In 1865 George Stoneman was a mediocre Union general leading cavalry behind Confederate lines in Virginia. 100 years later a Canadian rock band made him famous.
It took Robbie Robertson more than six months to write the song. He spent time in libraries researching the end of the war. Many say it was an anti-war song which makes sense as it was first released in 1969. At the time, Rolling Stone Magazine reckoned the song had “that ring of truth and the whole aura of authenticity”. Now, if performed at all, lyrics are changed to ensure the proper hatred of the Confederacy comes through and Robert E. Lee is not celebrated.
Robertson was Canadian and his mother was raised on the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve southwest of Toronto. This must have influenced him. He was a storyteller. In 2019 an interviewer asked him about his song “glorifying the Confederacy”, he answered by saying “it was a story.” He said it was “about a Southern family that lost in the war, in the Civil War, from their side, but the story of that family.”
Robertson died last month, and the Los Angels Times did a piece on his songs. Here is what they said about The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.
“Deftly sidestepping any sympathy for the Confederate, he shows great empathy for the plight of Virgil Kane, his invented Southerner who mourned the losses incurred in the war without celebrating the lost cause.”
Like the modern activist historian, the LA Times needs no basis for their claim. They can’t imagine that 50 years ago Robert E. Lee was not seen as the embodiment of all things evil, so they say whatever makes them feel good.
Back with my wife in Tennessee
When one day she called to me
“Virgil, quick, come see,
There goes Robert E. Lee!”
It is unlikely that Robert E. Lee was in Tennessee after the war, but the lyric indicates she saw him. Other artists insert the word “the” before Robert E. Lee. This makes it as if she saw a steamship and not the man, thus avoiding the source of her excitement stemming from seeing the actual man. Levon Helm who helped Robertson with the song remembers it this way.
“I remember taking him to the library so he could research the history and geography of the era and make General Robert E. Lee come out with all due respect.”
Robbie Roberston has passed on, but Virgil Kane will live forever. The only question is whether he will be reconstructed.