The night they drove old Dixie down. Written by Michael Shannon
“They’s hardly a family lived in this country for two centuries didn’t have a boy who served in the War Between the States as it’s called, particularly here in the south.” Marvelous Marv Huff, Hillsville, Virginia, my friend.
Now you can get yourself elected and say all you want about that horrible war, it’s a free county after all, but likely you don’t have the slightest idea why those boys went off.
We had a bunch in our family, both sides too. Eight. The 23rd New Jersey volunteers, 116th Pennsylvania, Company E, Virginia 27th Infantry Regiment, 4th North Carolina regiment and the 2nd Mississippi which fought in nearly every battle in the east.
Corporal Henry Dean Polhemus, 23rd Regiment New Jersey Volunteers. Army of the Potomac.19 years old, 1862. Shannon Family photo ©*
In the south, the vast majority of soldiers were from what used to be called subsistence farms. A farm that supported a single family. Most southern soldiers did not own slaves, they couldn’t afford them nor were they needed to work smallholdings.
The average Confederate soldier did not own other men and never thought to. That required far more money and capital and, for that matter, need than the average southerner had in the first place. Not all southerners were in favor of slavery and many objected it on moral principles, in the second place. In light of the journals and letters of those that lived it there were as many opinions as there were writers. In fact, only about three percent of all southerners owned any slaves at all; and while the majority of southerners of all classes did at least tacitly support slavery as an institution, they probably would not have been willing to fight and die for it as a single idea or to preserve it as a permanent state of affairs. What they feared more was the freedom of millions of slaves, who they saw as their inferiors. They also regarded slavery as a way of life in the society they and their parents and their parents before them, had been born into. Millions of black slaves had been born into it and accepted their bonded role in the world as a painful but quite natural reality. Abolition of slavery was for most Americans, including and especially southerners, especially slaves, an abstract idea, almost unimaginable.
The seeds of the conflict were sown in 1797 when the constitution was written. The impossible task of balancing power in the government between the less populated southern states and the larger populations in the north, when representation was predicated on population as it still is set in motion an inevitable confrontation between the cotton, rice and tobacco growers, which formed a monolithic economy and the growing, diversified industrial north. An economist will teach you that all wars are fought over economics, or to put it simply, money. Money leads to power and power starts wars.
Barely any education or none at all didn’t lead to introspection for the young man volunteering to go fight. Didn’t then, doesn’t now.
What many of the Confederate soldiers believed they were fighting for was to defend what they believed to be their Constitutional Right to secede from the Union of the United States. This question had been born during the Constitutional Convention eighty years previous; it had been argued and debated, often violently, on the floor of the Congress; compromises had been reached, but agreement on the question remained elusive. From the beginning, those southern leaders who were involved in the framing of the Republic contended that no federalist or centralized government should have powers to impose laws or other regulations on the states without the individual permission and will of the states.
If you think that idea has changed you’re not paying attention. The states of the confederacy, because of their absolute belief in states rights. Agreed on practically nothing. History in high school did not teach me that some states didn’t send soldiers to fight with Lee, but kept them home to defend the state itself. Railroads made no effort to have their rolling stock and rails match at the border. Trains had to be unload and reloaded every time they crossed from Georgia to Tennessee or into South Carolina. Jefferson Davis could not force any state to co-operate with the central government. He could suggest but the governors could and did ignore him.
On a more fundamental level, though, the average Confederate soldier enlisted, fought, and often died or suffered in battle because of an innate loyalty to his home, community or town. He was often pressured into volunteering by family, or by friends, and often joined up and fought to support friends and family, terrified more of shirking his duty or of coming home in disgrace than of dying in battle. For the most part, the average soldier was minimally educated, minimally literate, generally devout, and committed to his hearth and home first, to his state second, and to the federal government and flag, if at all, third. Most had never ventured more than a few hours’ travel from the place where he was born. Outsiders of any kind were viewed with a suspicious eye. They felt they were taking a stand to protect their own freedom; they also believed that God was on their side, because they firmly believed they had the moral high ground.
“You people speak so lightly of war; you don’t know what you’re talking about. War is a terrible thing! You mistake, too, the people of the North. They are a peaceable people but an earnest people, and they will fight, too. They are not going to let this country be destroyed without a mighty effort to save it…
“Besides, where are your men and tools of war to contend? The North can make a steam engine, a locomotive, or railway car; hardly a yard of cloth or pair of shoes can you make. You are rushing into war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical, and determined people on Earth living right at your side.
“You are bound to fail. Only in your spirit and determination are you prepared for war. In all else you are totally unprepared, with a bad cause to start with. At first you will make headway, but as your limited resources begin to fail, shut out from the markets of Europe as you will be, your cause will begin to wane. If your people will but stop and think, they must see in the end that you will surely fail.”
