History of the American Civil War: THE GREAT BANK RAID, October 19, 1864
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History of the American Civil War: THE GREAT BANK RAID, October 19, 1864


By Lincoln Mint

As the Confederacy’s fortunes sank lower and lower in 1864, numerous revolutionary plots were hatched in Richmond and at the South’s diplomatic mission in Canada. These schemes for snatching victory from defeat were grandiose and imaginative—the burning of New York City by secret agents, the release of thousands of Rebels from Federal prisoner-of-war camps, the capture of a warship on the Great Lakes to threaten Yankee lake ports, cloak-and-dagger deals with Northern anti-war groups to overthrow various state governments-but all of them fizzled out. Only one plot, less ambitious but more hard-headed than the rest, was ever carried out. It became known as the Great Bank Raid.

Among the South’s problems was a shortage of hard cash, and a Kentucky cavalry lieutenant named Bennett Young came up with a plan to help remedy this deficiency. In 1863, while riding with Jeb Stuart, Young had been captured and imprisoned. He escaped, made his way back to Richmon , and announced that operating behind enemy lines held little risk. To prove his point, in the fall of 1864 he and 25 volunteers infiltrated northward and crossed into Canada. Young s goal was to raid Yankee banks and perhaps stir up trouble between the United States and Canada. He chose as his target the little Vermont town of St. Albans, some 15 miles from the
Canadian border.

In October, in small groups, the raiders drifted into St. Albans, claiming to be Canadian sportsmen come for the hunting. St. Albans was a sleepy little place, but at the mo-
ment its three banks were filled to bursting. Union army horse buyers had just completed a deal for 700 Vermont Morgans, much-prized cavalry mounts. The “sportsmen” carefully cased the town. On October 19, just before mid-afternoon closing time, Young and his men strolled into the three banks, then, they pulled out big cavalry pistols and announced that they were Confederates bent on relieving the bankers of all their assets.

The youthful Rebels were long on daring but rather short on bank-robbing skills. In their haste they overlooked hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of bills, gold coins and bonds in cash drawers and safes. Nevertheless, they made off with the tidy sum of $208,000 without inflicting any casualties. Their getaway was not as bloodless. In the process of stealing horses from St. Albans’ startled citizens, shots were fired and several civilians were wounded, one fatally. An attempt to burn the town came to nothing when the Confederates incendiary devices failed to work. Then the raiders galloped out of town, heading for the Canadian border. The whole operation had taken just 30 minutes.

The Rebels made a clean getaway before a posse could be organized. Eighteen of them were seized by Canadian authorities, but a judge ruled that “the transactions in St. Albans, Vermont, were acts of war.” They—along with their loot—were released, and the Vermonters had to suffer the unwelcome role of contributors to the Rebel war chest.


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