My most in-depth lesson in American Civil War history began on July 28, 1973, even though I didn’t realize it. That’s the day I heard a band called The Band perform along with the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers Band at the Summer Jam in Watkins Glen, NY. I was there with 599,999 of my closest friends.
The lesson, which I still didn’t realize had begun, continued a year later in Orchard Park, NY, where a football stadium full of fans gathered to hear Eric Clapton on his 461 Ocean Boulevard Tour. The Band opened, and even though I was there to see Clapton, The Band was by far the better act.
At each concert, The Band played “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” which, even though they were playing on bills with rock bands, is by no means a rock song. The subjects and sounds of The Band’s music often evoke an earlier America, and this song about the Civil War fits right in with their songs about old-time medicine shows and whistle stops.
There’s an interesting wrinkle to this piece of musical Americana. Robbie Robertson (the group’s guitarist), who wrote the song, is Canadian. Even though he was born north of the 49th parallel and farther north of the Mason-Dixon Line, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is a fully realized song, so well crafted that it has been covered by Johnny Cash, Joan Baez, John Denver and the ever-popular “host of others.”
A first-time listener, though, doesn’t need to know who The Band is or that the Civil War is the subject of the song. The opening trumpet figure immediately sets a mournful tone and signals there’s a story to be told. This story immediately seizes the reader’s attention because it’s as old as literature: a man examining the aftermath of war and trying to make sense of it.
In this case, the man introduces himself:
Virgil Caine is the name, and I served on the Danville train.
’Till so much cavalry came and tore up the tracks again.
At least, that’s the way I always had heard the second line. In looking at the lyrics recently, I learned the line is actually “Till Stoneman’s cavalry came and tore up the tracks again.”
Stoneman? Never heard of him. Who was he, and why were he and his cavalry tearing up railroad tracks? With that question, my Civil War lesson was under way.
Here’s what I learned: In late March 1865, Union General George Stoneman and 4,000 soldiers were dispatched into the western parts of Virginia and North Carolina—not to fight, but instead to destroy anything they could find of service to the Confederacy. The war wasn’t over yet, but in weeks, it would be.
Among Stoneman’s targets were the Danville-Greenboro railway line, the East Tennessee & Virginia Railroad, and the North Carolina Railroad. An important part of their mission was to cut off escape routes for Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
It would not do right by Robertson, though, to consider “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” simply as history in 4/4 time. After all, Bob Dylan was awarded a Nobel Prize for literature. Robertson is no Dylan (although The Band backed and recorded with Dylan in the ’60s and worked with him in later years), but Robertson is an incisive storyteller whose work deserves a look through a literary lens as well as a historical one.
Virgil Caine tells us Stoneman “tore up the tracks” of the Danville line, and history tells us the general and his men ripped up mile after mile of rails in the South. Because railroads were so crucial to the South’s war effort, Robertson may be using torn-up rails as a metaphor for the Confederacy itself as the end of the war neared.
If that seems like a bit of a reach, consider these lines, which further suggest Robertson’s use of metaphor:
Back with my wife in Tennessee
When one day she called to me,
“Virgil, quick, come see,
“There goes the Robert E. Lee.”
At first, this reads like a reference to the Mississippi River steamboat named after the Confederate general. It was launched in 1866—the year after the war ended. If Caine’s wife is calling for him to come see the steamboat, they likely lived along or near the Mississippi River in western Tennessee after the war.
However, interpreting this depends on whether the phrase “Back with my wife in Tennessee” refers to a time or a place. Does Robertson use “back” to refer to the place Caine returned to after the war, or is he using the word the way somebody telling a story might, as in “back when I was young”? Is he referring to a time before Caine worked on “the Danville train”—that is, before Stoneman’s raid in 1865?
If so, then Caine’s wife’s “quick, come see”—especially the word “quick”—foreshadows the Union’s Tennessee campaigns in 1862-63. During those campaigns, Union troops drove Confederate forces back along the Nashville & Chattanooga’s route.
As for Virgil Caine, he’s the personification of twisted, torn-up rails—or, to put it another way, he is the South. Metaphors don’t sing, though, so we relate to Caine as a man and we relate to his enduring dignity: “Now, I don’t mind chopping wood, and I don’t care if the money’s no good.” The “I don’t mind” and the “I don’t care” suggest undiminished self-respect, even though his side lost the war.
The phrase “the money’s no good” is further evidence that Robertson leaves listeners room for varied interpretations. The likeliest reading is that Robertson is saying Caine’s pay for chopping wood is next to nothing. But perhaps Robertson is referring to Confederate currency, even if Caine isn’t. Robertson may be using the currency as another metaphor for the postwar South.
Regardless of how Robertson uses those words, the song’s next lines are straightforward. Union troops plundered the places they conquered for supplies and spoils, and their rapaciousness made Caine bitter:
You take what you need
And you leave the rest
But they should never
Have taken the very best.
In the song’s closing verse, Robertson finishes telling the story of the war as he began it: through one man’s Southern perspective:
Like my father before me
I will work the land
And like my brother above me
Who took a rebel stand.
He was just 18, proud and brave
But a Yankee laid him in his grave.
Robertson again is veiling the meaning. Is Caine’s brother “above me” as in being older, or is he “above me” in the sense that he has gone to glory? Given Caine’s enduring dignity, the second viewpoint seems more plausible: His brother is not a casualty, but a martyr, among the “the very best” from the previous verse.
Either way, the word “above” collides with its antonym, “below,” just four lines later, and Robertson ends the closing verse with the perfect word for describing Caine’s—and the South’s—situation:
I swear by the mud below my feet
You can’t raise a Caine back up when he’s in defeat.
This conclusion is flush with Caine’s bitterness, which is also expressed by Robertson in the irony-laced final chorus. The combination of bells ringing and people singing would seem like a joyful occasion—but not here:
The night they drove old Dixie down
And all the bells were ringing
The night they drove old Dixie down
And all the people were singing.
Who was ringing the bells? Victorious Union troops. And what were they singing? A song of mockery that sounds like taunting on a schoolyard playground: “Na, na la na, na, na.”
As noted earlier, it’s interesting that a Canadian musician could write such a fully realized song about the American Civil War. It’s nearly as interesting to note that three of the four other members of The Band were Canadian, too: Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel.
The song’s vocals, though, were handled by Levon Helm, The Band’s lone American. He was born in Arkansas—a Southerner.
Patrick Vecchio, a classic rock enthusiast, is a retired newspaper editor and journalism professor. During his years as an editor, he was widely acknowledged as the handsomest man in American journalism.