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Southern Heritage <br>News and Views: The CONFEDERATE ATTACK on ... WHERE?

Saturday, March 24, 2012


By Bob Hurst

That great conflict between the North and the South from 1861 to 1865 (at least the military part was) is referred to by many names. Common titles applied to the struggle include the "Civil War" (although by definition this is incorrect), the "War Between the States" (Congress says this name is okay), the "War for Southern Independence" (favored by many in the South) and numerous other titles.

One title that seems to best describe the epic clash is the "War of Northern Aggression". Truly, any reasonable person studying the lead-up period prior to the conflict and the events (battles, etc.) of the four years of armed hostilities can only come to the conclusion that it was the North that was the aggressor - not the South.

When surveying the long list of land battles, engagements and skirmishes of the War, it becomes painfully evident that the conflict consisted of four years of northern armies attacking Southern sites. None of the Southern states was spared from this onslaught. From Allatoona, Georgia, to Wilmington, North Carolina; from Pea Ridge, Arkansas, to Olustee, Florida; from Mansfield, Louisiana, to Lookout Mountain, Tennessee; from Perryville, Kentucky, to Wilson's Creek, Missouri; from Galveston, Texas to Selma, Alabama; and from Champion's Hill, Mississippi, to Honey Hill, South Carolina, there were few communities in the South, either large or small, which were not subject to the horrors imposed by the Federal Army.

Virginia, of course, was a special case with so many military engagements taking place in the state that if you had a large box of pins to mark each site on a map you would soon run out of pins.

Additionally, there is the situation of Sherman in Georgia/South Carolina and Sheridan in the Shenandoah Vally of Virginia where northern troops attacked multitudes of civilian targets destroying everything in the vicinity and laying waste to huge areas of land while conducting their odious scheme of "total war".

By contrast, most of the North was completely separated (physically) from the horrors of war and the residents of the northern states had the luxury of relaxing on their porches or working in their gardens without having to worry about the invasion of Southern troops that would bring devastation to their homes and lives. With the exception of a few raids by General John Hunt Morgan, Jubal Early's action at Chambersburg, and the conflicts at Sharpsburg (Antietam) and Gettysburg, there was hardly any Confederate activity in the non-seceding states during the War.

Northerners cannot admonish the South for the burning of Cleveland because it never happened, but Atlanta was burned to the ground by federal forces. Northerners cannot lament the total destruction of Allentown, Pennsylvania, by Southern troops because that also never happened, but Southerners could certainly mourn the total destruction of Meridian, Mississippi, by northern troops under the command of the beast Sherman. There was no Southern attack on Michigan, or New Jersey, or Rhode Island, or Massachusetts , or Vermont, or....oops, I guess I can't include Vermont in this list because, as unlikely as it seems, there indeed was a Confederate attack on that yankee state bordering on Canada.

That Confederate attack on Vermont will be the subject of this story and it makes for an interesting subject because of the uniqueness of the encounter and the audacity of the young Confederate officer who conceived the attack and led the small band who launched the strike on St. Albans, Vermont, on October 19, 1864.

Bennett Henderson Young was a young Kentuckian who had been captured near Salineville, Ohio, while riding with Morgan's Raiders on July26, 1863. He was imprisoned at the infamous Camp Douglas in Chicago but was able to escape soon after his incarceration and make his way to Canada. He was anxious to return to the South and had traveled to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he planned to board a sea-going vessel and run the blockade. While in Halifax he had a chance meeting with Clement C. Clay, a Confederate emissary who was in Canada to establish diplomatic operations in that country. Clay recognized that Young had some very special qualities and was impressed by both his devotion to the Confederate Cause and his ideas about some out-of-the-ordinary ways to help the war effort. Clement Clay gave to the young man a letter of introduction to Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon.

The cagy and intelligent young man made his way to Richmond and met with Secretary Seddon.The war secretary was so impressed with Young that he commissioned him a lieutenant in the Confederate Secret Service and granted him permission to organize a special group of irregulars who could undertake special missions "beyond the Confederate States".This new unit was designated as the "5th Confederate State Retributors". To make up this unit for special operations, Lieutenant Young recruited escaped Confederate prisoners living in Canada and some Canadians who were sympathetic to the South.

These Confederates and Confederate-sympathizers living in Canada had read reports of the atrocities being committed in Georgia, South Carolina and the Shenandoah Valley by Union troops under the command of William Sherman and Philip Sheridan as they engaged in "total war" against civilians in those areas. Bennett Young was especially incensed by these northern tactics being directed at Southern civilians and developed a plan for retaliation. Confederate President Jefferson Davis approved this plan which was to raid a number of New England towns along the Canadian border and rob the banks in these towns. This would help replenish the Confederate treasury and could possibly force the Union Army to pull troops from war zones in the South and ship them north to defend the Canadian border. Bennett Young also wanted these northerners to experience what it was like to have the military invade civilian targets so he also proposed burning these towns as had been done in many Southern areas. One of the towns included on this list of targets was the wealthy town of St. Albans, Vermont.

Young's unit of special forces consisted of only 21 total retributors so getting them into St. Albans without stirring up suspicion was certainly not the problem that a larger force would face. Young had his men, over a period of several days, enter St. Albans utilizing various modes of travel. Each man identified himself to the locals as either a businessman there on official business or as a sportsman there on vacation to get in some hunting. After several days of scouting the town, the plan was ready to be put into operation.

