A tiny town near the Canadian border should have been the last place for a Confederate attack—or a diplomatic disaster.
On October 10, 1864, three young men checked into a hotel in St. Albans, Vermont. They were sportsmen, they said, lately arrived from Canada for a holiday. Over the next 10 days, several others trickled into town by twos and threes by different routes and trains, and lodged at different hotels. The locals noted the friendliness of the young strangers, though apparently no one seemed in the least bit troubled by the sudden appearance of nearly two dozen “sports.”
Then, on October 19, the young men suddenly assembled in the street, each wearing a Confederate uniform and a brace of “navy sixes”—.36-caliber Colt revolvers. Their leader announced to the stunned populace that he was seizing the town in the name of the Confederate States of America.
Until that moment, the war had been a long way off. A mere 15 miles from the Canadian border, St. Albans was about as far away from the fighting as a town could get and still be in America. News that William Tecumseh Sherman had captured Atlanta the month before gave Northerners hope that the conflict would be over soon.
But the war in St. Albans had just begun. And before it was over, one St. Albans citizen would die—but the operation would degenerate into a series of missteps that offered a glimpse of the level of desperation at the top tier of the Confederate government, and provoked an international incident that landed in President Abraham Lincoln’s lap.
As the Federals smashed through the South in the waning months of 1864, Jefferson Davis opted to open another front in the war. Canada—specifically, the province of Ontario (or “Canada West,” as it was then known)—had for some time provided a safe haven for escaped Confederate prisoners of war, secret agents and provocateurs. Davis now authorized them to launch a series of terror attacks from the Great White North designed to create chaos and force the diversion of Union troops.
One goal was to acquire— by whatever means—money for the dwindling Rebel war chests. But the primary objective was to strike panic in the hearts of a complacent enemy—and to give the Yankees a dose of their own medicine.
The St. Albans attack was the brainchild of Bennett H. Young. When the war began, handsome 18-year-old Young had joined the 8th Kentucky Cavalry, part of Brig. Gen. John Hunt Morgan’s command. He participated in Morgan’s bold raid into Ohio in 1863, and was captured along with his general in late July. Young was placed in Camp Douglas in Chicago and, after one failed attempt, managed to escape to Canada.
There he met with Clement Clay, a former Alabama senator who was an adviser for the South’s Canadian operations. Young presented several plans for retribution raids, “to give Northerners a taste of the anguish the Union armies were bringing to the South.”
Clay was quite taken with the young man; he wrote to the administration in Richmond advocating Young’s plans. Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin and Secretary of War James Seddon asked Young to come to the capital to discuss his plans in person. This was by no means an easy feat. Young, placed in charge of several other escaped prisoners, booked passage at Halifax, sailed to Bermuda, ran the blockade under intense enemy fire to arrive safely at Wilmington, N.C., and made his way to Richmond. After meeting with members of the cabinet, Young was promoted to first lieutenant and officially assigned to secret operations in Canada.
On the day Young received his promotion, the Rebels launched a raid from St. John’s, New Brunswick, against the bank in Calais, Maine. The force consisted of some two dozen men, led by Captain William Collins, late of the 15th Mississippi Infantry. But there was a leak; an informer spilled plans for the raid to the U.S. consul in St. John’s, and he immediately alerted the bank. When the Rebels attacked, they were met with an armed force, and four of the men, including Collins, were captured.
Meanwhile, Young was dispatched to Columbus, Ohio, with a ranger contingent of 30 men, to seize the Federal arsenal there and liberate 6,000 Confederate prisoners confined at Camp Chase. The freed Rebels would then take arms from the arsenal, commandeer horses and ride to supplement Southern forces.
Before capturing the small garrison manning the arsenal, Young’s irregulars were to cut the telegraph lines and blow up the nearby bridges. Unfortunately, 10 of them were either too old or too inexperienced to mount such an action, and at the last minute they “weakened and caused the abandonment of the enterprise.” Frustrated but undeterred, Young took his 20 stalwarts back to Canada for further instructions.
The moment had come to implement Young’s pet project. Although Commissioner Jacob Thompson—commander of Confederate operations in Canada and technically Clement Clay’s senior—felt “embarrassed” by retaliation raids, Clay sent Young to evaluate Burlington and St. Albans as feasible targets in Vermont. Young chose St. Albans, and developed a twofold plan: The Rebels would burn the entire town as a lesson to the North, and rob its banks to support Confederate efforts in Canada.
