August 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 5
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
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.
At the St. Albans Bank on Main Street (all three of the town’s banks were on two adjacent blocks of Main Street), Chief Teller C. N. Bishop was sitting by the front window counting and sorting the currency when five men strolled in the door. Two were unknown to him, but Bishop recognized the other three as friendly newcomers who had previously introduced themselves as Tom Collins, Marcus Spurr, and Turner Teavis. He also recognized that the latter two were leveling oversize Colt revolvers embarrassingly close to his head. He noted too (at least according to the contemporary report of Edmund Royce) that the wretches brought with them a rank atmosphere of alcoholic fumes.
Teller Bishop dashed for the directors’ room, where Martin Seymour, the other clerk, was working on the books. The two tried to lock the door. But the invaders bore down on them, seized the tellers by the throats, and announced that they were Confederate soldiers, prepared to take the town and its money. While two of the Confederates held pistols against the tellers’ heads, the other three went money hunting. One scooped the banknotes that Bishop had been counting on the open table into his side pocket, meanwhile overlooking the counter drawer, which held $9,000 in gold certificates. Another pulled open the bottom drawer of the counting table and lifted out a dirty canvas bag heavy with $1,500 in silver coin. The amateur lifted the bag disparagingly, commented “Too damn’ heavy,” scooped about a third of the contents into his side valise, and left the rest.
Another amateur noticed the front door opening and stepped forward to admit Sam Breck, a local merchant, come to pay a note and carrying $393 in his right hand. The Confederate took the money and then rushed the honest merchant into the back room. Next came youthful Morris Roach, Joe Weeks’ clerk, to make the day’s deposit. He made it with the fighting Confederacy and landed in the directors’ room where Tom Collins, with drawn pistol, was explaining that this raid was being made to avenge the ravages inflicted on Virginia by Phil Sheridan’s Union cavalry.
While this was in progress, his colleagues were doing an appallingly bad job of bank looting. Fumbling through the unlocked safe, they completely missed some $50,000 in U.S. bonds which customers had left for safekeeping, and a $50,000 block of ready-signed St. Albans Bank notes. They picked up a few hundred dollars’ worth of U.S. bonds but bypassed all the gold coin, thereby exiting with about $60,000 while leaving more than twice that amount within easy reach. The robbery time was twelve minutes, most of them filled with talk.
Simultaneously another group of five youthful Confederates was carrying out a lesser looting of the Franklin County Bank, which still stands resolutely on St. Albans’ Main Street. Kentuckian William H. Hutchinson, twenty-three, was in charge of this amateur theft.
Bill Hutchinson made his entry several minutes before 3 P.M. He found Marcus Beardsley, the cashier, sitting in front of the big monkey stove, chinning with the merchant Jim Saxe, and old Jackson Clark, the long-coated, stovepipe-hatted hometown woodsawyer, who carried his bucksaw wherever he went except, possibly, to bed. Hutchinson, a handsome six-footer with glistening chestnut sideburns, strolled up and inquired the price of gold. Cashier Beardsley replied that he did not handle it, but when J. R. Armington, a local moneybags, ambled in with money to deposit, Beardsley suggested that Hutchinson might be able to make a deal with him.
Hutchinson traded two gold pieces for greenbacks. Armington and Saxe took their leave. The Confederate kept up an affable conversation with the cashier until his four assistants strolled in. After a seemingly embarrassed pause, one advanced a few steps, pulled a heavy Navy revolver from his side pocket, pointed it at Beardsley’s head, and stood staring at the cashier. Believing the man to be a lunatic, Beardsley could think of nothing to do except stare back. Two more of the new arrivals drew out large revolvers and silently pointed them at the speechless cashier.
Still lounging at the counter, Hutchinson broke the silence by explaining that he and these others were Confederate soldiers, here to rob the bank and burn the town. At that point Clark made a dash for the front door. Two of the Confederates blocked the way and relieved him of his bucksaw. Clark broke loose and again made for the door, whereupon the bank robbers pro tem grabbed him and heaved him into the tiny vault-room behind the teller’s cage. When they sought to shut the heavy iron door, Cashier Beardsley warned that the vault was air-tight; any man would soon suffocate in it. He was now to learn that silence can be golden. Three of the Confederates converged on the cashier, dropped him into the vault-room, and banged shut the heavy door, leaving both prisoners to reflect on whether they would suffocate or be roasted by the promised firing of the town.
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.
Young decided that the time had come to set the town afire, a feat painstakingly prearranged. He ordered his men to begin using their glass bottles of “Greek fire,” a chemical solution which was supposed to burst into flame on exposure to the air. The raiders first smashed their bottles against the front of Atwood’s Store, but the stinking stuff just wouldn’t burn. One raider dashed back to the American Hotel, and for reasons best known to himself treated the water closet with Greek fire. The stuff smouldered harmlessly.
