border into Canada and in fact, apprehended 14 of them, including Bennett Young. While trying to sneak them back across the border into the United States, they were stopped by Canadian authorities who relieved them of their prisoners. Canada also sealed off the border to prevent any more raids by Confederates or any US attempt to recapture the men. True to their word, Canada did hold an extradition hearing for the men, but they ruled that as this was a military operation and not a criminal enterprise, they would not send the men back to the US to stand trial. Needless to say, the US government was not amused.

So that, Dear Readers, is how the little town of St. Albans, Vermont came to be the location of the northernmost action to take place during the Civil War. There interesting question here is could a concentrated number of raids like this one have forced the US Government to negotiate a peace? Could it have led to Lincoln's defeat in his reelection bid? On their own, I would say no, so long as Sherman took Atlanta. If these raids were coupled with Confederate successes on the battlefield, then I would say perhaps it might have made a difference. But I guess we'll never know.

My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Half A$$ Historian who spent several years studying Confederate unconventional warfare. I can speak at great length on all of these feats of daring do, but that tends to bore people. 

(I patched this together from notes I have taken over the years. For further reading, download a copy (it is public domain) of The St. Albans Raid, or, An Investigation into the Charges Against Lieu. Bennett H. Young and Command For Their Acts at St. Albans, VT. This is the official Canadian records of the extradition hearing. Also, download a copy of Confederate Agent by a guy named Horan. It ties all of these operations together. And then peruse John Headley's Confederate Operations in Canada and New York. He was second in command of the "attack" on NYC.)

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