Whether or not the name Virgil Caine was taken from an actual historical figure, most of the other details in the Band's "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" represent things that happened during the U.S. Civil War. At the time of that conflict, the Confederate States of America, which represented the South, were affectionately called Dixie Land, or just Dixie. The town of Danville, Virginia, fell inside that geographic designation.
General George Stoneman
with foreign observers c 1863
In 1865, Union General George Stoneman, West Point graduate, was given the command to lead a series of raids against the Confederates, right in the heart of Dixie. It wasn't the first time he'd been given such a mission. He'd led two other such campaigns in years previous. Their goal was not to attack the enemy directly, but to destroy infrastructure and destabilize their supply lines, as well as wreak general havoc among the Southern civilians.
Stoneman's 1865 raids started in Knoxville, Tennessee. They moved to North Carolina and then Virginia. All told, the raids ended up destroying more than 600 miles of infrastructure in towns all over Dixie, including Danville, Virginia, our particular area of interest.
Part of Stoneman's mission was to destroy rail lines that allowed the South to use trains to carry supplies to Confederate soldiers. With this goal in mind, the general destroyed 150 miles of Virginia and Tennessee Railroad track. Part of this included Danville's line.
Exactly why Band songwriter Robbie Robertson chose Danville, specifically, to tell the tale of the destruction of Dixie, we can't be sure. If Robertson had such a reason to begin with, he's never shared it. We do know, however, that he did some serious research for the song.
This happened in 1969, long before research was done with a simple internet search; Robertson had to go to the library and everything! Levon Helm, Band drummer and Robertson's friend since teen years, helped Robertson with the work.
They did the academic footwork in Woodstock, New York, the same area where they'd recorded The Basement Tapes
with Bob Dylan and their own debut album, also with Bob Dylan, Music from Big Pink
While it's probably an exaggeration to call the song controversial, it's definitely provocative in that it sympathizes with people from the Southern side of the Civil War. Today, the South is pretty much universally thought of as being on the wrong side of most issues involved in the conflict, most notably slavery. The song wasn't a political statement, however. It was simply humanizing the issue, using a historical tale to capture the sadness and loss of war. During a civil war, people don't have much of a choice over which side they are on. The fight is all around them, backyard and front, and so all the Virgil Caines of the world get caught up in the destruction.
Dan's Hill Estate, Danville
The song was released on the Band's second album, The Band
. It's a rock classic that still gets radio play today. The biggest chart-topping version was from Joan Baez, who recorded it in 1971. She mistakenly sings "so much cavalry came" rather than "Stoneman's cavalry" because she was working off of the Band's album, rather than written lyrics. After she learned her mistake, she started singing it properly at live shows. Her song hit Number 3 on the Billboard
After the war, Stoneman went on to become governor of California. He served that position from 1883 to 1887. In West Point, he'd been roommates with Stonewall Jackson, who was, during the Civil War, both famous and infamous, depending on which side of the war you were on. Today, "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" stands as one of the Band's most enduring songs, along with "The Weight."
You can still hear people singing along with it in cars and small town bars across America.
If you go down to Dixie on a quiet night and sit and listen very hard, you just might catch the ghostly sound of the people still singing, "Na, na na na na na, na na na na, na na na na." And somewhere in the halls of time a man named Virgil Caine, who may or may not have ever existed, taps his foot along as he smiles and cries.
~ Jeff Suwak
Songplaces contributor Jeff Suwak is a writer and editor living in the Pacific Northwest. He is the author of the novella "Beyond the Tempest Gate" and various works of short fiction. He writes for The Prague Revue, and has a blog about Pacific Northwest travel (Northwest Nomad.com). He loves being berated on Twitter @JeffSuwak and receiving visitors at beyondthetempestgate.com.
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