Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Books of Saint Albans, Vermont

The South was in the North?

Now for those of you who think that the American Civil War (affectionately known in the South as the "War of Northern Aggression," among other titles) took place only in the south or thereabouts, well, think again. And if you ever go on Jeopardy! and something about the Civil War in Vermont comes up, the answer (or question!) is yes. Confused? Saint Albans, Vermont, not too far east of Lake Champlain, holds the distinction of the supposed northern most location of an American Civil War battle. Though, more accurately, if one were to ask historians about this, it should be called or considered either a "raid" or a "robbery," but one committed by Confederate agents. And as an agent of historical curiosity myself, I was drawn to this not-so-quiet upstate Vermont town (not quite city), with its busy downtown area, precisely because of this "military conflict" history.

The story goes...that a band of ~21 men, led by Bennett H. Young, a confederate soldier, came into St. Albans under the guise of a hunting party. The week prior to October 19, 1864, a few men at a time would arrive at a local hotel, joining this "hunting party," until the appointed date of October 19th, the group of them simultaneously robbed all three banks in St. Albans, stealing over $200,000.00, which was intended to be funneled back to the Confederacy. The raiders fled to the Province of Canada (as it was not yet the established commonwealth it is today). They were captured and tried in the Canadian courts, but freed as military combatants, rather than held as thieves, to which the US government saw as a not-so-subtle recognition of the Confederate States of America by the British government. The remaining money on the caught raiders (some $88,000.00) was returned to St. Albans--though, it is a curious thought: where did the other $110,000+ go? Liquor and cards? Or buried somewhere in the borderlands still?

Bennett Young himself had to live a bit of a life in exile for a few years during the ill-fated presidency of Andrew Johnson, as Mr. Young did not find or rather was not granted safety under the president's amnesty proclamation. He spent time studying law and literature in Ireland and Scotland before returning to the United States around 1868. He became an attorney and settled in Louisville, Kentucky, where his largesse was widely known. Perhaps the most paradoxical for modern readers to know is that this Confederate Veteran opened the first black orphanage in Louisville. Paradoxical, because of the South's position on slavery. Young traveled north later in his life to visit Montreal, apparently, and even met with some of the notables of St. Albans nearly a half century after the infamous raid. The first two images here are of the historical museum, which unfortunately was closed during my visit. The third photo is of the town library.

I found the entryway sign of the St. Albans Free Library to be very distinguished looking. It was gilded gold paint letters surrounded by a rough looking earth tone, all framed in stylized brick. Of course, this was a fine entree into the library itself, which surely gave me a feeling of the "old fashion," while being adapted to the modern age: computers, good lighting, all mixed and mingled with wood paneling, old lamps to accent special lighting, a fireplace, and of course many old books.

Now you all know that my specific interests in these sorts of libraries are with the local collections. And so, for today's visit, I was curious about Vermontiana and anything St. Albans. The librarian on call, who was shuffling books behind the desk, was very friendly and accommodating. Though, unfortunately, he did not know the St. Albans history as well as I'd hoped. I'd wanted to take a tour of the historical parts of the village, but they didn't have anything available. Nonetheless, I made my way around to the local history section. And I snapped a few photos of the Vermont materials. Like my visit to the Great Barrington, MA library this summer, I was pleased to find a fine collection of local history books. Such books, though, are often older and not in the best shape, but these seemed to be holding themselves together against the trammels of time quite well.

The Locality of Books and Lives in Turmoil

The fragility of unique or uncommon material is always a concern that I face as a librarian, especially if I am dealing with archival works, rare books, or special collections. Writing these words now about uncommon materials, and reflecting upon my summer visit to St. Albans just days after the disastrous earthquake hit Port-au-Prince, Haiti, certainly gives me pause to consider not just the bibliographic and archival world and its fragility, but our world in general. When I visited Puerto Rico back in June 2009, I went to several libraries and visited various archives. Some of you may recall that I was shown a Haitian archive, held in the hinterlands of archival preservation behind lock-after-lock of protection. The curator, Aura Diaz Lopez, showed me several archival boxes filled with Haitian French material, including a letter from Napoleon himself! Ms. Lopez had said that the collection housed in the University of Puerto Rico library archives had come from Haiti, because the facilities were not adequate in that home country. Whether or not there is veracity to this story, I am curious about the state of affairs of such collections in Haiti right now. But these are the least of our worries and the worries of others. As much as cultural heritage is important and really central to human societies, our true concerns and good will should be toward the people that have made that and other cultures, who are now suffering interminably under the unthinkable duress of this tragedy.

I will certainly continue my bibliotours; this is part of who I am and what I do. But events of human tragedy such as this earthquake afford us (and force us) to consider the vulnerability of the world we live in, and ultimately how we need to continue to be just and responsible custodians in all things we do. I look around the room in this photograph, of the neatly ordered books, and the tidiness of the spaces, and the ornate station of its ambient decor: sculptures, framed prints and photographs, maps; an open dictionary affording us the moment to pause, look down, search an elusive term, consider its meaning, and walk away in subtle comfort and contentment. And then we may close our eyes and transport ourselves back to all of those Associated Press images, now plastered all over the New York Times, of bleeding men, women, and children, pulled from the wreckage of cemented buildings collapsed upon themselves like unforgiving dominoes. Are we in the same world?

On the way out of the library, I looked up the magnificent staircase, leading up to the library offices. I snapped another photo. And went out into the street. I walked a block back to my car (image below of church near the green) and stood just on the cusp of the village green, where almost 150 years ago, locals were held at bay by the Confederate Raiders and one person killed. Time, like space, creates a barrier to how we see and experience the world. It is hard for me to imagine the conflict borne out upon the very spot I was standing that day, a century and a half earlier. And though that is part of the reason I am so devoted to history, my devotions are also to the present, to both experience new histories and record them. Haiti is far away, but not that far away. And yet, it is another world completely, now driven into the earth by the hammer of nature. What will the book of the future say about all this?


  1. So interesting, Anthony -- I really enjoy this blog and learn so much!

    Martha B.

  2. Very moving and insightful. Thank you and God bless.