On October 19, 1864—the same day Norwich alumnus Major General Horatio Wright played a key role in the tide-turning victory against the Confederate Army at Cedar Creek—Norwich University cadets and faculty set out to defend the U.S.-Canada border in what became the northernmost conflict of the Civil War.
Six hundred miles north of the raging battle at Cedar Creek, Va., 21 Confederate cavalrymen were planning a daring raid in sleepy St. Albans, Vt. In the days leading up to the 19th, they had crossed the border from Canada a few at a time to avoid arousing suspicion. Leading the attack was Lieutenant Bennett Young, who the year before had been captured by Union forces and held as a prisoner of war before escaping to neutral Canada and eventually returning to the South. Young conceived the idea of robbing banks near the Canadian border to divert Union troops away from southern military objectives.
The Confederacy was also desperate for supplies. The Union’s naval seaport blockades along the southern and Gulf coasts had closed the Confederates’ European supply lines, crippling the South. Young saw Canada as an access point to largely undefended parts of the Union.
Young’s band robbed three banks, killing one Vermonter and holding several townspeople at gunpoint on the town common. He then ordered St. Albans burned to the ground, but the ensuing fi re only destroyed one shed.
The Confederates had sorely underestimated the Vermont spirit. While the invaders escaped to Canada with more than $200,000 (an income value of more than $38 million in today’s economy), Young’s Rebels suffered one killed and several wounded.
The only organized military troops of any kind still left in Vermont were the Norwich University faculty and Corps of Cadets. Under the command of Brigadier General Alonzo Jackman, Class of 1836, and Captain Charles Kent, Class of 1864, nearly 50 cadets mobilized and headed north from Norwich, Vt., to Newport in an effort to intercept the Confederates before they could reach Canada. The Norwich contingent spent several days looking for the Rebels, but the raiders had already crossed the border.
Canadian authorities soon captured and arrested the Confederates. But the Canadian government would not turn the Confederates over to the U.S., because doing so would have been tantamount to siding with the Union. They did confiscate and return $88,000 that remained in Young’s possession.
The cadets and their commanders returned to Norwich never knowing how close they might have come to encountering and capturing the Confederate raiders.
Adapted from an article by COL Timothy H. Donovan, USA (Ret.) ’62 that appeared in the Summer 2014 Norwich Record. The Norwich University Archives houses Charles N. Kent’s manuscript reminiscence of the St. Albans Raid.