September 22, 2021

April 2, 1865 – “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”

On September 22, 1969, The Band released the great self-titled album that includes what became one of their most famous songs, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”

Like many songs by The Band, it was primarily written by lead guitarist Robbie Robertson, with creative contributions from the other Band members: Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, and Richard Manuel.

The haunting lyrics tell a tale about the final days of the American Civil War in 1865 as recalled by Virgil Caine, a fictitious Confederate soldier and farmer.

It opens with the plaintive voice of Helm, singing the now well-known words of the first verse.

Other Band members added harmonies on the chorus, which begins with the line that gave the song its title.

       “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. 
       The night they drove Old Dixie down...”

On The Band’s website, there’s an interesting in-depth article about the lyrics, compiled by teacher, author and music historian Peter Viney.

As it notes, Richmond had indeed already fallen by “May the 10th.” But that’s not the date when Richmond fell.

Richmond, Virginia — the capital of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War — actually fell to Union troops on the night of April 2, 1865.

That night was, in many ways, the death knell for the Confederacy and the metaphorical “night they drove Old Dixie down.”

The fall of Richmond came after a long siege that started in 1864.

During those months, Union Army troops led by Gen. George Stoneman repeatedly tore up “the Danville tracks” and other railroad lines going to Richmond to keep supplies from reaching Confederate soldiers and civilians.

Meanwhile, at the orders of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, the top Union commander, Gen. Phil Sheridan laid waste to the farmland surrounding Richmond. 

In The Penguin Book of The American Civil War, historian Bruce Catton wrote:

“A Federal army trying to take Richmond could never be entirely secure until the Confederates were deprived of all use of the (fertile and productive) Shenandoah Valley, and it was up to Sheridan to deprive them of it. Grant’s instructions were grimly specific. He wanted the rich farmlands so thoroughly despoiled that the place could no longer support a Confederate army; he told Sheridan to devastate the whole area so thoroughly that a crow flying across the Valley would have to carry its own rations. This Sheridan set out to do…Few campaigns in the war aroused more bitterness than this one.”

By late March of 1865, Confederate troops and citizens in Richmond were literally starving.

It was clear the city would soon fall.

So, on April 2, 1865, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, his Cabinet, and most of the remaining Confederate troops and civilians abandoned Richmond and fled south.

At the time, Richmond residents called it “Evacuation Sunday.”

Robbie Robertson gave it the more poignant name, “the night they drove Old Dixie down.” 

That day, Confederate soldiers were ordered to set fire to the armories and warehouses they left behind.

The fires spread, setting Richmond ablaze. They continued to burn into the night, devastating large areas of the city.

The “Fall of Richmond” led to a rapidly unfolding downward spiral for the South.

By April 9, Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Courthouse.

On May 5, the Confederate Government was dissolved. The Civil War was officially over.

However, two final war-related events did occur on the May 10th date noted in The Band’s song.

On May 10, 1865, Union troops captured Jefferson Davis in Georgia.

By then, most Confederate troops had laid down their arms and accepted the amnesty terms offered by President Abraham Lincoln.

There were a few die-hards, like the notorious “Bushwhacker” William Quantrill, who kept up a guerrilla-style raids on Union towns.

But on same day Jefferson Davis was captured, Quantrill and his men were ambushed by Union troops in Kentucky and Quantrill fatally wounded. He lingered for almost a month before he finally died on June 6. 

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September 15, 2021

On today’s date, the Vulcan blessing “Live long and prosper” became part of our Earthly language…

You don’t have to be a full-fledged Trekkie to be familiar with the “Vulcan blessing” from Star Trek “Live long and prosper” — or with the splay-fingered “Vulcan salute” that is generally used when that saying is spoken.

Actor Leonard Nimoy (1931-2015) made both famous by using them in his portrayal of the famed half-human, half-Vulcan Trek character Spock.

If you’re a knowledgeable fan of the original Star Trek television series, you may know the episode that introduced the Vulcan blessing and salute.

It’s titled “Amok Time” and it was first aired on September 15, 1967 (as Episode 1 of Season 2).

I remember watching “Amok Time” that night in ‘67 as a teenager and working to make my fingers split apart in proper Vulcan fashion.

Many Trek fans, including me, consider it one of the best episodes of the original series.

The script for “Amok Time” was written by the legendary science fiction author Theodore Sturgeon.

It’s one of three scripts Sturgeon wrote for Star Trek.

He also penned the script for the humorous “Shore Leave” episode from Season 1 and a script titled “Joy Machine” that was never produced.

In addition to being the first Trek episode to feature the Vulcan blessing and salute, “Amok Time” is the only episode of the original Trek series that includes scenes set on Vulcan, Spock’s home planet.

The Vulcan blessing and salute, and several other key elements of Vulcan culture featured in this episode, were used throughout the rest of the original series — and in the following Trek spin-off TV series and movies.

The most memorable initial use of the blessing and salute in “Amok Time” comes near the end of the episode.

As Spock prepares to leave the planet, he says to the female Vulcan leader, T’Pau (played by actress Celia Lovsky): “Live long, T’Pau, and prosper.”

T’Pau responds: “Live long and prosper, Spock.”

As they speak, they give each other the Vulcan salute.

In his 1975 autobiography, I Am Not Spock, and in several later interviews, Nimoy said he invented the Vulcan salute hand gesture for the “Amok Time” episode.

He said he based it on a traditional hand gesture used by Orthodox Jewish priests called the “the Priestly Blessing.” In Hebrew, the term is Birkat Kohanim.

Nimoy, who was Jewish, recalled seeing the gesture performed by priests during Synagogue services when he was a child and it stuck in his memory.

Traditionally, the priests, called Kohanim in Hebrew, perform the gesture with both hands raised.

They splay their fingers like the Vulcan salute, but use both hands. They raise their hands and bring their two thumbs together.

The resulting two-handed formation represents the Hebrew letter Shin (ש), which has three upward strokes similar to the way the thumbs and fingers look in the gesture.

That letter appears in both the name El Shaddai, meaning “Almighty God” and in the well-known Hebrew word Shalom (peace).

The spoken blessing the priests say when using the blessing hand gesture is translated in English as “Yahweh bless you, and guard you.”

A version of the blessing is noted in several places in the Old Testament chapters of the Bible. The most cited source is in Numbers 6:23-24.

In those verses, God says to Moses (in the King James translation): “Speak unto Aaron and unto his sons, saying, On this wise ye shall bless the children of Israel, saying unto them, / The LORD bless thee, and keep thee.”

It’s somewhat ironic that the female Vulcan T’Pau uses the Vulcanized version of the Jewish Priestly Blessing in “Amok Time.” According to Jewish tradition, only male priests may perform the Birkat Kohanim benediction. But, of course, that’s an Earth custom, not Vulcan.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Thanks to the readers who emailed me noting that, although the exact saying “Live long and prosper” was popularized by its use in Star Trek, there are several similar earlier lines in literature. For example, in William Shakespeare's 1594 play Romeo and Juliet, Romeo says to to his friend and servant Balthasar: “Live and be prosperous, and farewell, good fellow.” And, in the 1894 novel Trilby, author George Du Maurier has a character say of his friend “May he live long and prosper!”

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