1864: Confederates Raid Vermont

If you had happened to find yourself living in northern Vermont in 1864, you would have found that life came with certain trade-offs. On the one hand, winter comes in August, at which point the sun goes out and herds of mastodons roam the frigid, icy forests. On the other, you’re so spectacularly far from the Mason-Dixon line that at least you can be pretty sure about not getting raided by screaming Southerners on horseback.

Or so you might think.

So on this day in 1864, hypothetical-mid-1860s-Vermont-you would have been slightly surprised to find a troupe of 21 renegade Confederate cavalrymen rampaging through Saint Albans, VT, a small village about 15 miles from the Canadian border. The Confederates, led by one Lieutenant Bennett H. Young, climbed up the steps of one of the town’s hotels, announced that St. Albans was now the territory of the Confederate States of America. Then 9 of the Confederates herded the frightened townspeople into the village green while the rest stole their horses and started robbing banks.

Canada—still at that time a province of the British Empire—had declared itself neutral in the War Between the States. This made it a natural destination for Confederate prisoners-of-war who managed to escape from camps in the far North—since Canada was neutral, it wouldn’t extradite them. Bennet Young was one of these, a cavalryman who was captured at the Battle of Salineville, escaped to Canada, and there came up with the idea of enlisting some of his fellow former Confederates in raids against far northern towns. His idea was to (1) make some extra money for the dwindling Confederate treasury, and (2) to force the United States Army to redeploy troops to protect crucial battleground states like, say, Vermont.

Young made his way from Canada back to the Confederacy, where he pitched his ‘Raids from Canada’ idea to his superiors. They gave him some money, made him a lieutenant, and sent him back north to Quebec. On October 10, Young and two fellow Confederates checked into a hotel in St. Albans, telling the proprietor in their blatantly non-Canadian accents that they had come from St. Johns for a “sporting vacation.” Every few days, a couple more of the strange Canadians would show up in town, until finally there were twenty-one, a full platoon. And that’s when Young walked outside and told everyone they were now prisoners of the CSA.

After forcing several of the bank tellers to pledge allegiance to the Confederacy, Young and his men robbed three of the town’s banks and galloped toward the Canadian border with $208,000 in their saddlebags and a single shed in flames behind them (they had planned to torch the town as well, but their homemade Greek fire didn’t work, and the shed was all that caught fire). They crossed the border, where they were promptly arrested by the Canadians.

The US Government demanded that Canada turn Young and company over to them, but the Canadians refused to extradite them on the grounds that Young’s raid had been a military action, rather than just a well-run bank robbery. The Canadians gave most of the money back to Vermont, and Young and his men waited out the rest of the war in Canada.

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