The Hit-and-Run Raid

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Wednesday, October 19, 1864, began as a normally quiet day in the normally quiet county seat village of St. Albans, on Lake Champlain, in far upstate Vermont. For the most part the shopkeepers were refilling their shelves and emptying out their cash drawers following a golden Tuesday. The day before, a skirmish force of Army horse buyers had completed and paid cash for a county-wide roundup of about seven hundred Vermont Morgans, lightest, toughest, and therefore most coveted for Union Cavalry horses.

The three local banks were loaded, but not with customers. Lewis Cross, St. Albans’ pioneer photographer, was moderately busy, but only because he kept the Main Saloon on the side, and !local horse traders were in an elbow-lifting mood. Miss Beattie’s Millinery Shop was also fairly busy. Wives and daughters of the local horse traders were seeing to that.

On the whole, local manpower was in perceptibly short supply. At least forty of the relatively active males of the community had left for Montpelier, where the Vermont legislature was opening. Most of the rest of the lawyers and other “court-housers” were away at Burlington where the supreme court was in session.

It is a good bet that not one of the village absentees knew or even suspected what he was missing. As a matter of fact, he was missing one of the most astounding and audacious chapters in the whole astounding and audacious history of the Civil War. He was missing the sight of upwards of a score of Confederate soldiers turned bank robbers in line of military duty, thereby defying the entire Union Army while aggressively invading farthest New England. Any absent citizen of St. Albans, Vermont, was also missing a front-row seat at the climax of the most unusual drama of the war.

The exceptional man shortage in St. Albans had been relieved in some small part by the quiet arrival of twenty or more normally dressed male strangers, all young (twenty-three was the average age of the group), courteous, and friendly; most of them tall, reasonably handsome, and decidedly winsome.

Plenty of strangers, including attractive young men, sojourned in St. Albans, Vermont. They still do. The lake fishing and the hunting were and still are above average. The same is true of the village restaurants and public houses, which continue to meet the needs of hunters and fishermen. Any way you take it, including by way of Lewis Cross’s picture files, St. Albans of 1864 looked considerably like St. Albans of 1961. The arrival of the group of sportsmen made no particular stir.

The first three of the nice young men had drifted into St. Albans on October 10, put up at the Tremont House where the spokesman signed the register as Bennett Young, gave his age as twenty-one, and explained that he and his companions were from St. Johns, Canada, and had come for a sporting vacation. One of his companions was a strong-featured, hooknosed youngster who gave his name as Samuel Simpson Gregg. The other was a slender, pallid young man who introduced himself as the Reverend Mr. Cameron, and promptly pulled a heavy Bible from his side-satchel valise (all of the visitors carried these rather peculiar valises on shoulder straps) and began reading to the occupants of the boardinghouse parlor. The charitable lady boarders took him to be a theology student. They agreed he was a little touched.

On the same day two others registered at the American Hotel, half a block down Main Street. One was a still-beardless youngster who signed in as George Scott from Canada, and registered also for his companion, Joe McGrorty, who was in his thirties and was known to the others as “Grandpappy.” The following day three more personable young men checked in at the same hotel. There was nothing unusual about them either, except that they too wore the side valises, on straps swung over the right shoulder.

All were the friendly and inquiring kind, and apparently a bit inclined toward solitude. They strolled out alone, visiting the banks, saloon, restaurant, stores, gun shops, and livery stables, shaking hands, chatting much and buying little. Oddly enough, but always in a nice way, they sought to borrow firearms—for hunting, naturally. Even when refused they were engagingly nice about it, and usually expressed a gunlover’s desire to have a friendly look at the host’s gun shelf. Their interest in horses was at least as ardent. All seemed reverently interested in horseflesh and local ownership thereof. This was and still is a good way to win friends and influence people in Vermont, where Justin Morgan and his neighbors had already started the only original American breed of horse. (We aren’t talking of “strains”; the Vermont Morgan is still the only American-made breed of horse.)

On the busy Tuesday before the historic Wednesday, two more of the friendly young strangers came to breakfast at the Tremont. Four more joined them for lunch—dinner is the word in Vermont. On the cloudy Wednesday just mentioned, the noon train from Montreal brought in several more of the engaging male visitors. Two more arrived by hack. Altogether, there were at least twenty of them, perhaps a few more; the exact number is hard to pin down.

Bank-closing time (3 P.M.) ended the quiet for this day, and for many days to come.