Civil War

5 Tips for How to Start a Writing Group Plus The Origins of #BookSquad

typewriterDo you have a community of writers you can rely on to push you to meet deadlines and write the best books and articles possible? In this post, you will discover how to start a writing group and the origins of my writing group, #BookSquad.


Origins of #BookSquad

One of my big goals for 2015 was to finish my book: America’s First Gateway: Albany and the Making of America.

I have lofty, but achievable (I think) goals for my book. I want America’s First Gateway to be a well-researched, well-written, and accessible book. It should speak to both my colleagues and non-historians.

#BookSquad came about because I need help accomplishing these goals. I need to be around writers who can lend perspective to my project and who will set and hold me accountable for deadlines.


Starting a Writing Group: How #BookSquad Came Together

I expressed my desire to start a writing group to Megan Kate Nelson, a friend and fellow historian. I told her how I wanted the group to be an in-person workshop with a focus on writing well-researched, accessible history books. Megan loved the idea and suggested that we invite Kevin Levin to join us. He accepted our invitation.

Not long after I spoke with Megan and Kevin, I had lunch with Heather Cox Richardson. We met to discuss digital public history; Heather is a co-founder of the fantastic digital history magazine We’re History. During our conversation, I mentioned how I was starting a writing group with Megan and Kevin. Heather asked if she could join us and suggested that we invite Seth Jacobs, her colleague at Boston College, too.

EditWithin a week or two, I had found four historians who shared my writing goals and who wanted to participate in a group where we could help each other achieve them. As I reflected upon my good fortune, I realized that our group consisted of one historian of early America (me), three historians of the Civil War Era (Megan, Kevin, and Heather), and one historian specializing in twentieth-century United States diplomatic history (Seth). This felt unbalanced so I invited Sara Georgini to join us.

Sara works as an Assistant Editor at the Adams Papers Documentary Editing Project. Although she trained as an historian of 19th-century American religion, her work with the Adams Papers has provided her with a great command of the historiographies for both early America and early 20th-century United States history. She also interacts with members of the public on a regular basis.

Our first meeting took place at Heather’s house in June 2015. We met over dinner and used the meeting as a chance to get to know each other. We also established the format for our group: monthly meetings; dinner, drink, and socializing first; writing workshop during dessert. This format works well for us. We socialize for the first 60-90 minutes of our meeting and then spend the next 60-90 minutes having a frank conversation about one member’s workshop submission.

After our first meeting, we gained two more members and our name, #BookSquad. Nina Silber (historian of the Civil War Era) asked to join us after seeing Megan post about our first meeting on Facebook. Tom Thurston (historian of 20th-century United States History) asked to join after seeing Heather post about a subsequent meeting. Sara dubbed us #BookSquad in her Facebook post, which we adopted and, for whatever reason, always write as a hashtag.


5 Tips for How to Form a Writing Group

1. Define your goals: What do you want to accomplish with your writing and what do you want to get out of working with a writing group?

You need answers to these questions so you can find likeminded writers and get the most out of your writing group.


2. Find likeminded people: The best writing groups consist of writers who work on similar genres and who share similar goals.

The needs of a poet differ from those of an historian. In my experience (#BookSquad is my fourth writing group), it helps when you work with people who work on similar genres. This doesn’t mean that everyone in your group needs to be an historian, but you may find it helpful if everyone in your group has a serious, non-fiction project so you can assist each other with research and methodology questions.

In terms of where to find potential members, start with your personal network. Once you figure out what type of writing group you want to form or join, ask your friends and colleagues whether they have or would like to join a group like you described.


3. Meet regularly: Find a schedule that works for you.

Whether you form a virtual writing group or an in-person writing group, be sure you meet regularly. Regular meetings will help you stay motivated and accountable when it comes to achieving your writing goals.


Books4. Find balance between project similarity and diversity: Work with people you wouldn’t normally work with.

As an early American historian, I don’t often engage with the historiography of the Civil War or twentieth century. In fact, I haven’t really engaged with these historiographies since I passed my comps in 2007.

Being in a group with so many mid-to-late 19th-century specialists can be both daunting and interesting. When one of the 19th-century historians workshops a chapter, the majority of the group starts in on whether the chapter addressed the important and recent works in their field. They also nitpick facts. This is fun to watch and I learn a lot, but Seth, Tom, and I cannot help our friends on the same level.

