In the fall of 1864, the South was becoming desperate. The tide of battle was turning against the Confederates: their cities were burning; their armies were running out of food, guns and soldiers; their currency was all but worthless. It was dawning on many that the North, with its industrial might, would prevail. Desperate times call for unusual measures.
Like terrorist bands in our own time who turn to crime to help fill dwindling war coffers, a small southern band turned to bank robbery. In Vermont of all places.
150 years later, Bruce and I were walking down Main Street in the quiet Vermont village of St. Albans, 15 miles south of the Canadian border; we were looking for dinner, not history. Then we read that on the spot where we stood, the northernmost action of the Civil War took place. This is the kind of incongruous factoid that piques my interest!
What was the war of Southern secession doing this far north? Turns out, a dashing (that’s what they called a sexy hot hunk back then) Confederate Cavalry private from Kentucky, Bennett Young, had been captured after the failed Morgan’s Raid in Ohio in July, 1863. But he escaped to Canada, where he had an idea. Returning south by way of Nova Scotia and Bermuda, he met with rebel officers and suggested raids across the unprotected Northern union border to raise money for the exhausted Southern treasury, and to divert Union troops to protect the border (revenge would also be sweet). They made him a lieutenant and sent him back to Canada where he set about recruiting other escaped rebels into his scheme.
In mid-October, 1864, Young’s band started checking into The American Hotel in St. Albans, a few at a time, until all 21 conspirators had gathered in town. At 3 pm on October 19, they staged simultaneous armed robberies on three banks and made off with a total of $208,000. Some of their Confederate confederates held villagers at gunpoint on the green where we later stood, and stole their horses to prevent pursuit. Several townspeople tried to resist, one was killed. In retaliation for the burning of Southern cities, Young ordered that the town be burned. But the bottles of homemade incendiary they brought failed to ignite; only 1 shed was burned.
They fled back to Canada where they were arrested under US pressure, but a court ruled they were soldiers under military orders, and since Canada was officially neutral they couldn’t be extradited. Canada freed the raiders, but returned the $88,000 they found on the robbers to St. Albans. (I’m sure I’m not the only one wondering what happened to the rest of it.)
Sometimes there are unintended consequences of our actions. The raid turned many Canadians against the Confederacy, lending weight to the turning tide against the South.
Young’s path took several turns too: he was excluded from Andrew Johnson’s amnesty after the war, so he studied law and literature in Ireland and at the University of Edinburgh. We let him back into the states eventually, where he turned from leading raids to railroads. He became a prominent lawyer in Louisville, Kentucky. And a philanthropist: he was known for helping the poor, he set up the first orphanage for black kids in Louisville, and a school for the blind. And, he led a group helping Confederate veterans. Then they named Youngstown, Kentucky, after him.
What can we learn from this, children—besides the surprising news that the Civil War was fought in Vermont? I don’t know. Maybe that desperation leads some to a life of crime, when their true calling may be a life in the law. Or maybe that if you lead a raid for the losing side but you later get rich, they’ll name a town after you.
John Branch, who published a book with the newspaper coverage of the event from the St. Albans Messenger, reported that Young had called the raid “the reckless escapade of flaming youth,” and he “wondered that he ever undertook it.”