On October 19, 1864, Elinus J. Morrison of Manchester, New Hampshire, was in the bustling town of St. Albans, Vermont, 15 miles south of the Canadian border, where he was supervising the construction of the new Welden Hotel.
On that day his life would collide with the forces of history in the most tragic way.
Though the end of the American Civil War would come within a few months, in October 1864 the war was still raging. On October 10, a 21-year Kentuckian, Bennett Young, and two other young men arrived together in St. Albans, having traveled by train south from St. Johns (St. Jean-sur-Richelieu), Quebec, Canada. They checked into the Tremont House hotel. When asked why they were in town, they answered that they were on a "sporting vacation." Over the next several days 15 to 19 associates quietly slipped into St. Albans. The men took rooms at the Tremont, the American House and the St. Albans House hotels, and at a rooming house called the Willard.
These men were Confederate soldiers who had been taken as prisoners of war, but who had escaped to neutral Canada. They were in St. Albans with the nefarious purpose of robbing the local banks to get cash for the Confederate government. They would steal horses, and then ride to safety across the Canadian border. Each man carried a leather satchel, and a concealed .36 caliber pistol. Their commander was Lieutenant Bennett Young.
In the days before the raid, the men surveyed the town and familiarized themselves with their targets: the St. Albans Bank, the Franklin County Bank, and the First National Bank. It may seem unbelievable that they did not arouse suspicion, but St. Albans was a busy railroad and manufacturing town, and the locals were used to the presence of strangers. Lieutenant Young even managed to charm the wife of Vermont Governor J. Gregory Smith into giving him a tour of the Towers, Smith's magnificent 40-room mansion.
Originally, the raid was to be carried out on Tuesday, October 18, but this was a market day, when there would be many extra people in town. So, it was decided to rob the banks on October 19. The marauders would have another day to reconnoiter. That day Lieutenant Young was observed having a conversation with Elinus Morrison at the Welden Hotel construction site, which was just a block away from the banks and the center of town. Later, it was speculated that Elinus must have been a Southern sympathizer, to have been so friendly with the leader of the raid. But, that certainly could not be true considering Elinus' dreadful fate.
Wednesday was a gray and drizzly day in St. Albans. The town was especially quiet as about 40 of its leading men were away in Burlington on business. The raiders arrived in Lieutenant Young's hotel room at 2:30 p.m. where they worked out the final details of the action. Each man was given several four-ounce bottles of "Greek fire," a sulfuric chemical concoction that would burst into flames when exposed to air. The raiders planned to set the town on fire as they made their escape.
The raid began sharply at 3 p.m., as soon as the church bells rang the hour. At that moment Lieutenant Young and a group of his fellow Confederates stood on the steps of the American House, brandishing their weapons. Young declared, "I take possession of this town in the name of the Confederate States of America!" Then he and the other raiders forced several of the townspeople into the village green across the street, and held them at gunpoint.
The banks were located in close proximity to each other near the town green. The robberies took place simultaneously, and the process was completed within about 15 minutes. During this time several raiders stole horses from livery stables. When they were unable to gather enough horses, they shot their guns in the air. When frightened riders and carriage drivers ran for cover, the raiders stole their horses, too.
Elinus Morrison heard the shots, and a man running away from the commotion told him about the bank robberies. He and his workmen took off towards the downtown.
Next Week: A Valley Cemetery Story — The tragic fate of Elinus J. Morrison.
Aurore Eaton is executive director of Manchester Historic Association; email her at firstname.lastname@example.org