In 1971 Joan Baez recorded her top-five hit, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. It opened with the lines:
Virgil Caine is my name, and I drove 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.
I took a train to Richmond that fell, It was a time I remember, oh so well.
Alfred J. Hanna’s book begins with this very train. As he described it, when news of General Lee’s retreat from Petersburg reached the Confederate capital of Richmond, the city’s atmosphere of “subdued unrest” quickly gave way to scenes of “confusion . . . everywhere as members of Congress, various underofficials, and dignitaries clamored for places on all available trains” heading south to Danville. President Jefferson Davis managed to board one train, along with five members of his Cabinet and about $500,000 from the Confederate Treasury and the banks of Richmond. Their fates are the subject of Prof. Hanna’s book.
The New York Times review of Flight Into Oblivion noted that as the group’s military escort dwindled, their journey “began to resemble an every-man-for-himself affair, with only one route open, Florida, and the possibility that escape might be made into Cuba, which was friendly to the Confederacy and which also opened the way to the larger and safer world” (The New York Times, 1/1/1939). Though some were arrested about a month after fleeing Richmond, three continued on, and their stories are full of “excitement, hardships, and hair-breadth escapes.” One such story involves Colonel John Taylor Wood, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy who resorted to piracy during his escape. According to Hanna, when Wood and his companions were on board a lifeboat to the Bahamas, they encountered another boat that was obviously trying to avoid them. (By this time, Hanna wrote, they had acquired quite a disreputable appearance, even “a bloodthirsty air.”) The Confederates overtook the strangers, disarmed them, and forced them to exchange boats. Very pleased with themselves, the group changed course and headed for Cuba.
The Times reviewer praised the “care and thoroughness” of Prof. Hanna’s research, his “simple and unpretentious” writing style,” and the “fresh and consistently interesting” story. The book was reprinted in 1959, and a new edition from Louisiana State University Press is currently a selection of the History Book Club.
Alfred J. Hanna graduated from Rollins in 1917 and had a long and distinguished career here, retiring in 1969. The College’s A. J. Hanna Award, established in 2009, honors scholars who have made a significant contribution to Florida studies.
~ by D. Moore, Archival Specialist