Young’s 20 men were all young, well-connected fellow Kentucky cavalrymen and former prisoners of war. Some had ridden with Morgan and already displayed their grit in battle. “They were proud, and that made them brave,” Young later observed.
On the day of the raid, each soldier brought along 50 small bottles of a volatile and deadly incendiary liquid known as “Greek fire.” This mixture had been around since the days of the Byzantine Empire, and burned even on water. The exact recipe has been lost, although some sources purport that it included naphtha, niter and sulfur; petroleum, quicklime and sulfur; and phosphorus and saltpeter. Confederate agent John W. Headley described it as “a clear liquid resembling water” that smelled “like rotten eggs.”
All it needed to work was oxygen. After being poured from the bottle, it would burst into flames in a few seconds. Thrown at a surface, it would become an instant sheet of fire, and water only caused it to spread.
The potion had allegedly been “improved” in 1864 by Cincinnati chemist and explosives expert R.C. Bocking, who made a deal with the Confederates in Canada shortly before the October raid. In exchange for 10 percent of the value of the property destroyed, Bocking would manufacture for them whatever explosive products they needed and help place them on strategic targets. War profiteering had taken a new and sinister turn.
The Rebels ordered residents to proceed immediately to the town square. Some townspeople scoffed, seeing this intrusion as either a bad joke or an act of lunacy. The leader immediately ordered his men to fire a round to punctuate the order, and when a townsperson was wounded, the others hastily complied.
Young’s men were well organized. While some proceeded to rob the town’s three banks, others sought horses and equipment. A third contingent started setting fires across town.
And then the carefully executed production fell apart.
The crowd, which included some Federal soldiers, had been docile for nearly an hour. But now they plotted a counterattack. Residents fired at the Confederates from their windows, wounding three. In the exchange that followed, a citizen was killed, and Young and his men—after throwing their allotment of Greek fire against the walls of a few buildings surrounding the square—galloped out of town toward the Canadian border.
They no doubt expected their way to be lit by the terrific blaze that would signal the destruction of St. Albans; but despite Bocking’s assurances, the Greek fire didn’t work as promised. Only a few fires ignited, and the town suffered minimal damage.
The Rebels did, however, pinch more than $200,000 from the three banks—a fortune that would be worth between $7 million and $8 million in today’s currency. Despite his best-laid plans for revenge on the Yankees, Young ultimately had to settle for an elaborately staged bank robbery.
The raiders split up and raced for Canada, townspeople and soldiers in close pursuit. A hay wagon crossing the bridge at Shelburne from the other side trapped them for a time; when the townspeople arrived, the Rebels fired at them, setting fire to the hay. They also burned the bridge behind them.
Reaching the border that night, Young and his men put on civilian clothes and released their horses. The next day Young, now traveling alone, stopped to rest at a farmhouse. As he sat by the fire, an angry group of two dozen St. Albans citizens burst in on him, beat him, threw him into an open wagon and headed back to the border. When Young protested that they were in violation of British neutrality, they replied, in the best New England Yankee tradition, that they “did not care a damn for British law or the British nation.” And they beat him some more.
Mercifully, the posse encountered a British officer who convinced the mob to release Young into his custody; Canadian authorities had already arrested several raiders, and the officer promised the prisoners would be turned over to the law at St. Albans.
Escorted by the Americans, he took Young to Phillipsburg, Ontario, where the young Confederate met five of his party. Two others were detained at St. John’s. In all, 14 had been arrested, and nearly $90,000 of the loot was found on their persons and confiscated. To the consternation of the St. Albans contingent, however, the Canadians refused to surrender the raiders.
Word of the raid sent Maj. Gen. John Adams Dix into orbit. Commander of the Union’s New York-based Eastern District, Dix had served only in administrative functions after allegedly being pulled from the field for incompetence; the recent spate of Confederate incursions from Canada had been a further embarrassment. Without bothering to consult President Lincoln, he immediately issued an order—in direct violation of neutrality—that the army was to “pursue [the raiders] into Canada if necessary and destroy them.” The raid—the second in two months—had occurred on Dix’s watch, and he wanted blood.
Supporting him was Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, who was looking for a little war to bolster his own reputation. Hooker complained about the “conscious weakness of our Govt. in its foreign policy,” and wrote that “in case a raid should be attempted from Canada I intend that somebody shall be hurt if I have to go into Canada to do it.”
