When the Confederates Invaded Vermont

One of the oddest events in the Civil War happened in 1864 when a group of Confederate partisans crossed the border from Canada and occupied a small Vermont town for a short time.

Historical marker in St Albans VT

When the war began to turn against the Confederates in 1863, they began to desperately search for ways to distract the Federals, draw away their troops, and harass their supply lines. In particular, Richmond wanted to “take the war to the north”, and create havoc and panic among the Yankees.

To do this, the Confederate Secretary of War at the time, Stephen Mallory, proposed to utilize a partisan network that had already been put into place in Canada. The Union had established a number of POW camps in Ohio and New York, near the border with Canada, and the Confederates had shipped a number of volunteers to attempt to carry out cross-border raids to free the captured prisoners. All of these attempts failed, accomplishing only in provoking an official diplomatic protest from the US to Canada about the “enemy forces” sheltering along the border.

But in October 1864, one of the members of this network, an escaped POW named Bennett H. Young, contacted the Confederate War Department with a scheme to gather a force of partisans in Canada and begin a series of hit-and-run raids into Vermont and New York, to destroy infrastructure, to weaken the morale of the civilian population, and to gain some measure of revenge for General Sherman’s march through the south.

The Confederate Congress had already passed a “Secret Service Bill” and appropriated $1 million for the use of partisans in Canada (under the command of Jacob Thompson). And so, with the approval of President Jefferson Davis and Secretary of War James Seddon, it was agreed to begin cross-border raids into Union territory. Young, along with several dozen others, was assigned to lead the group, under Thompson’s direction.

After slipping into the US and reconnoitering several potential targets, Young settled on the little town of St Albans VT as his first target. Although St Albans had only 2,000 residents, it was the location of a farm-machinery factory. More importantly, it was the hometown of Vermont Governor John G Smith.

The raid was planned for October 18. For several days, around 20 Confederate partisans infiltrated individually into Vermont and made their way to the little town, posing as Canadian vacationers, hunters, or traders and obtaining rooms in local boardinghouses. (Young even managed to get inside the Governor’s manor house by joining a tour.) They then met to plan their actions.

Immediately, they ran into a difficulty: the planned day of the attack happened to be Tuesday—the local market day, when hundreds of people from the surrounding countryside would be crowded in for their periodic supply trips. It was decided that there would be too much chaos to carry out a coordinated action, and so the attack was postponed till the next day. The raiders also dropped plans to set the Governor’s house on fire, concluding that it would be too difficult to carry out. Instead, they settled on three local banks as their targets: the St. Albans Bank, the First National Bank and the Franklin County Bank. When the village clock struck three in the afternoon, each of the teams would make their move on their assigned bank.

And so, when the clock struck three on the afternoon of October 19, 1864, Lieutenant Bennett Young, accompanied by a number of others, stepped onto the front veranda of the American Hotel, drew a pair of Colt Navy pistols, and loudly announced, “In the name of the Confederate States, I take possession of the town of St. Albans.” Immediately, the raiders began rounding up the townspeople and escorting them to the village Green, where they were kept under guard. One of the residents, named Collins Huntington, refused to cooperate and was shot and wounded. Another citizen, Union Army Captain George P. Conger, ran into the hotel, slipped out the back door, and dashed to the other side of town and raised the alarm, gathering a ragtag group of armed vigilantes.

Simultaneously, three other groups of Confederates occupied the three banks. Within fifteen minutes, all three had been robbed for a total of around $220,000 (over $3 million in today’s money). The bank robbers all made speeches declaring that they represented the Confederate States of America and the raid was in retaliation for General Sherman. They then left and gathered with the others in the town Green, setting several buildings afire as they went.

By this time, Captain Conger had returned with a group of armed citizens, and in the subsequent gunfight one of the raiders was wounded and a building worker from New Hampshire was shot and killed. As the raiders all rode away on stolen horses, the local telegraph operator dashed off a message to the state capitol: “Southern raiders are in town, robbing banks, shooting citizens and burning houses.” By the time evening fell, there were militiamen and cannons stationed in St Albans. For months afterwards, there were regular patrols and garrisons in towns across the northeast who feared another Confederate attack.

All of the raiders made it back to Canada. But as word of the “battle” spread and American militia crossed the border in pursuit, the Canadians arrested 13 of the Confederates, including Lt Young. But the Canadian Government was reluctant to get involved in the American Civil War, and, concluding that they were belligerent combatants rather than common criminals, it refused to extradite the arrested prisoners to the US for trial. After a court hearing in Montreal the raiders were all released. When the US protested, the Confederates were re-arrested and new court proceedings begun in Canada. When the war ended before the trials were complete, the charges were dropped and the prisoners were again let go.

Today there is a historical marker in St Albans which commemorates the raid.


4 thoughts on “When the Confederates Invaded Vermont”

  1. I would guess that had they been caught, they would have been executed rather than treated as prisoners of war, since they weren’t in uniform during the raid? They would have made fine martyrs, and to this day high schools in southern states would have been named after them. 🙂

  2. Yes, they likely would have been treated as ordinary criminals.

    In the south there are Civil War monuments all over the place. You’d never know that they lost. 😉

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