Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down

Virgil Caine is the name
and I served on the Danville train
till Stoneman's Calvary came
and tore up the tracks again

In the winter of '65
we were hungry, just barely alive.
By May the 10th, Richmond had fell
It's a time I remember oh so well.

"The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down"
The Band

Financial aid is driving me crazy. I never realized it could be this complicated. Everytime I fill out a battery of forms, and tell myself it’s done and my kid is ready for school, one batch has given birth to a new litter of other forms. America these days is the land of the legal. It was the first thing that struck me when I repatriated here after living abroad for a few years. It wasn't enough to buy something, or even desire something. You had to fill out a form. Anything you wanted to do or thought you might want to do you had to fill out a form and get a receipt. Hell, you had to fill out a form and pay something just to go fishing.

They tell me the building I need this time around is Fanning Hall - "Yonder that way, son." Pointing at a side door. “Ya’ll turn left at the wall, then cross kitty corner.” The building I'm standing in is Payne Hall and you can tell the moment you get close its a structure from another age. The inside has a heavy scent of wood and mold and air conditioning, with a creaky sweeping staircase going up which seems like it was once host to debutantes in ball room gowns, and young men in ornate military uniforms waiting below to engage them in clever parlor conversation over tea and small cakes. You wonder what it would be like to spend the night alone in this place, maybe around midnight. But everything else is pure 21st Century; the counters, the computers, the ATM machine and the bureaucrats.

Out the side door, I find myself facing a wall which turns out to be part of a strange looking fortress, something I can’t define but which looks very old, from an entirely different time. The walls are brick, but the bricks have an individual sort of home made look. Some of them are chipped and round cornered, and there are odd places where they've been patched over many times. It has an evocative, weather beaten beauty. And there are these little squares that look just the right size for poking the barrel of a rifle through.

I cross the quadrant of an old square to a haunted looking old building with a sign that says Fanning Hall. I go around it to the front door, on my way to Yonder. . .

Planted in front of the entrance to Fanning Hall, like an enormous lawn ornament is something I’ve only ever seen in old daguerreotypes, and history books. It’s big, heavy, phallic and purposeful, with oversized wooden carriage wheels and a hitch in back for being towed behind a horse, or tugged into place by grimly determined men with beeswax in their ears. It has that same ghostly elegance as the stair case and the bricks in the walls.

Back in the day they were called "Napoleons", being based on a design developed earlier for the army of Napoleon in Europe. Muzzle loading, simple and sturdy, with adequate training they could be murderously accurate. The design was used equally by both the Union and the Confederate armies, and on the fields of Gettysburg and Antietam they launched entire battalions of men into eternity in a blast of iron and smoke.

Further down from the cannon is a brass plaque. It explains the mystery of the ancient brick wall and these spooky old buildings. Back in the day, the ground I’m standing on was the main arsenal of the Confederate Army. This vintage cannon and others were cast, repaired and dispatched from this site, along with rifles and ammunition. Down on the street corner of the campus is another Napoleon set up in front of the original guardhouse. Down by the canal is a neat, narrow smokestack by an old textile mill. Now I know what the odd looking smokestack was for. That smokestack and factory site were the gunpowder factory for the entire Confederate Army as well. The gunpowder plant and the arsenal, all within hiking distance of each other, hidden under a veneer of modernity. This was where it all happened.

Back with my wife in Tennessee
When one day she called to me.
“Virgil! Quick come see – there goes Robert E. Lee.”
Now I don’t mind chopping wood.
And I don’t care if the money’s no good.
You take what you need and you leave the rest
But they should never have taken the very best.

I don’t think you would see this up north, outside of a museum. But the south is different. Southerners have never forgotten and for generations the memory is kept alive. We were always taught that America had never lost a war. But these Americans sure as hell did.

Like my father before me, I tried to work the land.
And like my brother before me, who took a rebel stand.
He was just eighteen, proud and brave
But a Yankee laid him in his grave.
I swear by the blood below my feet
You can’t raise a Caine back up
When he’s in defeat.

