The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
Continuing with discussion of my experiences as a volunteer transcriber for the “Decoding the Civil War” working on the Thomas T. Eckert Papers of the Huntington Library, Art Collection, and Botanical Gardens:
This March 6, 1865, telegraph, sent by Union General George Thomas to General Grant via Grant’s Signal officer, Captain Samuel Beckwith, offers a snapshot of the preparations of Union General George Stoneman for an offensive toward the coast and down into the heart of the crumbling Confederacy.
The telegram reads, in part:
We have had a very heavy storm which has retarded the commencement of operation in this [Department] by swelling the streams and destroying [RailRoad] bridges, but I am in hopes [General James H.] Wilson has started by this time. Stoneman will reach Knoxville by Saturday next with his expeditionary force and will start from there [immediately]. I will then adjust the available [Infantry] force to support Stoneman and repair the East [Tennessee] and [Virginia] road as far as Watauga bridge for the present.
This is the prelude to Stoneman’s raids from Tennessee into North Carolina and Virginia, including the destruction of the facilities at the Moratock Foundry in Danbury, here in North Carolina, and of train tracks, railroad depots, and supply points throughout North Carolina and Virginia. Among these targets were the operations of the Richmond and Danville Railroad, employer of the fictional Virgil Caine, who tells the story of Stoneman’s raids and the fall of the Confederate capital Richmond in The Band‘s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”:
Virgil Caine is the name
And I served on the Danville train
‘Til 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
General Stoneman almost lost his opportunity. He was blamed by General Joseph Hooker for their loss at The Battle of Chancellorsville in 1863–a battle that, had it been successful, promised to dislodge General Lee from Fredericksburg. In poor health in addition to the defeat, Stoneman was relieved of command and was relegated to an administrative position. He was able to return to the field the following year, but was captured by Confederates near Macon, Georgia during the Atlanta Campaign–earning the dubious distinction as the highest-ranking Union officer to be held as a prisoner of war. Through intercession by General Sherman, Stoneman was released after three month, eventually distinguishing himself through incisive raids against the Confederates in the final year of the war.
Following the war George Stoneman, a Democrat, served as governor of California, 1883-87, but returned to a his native New York following the destruction of his California home by fire, and died in Buffalo in 1894 at the age of 72.