Secretary of State William Seward, meanwhile, censured Great Britain for letting Confederates operate with apparent impunity in Canada. He wrote to Lord Richard Lyons, Great Britian’s Washington envoy, that “spirited, hasty, popular proceedings for selfdefence [sic] and retaliation” would be the U.S. answer to any such future operations, and insisted the prisoners be extradited at once.
Seward was walking a fine line. To do nothing would encourage further raids—and in fact, many others were planned. Conversely, sending a military force across the border risked almost certain armed conflict with Great Britain.
Lincoln rescinded Dix’s order, but Union newspapers clamored for punitive action against Canada while cities from Buffalo, N.Y., to Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., begged for protection. Bennett Young and his 20 Kentuckians had placed the administration in a prickly position. The St. Albans raid was “a trap in which to catch the government of our country,” in Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner’s view. “It was hoped that in this way the rebellion would gain the powerful British intervention which would restore its falling fortunes.”
But the raid also created major issues for the South. As Northern anger crescendoed—and the raid came to be seen as a violation of neutrality and an abuse of foreign hospitality—many Canadians who had sympathized with the South came to oppose the Confederate presence on their soil. Canadian newspapers such as The Montreal Evening Telegram and The Toronto Leader referred to the raiders as “brigands.” Between the failed raid on Calais and the robberies in St. Albans, the raiders were painted more as bandits than patriots. The Canadian government, no doubt at the urging of Great Britain, immediately strengthened its neutrality policies. Rather than inspiring approbation from Canada and Great Britian, the St. Albans operation caused the South considerable embarrassment.
Nevertheless, the prisoners were transferred to Montreal and treated with utmost deference and courtesy by their Canadian jailors. Young publicly pleaded his case.
“I went [to St. Albans] for the purpose of burning the town and surrounding village as a retaliation for recent outrages in the Shenandoah Valley and elsewhere in the Confederate States,” he wrote in a letter to The Quebec Morning Chronicle. “I am a commissioned officer in the ‘Provisional Army of the Confederate States’ and violating no law of Canada.”
But that wasn’t necessarily so. If the neutrality agreement between Great Britain and the United States had not been broken completely, it had certainly been badly bruised. The U.S. government clamored for extradition, claiming Young and his men were not soldiers but civilians who had committed a criminal act and were liable under the laws of the state of Vermont. After a lengthy trial, a Canadian court disagreed, and, ruling Young and company were merely soldiers fighting under orders, released them.
The Canadian government did, however, return the confiscated money to St. Albans banks. The rest, apparently, remains unaccounted for and has inspired various legends. Some claim it went to the Confederate war effort via the Rebel raiders who evaded capture. Others say it was used to grease the wheels of Canadian justice. Then there is the story that it is buried somewhere between St. Albans and Quebec, still awaiting a canny treasure hunter.
Dix, apoplectic over Canada’s response, issued yet another order, directing the Army to henceforth follow raiders to their lairs, regardless of borders, and bring them back for trial by martial law. They were not to be turned over to Canadian authorities under any circumstances. This order, lauded by Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, was seen as “a declaration of war against Canada” by The Times of London.
Lincoln revoked that order as well, and mandated all such directives be placed before him before implementation. But he did acknowledge the “insecurity of life and property” along the border. If there had been any doubt before, it was now clear to all Northerners that the border offered a thousand miles of unpatrolled opportunity to whoever chose to walk, ride or float across it.
The raid “produced alarm in all the towns in the United States, from Maine to Minnesota,” a Confederate agent later declared. “This was the condition which was desired by the Confederates.”
A rash of wild rumors about Rebel plots being hatched in Canada had already circulated. One such tale originated in Nova Scotia, implying that Poland had authorized 30,000 troops to reinforce the South, to be ferried to battle in 50 British-built warships. And now, with the St. Albans raid, 21 bold Confederate horsemen had made fears of invasion real. And just as Unionists along the border feared an incursion from Rebels in Canada, Canadians now feared Lincoln’s re-election would portend a Union invasion of their country in response to Confederate depredations. Tension along the border was at an all-time high.
And all the while the players at the highest levels of government—North, South and abroad—were involved in diplomatic gamesmanship, the Confederate Secret Service was planning more and bigger operations; some of which, for sheer audacity and desperation, seem better placed in works of fiction.
Ron Soodalter is a columnist for America’s Civil War. His newest book, with Kevin Bales, is The Slave Next Door (U.C. Press, 2009).
Originally published in the November 2009 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.