- Historic Sites
The Hit-and-Run Raid
St. Albans was as drowsy a Vermont town as any there was —until the Confederate Army’s enthusiastic but incompetent bank robbers put on a wild half-hour of extravagant melodrama
August 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 5
Again a quintet of obviously amateur robbers made hurried and slovenly job of looting. They too left twice as much as they took (approximately $50,000) and made a sprinting exit. After their departure Armington chanced to stroll by the bank, saw the door open, and stepped inside, where he heard a muffled banging in the vault-room. The hard-used cashier shouted the combination, and after about twenty minutes Armington got the big door open. Beardsley and the sawyer staggered out in time to see the robbers mounting horses, also stolen locally. They apparently did not notice that the village’s third bank, the First National, barely forty rods down Main Street, was also being robbed.
Social correctness prevailed in this instance. The head robber was Caleb McDowell Wallace, of the Kentucky Wallaces, nephew of the late John J. Crittenden, former U.S. senator from Kentucky. The door guard was Alamada Pope Bruce, a nephew of Vice-President Alexander Stephens of the Confederacy. At exactly 3 P.M. Confederate Wallace entered the bank’s front door with a henchman lockstepped behind him. With his right hand he drew and cocked an oversized revolver, placed the muzzle directly below the nose of Albert Sowles, cashier and only employee present. One other local citizen was there—General John Nason, Vermont’s highest ranking survivor of the War of 1812—reading his newspaper near the coal stove. Being almost deaf, the aged General did not even stir when the obviously amateur holdup man (his pistol hand trembled violently) told Cashier Sowles that the bank was going to be looted.
At that point Grandpappy Joe McGrorty, Confederate States Army, dashed behind the counter and began filling his pockets with bank notes, and tossing handfuls of U.S. bonds to his colleagues. Then he pulled some coin bags out of the open safe, and demanded to know the contents. “Copper cents,” murmured Cashier Sowles. The neophyte robber opened one or more of the bags, found pennies, and clumped the coins on the floor. He didn’t discover that one of the bags was full of gold coin.
At that moment Bill Blaisdell, the local strong man, chanced to be strolling by and looked in to inquire what was going on. Alamada Bruce, who was guarding the door, came at him with drawn pistol. The local strong man picked up the Confederate, tossed him to the stone steps, and fell upon him. Wallace advised Bruce to shoot him, but Bruce was in no condition to obey. Two of the Confederates charged the strong man. At that point (according to local legend) General Nason peered around the stove to admonish, “Now boys! Two on one’s not fair!”
Blaisdell subsided when two revolver muzzles were turned on him, and permitted the robbers to march him across Main Street to the village green. Having pocketed and bagged a take of somewhere near $98,000, the quartet strolled out of the bank, leaving the cashier unmolested. General Nason, it is said, glanced up from his newspaper to ask, “What gentlemen were those?”
Thus a handful of Confederates, completely without criminal records or professional experience, robbed the three banks of St. Albans without firing a shot, without casualty, and with a net gain of $208,000 for the Losing Cause. Their timing and general strategy were superb; their robbery technique was almost uniformly bad. But at least it was bloodless.
That did not hold for the outside work directed by Confederate Lieutenant Bennett Young and six or eight youthful followers. The “outguards” had the tougher job.
St. Albans’ Main Street has always been a broad and wide-open one. The outguards sought to keep the street free of people. For the first few minutes they accomplished this by escorting all passers-by to the shady green directly across Main Street. The escorting progressed nicely until Collins Huntington, “an eminently respectable citizen,” came strolling along to fetch home his children from the local academy. As he passed the American Hotel carriageway, a youthful stranger touched his shoulder and told him to cross over to the green. When Huntington demurred, the stranger drew a revolver and fired. The ball struck Huntington on the left of his spine, followed along a rib, and came out, leaving only a flesh wound. He quietly joined the waiting group on the public green.
Meanwhile the front guards were taking up, on a better-late-than-never basis, the very necessary task of “recruiting” horses for making their getaway. Farmer Shepherd from Highgate, driving his wagon team in front of the Franklin County Bank, was deprived of his horses at the point of a revolver: two of the raiders stripped off the harness, climbed aboard the horses, and using headstalls for bridles, went gallumphing down the street. Lieutenant Young had already recruited a horse for himself. As he swung to the saddle. Leonard Bingham, a local derring-doer, made a lunge for him. That was the wrong play. At least six of the Confederates opened fire. Bingham went down with a belly wound.