Instead, we tell them where we didn’t understand something because we are not so well versed in the historiography or where there is a similar example in early American or twentieth-century U.S. history that they might find helpful. These outside perspectives prove useful when workshopping the chronology and structure of a chapter.


5. Create a safe workshop environment: Writing is a personal activity; you present your thoughts and ideas for the world to consider. Be sure you join or start a writing group that creates a safe, honest, and respectful place for workshopping members' writing.

#BookSquad has created a safe and homey workshop space: We meet around the dinner table.

The person who submitted their work hosts the meeting at their house and cooks the main course. Every member brings an appetizer, side dish, and/or bottle of wine to add to the meal. We share food, personal stories, and conversation around the table. When we are done eating, we clear the table and sit down to work.

Our workshop is friendly, but intense. We have a respectful, but honest conversation about the submitted chapter. We discuss historiography, structure, and writing style. The nature of writing makes the workshop personal, but the social hour beforehand helps us remember that we are all friends offering advice that will make the offered chapter better.



Writing groups will help you improve your writing and help you increase your productivity. However, a good writing can be hard to find. Sometimes finding the right group involves trying out several different groups before you find the right one. You may also need patience while you seek out members for your ideal group.

Unfortunately, I will not meet my goal of finishing America's First Gateway in 2015. However, with the motivation and accountability provided by #BookSquad, I am confident I will make significant progress between now and the end of 2016.


Share Your Story

Do you belong to a writing group? How did you find it? What genres do its members write?


History Fun with the Civil War Dogs

Sprocket Reading Battle LinesHave you ever read a graphic history book? My dogs have!

In fact, I have come home on two separate occasions to find Thatcher and Sprocket reading Ari Kelman's new book [simpleazon-link asin="0809094746" locale="us"]Battle Lines: A Graphic History of the Civil War[/simpleazon-link].

Initially, I was thrilled that my research assistants had finally taken a genuine interest in history--even if it was in the Civil War. However, the situation has taken an unexpected turn.

Thatcher-Reading-Battle-LinesMy dogs have taken a keen interest in Civil War-era facial hair.  Sprocket thinks his facial hair is worthy of George Pickett. Thatcher likens his beard to the one sported by Robert E. Lee.

When I inquired why they hadn't selected any Union officers for their look-alike-contest, they said none of the Union officers had good facial hair; if they grew beards they kept them too closely cropped for their tastes.

See their cited evidence of William Tecumseh Sherman, Robert Gould Shaw, Ulysses S. Grant, and Joshua Chamberlain.

Union Officers

What Do You Think?

Do Thatcher and Sprocket look like these officers?

Do you think they look like a different officer?

Confederate Hair



Nazism, Dachau, and Historical Memory

Have you ever visited a place and the history of that place haunted you? Last week I had the opportunity to visit Munich in the German state of Bavaria. I enjoyed my trip, but I did not sleep well during my visit.

bavaria-mapMunich has a long history, one steeped in arts, culture, and innovation. Today, the people of Munich convey and celebrate their rich heritage in their museums, gardens, theaters, and beer halls.

However, one aspect of Munich's somewhat recent history overshadows the rest of its past and it is something that cannot be celebrated, but must be remembered: Munich is the birthplace of Nazism and the concentration camp system.

In this post you will discover Munich and Bavaria’s connection with Nazism and the concentration camp system and how this region of Germany works to keep the memory of its involvement in the Holocaust alive so that Germans will not repeat the past.


Author’s Note

This post has two parts: An overview of the rise of Nazism and the concentration camp system and my efforts to make sense of what I saw, learned, and how I felt (and feel) about it. As a result this is a rather long post, but I believe it needed to be posted in its entirety.


Part 1: Overview of the Rise of Nazism 

The End of World War I

At 11:00am on November 11, 1918, World War I ended.

Due to a lack of funds, materiel, and the disintegration of the Central Powers, Germany surrendered.

WWI_Victory_ParadeThe surrender shocked Germans throughout Germany. For years the Kaiser and military had told them that Germany was winning the war. The fact that Germans were fighting armies in places such as France and Belgium, but not in Germany added to their shock.

As part of the Treaty of Versailles (1919), Germany had to reduce its military from 4 million to 100,000 men. The unemployment of 3.9 million men combined with the stiff reparation payments demanded by the treaty to cripple the German economy.

