The Life and Tragedy of Civil War Socialite Hetty Cary
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 the United States's history. Though some would argue her weaknesses as selfish and with shallow trivialities, even so, we cannot deny her grit and determination, no matter the cause, be it just or how wrongfully misled. What if I told you of a similar character, a real-life person, though one not so callow?
Not many have heard the story of Hetty Cary.
Undoubtedly so, since the end of the American Civil War, the once widely 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, yet still, somehow managed to survive.
Stalwart Belle in Baltimore
Hetty Cary was born 1836, in Baltimore County, Maryland. She, the daughter of Virginia Randolph, a direct descendant of William Randolph (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 too was destined for a life of notoriety.
At the onset of the War Between the States, Hetty, alongside her sister, Jennie, and cousin, Constance, rallied in Baltimore in support of the Southern cause. Labeled true secessionists, these young women were determined to uphold the Confederacy, no matter the cost. Given her controversial position, it is no wonder that Hetty managed to find 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 flagrantly 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 purportedly shook his head with a negative response and replied.
"She is beautiful enough to do as she damn well pleases!"
Unfortunately, the commander's response was not enough to keep the Federal command at bay. Hetty, her sister, and cousin were immediately ordered to leave Baltimore, or their arrest might ensue.
Hetty's 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 managed to procure 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, harsh one realized, the dream was slowly slipping away as the war turned from great bravado and honor into a bleak and desolate struggle for survival.
To attest to this ideal, G. Moxley Sorrel, a member of General Longstreet's staff, having witnessed Hetty Cary with fond recollection, describes one such memorable occasion. Colonel George Steuart of his Marylanders assigned to Fairfax Station had escorted Hetty and Jennie to a field parade area. As soldiers marched forward, the Colonel gallantly 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 ..."
The Toast of the Town
After their adventures visiting among the camps and battlefields, Hetty and the girls moved on to Richmond, and at that time, the Capitol of the Confederacy. Their travels was 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.
Love at First Sight
By 1863, Hetty had reigned supreme as the foremost belle in Richmond.
However, as the story goes, sooner or later, every young woman in her quest for the ideal romance, finally 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."
Impending Tragedy and its Heartbreak
John Pegram, a darkly handsome West Point graduate, hailing from an established family of Petersburg, fell madly in love with Hetty Cary. Eventually, 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 eerily recalled.
Hetty gracefully 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. Uncannily aware of the 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."
Words of Sympathy From a Commanding General 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
A Personal Note
While researching 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:
Imagine my surprise while reading these books when I stumbled upon the romantic yet tragic story of Hetty Cary. The story was compelling for me, and I imagine if I were a young woman living in such a time, Hetty Cary would have been a role model for me. Not because of the position she took defending the South's cause, but rather the fascinating life she led, even in its tragedy and afterward was a remarkable personal experience.
Hetty Cary finally found peace.
Though many years later, after much grief, in 1879, she found comfort in marrying Newell Martin, a medical professor who taught at John Hopkins University.
Hetty passed away in 1892, and she is now buried in her family plot, near St. Thomas Church, in Garrison Forest, Maryland.
Most interesting female personality during the Civil War?
Cited Work & Resources
- 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
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