The Raid (1954)
Directed by Hugo Fregonese
On October 19, 1864, 21-year-old Lieutenant Bennett Young brandished a pistol over his head and shouted, “This city is now in the possession of the Confederate States of America.” Young was standing on the steps of a hotel in St. Albans, Vermont, more than 500 miles from the nearest Rebel army.
Thus began one of the more audacious examples of irregular combat conducted by the South during the war. Young, a former raider with famed John Hunt Morgan, had escaped imprisonment at Chicago’s Camp Douglas and had gone to Richmond via Canada. Meeting with Jefferson Davis, he offered up an audacious plan to raid undefended towns along the Canadian border. Robbing those towns’ banks would augment the Confederacy’s depleted treasury, and Young also proposed burning those communities to force the Union to pull troops away from the front lines.
Davis approved, and Young and 20 veteran cavalrymen crossed the Canadian border and infiltrated St. Albans, about 15 miles away. On October 19, the raiders robbed three banks of $208,000 and attempted to burn the village with bottles of “Greek fire.” Pursued by an angry posse, the raiders crossed back into Canada with most of the money.
In 1954, 20th Century Fox took this tale and produced a taught 83-minute feature that maintains a dark, foreboding atmosphere as mounting tension between the raiders and the townspeople leads to the attack. While the script essentially follows historical accounts, much of the dramatic tension is supplied by the Hollywood-created relationship between the Rebel leader (Van Heflin), his landlady (Anne Bancroft) and her son (Tommy Rettig). The real Young did flirt with a local lady, but only for logistical reconnaissance.
Heflin, called Lieutenant Neil Benton in the film, also must contend with a trigger-happy co-conspirator, played with convincing menace by Lee Marvin, and a one-armed Union officer (Richard Boone). The interaction between Heflin and these fictional characters adds an element of moral indecision that never affected the real Young. Hollywood further muddies the record by having the raiders—wearing spotless Confederate uniforms—successfully burn the town and escape chased by Union cavalry.
Canadian authorities arrested 14 of the real raiders, and a court ruled they were soldiers, not criminals, and could not be extradited to the United States. The raiders were freed, but the $88,000 in their possession was returned to Vermont.
Originally published in the September 2010 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.