This environment of fear, anger, and frustration gave birth to the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (National Socialist German Workers’ Party) or Nazi Party.


The Rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party

Before the military downsized Corporal Adolf Hitler, it tasked him with monitoring the activities of the German Workers’ Party, which Anton Drexler (an ardent German nationalist) had organized in Munich in 1918.

The nationalist message of Drexler’s party attracted Hitler and he began working for it after the army discharged him.  At first, Hitler served the party by drumming up support. His chief talent laid in gaining new members through his fiery speeches.

Hitler SpeaksHitler had a talent for oratory. He knew how to engage and energize an audience. He began by capturing his listeners' attentions with some wry humor and light banter. This technique allowed Hitler to read his audience. Once he judged his listeners he told them what they wanted to hear. Hitler became more animated as his speech continued. By the time he reached the portion of the speech where he talked about the Workers’ Party ideology both he and his audience were captivated and animated about what he had to say.

A turning point for the small German Workers' Party came when Hitler convinced Drexler to rent the large banquet hall in Munich’s Hofbräuhaus, one of the largest beer halls in the world. Hitler’s speech proved a success and from there he began talking at many of Munich’s large beer halls.

Hitler proved so successful at gaining new members through his oratory that on July 28, 1921, party leaders elected him chairman and gave him sole leadership. Thus, Hitler became the Führer of the German Workers’ Party, which had since became the National Socialist Workers’ Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei) or Nazi Party for short.

Bundesarchiv_Bild_119-0289,_München,_Hitler_bei_Einweihung_-Braunes_Haus-The Nazi Party became successful because of its strong support in Munich and because Ernst Röhm supplied it with military-grade weapons. During the late 1910s and 1920s, German political culture necessitated the need for party members to protect their orators; most political discussion took place in beer halls where attendees threw beer tankards and brawled. Hitler and the Nazis created a security force called the Sturmabteilug (Storm Detachment or Assault Division) or SA for short. The SA served as the predecessor of the SS.

In 1923, Germany suffered from hyperinflation. Frustrated with the government of the Weimar Republic, many Bavarian statesmen considered secession. As an ardent nationalist, the secession of Bavaria did not fit in with Hitler's plans for the republic.

On November 8, 1923, three prominent Bavarian state officials planned to speak about Bavarian independence in front of 3,000 people at the Bürgerbräuskeller in Munich. Believing that he had the support of the people and the force of his SA troops (and their weapons), Hitler attempted to seize power.

Hitler’s “Beer Hall Putsch” ended with the death of sixteen Nazi SA members, four Munich police officers, and Hitler's arrest and imprisonment for treason. The judge sentenced Hitler and his follower Rudolf Hess to five years in prison; Hitler served nine months before he was released for good behavior.

The Nazi Party almost died out but surged in popularity in both Munich and in other German states after the stock market crash in 1929.

In 1932, the Nazi’s secured enough votes that Hitler was allowed to form a coalition government. On January 30, 1933 he became Chancellor of Germany.


The Reichstag Fire & the Creation of Dachau

468px-ReichstagsbrandOn February 27, 1933, a Dutch communist named Marinus van der Lubbe set fire to the Reichstag or German Parliament building. Hitler used this act of terrorism as an excuse to ask Parliament to place Germany under a state of marital law while he sought out van der Lubbe’s accomplices (van der Lubbe declared that he acted alone). Parliament agreed and issued the Reichstag Fire Decree.

Hitler used the Reichstag Fire Decree and the emergency powers it gave him to quash those who opposed the Nazi Party. SA officers rounded up Hitler's political rivals and opponents (primarily communitsts, socialists, and Jews) and placed them in jail.

By March 1933, Hitler ran out of places to put his political prisoners as city and state jails overfilled with them. Munich Police President Heinrich Himmler offered Hitler a solution: just outside of Munich the town of Dachau had an abandoned warehouse and ammunition factory. Hitler could use this facility as a place to “concentrate” his political prisoners.


Dachau Concentration Camp

KZDachau1945The Dachau Concentration Camp opened on March 22, 1933. It had the capacity to hold approximately 5,000 men.

Initially, the camp fell under the purview of the Bavarian State Police. However, by April 10, 1933 Hitler's SS unit (which had replaced the SA in March 1933) oversaw the camp.

