A Scholarly Monograph By Daniel S. Rush M.D. and E. Gale Pewitt, Ph.D.
6 June 2008
The Papers of the Blue and Gray Education Society, Number 19
October 19, 1864
In no other country, perhaps, but in the Southern Confederacy, could twenty young men be found who would be prepared to risk their lives, to offer them to a certain almost ignominious death in taking possession a town of four thousand inhabitants.
— Toussaint-Antoine Rodolphe LaFlamme, Q.C.
Defense Counsel for the St. Albans Raiders
Superior Court, Montreal, Quebec, Canada on February 16, 1865
About the Authors
Dan Rush is a native of Louisville, Kentucky and Professor of Surgery at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, Tennessee. He graduated from Centre College and the University of Kentucky, School of Medicine, and was a Vascular Fellow at the University of Chicago. Dan is a member of the Morgan’s Men Association formed by descendants of John Hunt Morgan’s Kentucky Confederate Cavalrymen. He researches and writes about Kentucky Confederate regiments and soldiers as a hobby, and has lectured about Kentuckians in the Civil War at various meetings of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and Civil War Round Tables.
Gale Pewitt is a native of Franklin, Tennessee, and a retired particle physicist from the Argonne National Laboratory and the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory near Chicago. He graduated from Vanderbilt University, the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University), and the University of Chicago. Gale lives in Naperville, Illinois where he is an avid scholar of all periods of American military history, and has traveled the world visiting historic sites and famous battlefields. He has a special interest in the St. Albans Raiders and the Confederate Secret Service in Canada, and has lectured on these and related subjects at numerous Civil War Round Table meetings.
The unexpected and successful Confederate attack at St. Albans, Vermont on October 19, 1864 caught the Federal government off guard and shocked the war-weary Northern public. With a few notable exceptions, the loyal states had been largely spared invasion by Southern forces. In their everyday complacency, people in the North were simply unprepared for a Rebel raid deep in their homeland. Following this raid Northern cities and towns were forced to consider the possibility that other Southern agents and disloyal Northerners might attack without warning. More sobering was the realization that the St. Albans Raid had been staged from Canada. This raid renewed tensions between Queen Victoria’s territorial government and the United States. This became painfully obvious when Federal troops were shifted to the Canadian border. From the Confederate perspective this was precisely the reaction they hoped to achieve. The Lincoln administration now faced the unpleasant possibility of fighting a war on two fronts against enemies foreign and domestic.
This chain of events had its origins in early 1864 when President Abraham Lincoln approved Lieutenant General Ulysses Grant’s plan to conduct simultaneous operations along a broad front. Grant’s success in western campaigns had convinced Lincoln that he might be the master strategist Lincoln needed to bring this increasingly costly war to a final conclusion – their strategy was designed to exhaust the resources of the persistent Confederacy. In a costly and relentless spring offensive the major Union armies commanded by George Meade (in the presence of Grant’s direct oversight) and William T. Sherman had made considerable progress in grinding down the Southern armies. In September, Sherman took Atlanta and within two months was preparing to move east in support of Grant’s efforts in Virginia. Another Grant protégé, Major General Phil Sheridan was countering a Confederate summer offensive in the rich granaries of the Shenandoah Valley. But perhaps most importantly, Grant’s army had finally cornered Robert E. Lee’s once mighty Army of Northern Virginia and had pinned it down in the trenches at Petersburg.
Although military success seemed to elude the Confederates one prize might change everything—the 1864 Federal Presidential election offered the possibility of a change in the administration. Lincoln had already seen his support erode in the 1862 congressional elections and in numerous state elections across the North. Indeed he was so certain he would be defeated that in August he asked his cabinet to sign a pledge, sight unseen, that they would aggressively continue the war effort until the new president took office in March 1865. The capture of Atlanta provided Lincoln a major boost of fortune; but, still the war dragged on. Just as C.S. General Jubal Early’s summer 1864 raid in Maryland attempted to do, the Rebel attack at St. Albans was intended to sow serious doubts in Northern voters’ minds about Lincoln’s chances of securing an early peace through a military victory. Economic, political or military set-backs just before the vote on November 8th could possibly bring Confederate victory.
