Published in the Montreal Gazette on October 17, 2014
Those of us of a certain age studied about it in high school yet how many of us really remember the St. Albans Raid? Good question as we mark the 150th anniversary of one of the more difficult, not to say embarrassing moments in relations between Canada and the United States.
In October of 1864, frustrated by their side’s rapidly deteriorating fortunes in the U.S. Civil War, a group of about 20 Confederate combatants who had been hiding out in Canada descended stealthily into the Vermont railroad town of St. Albans. Passing themselves off as ordinary travellers and arriving stateside separately over a ten-day period, the young men were under the able command of 1st Lieutenant Bennett Henderson Young, a 21-year-old Confederate escapee from an Ohio prison. Together, they planned to assail the town when the occasion was judged to be the most opportune. Young, “the youthful, dashing and real – life lead character,” was determined to inflict the most damage possible on the unsuspecting settlement.
That day came on Wednesday, October 19, when 40 of St. Albans’ foremost men (perhaps including the sheriff himself) were out of the town on official business. As planned, the clash started at exactly 3:00 that afternoon with the soldiers targeting three of the community’s four banks. While this was being carried out, additional southerners were rounding up people and herding them into a nearby park. At the same time, others in the gang were stealing just enough horses to facilitate their collective getaway.
All the raiders wore civilian clothing and each carried with them two Navy .36 caliber pistols. While one man was 38 years old, most were between 20 and 26 years of age.
As a consequence of these violent actions, three locals in the township were injured; with one of whom, Elinus Morrison, dying of his wounds two days later. Some fires were set, and the three banks were looted of the considerable sum of $208,000, of which only $88,000 was ever returned. In the midst of the pandemonium, the flamboyant Young even found time to force some of the bank tellers to pledge allegiance to the Confederate States of America, albeit at gunpoint!
Although the scofflaws were also planning on carrying out similar actions nearer the Canadian border at Swanton, they ultimately judged that to be a little too risky as a band of infuriated St. Albans’ residents was following them on horseback.
For that reason, they quickly scurried into Canada, where initially some made their way back to the Montreal area. The diplomatic fallout, to say the least, was substantial.
A number of the raiders who returned to the city were ultimately given refuge and sustenance in the residence of lawyer Godfroi Laflamme. When Laflamme’s wife, Virginie, died in August of 1907, the Montreal Star reported that in the autumn of 1864 “the accused were concealed in Mrs. Laflamme’s house for several days, and she secretly conveyed food from the kitchen to their place of concealment in the garret.” The home in question stood on St. Catherine Street at the southeast corner of Metcalfe (where today is located a Jean Coutu Pharmacy).
Godfroi Laflamme and his brother, Rodolphe, later defended the southerners in their trial here in Montreal. Eventually, they were released on a technicality by Montreal police magistrate, Charles Coursol, a fact which only further angered the American authorities, and, as it turned out, the Canadian ones as well.
It seems that Coursol, “this wretched prig of a police magistrate” (according to John A. Macdonald), handled the case quite badly in that he never referred the issue to the Attorney – General of Canada East for his guidance nor to a higher court for review. Instead, the men were suddenly released with the magistrate’s mistaken claim that he lacked jurisdiction in the matter. Not surprisingly, most of the men quickly fled the town.
As a result, the government of the United Province of Canada was forced to establish a military presence along the border in order to prevent a repeat episode from the Canadian side, or an incursion by the Americans in search of the liberated bandits. All in all, the tense situation became just one additional factor calling for a rapid confederation of the remaining British colonies in North America.
As for the fugitive Young, he returned in 1868 to his native Kentucky where he became a leading attorney in Louisville, and also a celebrated philanthropist. He died in 1919.
Below, the Raiders (with Young on the left) photographed outside the Montreal Jail in late 1864