The SS imposed a systematic regime of physical and mental torture. My tour guide referred to Dachau as the “School of Violence,” the place where the SS trained its soldiers in the arts of torture and murder.

Prisoners at Dachau had no rights because, as they were informed upon their arrival, they were not human: They were pigs and scum.

As a forced-labor prison, the initial prisoners built the facilities of the camp. The first building they renovated/built was the “bunker.” The cells in this building had been converted from a row of double lavatories and outfitted with wooden plank beds. It quickly became a torture chamber.

New prisoners arrived at the “bunker” where the SS dehumanized them. The SS welcomed new prisoners with 25 lashes from a bullwhip. The SS often compelled other prisoners to inflict the lashes either with the offer of a food or alcohol reward or with the threat that they would be dealt a harsher punishment if they refused.

Dachau JourhouseWhen the prisoners completed construction of the camp it consisted of the jourhouse (entry gate and SS offices), the bunker, thirty-four barracks, a crematorium (complete with gas chamber), a maintenance building, and seven or eight watchtowers. Each barrack was designed to hold about 208 prisoners, but towards the end of the war they housed over 2,000.

Dachau was not a secret place, everyone in Germany and many outside of Germany knew of its existence. A “joke” or rhyme of sorts developed that warned Germans to watch what they said or they might end up in Dachau.

Dachau became the model by which all other concentration camps inside and outside of Germany followed in terms of prisoner housing and treatment. Dachau always served as a prison for political prisoners.

Although Dachau had a gas chamber in its crematorium, or “Barracks X," it was never used (no one knows why). The Nazis sent thousands of Jews to Dachau, but often the camp proved a temporary stop. The Nazis sent most of the Jews who arrived at Dachau to other “death” concentration camps outside of Germany.

Dachau Barracks XDocuments record that nearly 32,000 prisoners died at Dachau, mostly men as it was a men’s camp. American forces liberated the camp on April 29, 1945. Newspapers reported that the Americans liberated near 30,000 Jewish and political prisoners.

The sight of the camp horrified the American soldiers who liberated it-- men starved to skin and bones, many ill with Typhus, and thousands of bodies strewn everywhere as the SS had run out of coal for the crematorium.

Then there were the bodies in the so-called “death train.”

Three days before the SS surrendered Dachau to the Americans, they forced near 10,000 prisoners to leave the camp for other camps. The SS forced near 7,000 prisoners to march on foot; 1,000 of them died along the way. The SS crammed 3,000 prisoners into train cars, which did not make it far from the camp.


German Historical Memory

Dachau LiberationToday, the people of Munich do not hide from their state and city’s involvement with Hitler’s rise to power or from the atrocities committed at Dachau.

Officially, the German nation strives to prevent a reoccurrence of the atrocities that happened during the twelve years of Nazi rule by making sure that no German forgets their past. To this end, the German government funds the upkeep of all the remaining concentration camps, which serve as memorial sites (open free of charge) to the victims of the Holocaust.

Germany also requires all school children to visit a concentration camp. This is in addition to reparation payments that the country has made to victims of the Holocaust. (It took many years, but German businesses such as Volkswagen and BMW also offer reparations payments to concentration camp prisoners whose labor they purchased and profited from during the war.)

Moreover, it is illegal to display the Nazi swastika outside of a museum or to offer the “Hitler Salute." If you are caught offering the “Hitler salute” in Germany you will be arrested and fined one month’s pay for your first offense. If caught a second time you will be imprisoned for three years without hope of parole.

State and municipal governments also strive to remember the past. The Munich City Museum has a permanent exhibit on the rise of National Socialism in Munich.

Unofficially, I met several Germans who apologized for their past. For example, the day before we visited Dachau, Tim I took a trip into the Bavarian Alps. At some point our bus passed a site that evoked World War II and our guide mentioned how crazy Hitler was and offered an apology for the past.

The Nazis governed Germany for twelve years, a blip in the grand scheme of German history. And yet, today this blip overshadows the rest of its history. But neither the Germans I met nor the historic sites I visited hid from this past. Instead, they acknowledged the period of 1933-1945 as an awful, horrific time and they work tirelessly to ensure that all Germans keep the memory of the Holocaust present in their minds so they do not repeat the past.


Part 2: Thinking About American Historical Memory



I admit that I did not sleep well while in Munich.

