Sunday, December 3, 2017

The Band – "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" (1969)

In the winter of '65
We were hungry, just barely alive
By May the 10th, Richmond had fell

In the last 2 or 3 lines, I told you about driving to Farmville, Virginia, to ride my bike on the western half of the High Bridge rail trail in southern Virginia.  I also explained why I spent the night in Appomattox, a half an hour’s drive from Farmville.  You can click here to read that post.

Before driving to Farmville, Virginia to ride the eastern half of the High Bridge rail trail the next morning, I made a brief detour to visit the Appomattox Court House National Historic Park, where Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered the remnants of his tattered and depleted Army of Northern Virginia to Union General Ulysses S. Grant, on April 9, 1865.

I’ll tell you more about some of the events that preceded that surrender in the next 2 or 3 lines.

It was a brisk 39 degrees in Appomattox that morning:

Lee’s surrender didn’t end the Civil War – several large Confederate armies remained in the field – but the handwriting was on the wall for the Confederacy after Lee threw in the towel.  By June, the remaining Confederate commanders had given up, and the Civil War was officially over. 

Lee signed the surrender documents in the parlor of a house belonging to Wilmer McLean, who had moved to Appomattox from Manassas, Virginia, to get away from the war.  (McLean’s farmhouse in Manassas had come under artillery fire during the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861.)

The parlor of the restored McLean House
After the ceremony, Union generals Edward Ord and Philip Sheridan handed McLean some gold coins and helped themselves to the parlor furniture, some of which ended up in the Smithsonian Institution’s collection.  

A Union captain picked up a small rag doll belonging to McLean’s seven-year-old daughter and took it home as a souvenir.  Eventually the doll was returned to Appomattox and placed on display in the park’s museum.

Lee surrenders to Grant
McLean was unable to afford to make his mortgage payments, and sold the house in 1867.  It was later sold to an entrepreneur who planned to take it apart and then reassemble it in Washington as part of a planned Civil War museum.  But he ran out of money after he dismantled the house, and the piles of bricks and other building components just sat in the yard until the National Park Service took possession and rebuilt the McLean house many years later. 

A park ranger and tour group in
front of the McLean House
I’ll tell you about my second day’s ride on the High Bridge rail trail – the highlight of which was the famous High Bridge itself – in the next 2 or 3 lines.

*     *     *     *     *

“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” – a first-person lament about the defeat of the Confederacy sung by a poor white Southerner – was released by the Band on its eponymous second album in 1969.

The song was written by Robbie Robertson, one of the Band’s four Canadian members, although Arkansas native Levon Helm later said he helped Robertson with the historical research he did prior to writing the song’s lyrics.

Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, actually fell to Union forces in early April 1865.  If the narrator was using Richmond as a metonym for the Confederacy rather than referring literally to the city itself, May 10th was as good a day as any to pick as representing the fall of the Confederacy because that was the day that Confederate President Jefferson Davis – who had met with his cabinet and dissolved the Confederate government a few days earlier – was captured by Union soldiers.

Here’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”:

Click below to buy the song from Amazon:

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