People’s first thought might have been that the young man was joking, or else he was drunk or insane. Standing on the steps of the American House hotel in St. Albans, a revolver in his hand, the man shouted, “This city is now in the possession of the Confederate States of America.”
He was, however, deadly serious. Lt. Bennett Young and roughly 20 of his fellow Confederates had slipped into town in the fall of 1864 to rob banks, burn buildings, terrify the citizenry and kill them if need be.
The rebel attack was the last thing on people’s minds that day. By that point in the Civil War, the military campaign had moved south of the Mason-Dixon Line. In fact at that very moment, Vermont soldiers were fighting in Virginia at what would become known as the Battle of Cedar Creek.
For the roughly 30 minutes it took the Confederates to rob three banks, St. Albans was in turmoil. Most residents, having missed Young’s brief pronouncement, weren’t even sure exactly who was attacking the city or why. The St. Albans Messenger’s edition that day – Oct. 19, 1864 – reported that the city had been “invaded” and its banks robbed by a “party of about twenty-five.” The paper, in its haste to get the news out or in all the confusion, neglected to mention that the raiders had been Confederates.
Young, who was only 21 at the time of the raid, later claimed that he and others in his party had removed their overcoats to reveal Confederate uniforms beneath. If they did, few seemed to notice. What they might have noticed was small groups of men entering the banks on Main Street or others who seemed to be rounding up horses.
The Confederates had planned the assault in Quebec and had drifted over the border in twos and threes during the previous few days to avoid suspicion. They picked St. Albans after learning that a horse buyer for the Union Army would be in town to purchase a number of Morgans, the breed for which Vermont was famous and which had served the Army well. The raiders assumed the banks would be especially well stocked after the purchase.
With his revolver draw, Young and several of the raiders entered the First National Bank while groups of four headed to the nearby Franklin County Bank and the St. Albans Bank. Just as Young entered the First National, a man walked out. Seeing the gun leveled at him, the man shouted, “They’re robbing the bank.” One of the Confederates grabbed him and another yelled that he should be shot. But Young stopped them and ordered one of his soldiers to take the man across the street to the village green, where a growing number of citizens would soon be held under armed guard.
At gunpoint, Young and his men stole much of the gold and currency they found in the bank. As they were preparing to leave, a local merchant who was the town’s gold buyer arrived at the bank. The Confederates stashed their pistols and Young coolly asked the man, James Russell Armington, whether he wished to buy any gold. Not realizing he had walked into the midst of a robbery, Armington struck a deal with Young, who apparently wanted something lighter than gold when he made his escape.
Down the street, a group led by Lt. William Hutchinson entered the Franklin County Bank with guns concealed. Hutchinson asked the clerk whether the bank had gold to sell. Told they would have to see Armington, Hutchinson replied, “Well, the hell with Mr. Armington” and pointed his pistol at the clerk. Then he ordered the clerk and the bank’s president, who had been in a back office, to swear allegiance to the Confederacy and its president, Jefferson Davis. When the clerk balked, Hutchinson cocked his revolver, and the clerk changed his mind. Hutchinson and company left with all the U.S. currency, securities and gold they could stuff into their large carpetbags. When the bank president complained of being treated roughly, Hutchinson said it was nothing compared to how the Union Army was treating Southerners.
At the third bank, the robbers locked the clerk in the airtight safe. Minutes later, however, passersby arrived at the bank to see what the commotion was and managed to open the safe.
Outside, things were getting crazy. Confederates raced their horses up and down Main Street, terrifying bystanders. A woman on the village green screamed when she saw local citizens being held there at gunpoint and was treated to a speech on Southern chivalry by one of the gunmen. Young, realizing that more horses were needed to carry the men and loot out of town, ordered his men to fan out and steal any mounts they could find. When Confederates stole horses from Fuller’s Livery Stable, the owner, E.D. Fuller, ran inside to fetch his revolver, then proceeded to stalk the Confederates and fire at them three times – only to have his gun misfire each time.
As the minutes passed, the Confederates seemed to grow more nervous and the people of St. Albans less so. Soon, some men began taking shots at the raiders. One man leaned out an upper floor window and fired at Young, but missed. Young did not. His shot struck the man, who slumped across the window, badly injured. Two other men were shot during the raid. One suffered only a flesh wound, but the other, a New Hampshire contractor working on a hotel in town, later died of his wounds.
Their banking business done, the Confederates turned their sights to burning down the town. They grabbed the 40 bottles of Greek fire they had prepared for this moment. Riding up and down Main Street, they threw the devices, which ignite when exposed to air. Bottles popped when they hit, shooting flames in the air. The raiders whooped with delight.
But many of the incendiaries failed to ignite. In the end, the firebombs did little harm, only burning down a single shed.
Word spread that the raiders were going to attack the home of Gov. J. Gregory Smith, who lived up the hill. The governor was at work in Montpelier, but his wife bravely prepared for the onslaught. She pulled the curtains and bolted the doors, then grabbed a large revolver but couldn’t find any bullets. Undeterred, she stood on the front steps awaiting the assault, which never came. The Confederates had instead decided to flee.
In all the commotion, Capt. George Conger, veteran of the First Vermont Cavalry, rallied a posse of men on horseback to chase the robbers. The Confederates split up and raced their horses north toward the Canadian border. The posse started out five minutes behind, but gained quickly. As the Confederates passed through Sheldon, they burned a bridge but had no time to rob the town’s bank as planned. Likewise, they scrapped a raid on Swanton.
Soon, the Confederates crossed into Canada, but the posse followed them. Conger and the posse managed to capture several of the raiders, including Young. Some posse members wanted to hang Young on the spot, but Conger restrained them. Canadian authorities captured many of the others, but some might have slipped away. (Historians still don’t agree how many Confederates were involved in the raid.)
Canadian officials demanded that the Confederates be tried in a Canadian court. Long before the trial could begin, Gov. Smith had sent troops north to defend the border area against future attacks. And soon the Vermont Legislature passed laws making such raids punishable by death. The Vermont laws of course had no bearing on the outcome in the Canadian courts. The Confederates were eventually released, causing an uproar among Northerners, the court having ruled that their actions were legal during wartime.
The raid hadn’t been just about getting money for the cash-strapped Confederacy. It had also been meant to distract the Union and slow its progress south.
Ultimately, the raid was not as successful as the Confederates had hoped. The raiders had stolen about $200,000, but dropped much of it in their panicked ride north. Canadian officials confiscated roughly $80,000 of the loot and returned it to the banks. And despite causing a distraction on the northern frontier, the raid could do nothing to alter the outcome of the war.