I enjoyed learning about the German past, but the horrors of Nazism and World War II seemed ever present. I could not escape the period. Even when I visited much earlier historic sites many had been damaged or completely rebuilt as a result of Allied bombing during the World War II.

And yet, I was also comforted by the fact that I was mentally uncomfortable.

History can't and shouldn't always be comfortable to think about. It's the difficult and uncomfortable memories of the past that help to keep us from repeating it.

I think we Americans can learn a lot from the Germans' efforts to make amends for their past by keeping its uncomfortable memory alive.

As I toured Dachau, my mind couldn’t help but try to make sense of the atrocities that happened there and throughout the concentration camp system. As our tour guide described the physical and mental torture the SS inflicted upon the inmates my mind brought me back to early America. Much of the torture and abuse he described (and showed us pictures of) reminded me of the American institution of slavery.

American slavery was a system predicated upon the idea that Africans and African Americans were subhuman creatures. Slave owners and overseers forced slaves to work hard, sometimes underfed them, and inflicted an array of physical and mental torture upon them.

Comparative HistoryIn Dachau, the SS believed their prisoners to be subhuman. They forced them to labor hard, beat, or ordered the beating of, prisoners they thought willful, guilty of a transgression, or for some other contrived reason.

The SS employed kapos or prisoners to enforce order in concentration camp barracks just as some slave masters elevated slaves to oversee the work of their fellow slaves. Both slave overseers and kapos received special treatment for their work and received similar punishment if they failed at their job: re-entry into the general population they had helped abuse, which likely meant death.

My mind also drew me to compare the Nazi’s execution and concentration of political opponents and other “undesirable” peoples with the Americans’ treatment of Native Americans. From the colonial period through the nineteenth century, Americans viewed Native Americans as inferior peoples and worked to either eliminate their populations or concentrate them on reservations.

The American system of slavery and treatment of Native Americans are not exact comparisons for the Nazis' concentration camp system or the Holocaust they perpetrated, but there are enough similarities that I found my visit to Dachau and Munich sobering.

My visit to Germany made me feel ashamed. Germans acknowledge and apologize for their ancestors' complicity in World War II and the Holocaust and yet Americans refuse to do the same for their horrific past.

The United States has never offered an official, state apology for slavery and many museums and textbooks still gloss and whitewash over the horrors of slavery and American treatment of Native Americans. This is a difficult past and we need come to terms with it. I do not believe that our nation will ever work out its sectional issues or its problems with race until we acknowledge our difficult past.

Admittedly, unlike the Germans, we Americans have the luxury of avoiding our past. Slavery did not leave behind bombed out buildings that we had to rebuild and then walk by every day, at least not in the North and not in a way that southern Americans associate the damage of the Civil War with slavery. It is easy for us to ignore our uncomfortable history, but it is also weak and cowardly.

Many Americans see acknowledging the mistakes of our ancestors to be a sign of weakness. But, the Germans show us that the act requires strength and courage.




Getting Access: Massachusetts Historical Society Digital Resources

MHS-LogoDo you research or teach United States history? Would you like free, online access to manuscripts, photographs, and objects related to the American Revolution, War of 1812, American Civil War, and other important events through World War I?

In this post you will discover the treasure trove of information and materials included in 10 of the 41 different digital resources offered by the Massachusetts Historical Society.


Brief History of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Founded in 1791, the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS) stands as the oldest historical society in the United States. It operates as an independent research library and makes its vast and impressive holdings available to anyone who cares to stop in or use its online collections.

Regardless of its name, you should think of the MHS as an archive of American history.

The MHS holds the papers of the Adams Family (including those of John, Abigail, and John Quincy Adams), Horace Mann, and other notable Bay Staters. But, its collections extend beyond Massachusetts.

Some of its holdings may surprise you, such as the fact that it has the largest collection of Thomas Jefferson’s private papers. They also have the papers of Francis Parkman, including his Oregon Trail notebooks.


The Digital Resources of the Massachusetts Historical Society

The commitment of the Massachusetts Historical Society to make its records accessible to all has prompted them to dedicate time and funds to creating valuable digital resources.

library-cloudAs of January 2015, the MHS has created 41 digital resources, which stretch in time from colonial North America through World War I.

The resources run the gamut from fully digitized manuscript collections to companion websites that contain highlights from exhibits hosted in the galleries of the MHS. Many of the resources include lesson plans, study questions, and materials for educators.