William T. Sherman, superintendent of the Louisiana State Seminary of Learning & Military Academy (now Louisiana State University) 1860.
After the war, General Ulysses S. Grant was to write:
“. . . No foe fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought . . .”
Put those two together, and you pretty much have it.
“Meanwhile, perhaps no soldier in either army gave a better answer — one more readily understandable to his fellow soldiers, at any rate—than a ragged Virginia private, pounced on by the Northerners during a Confederate retreat.
Lean as wolves, photographer unknown. National Archives.
“What are you fighting for anyhow?” his captors asked, looking at him. They were genuinely puzzled, for he obviously owned no slaves and seemingly could have little interest in States Rights or even Independence.
“’I’m fighting because you’re down here,’ he said.” That’s the answer a Southerner would give you as to “why are you are fighting?” if you were a Northerner, he would say: to you “I’m fighting because you’re down here.” He was being invaded and he thought … to defend his home.
An unnamed citizen of Frederick, Maryland noted watching the regiments march north toward Sharpsburg in September of 1862. “I have never seen a mass of such filthy strong-smelling men. Three in a room would make it unbearable, and when marching in column along the street the smell from them was most offensive… The filth that pervades them is most remarkable… They have no uniforms, but are all well armed and equipped, and have become so inured to hardships that they care but little for any of the comforts of civilization… They are the roughest looking set of creatures I ever saw, their features, hair and clothing matted with dirt and filth, and the scratching they kept up gave warrant of vermin in abundance.” Another observer described the Confederates simply as “a lean and hungry set of wolves.”
They would inflict terrible casualties on the union army. With less than half their numbers, Lee’s regiments fought the union to a draw. They were hard and they knew it, they wore there toughness as a badge of honor. Boys can endure under the worst circumstances. Pride does that.
“Lean and hungry as wolves.” Confederates captured at Gettysburg, 1863. Matthew Brady photo.
As the civil war stumbled to it’s forgone conclusion in the spring of 1865 only one of my eight ancestors who enlisted in 1861 remained with the army. One had his enlistment expire, one was sent home for being only fifteen and four had been killed in battle. Sadly the three of the four were the brothers Hooper from Iredell County, North Carolina. Private Nelson Hooper, married with a pregnant wife was shot at Malvern Hill. He died in Richmond two days later. In his last letter home written in the hospital he said how he hated the war and just wanted to go home.
The country settled nothing. The politics are still alive. Human Bondage is gone but not in the least forgotten in this country. The war created devastated families and a world of widows. A family hangs by a thread, for Nelson Hooper’s daughter, born after his death in Virginia, was my great-grandmother.
James Martin Cayce, Company C, Calhouns Rifles, 2nd Mississippi Regiment. 1861, Army of Northern Virginia. Shannon Family Photo ©*
Sergeant James M. Cayce who served with the 2nd Mississippi Regiment and who was present at 1st Manassas, Seven Pines, Mechanicsville, Cold Harbor, Malvern Hill at which two of the Hooper brothers were killed. He was at South Mountain, 2nd Mannassas and Sharpsburg, the single deadliest day in American Military history.
Five of the ancestors fought at Malvern Hill, during the seven days battles, two died there. That’s how closely held is our history.
The second Mississippi went in with the North Carolinians on the first day at Gettysburg, losing heavily at the Railroad Cut fight. Two days later, the nearly destroyed regiment went up Cemetery Hill against the Union right with Pickett’s Virginians. They anchored the Confederate left with the the other Mississippi regiments. They suffered horribly. Those that returned; those who walked and tumbled back down that hill were 91 officers and men, out of 492 which came down the Chambersburg Pike with Colonel Joe Davis on July 1st. Scarcely ten were unscathed. They were so proud that they walked backward so not to shame themselves by being shot in the back. Grandpa James Cayce was one.
Confederate prisoners Fort Delaware New York. National Archives.
A day later he was captured and sent to the Fort Delaware military prison in New York where his chance of survival was less than on the battlefield. Treatment of prisoners by both governments was terrible and some prisons in both the north and south had well deserved reputations for bad treatment, bad food and high death rates. Nevertheless Jim Cayce hung on and was paroled in a prisoner exchange in 1864. Paroled meant he was not to return to the army but of course he did just that.
He returned in time for the Battles in the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Courthouse. Two battles, over the course of ten days that caused nearly sixty thousand casualties. Sixty thousand. Say it again, sixty thousand men and boys slaughtering each other for reasons that by this time in the war have ceased to have any real meaning to those in the middle of it. It had become just murder.