At any rate the boys who had been infantry were changing into cavalry. They relieved Bedart’s Saddle Shop of practically its entire stock of saddles, bridles, and blankets. They rustled seven more horses out of Fuller’s Livery Stable. Edward Fuller got back just in time to ask what was going on. He soon found out. Young rode up and demanded that he hand over a pair of spurs. The liveryman was a pistol toter. He ducked behind a hitching-post, whipped out his gun, and pulled the trigger. The little Derringer snapped in futile misfire. Young guffawed: “Now you’ll get me the spurs?” Apothecary L. L. Dutcher, the original historian of “The Great Raid,” records that Fuller answered, “Yes, but I thought you were joking.”
The livery stable proprietor dashed through Bedart’s shop and sprinted back to Welding’s prospective rooming house which Elinus J. Morrison from Manchester, New Hampshire, was building. Morrison shouted to his workmen to climb down and defy the invaders. The workmen did not seem to hear well. Lieutenant Young, meanwhile, was taking careful bead on Fuller. The livery stable proprietor jumped behind an elm tree. The bullet overtook Morrison as he was making a tactical withdrawal into Miss Beattie’s store, struck his hand, and lodged in his abdomen. Onlookers dragged the builder to Dutcher’s Apothecary Shop for first aid. Morrison died of the wound the following day, the only known fatality of the raid.
Meanwhile, the plain-clothed Confederates were Rebel-yelling, shooting, and taking horses for their escape. As they began riding out of St. Albans in columns of four, the horse dealer Wilder Gibson emerged from the saloon, rifle in hand, posted himself in front of Smith’s Store, drew a careful and steady bead, and fired upon the hindmost of the gang. Reportedly one of the raiders slumped, and later died of the wound. This was never confirmed.
At any rate, the raiders were getting away, thundering down the road north. They stopped long enough to make another unsuccessful attempt to kindle a bridge with the Greek fire, and to annex another good saddle horse. Then the raiders rode into Canada, crossing the Missisquoi at Enosburg Falls.
The St. Albaners organized a pursuit party, reportedly of sixty to seventy men. This took half an hour, too long a delay to permit them to overtake the Confederates but long enough to add to the slapstick. Near Sheldon Village a farmer had been ridden down by the raiders and made victim of a forced horse trade—a badly winded nag for his fresh and buxom mare. The farmer was just standing there, recovering from his surprise, when he saw the pursuit party bearing down on him. Judging them to be more of the raiders, he ran like the wind across an open field. The St. Albaners recognized the winded horse, thought the fleeing farmer to be one of the Confederates, and took out after him shouting and whooping, until the harassed yeoman lost them in a swamp.
The pursuit became more and more ludicrous. A telegraph operator at St. Albans had keyed out a dispatch that the Rebels were sacking the town. At Burlington, Vermont, forty miles south, church bells tolled, an estimated force of 200 men assembled and armed and entrained for the north. The train broke down.
Perhaps that was just as well, for Canadian peace officers were functioning effectively. Canadian sympathy for the Confederacy was widespread and well accredited, but the Canadian constabulary, with a good intelligence system, recognized the need for impartiality. From Montreal, some forty miles to the northeast, a sheriff’s posse had ridden overland to a point near Enosburg where they waited on Canadian soil to intercept the raiders. Thirteen of the “bank robbers,” including Lieutenant Young, were presently arrested and lodged in jail in Montreal. The rest of the raiders escaped temporarily.
Approximately $80,000 of the bank loot was taken from the prisoners and was held pending court action. The case was assigned to Justice Charles J. Coursol of Montreal. After weeks of consideration he ruled that his court had no proper jurisdiction or cause to hold trial and therefore ordered all the Confederates discharged from jail. The Justice further directed that Chief of Police Lamothe of Montreal restore all the money to the raiders. The freed Confederates were cheered by sympathizers on the streets of Montreal. The Canadian press, however, was cool, denouncing the raid as the work of “brigands.”
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.
The townspeople got together and appointed a four-man delegation, including the Vermont representative to Congress, the local newspaper editor, and “Old John” Branch, who personally remembered the raid (“Rebels didn’t steal my Pa’s hoss, on account they see it was blind”), to call on General Young.
It was a truly friendly visit, and it was lengthily recorded in the Montreal Gazette of July 29. General Young wore the iron-gray and gold full dress of a Confederate general, his white hair lending impressive contrast to his handsome uniform. The Kentuckian’s bourbon stores were abundant. For a long evening, the Vermonters and the dignified Confederate fraternized. Toward midnight they touched glasses in a final toast. No hard feelings.