Below you will find brief summaries of 10 of the 41 digital resources. Each collection title serves as a link to that collection.

(Click here for listings for 39 of the resources and click here to explore the Civil War Manuscript and Photograph collections.)


Silence Dogood: Benjamin Franklin and The New England Courant

James Franklin published The New-England Courant, a newspaper independent of British imperial interests. Franklin published articles and essays that commented on society, current events, and government proceedings in a lively and satirical style. In 1722, James’ 13-year-old apprentice (and youngest brother) Benjamin contributed to the Courant’s commentary using the pseudonym “Silence Dogood.” Benjamin Franklin wrote fourteen "Silence Dogood" essays. This collection offers images and transcriptions of these early Franklin essays as well as full images of the newspapers in which they appeared.


Maps of the French and Indian War

This collection contains digitized maps that depict North America around the time of the French and Indian War (1754-1763). These charts illustrate how both French and British commanders used maps to determine their military strategy. Maps helped officers determine where to attack the enemy and what geographic features and areas they should attempt to hold or acquire.


African Americans and the End of Slavery in Massachusetts

A digital collection of 117 items held by the MHS. These items include manuscripts and early printed works that offer a window into the lives of African Americans from the 17th century through the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts (July 8, 1783).


Boston Massacre No FramePerspectives on the Boston Massacre

Read and examine materials that offer a range of perspectives about the Boston Massacre. Materials include diary entries, letters, pamphlets, newspaper accounts, printed depositions, orations, trial notes, seven images, and bullets recovered from the scene. This resources includes a comparison tool that allows you to closely view and compare any two of the seven images of the event.


Annotated Newspapers of Harbottle Dorr Jr.

Harbottle Dorr Jr. (1730-1794) lived in Boston. He owned a store, occasionally served as a town selectmen, and was a member of the Sons of Liberty. Dorr was also an avid reader and collector of newspapers. Between 1765 and 1777, Dorr collected 805 newspapers, which he arranged into four volumes. Of course, Dorr didn’t just read his newspapers, he annotated and indexed them. The Annotated Newspapers of Harbottle Dorr Jr. digital resource offers high-quality images of Dorr’s newspaper and pamphlet collection and his indexes. It also has a search feature that will allow you to search for topics that Dorr indexed.


Siege of Boston

This collections offers more than 300 pages of manuscript materials about the Siege of Boston (1775-1776). This represents more than a dozen individual accounts of those who were either engaged in or effected by the Siege of Boston. These accounts represent the points of view of residents, soldiers, prisoners, and Loyalists.


War of 1812

In honor of the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, the Massachusetts Historical Society has digitized a selection of broadsides, letters, and artifacts about the war.


William Lloyd GarrisonBoston Abolitionists, 1831-1865

This collection comprises a range of materials held and preserved by the MHS that relate to abolitionists and the abolition movement in Boston. It includes issues of The Liberator as well as the first anti-slavery tract printed in North America, Samuel Sewall’s The Selling of Joseph (Boston, 1700).


The Case for Ending Slavery

This resource uses more than 50 primary sources (letters, diaries, songs, legal notebooks, and photographs) to reveal the complex nature of ideas about slavery and freedom that existed between the 18th and 19th centuries. Materials include lesson plans, study questions, and resources for educators.


Margaret Hall’s World War I Photographs

Massachusetts-native Margaret Hall served in the Red Cross during World War I. Between 1918 and 1919 she served at a canteen near the railroad junction at Châlons, France. While serving at this post, Hall kept a diary and took 294 photographs of the war. She compiled her journal entries, letters, and photographs into a typescript narrative, “Letters and Photographs from Battle Country, 1918-1919.” This resource will allow you to browse all 294 of Margaret Hall's photos as well as 29 additional illustrative items that sheincluded in her typescript.



The Massachusetts Historical Society offers an impressive collection of digital resources that will assist anyone who studies or teaches North American and United States history. Presently, the MHS offers 41 online resources.

The organization’s strong commitment to making its collections accessible to all undoubtedly ensures that it will continue to add to its impressive offerings with each passing year.


lightbulbWhat Do You Think?

What is your favorite, free online database?


The Confederate Raid of St. Albans Vermont

Raid PosterDid you know that a unit of Confederate soldiers invaded Vermont during the Civil War? I didn't.

