Skip to main content

The Tragic Life of a Civil War Socialite: Hetty Cary

  • Author:
  • Updated date:

An arts major and published indie author who writes on various subjects pertaining to humanities.

Image taken from page 187 of "Belles, beaux and brains of the 60's" (1909)  by De Leon, T. C. (Thomas Cooper), 1839-1914

Image taken from page 187 of "Belles, beaux and brains of the 60's" (1909) by De Leon, T. C. (Thomas Cooper), 1839-1914

In the fictional world, Margaret Mitchell’s Scarlet O’Hara is a memorable character, a southern belle idealized for her irresistible charm, quick wit, and instinctual will to survive during one of the darkest hours in United States history. Despite her selfish and shallow weaknesses, we cannot deny her grit and determination. What if I told you of a similar character, a real-life person, though one not so callow?

Very few know the story of Hetty Cary.

Since the end of the American Civil War, the once acclaimed socialite of Richmond’s genteel society had long since faded from the limelight. Only a few historians, the local museum, and a handful of dusty old books could tell the poignant story of a time long since forgotten that has still somehow survived.

Cary was born in 1836 in Baltimore County, Maryland. She was the granddaughter of Virginia Randolph Cary, which made her a direct descendant of William Randolph I (1650–1711), the forefather of the Randolph family line, one of the most political and wealthiest families of 18th-century Virginia. Just as with the rest of the Randolph dynasty, Hetty would follow the same prestigious path.

Supporting the Cause

At the onset of the War Between the States, Hetty, alongside her sister, Jenny, and cousin, Constance, rallied in Baltimore to support the cause as members of the Monument Street Girls. Labeled true secessionists, these young women stood determined to uphold the Confederacy, no matter the cost. They would go as far as to smuggle contraband across the Potomac into Southern lines or taking on the responsibility of designing the very first Confederate flags, as remembered by Constance Cary:

“The flags were jaunty squares of scarlet crossed with dark blue, edged with white, the cross bearing stars to indicate the number of the seceded states. We set our best stitches upon them, edged with golden fringes, and when they were finished, dispatched our flags to [General Joseph E.] Johnston, another to [General P. G.T.] Beauregard, and a third to [General] Earl Van Dorn.”

Their diligent hand-stitched efforts aided as the main battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia from November 1861 until the war’s end at Appomattox Court House in April 1865.

Confederate Flag sewn by Constance Cary in 1861 at the request of a Confederate congressional committee. Little did she know that one day this symbol would be reviled and considered racist patronage by a united nation.

Confederate Flag sewn by Constance Cary in 1861 at the request of a Confederate congressional committee. Little did she know that one day this symbol would be reviled and considered racist patronage by a united nation.

Stalwart Belle of Baltimore

Given Hetty's controversial position, it is no wonder she found herself in a heap of trouble with Federal officers who secured the city of Baltimore.

Known for her flawless features and outspoken personality, Hetty stood from an upper window of her home, waving the Confederate flag while showing off to the Union troops who marched by. An officer among the ranks observed the rebellious woman and inquired to his commanding officer if he should have her arrested. In reply, the commander shook his head with a negative response and replied.

She is beautiful enough to do as she damn well pleases!”

The commander’s response was not enough to keep the Federal command at bay. Hetty, her sister, and her cousin received orders to leave Baltimore, or their arrest might ensue.

Field Parade of Admirers

After their departure from Baltimore, it was Hetty’s cousin, Constance, who later wrote in her memoirs about the gallant times they shared riding and visiting among soldier camps.

In her train, her sister and I enjoyed some merry experiences of military entertainment that would not otherwise have come our way.”

It would seem that Constance was describing the many memorable occasions in which Hetty procured an audience just by her majestic beauty. According to writer and historian Jeffry Wert, one besotted soldier once described her as “a really glorious beauty.”

Aside from her captivating appearance, it was Hetty’s manner in which she delighted her admirers. Described in such ways as vibrant, striking, and renowned, most captured in her social circle could not deny her irresistible charm.

To the weary soldier, Hetty represented much of what a man fought and died for, a grand old way of life. However, the dream was slipping away as the war turned from great bravado and honor into a desolate struggle for survival.

To attest to this ideal, G. Moxley Sorrel, a member of General Longstreet’s staff, having witnessed Cary with fond recollection, describes one such memorable occasion. Colonel George Steuart of his Marylanders assigned to Fairfax Station had escorted Hetty and Jenny to a field parade area. As soldiers marched forward, the Colonel handed Hetty his sword and issued orders in front of his company of men. Sorrel mused in his war memoirs:

Thus the regiment, amid much enthusiasm, was put through its manual by the prettiest woman in Virginia.”

Revered military figures such as General Jeb Stuart were Hetty’s preferred choice of company. Hetty, often seen dressed in a fetching riding habit, jaunting about Richmond alongside dashing cavalryman, gilt-edged with stars. Mary Boykin Chesnut once wrote in secret envy, “Hetty likes them that way ...”

James Ewell Brown Stuart (1833-1864) Confederate States Army general during the American Civil War.

James Ewell Brown Stuart (1833-1864) Confederate States Army general during the American Civil War.