Confederate prisoners fort Douglas, 1863. National Archives.
“I am tired and sick of this war. It’s glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have never fired a shot or heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, for vengeance. War is hell.”
General William Tecumseh Sherman, Army of the United States.
At the end, in the final weeks of the war the remains of Lee’s starving army stumbled southwest trying to escape General Grant’s onrushing Yankee army. Barefoot, clad in rags, with nothing to eat, tens of dozens of soldiers simply walked away and headed home. With only about 24,000 soldiers under arms, Lee faced more than 114,000 under Grant. Hoping to catch up with a trainload of food parked at the railroad on the Danville Line. General Stoneman’s union cavalry had shut them off, pulling up the rails and burning the ties. They were cut off and falling back were attacked and heavily defeated at Sailors Creek. The Army of Virginia lost almost 9,000 killed, wounded and captured that day. Three days later on April 9th, 1865, it was all over.
They sat down in Wilbur McClean’s house, crowded into the parlor. Terms of surrender were agreed upon, Grant and Lee shook and it was over. Just like that.
My grandfather, Jim Cayce was one of only 18 Mississippians of the 2nd left to surrender. He hung on to the bitter end. As they paraded on the last day, no one hung their head. Beaten but not defeated.
Rolling the Regimental Flags for surrender, April 1865. Richard Norris Brooke painting, A McCook Craighead Collection.***
As one old soldier said, “Well, my great grandfather walked up to his 78-year old father who was behind a plow in the field and said, “Go on to the house, Daddy, I’ll finish the plowing.” I imagine that most others got back into their old lives in the same way.
There are no letters or journals stating what Jim Cayce thought about why he served. He had gone “To See the Elephant.” He saw it and he came home. Nearly seven hundred miles from home he began to walk. What he though we don’t know.
His must have been the same way it is today. Veterans come home. They say nothing. Combat is too horrible and when they say you wouldn’t understand, you won’t. Put it in a box in your head and close the lid.
2nd Mississippi Regiment reunion with General Robert E Lee. Sgt. James Cayce, 9th from left, back row. Shannon Family photo.
If you pay attention, you can see that they are still unbeaten. For what does a poor man have? He has his pride which he holds in a clenched fist. Would you make him give it up? What does that accomplish?
Since the end of the Civil War the former Confederate states have provided nearly half of our military, more than their share. The same sense of duty still sends them of to defend their country.
So why? Their home, their family, their neighbors families, their state and their friends. If you don’t believe these things are worth fighting for, you are not a Southerner.
Sometimes history can be boiled down until one single thing can represent the angst and the despair that the defeated must hold in their hearts. It’s not history, it’s personal. Always was, always will be.
Levon Helm said this better than any historian ever could; in a song. Listen to it. See what I mean.
*Front Piece, Itawamba County veterans of the 2nd Mississippi Regiment, reunion.
**I’ve written about his great-grandson Donald Polhemus in the series about the destroyer war in WWII. NAQT is the title.
***The captured and surrendered regimental flags were returned to the states after forty years in 1905. Some still remain in Northern museums.
James Martin Cayce, Company C, 2nd Mississippi Infantry Regiment. Guntown, Mississippi. Age at enlistment, 24. Married
Shadrick N. Cayce, Company K, 2nd Mississippi Infantry Regiment. Guntown, Mississippi. Age at enlistment, 15
William R Hall, Company E, Virginia 27th Infantry Regiment. Rockbridge, Virginia. Age at enlistment, 41, married w/ 7 children
Thaddeus Hooper, 4th North Carolina Infantry Regiment, KIA Seven Pines, VA 1862. Iredell, North Carolina. Age at enlistment, 18
McKamie Hooper, 4th North Carolina Infantry Regiment, KIA 1st Bull Run, VA 1861 Iredell, North Carolina, Age at enlistment, 16
Nelson P Hooper, 4th North Carolina Infantry Regiment, KIA Malvern Hill ,VA 1862. Iredell, North Carolina, Age at enlistment, 24. Married
Henry Dean Polhemus, 23rd New Jersey Volunteers. Age at enlistment, 18. Northhampton, New Jersey
David Shannon, 116th Pennsylvania Infantry, KIA Petersburg, VA 1864. Lackawaxan, Pennsylvania. Age at Enlistment. 20
Michael Shannon is a World Citizen, Surfer, Sailor, Teacher, Builder and Story Teller. He lives in Arroyo Grande, California, USA. He writes for his children.
2 thoughts on “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”
Good story, told well.
Excellent. Maybe your best. The palpable sense of waste, historical inevitability and human dignity give this account great power.