Civil War Ballads: The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down

Robbie Robertson, lead guitarist and primary songwriter of The Band, wrote “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” for their second album, The Band (1969). Since then, the song has been covered by dozens of artists, notably Johnny Cash, John Denver, and the Allman Brothers Band. American folk singer Joan Baez recorded my favorite version in 1971. The song speaks to the economic and social loss experienced by Southerners during the last year of the Civil War.

The Lost Cause by Henry Mosler depicts a Confederate soldier returning to a devastated homestead after the war.

Virgil Caine is the name
and I served on the Danville train
‘Till Stoneman’s cavalry 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
and the bells were ringing
The night they drove old Dixie down
and the people were singing
They went, “Na, na, la, na, na, na”

Back with my wife in Tennessee
when one day she called to me
Said “Virgil, quick, come see
There goes the 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

Oil painting of the steamboat Robert E. Lee by August Norieri

The night they drove old Dixie down
And the bells were ringing
The night they drove old Dixie down
And all the people were singing
They went, “Na, na, la, na, na, na”

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
I swear by the mud below my feet
You can’t raise a Caine back up
When he’s in defeat

The night they drove old Dixie down
And the bells were ringing
The night they drove old Dixie down
And all the people were singing
They went, “Na, na, la, na, na, na”

The first stanza refers to the destruction of the Danville railroad line, which supplied besieged Confederate forces in Petersburg, Virginia. From March 23, 1865 to April 26, 1865, Union Major General George Stoneman and his 4,000 cavalry troopers ranged across North Carolina and Virginia, destroying what remained of Southern industry. In early April, they tore up 150 miles of the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad.

Union General George Stoneman & Staff

The song’s narrator describes seeing the “Robert E. Lee” back home in Tennessee. This refers to the steamboat Robert E. Lee, built in 1866 for service on the Mississippi River. After the Civil War, many ships, buildings, and roads were named after Confederate war heroes, laying the groundwork for Lost Cause sentiment.

Now, I don’t mind chopping wood
And I don’t care if the money’s no good

The Confederacy was never economically stable, but by 1865 it had completely collapsed. The Confederate dollar, often called a “Greyback,” quickly lost value, since it was not backed by any precious metal. A set of clothes cost as much as $2,700. When the government capitulated, the currency’s value (what little it had) evaporated and people were left with worthless paper.

For capturing the existential agony and sorrow of the times, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is now considered one of the greatest songs of all time.

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About Michael Kleen

Michael Kleen is an author, raconteur, and freelance columnist. He has a M.A. in History and M.S. in Education. He lives in Rockford, Illinois, where he was the 2013 Republican candidate for mayor.

Posted on May 4, 2017, in History, Music and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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