Lucy Pickens was a contradiction—an outspoken, determined, and forceful woman who was ahead of her time and a southern-belle, a beauty, and a charming hostess who was very much a part of her time. She graced the stage of the Russian Czar and Czarina and the grand
plantations of the South. She sold her jewels to outfit a Confederate Army unit that bore her name, her image appeared on the Confederate one-dollar and the one hundred dollar bill, and she served as the first lady of the Confederate state of South Carolina.
Born in 1832 on the family plantation outside LaGrange, Tennessee, Lucy Petway Holcombe was named after her paternal grandmother, Lucy Maria, who claimed to be a distant relative of Marie Antoinette. Lucy clasped her connection to nobility and spent her life feeling slightly elevated and entitled to whatever was best for her.
While Lucy and her sister were away at the Moravian Seminary for Young Ladies in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, their father, Beverly Holcombe, made a series of bad investments, which forced the girls to leave school and the family to move to land outside Marshall, Texas. Determined not to allow his family to forgo the luxuries to which they were accustomed, Beverly Holcombe managed to recoup some of his losses and to build a grand brick mansion named Wyalucing. As a further show
of wealth, he constructed a second home, Westover on the plantation, and created a street between the two houses that was lined with cabins for the slaves.
Despite her husband’s flair for displaying their wealth, Lucy’s mother, Eugenia, continued to stress her Christian ethic of hard-work and benevolence. She emphasized to her daughters that to whom much is given, much is required. Each day she made her rounds to the slave (she called them “servants”) quarters delivering liniment and salve. She also made sure her servants owned Bibles and learned to read and write, a practice that was against the law and one she claimed in her diary did not sit well with other people in her community.
Lucy was eighteen years old when the family arrived in Texas, and she was determined to realize all her dreams for a fine life of wealth and prestige. The manners and social skills learned in her youth, combined with her extraordinary beauty, perfect figure, and flowing auburn hair came together in a creature constantly surrounded with admiring suitors. Using her wit and charm, she managed to convince each admirer that he was special as she moved quickly into the important social circles that spread across the South.
Unknown until almost a century after her death, Lucy was writing The Free Flag of Cuba or the Martyrdom of Lopez: A Tale of the Liberating Expedition of 1851, a novella published in 1855 under the pen name of H.M. Hardimann. It was a romantic story favoring the actual filibustering efforts of Gen. Narciso López to free Cuba from Spanish rule and establish a slave state on the island. The book encouraged U.S. support for the cause, and the characters and situations they encountered paralleled Lucy’s own life. The men were brave, the women were lovely southern belles, and the slaves were happy servants. Some historians believe Lucy had been engaged to Lt. William Crittenden who was killed in the expedition and that the book was her reaction to her own lost love.
Very soon, however, another opportunity arose. Lucy met South Carolina’s U.S. Congressman Francis Wilkinson Pickens, who was twenty-two years older and had three children from two previous marriages. Pickens fell immediately in love with Lucy and quickly asked her to marry him. Despite Pickens offering most of what Lucy was looking for in a man––handsome, wealthy, respected and well established—she turned him down. She said if he had accepted the offer of the ambassadorship to England that his good friend, President Buchanan, had recently offered, she would have married him. Pickens hurried back to Washington to see if the offer was still open. The position had been filled but Pickens agreed to become the Ambassador to Russia. The couple married within a few weeks and began immediate preparations for the journey to St. Petersburg.
Upon their arrival in the summer of 1858, they saw St. Petersburg’s marvelous architecture at its best. Pickens’ position as the American Ambassador swept the couple into the upper echelons of Russian society. Lucy’s knowledge of French and Russian, her elaborate wardrobe, and her willingness, despite the cultural shock, to learn the customs associated with her new lifestyle, soon made the couple favorites at court. In her letters home she wrote that the manners of the aristocracy reminded her of those of the Southern planter class. The friendship that developed between Lucy and Czar Alexander II and his wife the Czarina resulted in the Czarina insisting when Lucy was expecting her first child that she move into the Imperial Palace to be waited on during the last stage of her pregnancy and be attended during the birth.
Upon the birth of the daughter, a formal salute was fired to announce it to the citizens of St. Petersburg. The child was given a name that combined the southern family tradition and the Russian addition: Francis Eugenia Olga Neva Pickens with the added “Douschka,” which is Russian for “little darling.”
By 1860 Lucy longed to return to the South to raise her daughter, and Francis, concerned about the political turmoil stirring between the North and South, felt he needed to get back to South Carolina. Thrust immediately into the upheaval, Pickens had to choose between his deep friendship with President Buchanan (who was soon replaced by President Lincoln) and loyalty to his state of South Carolina that was leading the push for secession. As Pickens traveled across the state, he realized if he wanted to serve as governor, he would have to support secession. On December 17, 1860, Francis Pickens was sworn in as South Carolina’s governor, and three days later the state became the first to secede from the Union without clear assurances that other southern states would follow. Despite wanting desperately to return to her family in Texas, Lucy stood firmly behind her husband’s decision and saved her doubts for the letters she wrote to her family. In the following months, thirteen other southern states followed South Carolina. After a brief trip back to visit her family in Texas, Lucy recognized that she was the face of the southern cause and returned to her husband whose health was declining.
In keeping with her duties as the governor’s wife, she entertained lavishly at the governor’s mansion in Columbia and at the family plantation near Edgefield. The Confederate elite was impressed and fascinated that even her servants were dressed in the finest Russian fashions. She sold her exquisite jewels that had been gifts from the Russian Czar and gave the proceeds to outfit a legion from Charleston composed of seven infantry companies and one cavalry. In a gesture of gratitude, it was named the “Holcombe Legion.” Known as “Lady Lucy,” she frequently addressed the soldiers and presented the legion a flag she designed that bore her name, the South Carolina palmetto, and the lone star that represented her Texas home.
As a further symbol of appreciation for the support of such a beautiful lady, the Confederacy placed her image on its one-dollar note in June 1862 and on its $100 note the following December. At the end of his term in 1862, Pickens’ poor health forced him to return to their Edgewood plantation where Lucy continued to entertain. With Pickens too weak to accompany her, Lucy traveled all over the South to show her support for the Confederacy.
After General Robert E. Lee surrendered, the life Lucy had always known came to an abrupt end. Many of their freed slaves stayed as servants. Just before Pickens passed away in 1869, he called the servants to whom he felt closest and asked them to watch over Lucy. True to their former master, the servants served as pallbearers at Francis Pickens’ funeral.
Lucy joined the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, which worked to preserve George Washington’s former home. On August 8, 1899, at the age of 67, the Queen of the Confederacy passed away.
In 1880, former slaves of Marshall and Harrison County purchased Wyalucing for use as the President’s House at Bishop College. After the college moved to Dallas in 1961, the old house was sold and then demolished.