On October 15, 2014, I attended a talk by J. Kevin Graffagnino about the Confederate raid of St. Albans Vermont in October 1864.

In this post you will discover details about the St. Albans Raid as well as the valuable lesson the raid taught Graffagnino about researching and writing history.


Origins of Research

Since November 2008, J. Kevin Graffagnino has served as the Director of the William L. Clement Library at the University of Michigan. Prior to 2008, he held curatorial and administrative posts at the University of Vermont and the Historical Societies of Vermont, Wisconsin, and Kentucky.

As a native Vermonter, Graffagnino became interested in the St. Albans Raid as a child. His work at the University of Vermont and the Vermont Historical Society allowed him to conduct in-depth research about the raid from the Vermont point of view. His position at the Kentucky Historical Society gave him the opportunity to return to the raid and look at it from the Kentucky point of view.


The St. Alban’s Raid: An Overview

vermont MapThe St. Albans, Vermont raid stands as the northernmost military action during the Civil War.

The raid took place on October 19, 1864 and it was led by a young Confederate calvary officer named Bennett Henderson Young.

The raid had strong Kentucky roots. In addition to Young, many of the Confederate soldiers who participated in the raid hailed from Kentucky.

Although the state government of Kentucky remained neutral throughout the war, many of its residents chose sides: Five times as many Kentuckians joined the Union Army than the Confederate Army.

In 1864, the Confederate Army sent 1st Lieutenant Bennett Young to Canada to reconnoiter the northern landscape of the U.S.

Canada did not take sides during the American Civil War. The country allowed civilians and soldiers from both the Union and the Confederacy to enter its borders to secure supplies or safety.

Young accepted his mission gladly. He wanted to punish New England for its role in the war and for the devastation its Union soldiers had wrought throughout the South. Young did not think it fair that nearly every community in the South lived in fear of wartime violence while most in the North lived without such fear, especially those in New England.

Young focused his attention on the northern borders of Vermont. Vermonters had been among the most vociferous opponents of slavery and the Confederacy.

In October 1864, Young met with Confederate leaders in Toronto. He told them that he intended to attack St. Albans, Vermont, a town in the northwest corner of the state.


Why St. Albans?

St. AlbansSt. Albans made a perfect target for three reasons:

1. Railroad Hub: St Albans served as the headquarters for the Central Vermont Railroad. As a railroad hub, the residents of St. Albans were used to seeing out-of-town travelers. This fact would allow Young and his men to infiltrate the town with a minimum of suspicion.

2. Money: As a railroad hub, St. Albans was a relatively prosperous community. Its three banks would have money in its vaults that Young and his men could secure and send back to the Confederacy.

The Confederate Army wanted Young to bring the horrors of the Civil War to New England. Young's attack was designed to unnerve the Yankees and make them live in fear that Confederate raiders might attack them at any moment. However, Young’s primary missions seems to have been to secure financial assistance for the Confederacy.

3. Location: Located in the northwest corner of the state, Young and his men could infiltrate St. Albans and make their way to the safety of Canada in short order.


The Raid

St. Albans RaidTwenty-two Confederate soldiers took part in the raid, including Young.

The twenty-two men arrived in St. Albans either alone or in pairs over several days. They stayed in different hotels as not to arouse suspicion. Their plan worked, no one in St. Albans suspected their plan.

The raid began at 3pm on October 19, 1864.

The Confederates divided into three different groups and each group entered a different town bank. In each bank, the Confederates raised their pistols and told the tellers and customers that they were Confederate soldiers who had come to take St. Albans and its money for the Confederacy.

The raid lasted 25-30 minutes.

After they robbed the banks, the soldiers rounded up all the horses in town. The rest of the St. Albans residents became aware of what was happening as the Confederates gathered the horses. The residents marched to the town square with their odd assortment of firearms.

A furious firefight ensued.

The civilians shot three of the raiders. The Confederates killed one civilian, an out-of-town visitor by the name of Elias Morrison. Ironically, Morrison had been a Confederate sympathizer.

After the firefight, Young and his men mounted their horses and galloped out of town. As they rode away they threw bottles of "Greek Fire" onto the sides of St. Albans buildings. Fortunately for the residents, the fire mostly smoldered. The only building claimed by Young's fire was an outhouse.


Flight into Canada

Young and his men galloped away with approximately $227,000 in their saddlebags.