War has a different shine to the victors than it does to the losers. I’ve always found that war is more interesting when it’s told from the losing side. For some reason there seems to be less bullshit. I’ve always sought out the accounts of the Japanese and German fighter pilots and the German U Boat men much more than the memoirs written by the Americans. It’s not for lack of patriotism or perspective. The good guys definitely won that war. But it’s a very powerful and moving thing to be giving your all for your country, even when it’s the evil empire, and one day you realize, instinctively, maybe while you’re diving your fighter out of the sun towards the swarms of American B 17 bombers that just keep on coming, or choking on your terror in the torpedo room as the depth charges explode outside the hull, that your country is going to lose this war. Not just lose, like you lose a soccer game. But your nation, your way of life, your family, your history, your humanity, will be abjectly flung down at the mercy of the enemy who is even now seeking to kill you. An enemy who has no cause to show you mercy.

Modern warfare was invented in the Deep South. It was invented when General Grant, commander of the Union forces, ordered Sheridan to wipe out the Shenandoah Valley, bread basket of the South, so thoroughly that “a crow flying across it will have to carry its own provisions.” It was invented in the huge rail yards of Atlanta when Sherman had the insight that civilians are the power behind a nation’s army. They provide the material and manpower and the moral support. Sherman decided then to make war on civilians, to make it so horrible that no one would resort to it again. He burned Atlanta flat to the ground; set his compass for Savannah and traveled, raiding, robbing and razing every town and farmhouse he encountered, followed by the joyous crowds of slaves he freed on the way. It was said you tell the progress of Sherman’s army by the rising columns of smoke on the horizon. The fires of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were first ignited in the ashes of Atlanta.

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, they went –
Na na na na na na nah
Lah lah la la na na na nah.

There is a cosmic humiliation in hearing the rest of humanity rejoice over your downfall. In the past this was always followed by rape, terror, pillage and enslavement. But this time, it was different.

Before I go on, this is how Confederate General John B Gordon, for which Fort Gordon is named, described the end of the war in his personal memoirs:

“ . . . . .General Longstreet’s forces and mine at Appomattox, numbered, together, less than 8000 men; but every man able to bear arms was still resolute and ready for battle. There were present three times that many enrolled Confederates; but two thirds of them were so enfeebled by hunger, so wasted by sickness, and so foot-sore from constant marching that it was difficult for them to keep up with the army. They were wholly unfit for duty. It is important to note this fact as explaining the great difference in the number of those who fought and those who were to be fed. At the final meeting between General Lee and General Grant rations were ordered by General Grant for 25,000 Confederates.

Marked consideration and courtesy were exhibited at Appomattox by the victorious Federals, from the commanding generals to the privates in the ranks. . . . . As my command, in worn-out shoes and ragged uniforms, but with proud mien, moved to the designated point to stack their arms and surrender their cherished battle-flags, they challenged the admiration of the brave victors. One of the knightliest soldiers of the Federal army, General Joshua L. Chamberlain of Maine, who afterward served with distinction as governor of his State, called his troops into line, and as my men marched in front of them, the veterans in blue gave a soldierly salute to those vanquished heroes -- a token of respect from Americans to Americans, a final and fitting tribute from Northern to Southern chivalry.”

General Chamberlain describes this incident in his own autobiography:

"At the sound of that machine-like snap of arms, General Gordon started, caught in a moment its significance, and instantly assumed the finest attitude of a soldier. He wheeled his horse, facing me, touching him gently with the spur, so that the animal slightly reared, and, as he wheeled, horse and rider made one motion, the horse's head swung down with a graceful bow, and General Gordon dropped his sword-point to his toe in salutation.

By word of mouth the general sent back orders to the rear that his own troops take the same position of the manual in the march past as did our line. That was done, and a truly imposing sight was the mutual salutation and farewell.

Bayonets were affixed to muskets, arms stacked, and cartridge-boxes unslung and hung upon the stacks. Then, slowly and with a reluctance that was appealingly pathetic, the torn and tattered battle-flags were either leaned against the stacks or laid upon the ground. The emotion of the conquered soldiery was really sad to witness. Some of the men who had carried and followed those ragged standards through the four long years of strife rushed, regardless of all discipline, from the ranks, bent about their old flags, and pressed them to their lips.

