Flight Into Oblivion

The first edition of Flight Into Oblivion (1938), by Rollins Professor Alfred J. Hanna

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.

Prof. Alfred J. Hanna (1893-1978), circa 1940s

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.

For more about Prof. Hanna, visit our “Golden Personalities” page at http://asp3.rollins.edu/olin/oldsite/archives/golden/Hanna.htm .  (And to see Joan Baez perform The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, visit http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T7Qsn35gn9o ).


3 thoughts on “Flight Into Oblivion

  1. Nice piece. Hanna is under appreciated. he was not only a fine historian but also organized the College Archives and served, along with Hugh McKean and John Teidtke, as part of what Jack Lane in his unpublished history of the College the “administrative triumvirate” (p.236 http://asp3.rollins.edu/olin/Archives/Rollinshistory.pdf)

    As a foreigner in your strange land, I must say I have never understood this romance about the South and its defeat in your Civil War. When I first heard Baez’s version of the song I assumed that an activist like Baez must have found some hidden meaning in the song, but perhaps she just liked it.

    1. I agree that this is definitely a romantic song. I always liked the lines that said “all the bells were ringing” “and all the people were singing,” but Prof. Hanna describes it as “the saturnalia that took place in Richmond the night of the evacuation.” He wrote that The Richmond Times reported widespread looting when the government began destroying commissary supplies, particularly their liquor stores. It quickly became a very dangerous, out-of-control scene.
      I have never read anything about why Joan Baez decided to record this, but I wonder whether the Vietnam War may have been one reason for the song’s popularity.

  2. I was a student at Rollins and worked for Dr. Hanna. doing research for him. He was by the time I met him. almost completely blind. He would give me names of ships and people to find, the results of which I read to him. I did n’t know that he knew short hand which likely explained the cryptic scribbles that were on pieces of paper that he used to make notes about what I read to him. The most interesting reading that I recall was about Napoleon’s escape. A real exciting page turner if there ever was one. His jailer showed up the very moment that Napoleon was walking across the space between his jail and the gate. He had fashioned something to look like him asleep in his bed. and as he was making his escape, dropped his pipe, stopped and picked up the pieces, all the time while his jailer was watching him and probably was thinking, “Why does this guy look so familiar to me?” He didn’t raise an alarm, and Napoleon just walked out the main gate. Sweaty palms reading, that.

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