Sabotage and Far-Fetched Plots
With the war turning badly for the Confederates in the autumn of 1864, some of them turned to desperate measures, including sabotage in Northern cities.
St. Albans Raid
Twenty raiders from Canada descended on the town of St. Albans, Vermont, fifteen miles south of the border on Lake Champlain. Escaped or exchanged prisoners, these men had organized in Canada and slipped into St. Albans by twos and threes, checking into various boarding houses. In the afternoon of October 19, 1864, they assembled in the town square, removed their topcoats to reveal Confederate uniforms, and announced they were seizing the town. They took $200,000 from the town's three banks before the townspeople began shooting at them. One townsman was killed and three Confederates wounded before the Southerners fled north again into Canada with their loot. The money never reached Richmond to shore up the war effort; instead, it was used to plot further mischief against the Yankee north.
Saboteurs in New York City
Another group of Confederates operating out of Canada converged on New York City in November. Their plan was also economic of a sort: burn the city down or at least damage it enough to hurt the Northern economy. The conspirators checked into twenty hotels and set their rooms on fire on November 25. Some also set fire to a celebrated New York landmark, Barnum's Museum. The hotel fires did not work well, and local firefighters put them out with little trouble. The fire at Barnum's was more spectacular but was also brought under control. All but one of the saboteurs escaped.
General John Mosby raided Fairfax, Virginia, in March 1863 and caught Union general Edwin Stoughton in his headquarters sleeping. He spanked the Vermonter awake and asked “General, have you ever heard of Mosby?” “Yes,” said Stoughton groggily. “Have you caught him?” “No,” Mosby said. “He has caught you.”
The Plot to Capture the USS Michigan
Another plot involved capturing vessels on Lake Erie, including the U.S. Navy's only warship there. The USS Michiganwas guarding Southern prisoners on Johnson Island in Sandusky Bay of Lake Erie. Confederate officers organized a team that was to overpower small vessels, then overwhelm the Michiganand free thousands of prisoners. The Confederates were then to sail to Cleveland and Buffalo, exacting tribute before escaping to Canada. The band did indeed capture smaller vessels on the lake in late September but could not make an organized attempt on the Michigan,which in any event had been forewarned.