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Hetty Cary: Confederate Belle of the South

Updated on August 4, 2014

Southern Belle in Baltimore

Cover Illustration taken from the cover of Harper's Weekly, September 7, 1861 showing a stereotypical "Southern belle" in Baltimore
Cover Illustration taken from the cover of Harper's Weekly, September 7, 1861 showing a stereotypical "Southern belle" in Baltimore | Source

The Titan-Haired Cary

Hetty Carr Cary (May 15, 1836 – September 27, 1892) was the wife of CSA General John Pegram
Hetty Carr Cary (May 15, 1836 – September 27, 1892) was the wife of CSA General John Pegram | Source

Fiction Versus a Real Life Heroine

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 heroine, 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.

"Maryland, My Maryland"

During their stay in Baltimore, it was Hetty's sister Jennie who scored the poem "My Maryland," by James Ryder Randall to the music of the Yale college song "Loriger Horatius" thus creating a verse which became very popular among Confederates during the Civil War.

Original Cover Art

Original cover art of sheet music Maryland, My Maryland, 1861
Original cover art of sheet music Maryland, My Maryland, 1861 | Source

Stalwart in Baltimore

Hetty Cary was born 1836, in Baltimore County, Maryland. 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 steadfast 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 good 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 they would be arrested.

Gilt Edged with Stars

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. | Source

A Most Ardent Admirer

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 ..."

General George Steuart

George H. Steuart, Confederate General.
George H. Steuart, Confederate General. | Source

Hetty and her 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 imposing 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 chivalry 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."

Starvation Parties

Hetty and the girls moved to Richmond in 1862 and took up residence at the Clifton Hotel. Here, they ushered in Richmond society, hosting suppers of roasted turkey, ham, and loaves of bread.

Later on when the war turned desolate, the girls would resort to hosting "starvation parties" where instead of lavishing on rich foods they would resort to playing games of charades to while away the unbearable time of empty stomachs and broken hearts.

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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. This 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 was the most coveted, even among government officials, congressmen, and Senators.

Mary Chesnut, the wife of Senator James Chesnut once wrote about her husband as having said, "if there was no such word as 'fascinating', you would have to invent it to describe Hetty Cary".

General John Pegram

John Pegram, Confederate General and Husband to Hetty Cary
John Pegram, Confederate General and Husband to Hetty Cary | Source

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 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."

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 were eerily recalled.

Hetty gracefully accepted the use of the Confederate President, Jeff Davis's personal carriage. However, as witness's state, 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 veil in front of a mirror, which fell and shattered upon the floor. Perhaps these alarming incidents were some sort of foretelling, a dark omen, but Hetty, in all her glory, continued down the aisle, a triumphant bride.

A few months later, General John Pegram was killed 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 to a 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 Genteel General

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

Contance Cary's Memoirs

Constance Cary, cousin of Hetty, and one of the three Cary Invincibles was a published writer of more than fifty books. "Refrugitta of Richmond" documents the many exploits of Constance, Hetty and Jenny during the Civil War.

Hetty Cary's Sister Constance

Portrait of Constance Cary Harrison, c. 1898 Frontispiece "The Well-bred Girl in Society"
Portrait of Constance Cary Harrison, c. 1898 Frontispiece "The Well-bred Girl in Society" | Source

Richmond's Most Famous Socialite

Mary Boykin Chesnut
Mary Boykin Chesnut | Source

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.

Imagine my surprise when I stumbled upon the romantic yet tragic story of Hetty Cary. The story was very powerful 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 her 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.

Mary Chesnut's Diary

Mary Boykin Chesnut was the wife of a South Carolina Senator who documented her life, giving a fascinating view of the social circles of Charleston and Richmond society during the Civil War.

Richmond, Virginia

Richmond History

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  • ziyena profile image

    ziyena 3 years ago from Southern Colorado

    I personally think Mary Chesnut was a spoiled socialite who lived in the shadow of the Senator's coat-tails, but then again, I'd have to at least thank her for such a generous insight into the lives of so many people of importance at that time, even if it seemed her views were distorted, and a bit shallow, and yes, she certainly paid the price, as they all did. Thanks Ron for your input, and I look forward to sharing more of our stories :)

  • RonElFran profile image

    Ronald E. Franklin 3 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

    I think your telling of Hetty's story gives a sense of what a whirlwind of excitement life could be for upper class Southerners during the first heady days of the Confederacy; but also of the tragic price they would pay further down the road. I believe it was Mary Chesnut who questioned in her diary whether even if the Confederacy had achieved its independence, it would have been worth the cost of so many young men.

  • ziyena profile image

    ziyena 3 years ago from Southern Colorado

    You're very kind ... Thank you Colin and his cat crew at lake erie time USA 3:37AM

  • epigramman profile image

    epigramman 3 years ago

    Well no doubt this establishes you as a world class historian and curator of good old fashioned story telling - your hub presentation is such a labor of love and so well documented so I will madly and gladly post your work here and your main page as well to my FB wall for all to see and read because I think you have such a fascinating array of hubs to choose from - once again hello from Canada courtesy of Colin and his cat crew at lake erie time canada 8:05pm

  • ziyena profile image

    ziyena 3 years ago from Southern Colorado

    Hey there Michael ... I took a break with life's little dramas, but I'm back. Good to see your still here too!

  • cleaner3 profile image

    cleaner3 3 years ago from Pueblo, Colorado

    Great write.. ziyena, you are still writing and glad to see that. hope all is well.

  • ziyena profile image

    ziyena 3 years ago from Southern Colorado

    Thanks Billy, I truly enjoyed writing this one!

  • billybuc profile image

    Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

    Very interesting account. I love the Civil War and have studied it for many years, so I was especially happy to read your story. Well done!

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