At the height of the American Civil War, the southern Confederacy found support in Canada. The town of St. Albans,Vermont would find out just how deep that support ran.
Officially Canada remained neutral during the war. But Montreal provided a headquarters for Confederate operatives who hatched a number of plots against the Union war effort.
Canadians viewed New England Yankees with a jaundiced eye. Many considered New Englanders to be expansionist, unfriendly neighbors. The country harbored many Confederate soldiers who managed to escape the fighting in the south, and it became a gathering place for ex-patriots to plot against the north.
One ongoing plot involved an effort to cause rioting and insurrection in New England cities, which prompted the Union to post soldiers in Boston.
In Canada, John Wilkes Booth schemed with Confederate friends. The details of his nine-day trip to Montreal remain a mystery. Following Booth's assassination of President Lincoln, Booth's friends sank into the woodwork while his enemies said he had bragged in conversations with his Canadian friends of his antipathy toward the president and hinted at plans to kidnap him.
Likewise, Canada played host to Luke Pryor Blackburn, a physician from Kentucky who supported the Confederates. Blackburn was a key figure in a plot to infect Boston, Philadelphia and Washington with yellow fever.
A yellow fever outbreak occurred in Bermuda during the Civil War. Blackburn had been dispatched to Canada to aid in gathering supplies for the Confederacy and assisting Confederate ships in their efforts at harassing Union supply ships operating in Canada.
Blackburn was temporarily ordered to Bermuda to tend to Confederate soldiers stricken with yellow fever. Upon his return to Canada, Blackburn is accused of arranging for garments and blankets of those who died of yellow fever to be brought into the United States to infect Union cities with the disease. Historians debate the evidence against Blackburn, though most agree he at least tacitly approved the plot.
These Confederate operations fell outside the regular army. They were part of the Confederate Secret Service, a loose collection of spy organizations that operated in support of the regular army. Most of their records were destroyed during the war. But one of the most concrete activities of the group remains undisputed – the raid on St. Albans, Vermont.
Between 18 and 22 men, led by Lt. Bennett Young, carried out the raid on October 19, 1864. It served the dual purpose of terrorizing civilians and providing much-needed cash to the Confederacy. The group had filtered into St. Albans during the days leading up to the raid and scoped out three banks in the city, the Franklin County Bank, the First National and the St. Albans Bank.
When the raid commenced at 3 p.m. the town was largely emptied out of working men. Lt. Young stepped onto the common and declared he was taking possession of St. Albans.. Residents were forced to swear an oath to the Confederacy, and Young and his raiders looted the three banks, making off with $208,000 in just 15 minutes.
The raiders torched one house as a distraction and fled the town unharmed, They killed one man – Elinus Morrison – who tried to interfere with their get-away. But plans to set fire to a large portion of the town failed when the bombs they brought to start fires did not work.
As the townspeople in St. Albans figured out what was happening, they quickly came together to form a posse that pursued the raiders across the border into Canada. Within a day they had captured 14 of the raiders and recovered $87,000. The rest of the money, however, was never seen again. Some suspect that one of the raiders kept a large portion of the money and used it to open a bank in Texas after the war.
In the aftermath of the raid, Canada gave shelter to the raiders, declining to prosecute them, and the government returned the money to the raiders that had been recovered by the Vermont posse.