When Confederate raiders materialized in St. Albans, Vermont, Principal Dorsey Taylor watched in dismay from a high-windowed perch in the brick schoolhouse. Taylor did his best to keep his students safely in their classrooms, but dozens of them congregated in the stairwells to look out the windows, noses pressed against the glass, to watch the chaos unfold. A few kids even slipped outside to watch the action.
The stairway today creaks of old wood under my footsteps as I climb toward the second floor. At the landing halfway up, I double back on my direction and find myself standing in front of one of those big, naked windows the kids had gazed through. The gray afternoon throws enough light to cast a diffuse square across the stairway that follows the contours of the steps like a drooping Dali watch.
I peer out the window and across the town common, through the trees and past the war memorials, toward Main Street. This Vermont town, tucked along the northeastern shore of Lake Champlain just 15 miles south of the Canadian border, bills itself as the site of the northernmost land battle of the Civil War.
I still can’t decide if it’s a real battlefield or not, though, primarily because I haven’t yet smoked a cigar here. The town of St. Albans has proven to be especially susceptible to fire over the years, so I don’t want to risk it. The raiders set fire to the town in October of 1864, and then in 1910, another fire hopscotched through. Who knows what a cheap strawberry-flavored cigar could do to a place like this.
The St. Albans Academy building now houses the local historical society, which devotes a full downstairs room to the raid. A three-dimensional map of Lake Champlain dominates the center of the room, and the exhibits wrap around the room like a crowd pushed up against the walls.
On October 19, 1864, twenty-two Confederate partisans targeted the railroad town for attack because of its banks. “For the Southern Raiders, St. Albans was an ideal target,” one of the museum displays says. It was “a prosperous town close to the border, easily accessible, accustomed to strangers in town and completely undefended.”
Their leader, 21-year-old Bennett Henderson Young, had been one of Morgan’s Raiders in Kentucky, Indiana, and Ohio, where he was captured in June of 1863. He escaped from prison in Illinois and made his way into Canada, where he worked with agents of the Confederate government on plans for a strike against the North. With Confederate fortunes failing by that point, a money grab would’ve had immediate benefits; the random appearance of Confederates so far north would likewise have important psychological impact, too. Indeed, the raid triggered panic as far away as Cleveland.
Most of the raiders escaped to Canada, taking with them as much as $210,000. Although arrested in Canada, a Canadian court sympathetic to the raiders ruled that the neutral country couldn’t prosecute them because the men had been acting under military orders. After more legal hoops, all the raiders went free, although the $88,000 they still had with them was returned to the St. Albans banks. (The amount of the final haul would be the source of controversy as Confederates tried to both inflate the amount to make their raid look as successful as possible and downplay it so that restitution wouldn’t be so high.)
“I have kept the faith,” Young said.
The lock to the Franklin County Bank vault sits on display at the museum, and a framed set of banknotes hangs on the wall. Raiders locked Marcus Beardsley and Jackson Clark, the bank’s cashiers, in the vault after stealing the money. There’s a four-ounce green glass bottle that had once contained “Greek fire,” a chemical agent used for fire-starting the way a Molotov cocktail might be used. Against one wall leans part of the cracked white marble headstone of Capt. George P. Conger, the Federal officer who led the pursuit.
The museum has plenty else to offer, and I could wander through here for hours. A “war room” offers plenty of military history, with a focus on Vermont in the Civil War, something I especially appreciate because of the Vermonters’ stalwart role during the Battle of the Wilderness. There’s plenty of other local history, too: a recreated barbershop; a nineteenth-century school room; a display about Phineas Gage, the Vermont man who survived having a railroad spike shot through his skull. The life-sized wax figure of that is delightfully ghoulish.
People come here most, I suppose, to learn about the Raid, though. “Confederates in Vermont!” has a provocative catchiness to it that Civil War buffs always seem to pick up on. That’s a fair-enough thing to hang your hat on, I suppose: the Northernmost Land Battle of the Civil War, or as I’ve sometimes seen it described, the Northernmost Engagement of the Civil War.
Everyone loves their superlatives. The northernmost engagement. The bloodiest day. The bloodiest battle. The most savage hand-to-hand fighting. The most lopsided defeat. The greatest victory.
We boil our Civil War history down to pithy slugs designed to catch people’s attention and, perhaps, titillate them. What makes this battlefield or that battlefield unique? What’s the niche? What’s the angle? What’s the catch?
How do you make yourself distinctive? How do you stand out? How do you keep from getting forgotten?
I’m just as guilty. Working on a Chancellorsville book about the fighting on May 3, 1863, I’m quick to characterize it as the second-bloodiest day of the war behind only Antietam. Gettysburg fans will argue that the distinction—if you can call it that—belongs to the panopoly of battle on July 2, 1863. I want to lay claim to that title for May 3, though, because it makes an effective marketing hook for my book—the same way St. Albans draws tourists by touting itself as the site of the northernmost land battle of the Civil War. We are literally selling our history.
I don’t know how I feel about that. America already suffers from an almost complete lack of historical literacy; am I compounding it by reducing history to catchy marketing hooks?
From the historical society, a driving tour could take me through the Green Mountains to the east of town, across covered bridges and country roads, if I wanted to follow the Raiders’ path of escape. I’ve come up today from Plainfield, east of Montpelier—with a stop at the Ben and Jerry’s factory in Waterbury on the way—so I don’t feel the need to head further into history. The Green Mountains are too gray today, matching the sky and the still surface of Lake Champlain.
Being here in this northernmost spot is enough.