And it can well be imagined, too, that there was no lack of emotion on our side, but the Union men were held steady in their lines, without the least show of demonstration by word or by motion. There was, though, a twitching of the muscles of their faces, and, be it said, their battle-bronzed cheeks were not altogether dry. Our men felt the import of the occasion, and realized fully how they would have been affected if defeat and surrender had been their lot after such a fearful struggle. . . ."

And so it goes.

The modern age, for all of its horrors of industrialized warfare does show one incredible and unprecedented hope. The offering not only of mercy, but of dignity and generosity to the vanquished. The rebuilding of post war Japan by Douglas MacArthur (whose redistribution of land to the poor, confiscated by force of arms from the wealthy, caused Senate hearings in Washington to inquire if he was a communist), and the rebuilding and eventual prosperity of Germany have made these two nations among our greatest friends and trading partners. Modern warfare was invented in the American Civil War. But the admonition of Jesus Christ’s great command to “love your enemy” was invented here as well. It may have begun because Confederates and Yankees recognized each other as children of immigrants fighting for their country each in their way. And finally recognizing each other as brothers.

If you'd like to see a performance by The Band of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" click here:

C. Sanchez-Garcia


  1. This is a great post, Garce.

    My dad was a huge Civil War afficionado. He had dozens of books, not to mention actual Civil War guns and swords that he had collected. I never fully understood his fascination; war is war, I thought, so why glorify it? But you've convinced me that there were lessons to be learned here - and done it through a soundtrack, too!

  2. This is a fascinating history lesson, Garce. Several history buffs I know have told me that the U.S. Civil War set the stage for modern warfare. (Earlier, the English Civil War of the 1600s apparently set the stage for other things, including the ideas that gave rise to the independence of the American colonies, but that was a different era.)Growing up in Idaho, I always wondered how the history of the Civil War is taught in public schools in the former Confederate states - and if teachers ever choke on the standard notion that the conflict was resolved in the best possible way, regardless of Sherman's famous statement that "war is hell."

  3. Yes, about the forms. We have 3 in college this year, and not only am I working multiple p/t jobs because I can't find full-time work, but we are filling out forms until our fingers ache!

    As for the tone of your essay, I fear that many in this country are still smarting from a man of color being in the "white house", and those who fly Confederate flags or do re-enactments of a war fought over 100 years ago, are keeping the hatred alive. For once, I can't agree with you. (It was bound to happen sooner or later.)
    And I really dislike ballads, so now that song is stuck in my head! I'm gonna have to connect to my I-pod and listen to some Thievery Corporation.

  4. Hi Lisabet!

    I would love to have seen your dad's Civil War stuff. We could have hung out talking about the Civil War.

    Not all wars are fascinating, but some wars have an air of human drama about them you don;t see anywhere else. Men especially being pushed to the far edge of their endurance and sanity. The tribal feeling of men in mutual danger looking out for each other. There are so many go human stories associated with war going all the way back to Homer and the Old Testament. Its the most terrible and dramatic, and unfortunately enduring human experience.


  5. Hi Jean!

    I once had the impression that the romance of the "old south" is a fading generational notion, but you see see the bumper stickers and battle flags around. I think its become more of a redneck thing now than an antebellum thing. But its still no conincidence that Obama didn;t win in Georgia or any southern states.

    An interesting back story to this song - The Band was composed of four Canadians and one American. The American was drummer Levon Helm from Helena Arkansas, and the others were all Canadian. Robbie Robertson, the Band's autuer, said that in the early 60s when they were playing dives and joints and dancehalls in the Deep South, at first people were suspicious because he was a northerner, but when he said he was Canadian, it was like that was okay then, he wasn;t a Yankee. He was fascinated by southern culture and wrote this song which I think would not have been the same if written by an American.


  6. Hi Fiona!

    I agree with a lot of what you say about the current political atmosphere. No one ever calls it racism, but I have never seen such emotional and block headed hatred towards a president before. Its clearly beyond politics. Obama is the pioneer.

    The song definately sticks in your head, but for me its the poetry I love. Think about those opening lines. With a couple of simple brush strokes Robertson paints a character and a time and place and tradgedy. its wonderful.



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