The beleaguered Confederate government in Richmond, Virginia faced somewhat more serious challenges in early 1864 as they struggled to preserve the South’s rapidly shrinking territory, scarce resources, and dwindling armies – these were desperate circumstances requiring desperate measures. Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his cabinet initiated an ambitious plan of subversive activities, which became known as the “Northwest Conspiracy.” The Confederates allied themselves in this bold venture with secretive, anti-war, anti-Lincoln societies in the Northern states known officially as The Sons of Liberty, but whose members were more often disparagingly called “Copperheads.”
These loosely organized, anti-administration Northerners were closely identified with the Democratic Party and committed to Lincoln’s defeat in the upcoming election. If unsuccessful, the Copperheads threatened to secede and form a Northwestern Confederacy friendly to the South. They already controlled several mid-western statehouses and boasted hundreds of thousands of members on their rolls – all they needed was money and a little military muscle to depose Lincoln. Thus, a Secret Service of Rebel soldiers was conceived to operate in the North from the relative safety of neutral Canada under the direction of Confederate Commissioners Jacob Thompson and Clement C. Clay Jr. These agents were authorized to help anti-administration political organizations achieve their goals through direct financing and, when expedient, covert activity. In return, their new allies were expected to aid the Southern war effort.
Loss of manpower in the Confederate armies had also become a critical concern in Richmond, and the release of thousands of Rebel prisoners of war from Northern camps became a top priority. Captain Thomas H. Hines, the Kentucky cavalryman who engineered C.S. General John Hunt Morgan’s escape from the Ohio Penitentiary, was ordered to Canada to organize a Secret Service from among the Southern exiles and former Rebel prisoners of war already settled there. Hines adopted a military model for his organization and selected predominantly men with whom he had served in Morgan’s Kentucky Cavalry – men he knew personally and men he knew he could trust in dangerous situations.
Soon, battalions of armed Rebel soldiers and their Copperhead allies could be attacking cities and military targets deep in Union territory creating a “fire in the rear” for Lincoln to contend with.6 Even if these audacious plans proved unsuccessful, Lincoln’s war policies could be discredited and his re-election bid might yet be foiled. It was against this backdrop that the soldiers who attacked St. Albans were drawn and they came almost entirely from among the agents recruited by Hines. Bennett Young, the raid’s twenty-one year old leader, selected St. Albans as his target because of its location near the Canadian border. This attack was intended to be a political statement with far reaching domestic and international repercussions. Its primary objective was to burn the town in retaliation for Federal atrocities in the South and the infamous bank robberies committed in broad daylight were added to emphasize the point.
The attack in Vermont and sensational trials in its wake have been known ever since as “The St. Albans Raid.” This story is legendary and remains one of the most unusual incidents of the Civil War. The details of the raid have been retold over the years from primarily Northern sources and perspectives. It is not intended here to retell the story of the raid itself or of its trials and legal questions at great length, that task has already been attempted elsewhere. Instead, this study seeks to broaden understanding of the raid through a study of the extraordinary lives of the men involved, but be aware that many of the well-researched facts contained within are at odds with the traditional historical accounts. It is hoped that in this process lingering questions, historic errors, false impressions, and outright myths about the raid and the Raiders will be finally corrected. For the first time, the number and names of all the men involved will be revealed and special attention will be given to the recent discovery of the mysterious “missing” Raiders. Their life stories will be told in brief sketches examining their individual personalities and motives.
Finally, much of the raid’s impact was a direct result of the character of the men themselves. St. Albans was one of the most successful Confederate Secret Service operations largely because they were never infiltrated or exposed by Federal informers; an astounding fact which resulted in part from the Raiders’ loyalties, leadership, unit cohesion, and in no small measure – just plain luck. This is a story of bold, determined young men swept-up by circumstances into a dangerous game.