- 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
Five of the raiders who had escaped were picked up by local Canadian authorities during the month of November and sent to Montreal. While court action was pending, the U.S. government demanded extradition, and the robbed banks of St. Albans forwarded a similar petition. Justice Smith of Montreal, who heard the pleas of extradition in January, ruled that “the transactions in St. Albans, Vermont, were acts of war,” and held that the Confederates were not liable to extradition. He discharged them.
While in the Montreal jail Lieutenant Young and his well-treated companions seemed quite unworried. One testimony is provided by an entry dated November 22, 1864, in the diary of Judge James Davis of St. Albans:
My son, Wilbur Davis, received a letter this morning from Bennett Young, the Confederate leader, dated at Montreal jail, enclosing three dollars requesting him to send the [St. Albans] Daily Messenger to him there. He expects to be at liberty in a few days when he will be at a public house, where he wished the paper to be delivered after his release.
Lieutenant Young was not far wrong. As things turned out, he and his men were free by mid-December.
Bennett Young had had two goals in mind when he planned and executed the raid. These were to get some good cash money into the collapsing Confederate treasury, and to “stir up and unsettle” the Yankee frontier so that combat troops would be drawn away from the fighting fronts and sent to the Canadian border. In addition, Young apparently hoped that the general uproar might possibly stir up a war between the United States and Canada.
Success was only moderate. How much of the money ever got to the Confederate treasury is in question. Young later asserted that the entire $208,000 was delivered to the Confederate Commissioners in St. Catherine’s, Ontario, but the claim is open to question. Young himself did not leave Canada until after the collapse of the Confederacy, and it is alleged that a good deal of the money was spent in Canada. And although the United States authorities did send a good many troops to the border after the raid, most of them were militia, invalided veterans, or home guards. If any of the pressure on Confederate armies in the South was thereby lessened, the effect was too slight to do Robert E. Lee any good. And far from involving the United States in a war with its northern neighbor, the raid apparently had the effect of deflating Canadian sympathy for the Confederacy.
The Canadian government behaved with dignity. Governor General Lord Monck recommended—and the Provincial Parliament passed—a bill to repay the three Vermont banks in the amount of $50,000 (Canadian) in gold—then the equivalent of the $88,000 in U.S. currency found on the persons of the captured robbers. The gold, duly delivered to the banks and divided among them in proportion to their respective losses, still left the banks with a combined loss of $120,000. All three weathered it easily. (The banks had also spent $20,000 in a futile, lawyer-enriching drive for extradition of the “robber gang.”)
Canadian court records brought out and confirmed other portions of the intriguing story of Bennett Hiram Young. As he told his tale, the Louisville youth was eighteen when the Civil War began. He volunteered as a private and was assigned to the 2nd Regiment of Maryland Infantry. Early in 1863 he was transferred as a cavalry replacement to the famed command of J. E. B. Stuart. He rode with Jeb into Gettysburg, where he was taken prisoner and dispatched by “cow car” to Fort Douglas, near Chicago, which the Union Army had converted to a stockade for Confederate prisoners. During April, 1864, Young and five fellow prisoners, finding the camp poorly guarded, managed to make good their escape.
Without any particular difficulty the twenty-one-year-old made his way to Washington, D.C., then to Richmond, Virginia, where he presented “a bold plan” which the Confederate high command eagerly accepted. The plan was to return to Camp Douglas with a select force of thirty volunteers, raid the gates, release most or all of the estimated 10,000 Confederates, and organize as many of them as possible in an “army-size raider force.” The St. Albans story encourages one to wonder what might have happened had the bold plan succeeded.
Apparently Young, who had been rewarded with a lieutenant’s commission, settled for a twenty-man force, and set out for Chicago. But when they scouted Fort Douglas, the youthful invaders found a heavily reenforced guard. They abandoned the proposed gate raid, scattered for St. Catherine’s, and began planning the St. Albans raid.
After the war, Bennett Young returned to his home town, Louisville, where he presently became a successful lawyer and railroad executive and promptly married a pretty girl and begot a pretty daughter. Early in July, 1911, at a young sixty-eight, General Bennett Young (he had lately been elected commander in chief of Confederate Veterans) took his wife and daughter on a “memory trip” to Montreal for a luxurious week at the Ritz-Carlton, and made his presence known to St. Albaners.