A Brief History
On October 19, 1864, military forces of the Confederate States of America invaded Vermont from a staging area in Quebec, Canada. Although we have long been taught in school that the Gettysburg campaign was the last invasion of the North by the Confederate States, the St. Albans Raid proves that premise false. Although not a “real” invasion by a large military force, the 21 cavalry soldiers involved on the side of the Rebels were in fact real soldiers of the CSA, men who had evaded capture in other campaigns and made their way North to Canada to escape capture.
Not a slashing, typical cavalry raid, the raiders slowly infiltrated St. Albans, Vermont, showing up in 2’s and 3’s over the course of 9 days, from October 10, 1864 to October 19, 1864, using the cover that they were merely vacationers from St. John’s, East Canada (Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu) in what is now the Province of Quebec. About 3 pm on October 19th, the soldiers, led by Confederate soldier Bennett H. Young who had escaped from a prisoner of war camp in Ohio and fled to Canada, split up into 3 groups and simultaneously robbed all 3 of the banks in St. Albans. The brazen raiders made sure to let the robbery victims know that they had been robbed by Confederates, as part of the plan was to create fear in the Northern tier of States and cause the Union to divert forces to protect those states bordering Canada.
The robbers snagged over $208,000, a sum well over $3 million in 2018 dollars. While some raiders held townsfolk at gunpoint, seizing all the available horse to prevent pursuit of the raiders, the others scooped up the cash. Unfortunately, some brave townies decided to resist, and one was killed with 2 other wounded. A single raider was also wounded. Prior to making their escape, the raiders attempted to burn the town with small vials (4 fluid ounces each) of “Greek Fire,” but the so-called Greek Fire did not ignite, leaving only 1 shed to be burned.
The raiders made good their escape, reaching Canada ahead of pursuing militia. The US Government demanded the return of the raiders and the money they had stolen, and initially the Canadian authorities complied, arresting the raiders and seizing $80,000 of the stolen money. Although the $80,000 was duly returned to St. Albans, the raiders were ordered released by a Canadian court that decided the men were indeed soldiers acting under military orders, which made neutral Canada unable to legally extradite the men to the US.
The St. Albans raid was conducted to divert Union forces from direct fighting with Confederate forces but had the unintended consequence of riling up the Canadians against the South. Canadian public opinion was decidedly against the conduct of the St. Albans Raid. This change of Canadian opinion about the US Civil War resulted in no further raids being staged from Canadian territory. In St. Albans, one of the banks that was robbed still exists, though under a different name (the Franklin Lamoille Bank now being a TD Bank).
Does the St. Albans Raid qualify as a “battle,” or merely a raid? Historians argue the point, debating which incident during the American Civil War constituted the Northernmost incursion by the Confederates. Should the criteria for determining the “Northernmost Battle” of the US Civil War include naval engagements? If so, the Battle of Cherbourg in which the USS Kearsarge sunk the CSS Alabama off the coast of France in 1864 would qualify as the Northernmost Battle.
Questions for Students (and subscribers): Have you previously heard of the St. Albans Raid? What other Civil War raids are you aware of? Should the St. Albans Raid be considered a military battle, or merely a bank robbery? Should Canada have extradited the raiders back to American authorities? Are you familiar with “Greek Fire?” Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Arnosky Sherburne, Michelle. The St. Albans Raid: Confederate Attack on Vermont (Civil War Series). The History Press, 2014.
Ashley, Robert. rebel raiders, a story of the st. albans raid. John C. Winston, 1956.
The featured image in this article, a woodcut illustration of the St. Albans Raid in St. Albans, Vermont, United States, from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper (retrieved from The Saint Albans Raid, St. Albans Historical Museum. At the bank, the raiders forced those present to take an oath of loyalty to “the Constitution of the Confederate States of America.” This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1923.