Fidgeting with his revolver earned George Foster a dubious and obscure footnote in Civil War history.
By summer 1864, Confederate agents based in Canada dreamed and schemed about carrying the war to the Union home front. Still a British possession, Canada was a neutral territory across which Confederate and Union spies and counterspies danced —
— and Saint John, New Brunswick was a hotbed of international intrigue.
There the American Consul James Quay Howard, like his counterparts elsewhere, sometimes had little trouble keeping tabs on suspected Southern spies. Loquacity ran rampant among Confederate agents conspiring from Halifax to Toronto; on his family’s farm near Saint John, a talkative William Collins revealed his secret-agent status to his older sister, Mary Anne, a misstep that ruined a planned cross-border raid.
The Collinses had emigrated from County Tyrone in Ireland to New Brunswick in 1843. Mary Anne remained in New Brunswick, William traveled to New York before settling in Mississippi, and brother John studied theology at a Maine seminary.
By 1864, Rev. John Collins pastored a Methodist church at York. After William Collins told Mary Anne about the impending raid on Maine, she sent John a warning letter. He decamped to Saint John to beg William not to attack Maine.
When William demurred, John Collins warned Howard about the proposed raid on Calais. From another source, Howard learned the raid’s details.
A Mississippi infantry veteran, William Collins planned to lead 15 to 30 men across the St. Croix River, rob the Calais Bank, and burn the supposedly undefended city. Howard telegraphed the bank’s cashier, Joseph Lee, that 14 men “in [a] lead-colored sail and row boat” had left Saint John for Calais,” with plans to “touch at Robbinston.
“Intention was to rob your bank in daytime. If they have not been alarmed, you can apprehend them quietly in the bank,” Howard signaled.
His warning telegram arrived only two hours before Collins made his move in downtown Calais.
“It was known for several days previous that a raid of some kind was in contemplation by rebel roughs who had recently left St. John,” the St. Croix Herald trumpeted in its July 19 “Extra” edition. “By means of the vigilant efforts” of Consul Howard, “the people here [in Calais] were enabled to prepare a suitable reception for the invaders.”
Armed men appeared in Calais as “a portion of Capt. [B.M.] Flint’s Company of State Guards was detailed for service” and “pickets were stationed at different points to give the alarm,” the Herald reported.
About noon on Monday, July 18, Collins and three comrades — William Daymond, Francis Xavier Jones, and William Philips — approached the bank. The other Confederates had evidently developed cold feet, as events soon suggested.
Collins, Jones, and Philips entered the bank. Stepping to the counter and throwing gold coins at Lee, Collins announced that he wanted to exchange the coins for a new Union paper currency called “greenbacks.” Jones and Philips assumed their positions, then Lee noticed “that his (Collins’) hand glided suspiciously toward a revolver in his side pocket,” the St. Croix Herald reported.
Lee sounded a warning; “the guards rushed in, seized the three men and escorted them in triumph to the Municipal Court Room,” the paper noted.
Gilbert Foster, the co-owner of Foster & Nelson, joined the fracas; he met “with an accident while the prisoners were being apprehended,” the Herald reported. “A cartridge was lodged in his foot by the accidental discharge of a revolver.”
State Guards searched the prisoners; Capt. W.B. Taylor discovered in Collins’ pocket a rolled-up Confederate flag, A deep blue embroidered with white letters, the banner —which Collins claimed he had flown over Calais before heading to the bank — proclaimed, “The Confederacy For Ever, To Defend Her Rights[,] From Homes and Friends We’ll Sever.”
Collins wrote Mary Anne on July 26 that “…the blue cross of the Confederacy did fly over the hills of Maine, in the hands of an armed invader. For I myself did shake it out in the breeze …”
Civilians crowded around as guards marched the three Confederates to court. “There was a strong disposition to deal summarily (hang) with the offenders, for it is well known that they were ready for plunder, fire or murder … to accomplish their infamous designs,” the Herald described the mood on the Calais streets.
People packed the courtroom as the prisoners stood before Judge Corthell that afternoon. A letter discovered on one Confederate included the stern message to Calais residents, “Thank your stars that [the] other men did not come up, or your town would have been burning.”
This statement suggests that the other raiders chose discretion over valor and fled before Collins ventured into Calais.
An eyewitness to the hearing, a Herald reporter described the prisoners and relayed the information learned about them. Collins “the ringleader is a tall, keen eyed man with a countenance indicative of treachery and baseness,” the journalist wrote.
Francis Xavier Jones, then 21, hailed from Missouri; he told the court that “he belonged to the 1st Missouri Regiment, and that his wife and child were murdered by the federals under Jim Lane. He has a youthful look,” the reporter noted.
Corthell ordered the prisoners held on $20,000 bail. That night “a strong guard” swept the men from the Calais municipal jail and hustled them “to Machias Gaol, where they arrived” at 3:30 a.m., Tuesday, the Herald reported.
Maine papers quickly picked up the important details of the bank robbery. “A Raid on the Eastern Border,” a Daily Whig & Courier headline teased Bangor readers on Tuesday. A brief dispatch sent from Calais on July 18 revealed, “At midday today there was an attempt to rob the Calais Bank, by a small party of rebel raiders who came from St. John, N.B. Three of them were arrested.”
But four raiders had approached the bank.
What had happened to Daymond?
The St. John Globe noted “that four men were captured, one of whom was a detective.”
Howard had evidently slipped undercover agent Daymond into the Confederates’ ranks, and he had stepped aside as his comrades entered the bank.
Alarms engulfed Calais that week as rumors persisted about more Confederates heading to Down East Maine. State Guards patrolled the Calais streets “night and day,” and “our city again wears a martial aspect,” according to the Herald.
A Machias jury convicted Collins, Jones, and Philips of bank robbery in October. A judge sentenced the Confederate to three years at Maine State Prison in Thomaston; on Nov. 26, just 36 days since his arrival, Collins escaped the prison. He turned up at St. Stephen, New Brunswick on Jan. 2, 1865, and confirmed his identity when asked by a local resident. Then he headed for Saint John to catch a ship headed south.
Fortunately for the bumbling Foster, who had shot himself in the foot, “the wound is not very serious,” the St. Croix Herald reported. That same wound earned Foster his historical footnote.
While robbing three banks in St. Albans, Vt. on Wednesday, Oct. 19, Confederate raiders left one civilian dying and others wounded. The raid went into history as the northernmost land action during the Civil War.
St. Albans lies at 44 degrees, 49 minutes north latitude. Calais lies at 45 degrees, 5 minutes north latitude; the 45th Parallel marker stands alongside Route 1 in Perry, miles south of Calais.
Thus the northernmost land action during the Civil War actually took place in downtown Calais.
And George Foster became the northernmost casualty during a Civil War land action.
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.