The death of Levon Helm, the former lead singer for The Band, late last week prompted a lot of media remembrances, yet the most interesting one I read was an oral history of the The Band’s signature song, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” Levon Helm sang the lead vocals in the song, of course, but here’s a version of it from “The Last Waltz” in case you need a refresher:
Anyhow, back to that excellent oral history of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” This passage jumped out at me:
[“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”] was the track that came to be seen as most typical of The Band album. Levon sings the song in the persona of Virgil Caine, a Confederate ex-soldier who served on the Danville supply train until General Stoneman’s Union cavalry troops tore up the tracks. The Richmond and Danville Rail Road was the main supply route into Petersburg where Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia were holding their defensive line to protect Richmond.
Stoneman was a pretty obscure character. You have to get into detailed histories of the Civil War to find him mentioned.
In the closing days of the war, Major General George Stoneman, as the commander of the East Tennessee district, oversaw a raid by a division of Union troops across the rugged Blue Ridge Mountians into northwest North Carolina and southwest Virginia. Their orders were not to fight battles but to punish and demoralize the Southern civilians. Stoneman, having previously served under General Sherman in the Georgia campaign, had learned Sherman’s methods of “total war”– the concept of targeting civilian as well as military objectives in order to destroy the enemy’s will to resist. Stoneman’s cavalry troops were still exacting revenge on the Southern civilians at the time that General Robert E. Lee was surrendering at Appomattox. Stoneman’s forces plundered & destroyed tons of supplies, including foodstocks & grain, along with miles of railroad supply tracks. Even after the shooting war ended, they assisted in chasing down and capturing Confederate President Jefferson Davis. After the war, Stoneman remained in the regular army until he retired in 1871 at the rank of Colonel. He moved to California and lived on a large estate called “Los Robles” near Los Angeles. As a Democrat, he held several public offices and was Governor of the state from 1883 to 1887. Stoneman died on September 5, 1894 in Buffalo, New York. Even though Stoneman, on the surface, may appear to be just a footnote in the history of the Civil War, in that part of the U.S. where the borders of Tennessee, North Carolina & Virginia meet, his name lives in infamy. The exploits of his plundering cavalry troops in the last days of a defeated Confederacy are still a part of local legend. In this respect, I feel that Robbie Robertson succeeded in capturing this sentiment accurately in the song.
I hadn’t realized that part of the song referred to an actual historical figure, and I immediately wondered if there was any connection between the Stoneman that Levon Helm sang about and the street by the same name in Bernal Heights.
Thanks to our excellent friends at the Bernal History Project (and their webpage devoted to the history of Bernal Heights street names), the answer soon became clear. Bernal’s Stoneman Street is indeed named after the same person:
A West Pointer who came to San Francisco in 1846 as a lieutenant in the Mormon Battalion, George Stoneman (1822-1894) was a career military commander with an uneven record in numerous Civil War campaigns. A major general, he freed the prisoners at Andersonville and led cavalry raids into the Confederacy. After leaving the Army, he settled in the San Gabriel Valley and was elected California governor, 1883-87. Camp Stoneman, a 2,500-acre Army base opened in 1942 near Pittsburg in Contra Costa County, was the jumping off place for more than a million troops headed for the Pacific Theater in World War II. It was later the separation center for soldiers returning from the Korean Conflict. The base was shut down in 1954. The cavalryman’s name was remembered in a different context when The Band, in a 1970 song by Robbie Robertson, included this couplet: Virgil Caine is the name, and I served on the Danville train/Till Stoneman’s cavalry came and tore up the tracks again.
In addition, let us not forget that Gen. Stoneman also leant his name to the chairlift that carries skiers and snowboarders up Bernal Hill’s steep north face. There’s no evidence in the historical record that Stoneman himself ever actually skied here, but even if he did, I very much doubt that The Band would have written a song about it.