Not long after crossing into Canada, Canadian police captured 14 of the raiders and about $90,000 of the stolen money. A Vermont posse apprehended Young.

St_Albans_RaidersUpon his arrest, Young claimed combatant status. The Vermonters didn’t care. They threw Young into a wagon and started back to the United States. However, before they made it across the border, Canadian police officers stopped the party and took Young into custody.

Although the Canadians promised to return Young and his men to the Vermonters the next day, they did not. They opted to keep them in country to face an extradition trial.

The Confederates may have failed at burning down St. Albans, but they succeeded in creating a feeling of panic and worry throughout Vermont. Rumors spread like wildfire throughout the state that Confederates were attacking towns and cities such as Burlington.

Vermonters interrogated hobos and any other unknown persons who entered their town. The state government formed a calvary unit to patrol its borders; the only available men to serve in it were invalid soldiers.

Meanwhile, the Canadians shipped the Confederates to Montreal where a judge would determine whether or not to extradite them back to the United States. In mid-December, the judge decided that he did not have jurisdiction to decide the case. He released Young and his men.

U.S. officials had them rearrested in short order. They asked the Canadians to hear charges of larceny, Young and his men had robbed individuals, an extraditable offense.

The Vermonters did not have much luck in Canada.

By late March 1865, the Canadian courts ruled that the raiders were not in fact eligible for extradition. Graffagnino pointed out that this decision could have been a bit of revenge for how the Vermonters supported the 1838 Patriot rebels against the Canadian government. Whatever the reason, the Canadians set Young and his men free.


Brief Epilogue

Treasury Notes St AlbansThe Confederates made away with a large portion of the $227,000 that they stole from the St. Albans banks.

The banks and their account holders lost all but 1/3rd of the money, which the Canadian authorities returned to the town.

Some of the stolen bank notes made their way to the Confederate capital in Richmond, Virginia, but the money arrived too late to do much good. The war ended in April 1865.

Graffagnino and other scholars of the raid suspect that many of the raiders used their proceeds to start new businesses and careers at the end of the war. Although Graffagnino did not give a specific statistic, he related that many of the raiders returned to Kentucky and the South where they became bankers and prominent businessmen.

Between 1865 and 1868, Young wandered around Canada and Ireland; the United States had a bounty on his head. In 1868, he made his way back to Kentucky, settled in Louisville, and opened a successful law practice. He died in 1919 at 75 years old. Today the citizens of Louisville remember him as a soldier, philanthropist and gentlemen.


Lesson From the Raid

Graffagnino closed his hour-long lecture by asking “so what?”

So what has the St. Albans Raid taught him about history and conducting research?

Graffagnino responded that researching the raid taught him how important it is to look at both sides of the story.

During his early career in Vermont, he only looked at the Vermont side of the story. Although he had collected a great many details about the raid, those details became richer during his time in Kentucky.

While working for the Kentucky Historical Society, Graffagnino learned more about Young, his men, and how the southerners portrayed the raid.

Understanding more about Young, his men, and their Confederate views gave Graffagnino a new appreciation for the raid and a fuller picture of what happened.



I admit that I attended Graffagnino’s lecture because I was interested in the content.

As a native New Englander with roots in both Boston and New Hampshire, I had no idea that the Confederates attacked Vermont. This surprising detail prompted me to step out of my historical comfort zone and find out more.

Uncle SamHowever, I am grateful that Graffagnino related his point about the importance of understanding both sides of the story when you research and write history. It seems like an obvious point, but it is one I have struggled with.

I have spent so much time researching the people of Albany that I almost feel insulted when I read an account by someone who does not understand how the fur trade worked, what it was like for the Albanians to live on the frontier, or to have their city used as a military base throughout each of the four wars for empire.

When I wrote my dissertation, my advisor sent back a few chapter drafts with calls for me to be more sympathetic to outside points of view. I am glad I took his advice.

For example, when I researched the Earl of Loudoun’s quartering practices during the French and Indian War from his point of view, I found that Loudoun disliked billeting his men in the Albanians houses and that he did all in his power to lessen the inconvenience. This was not something that I had read about in the Albanians’ accounts of the affair.

Today, I try to be more even-handed when I research and write about history. It was nice to hear that Graffagnino has also had to work at this part of his craft too. It was also nice to hear him voice a reminder to all of the historians and history enthusiasts in the audience that they should research and write about the past fairly.


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