About mid-afternoon of October 19, the plan was put into action. Lieutenant Young took one group of Confederates and set up at the town park which would be the rendezvous point after the attack had been completed. The remaining forces were divided into three groups with one going to Franklin County Bank, one to St. Albans Bank and one to the First National Bank. While the forces assigned to each bank were going about their duties, those who had gone to the park with Lieutenant Young then started spreading through the town stealing horses from the various stables and from individuals who had left horses unattended. The horses were necessary for escape to Canada after completion of the mission.

Each of the Confederates had been given several containers of an incendiary preparation called "Greek Fire". This was a phosphorus preparation designed to burst into flame when the container was smashed against a solid surface. These were to be the means to torch the town.

The plan was for each group to work quickly in the bank removing as much money as they could while drawing as little attention as possible to the operation. They were instructed, however, to meet resistance with force. After the bank work was completed the groups were to withdraw quickly to the park, smashing bottles of the incendiary against building walls along the way. There they would mount the stolen horses and head for the Canadian border.

Although Bennett Young had selected the least busy time of day on the slowest day of the week for the banks, as always things can go wrong. One problem was that when they announced they were Confederates and were robbing the bank, many in the bank didn't take them seriously. After all, they were in Vermont, far away from any Confederates. Some in the banks, though, did realize what was happening and were able to slip out and spread the alarm among the townspeople. Despite facing sporadic gunfire on the way to the rendezvous at the park, there appeared to be no Confederate casualties. The group was unsuccessful in leaving the town in flames, however, as the "Greek Fire" failed to ignite when smashed against the wooden buildings wet from recent rain. Still, the mission was successful as the Confederates made off with more than $200,000 taken from the banks and the patrons.

The Retributors made it safely to Canada and were able to send some of the money to the South. They were arrested in Canada, however, a few days after the attack and the Canadian authorities returned some $88,000 to Vermont (at least, by some accounts). What the Canadian authorities would not return to St. Albans or the State of Vermont were the captured Confederates. Despite repeated requests from the United States and Vermont, Canada refused to extradite the Confederates based on an argument that they were only obeying orders and eventually Bennett Young and his men were set free on a technicality. (Actually there had been no such orders but when Confederate Secretary of State Judah Benjamin learned of the situation he quickly sent appropriate orders to the Canadian authorities.)

Even though the attack on St. Albans was only a small endeavor, it did create chaos across New England. Rumors spread throughout the region that many more raids were to come and that the Confederates had thousands of troops stationed along the Canadian border poised for attack. The NEW YORK POST newspaper even advised the Canadian government to consider the possibility of continuing Confederate attacks as a "grave international question". All this from a raid by a small band of Confederates far from home but led by a young man with the heart of a lion.

Bennett Young survived the War and eventually returned home to Kentucky. Even though he never led another raid for the Confederacy, he spent a spectacular lifetime doing things to help rebuild his beloved Southland. He became a renowned humanitarian, historian, attorney and community leader. Using primarily his own money, he organized a school for orphan girls. He served for many years as the President of the Kentucky School for the Blind. He also helped organize the Colored Orphan's Home in Louisville and was a chief fundraiser for the institution for many years. He somehow found the time to write a collection of childrens' stories (and tell them on countless occasions to young audiences) that were eventually published in both print and Braille.

Bennett Henderson Young lived for 54 years after the War ended. At an event in 1918 honoring him for his service and humanitarian efforts, he even received a cablegram from President Woodrow Wilson commending him for his many deeds. Bennett Young exemplified the very best in Southern manhood - another in a long line of magnificent Confederates.

Note: There is a marker in St. Albans, Vermont, commemorating the St. Albans Raid. It states that the Confederates "spread terror from the north, robbed three banks and shot up the town". Those yankees always sem to hyperbolize. Interestingly, there are several markers in northern states proclaiming those areas as the northernmost point attained by Confederate troops. One marker, erected by the Pennsylvania Historical Commission, stands on Pennsylvania Route 34 about a mile north of Carlisle Springs. There is a monument on the battlefield at Gettysburg that is entitled "Highwater Mark of the Rebellion". Just a few miles west of Salineville, Ohio, on Ohio Route 39 is a marker that indicates that the advance of General John Hunt Morgan into that area constituted the northernmost engagement of the Confederate Army and in Bloomfield (Davis County), Iowa, is a plaque observant of a Confederate raid on October 12, 1864. I guess it depends on whether it was a Confederate Army involved or just a small band of 21 Retributors, but I believe the St. Albans raid is definitely the farthest north of Confederate actions and especially the strangest. Job well done, fellas! Oh, by the way, Bennett Henderson Young was also a recipient of the Confederate Medal of Honer.


Note 2: Articles from past years of CONFEDERATE JOURNAL are available in book form. Articles from 2005-2007 are in Volume 1 and can be ordered online at and articles from 2008-2009 are in Volume 2 and can be ordered at

Bob Hurst is a true Son of the South with special interests in the Confederacy and the antebellum architecture of the South. He is Commander of Col. David Lang Camp, Sons of Confederate Veterans, in Tallahassee and is 2nd Lt. Commander of the Florida Division, SCV. Contact him at or 850-878-7010.


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