Toast of Richmond Society

After their adventures visiting among the camps and battlefields, Hetty and the girls moved on to Richmond, the capitol of the Confederacy. Their travels were a time of promise as the war was still young in its progress, and Southerners still had hope in the outcome of their cause. Given the festive atmosphere of the day, many among the elite social circles of Richmond spent their time entertaining with lavish soirees, intimate dinners, official receptions, and jovial charade parties. Of all the receiving cards in Richmond, Hetty’s invitation to her home at Clifton House was the most coveted, even among government officials, members of Congress, and Senators.

When the war turned desolate, Hetty, sister Constance, and her cousin Jenny would resort to hosting “starvation parties” where instead of lavishing on rich foods they played games of charades to while away the unbearable time of empty stomachs and broken hearts.

THE OLD CLIFTON HOTEL in Richmond, Virginia

THE OLD CLIFTON HOTEL in Richmond, Virginia

Love at First Sight for General John Pegram

By 1863, Hetty had reigned supreme as the foremost belle in Richmond.

However, as the story goes, every young woman in her quest for the ideal romance had met her match. While attending one of her mother’s parties, Hetty came face to face with her destiny. Mary Boykin Chesnut sums up the unexpected encounter best.

Suddenly, armed at all points, in full panoply - that is, in a beautiful Baltimore ball dress - the unlooked-for apparition of Hetty Cary dawned upon them ... General Pegram absolutely fell back fainting with joyful emotion.”

Carte-de-Visite of a half portrait of Brigadier General John Pegram in uniform between 1861 and 1865.

Carte-de-Visite of a half portrait of Brigadier General John Pegram in uniform between 1861 and 1865.

Hetty Cary's Impending Tragedy and Heartbreak

John Pegram, a handsome West Point graduate, hailing from an established family of Petersburg, fell in love with Hetty Cary. The couple engaged, and after the Christmas season, they set their wedding date for January 19th, 1864.

It was a grand affair, and Richmond society flocked to the Episcopal church where the ceremony took place. While the eager crowd awaited the nuptials, a few strange occurrences took place, which later witnesses recalled.

Hetty accepted the use of the Confederate President Jeff Davis’s personal carriage. However, as witness’s statement, the team of horses which led the vehicle reared back with excitement and refused to move forward, causing delay and forcing the couple to find another mode of transportation to the ceremony.

As the couple hurried toward the church, Hetty, in her haste, dropped a dainty lace handkerchief. When she bent over to pick up the linen, she tore her train, a delicate tulle veil. Aware of the uncanny accident a few days before, she could not shake the image of trying on her headdress in front of a mirror which fell and shattered upon the floor. Perhaps these disturbing incidents were some foretelling, a dark omen, but Hetty, in all her glory, continued down the aisle, a triumphant bride.

A few months later, General John Pegram died in battle at Hatcher’s Run. According to her cousin, Constance, when writing about the young widow reckoned her as thus:

... she was like a flower broken in the stalk.”

General Robert E. Lee Commander of the C.S.A.

General Robert E. Lee Commander of the C.S.A.

Words of Sympathy From General Lee to a Broken Widow

I cannot find words to express my deep sympathy in your affliction, my sorrow at your loss. God alone can give you strength to bear the blow he has inflicted, and since it has been death by his hand I know it was sent in mercy. As dear as your husband was to you, as necessary apparently to his Country and as important to his friends, I feel assured it was best for him to go at the moment he did. His purity of character, his services to the Country and his devotion to his God, prepared him for the peace and rest he now enjoys. We are left to grieve at his departure, cherish his memory and prepare to follow. May God give us his Grace, that through the mediation of his blessed Son, we may be ready to obey his gracious Summons. Truly and affectionately your friend

R E Lee

Petersburg 11 Feb '65

Writer's Personal Note

During my research for more backdrop for one of my historical romance manuscripts, I invested some of my time, trying to learn about the social aspect of Richmond society during the Civil War. There are two books that stand out and now sit on my shelf, treasures that I can’t let go:

Belles, beaux and brains of the 60's by Leon, T. C. (Thomas Cooperand)

A Diary From Dixie by Mary Boykin Chesnut

Imagine my surprise while reading these books when I stumbled upon the romantic yet tragic story of Hetty Cary. Her story was compelling for me, despite her role in supporting the Confederate cause. I imagine if I were a young woman living in such a time, Hetty might have been a role model because she led a fascinating life, even in its tragedy, and afterward was a remarkable personal experience.

After the war and some years later, Hetty found peace. In 1879, she found comfort in marrying Newell Martin, a medical professor who taught at John Hopkins University.

Hetty passed away in 1892. She was interred at her family plot near St. Thomas Church, in Garrison Forest, Maryland.

Cited Sources & Works

  • Mary Chesnut Miller Boykin "A Diary From Dixie" (Electronic Edition 1997) Call number E487 .C52 Davis Library, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • Harrison, Burton "Recollections Gay and Grave" (1911) New York: Charles Scribner's Sons
  • Wert, Jeffry D. "The Confederate Belle" (August 1976) The Civil War Times Illustrated
  • "Belles, beaux and brains of the 60's" (1909) by De Leon, T. C. (Thomas Cooper), 1839-1914
  • Wikipedia: Randolph Family of Virginia

© 2013 ziyena