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When The Civil War Came To Vermont: Exploring The St. Albans Raid

“St. Albans Invaded! Several Citizens Shot! Great Excitement Prevails!” Those were the headlines 150 years on Oct. 19, 1864.

What came to be known as the St. Albans Raid brought the Civil War, the great majority of which was fought in the south, to the northern hills of Vermont as confederate soldiers attacked and held St. Albans hostage. The details of the siege are told in a new book by author Michelle Arnoksy Sherburne, The St. Albans Raid: Confederate Attack on Vermont.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis had sent commissioners to Canada to work on operations to undermine President Abraham Lincoln’s administration in the north.

“Twenty-one Confederate soldiers were commissioned to do this raid, and it was supposed to be the first of numerous raids along the northern border,” Sherburne explained.

First Lieutenant Bennett Young was the leader. He made a number of visits to St. Albans to plan for the attack. The raiders planned to attack on Oct. 18, but they learned that it was market day and there would be too many people in town.

So plans changed to attack on the 19th. In the days before, the soldiers simply checked into hotels and started asking questions to find out how well-armed the locals were. They apparently didn’t raise any suspicions.

“They were supposed to just mix and mingle in St. Albans and just pretended to be tourists. The whole time they were checking out where the stables were, they found out that the rail yard and foundry had 400 men working on a daily basis. So they decided that they would have to take all of these things into account,” Sherburne said. And they tried not to act like southerners.

“They hid that southern drawl for sure and they made sure that they did not talk about anything supporting the south because that would raise red flags.” Sherburne added that the leader Bennett Young even spent time with the Governor John Gregory Smith’s family. Smith was from St. Albans.

“He went and visited the house, and got a tour of the place. The governor’s wife thought he was a nice young man. They did a really good job of making friends very quickly.”

The orders from the confederate government were to burn the town, but the soldiers planned to rob the banks first. They all met at the hotel that Young was staying in. The soldiers went to their posts and then Sherburne said, “Bennett Young just walked out of the hotel and announced that he was taking the town for the confederacy. And that’s when all chaos hit St. Albans.”

They did rob the banks, and gathered villagers onto the town green.

One of the people rounded up was Capitan George Conger, who was a recently returned war veteran. He was able to break away and ran to the rail yard to get 40 men together for a posse to chase the raiders out of town.

The raiders escaped town on stolen horses. The raid only lasted a half an hour, and one man died after being shot by Bennett Young.

Later that night Conger and some of the men were able to arrest some of the raiders in Canada.

Sherburne said she was drawn to the story of the raid because there are many layers, and a lot people think the raid was simply a group of outlaws just trying to raise a ruckus. But it was an attack planned by the confederate government. And the repercussions of the event were felt throughout Vermont.

“It put the whole state in a state of emergency and for months, Governor Smith ordered militia to guard every town and every means of transportation. For months after the raid Vermonters thought that the Canadians were going to come down and attack them,” Sherburne said. 

Melody is the Contributing Editor for But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids and the co-author of two But Why books with Jane Lindholm.
A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
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