Queen of the Confederacy

Lucy Pickens

Lucy Pickens

Lucy Pickens’  life was a contradiction—she was an outspoken, determined, and forceful woman who was ahead of her time, and she was 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 in western Tennessee, Lucy Petway Holcombe may have been the second of five siblings, but her rare beauty, quick intelligence, and determination elevated her in the eyes of her very religious and indulgent mother, Eugenia Holcombe.  Lucy could do no wrong.  Her mother’s accounts in her diary described her daughter’s antics as precious childlike amusement, slightly frivolous, but   always adorable.  Lucy was named for 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.

Her early life on the remote plantation with only her siblings and slave children as companions did not deter Lucy’s insistence on getting her way.  Her first trip away from home occurred when she was eight and allowed to travel with her siblings to Kentucky to visit their governess’s family. Lucy missed her home and especially her mother. She whined and cried incessantly for days until the family gave up and placed her on a steamboat bound for Memphis.  Upon arrival, she rode fifty miles in a coach and then met a companion who accompanied her the rest of the way home on horseback.

Lucy and her older sister left the loving environment of their plantation home in 1846 for the formal rules and practices of a Moravian Seminary for Young Ladies in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.  As Lucy would show in later years, she had learned from her mother to make the most of her situation, finding for the first time a larger society that admired her beauty, wit, and charm.

While the sisters were away at school, 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 build a grand brick mansion with white columns named Wyalucing. As a further show of wealth he constructed a second home, Westover, 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 also busy 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 41S5N3GSH5L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_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 the 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 than Lucy 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—a man who was handsome, wealthy, respected and well established—she turned him down saying that 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. Despite her determination to better herself and climb the social ladder, the letters that she sent to her family reveal a young woman experiencing terrible anxiety at the prospect of leaving home.  When she was the only one in her party who did not succumb to illness during the long sea voyage, she managed to ease her stress as she enjoyed the solicitations of the sailors on board ship.

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 Pickenses favorites at court. In her letters home she indicated 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

Lucy with Douschka in Russia

Lucy with Douschka in Russia

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 soon 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 becoming the leader in 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, and 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 were impressed and fascinated that even her servants were dressed in the finest Russian fashions.  She made a further gesture of grand support for the Confederate troops by publicly selling her exquisite jewels that had been gifts from the Russian Czar.  In a gesture of appreciation, Colonel P.F. Stevens of The Citadel in Charleston raised a legion composed of seven infantry companies and one cavalry; he named it the “Holcombe Legion.”  Becoming known as “Lady Lucy,” she adored the attention and frequently addressed the soldiers dressed in her finest attire.  She also presented the legion a flag she

Holcombe Legion Flag

Holcombe Legion Flag

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 Edgewood 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.

Confederate $100 bill

Confederate $100 bill

After General Robert E. Lee surrendered, the life Lucy had always known came to an abrupt end.  Many of their slaves stayed as servants and 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’s brother came to help run the plantation, and her daughter Douschka, who was eighteen, helped manage some of the farms.  Douschka instituted a plan that may have been the first plantation to pay its laborers a bonus in addition to their salary when they helped produce a good crop.  After Douschka married and moved away, Lucy joined the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, which worked to preserve George Washington’s former home.  After Douschka died in 1894, Lucy lived another five years until August 8, 1899, when, at the age of 67, the Queen of the Confederacy passed away.

Queen of the Confederacy

Queen of the Confederacy

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Texas Unionists in the Civil War

With the election of Abraham Lincoln in November 1860, the United States headed relentlessly toward civil war.  Not all southerners

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln

supported secession.  Almost 2,000 Texans were sufficiently opposed to separating from the Union that they joined the federal army. Other Unionists, those who did not want to break up the United States, handled their positions in different ways. For instance, Sam Houston was adamantly opposed to destroying the Union.  He had been elected governor of Texas in 1859 despite campaigning vigorously against secession.  He had worked for years after Texas won its independence from Mexico to secure statehood for Texas, and after the Secession Convention voted to secede on February 1, 1861, he refused to sign the loyalty oath to the Confederacy.  He was removed from office on March 6, and returned to his home in Huntsville where he died in July 1863.

Sam Houston, photo by Mathew Brady

Sam Houston, photo by Mathew Brady

Robert E. Lee was a Unionist who was heartsick over secession.  But, when he was offered a generalship in the U.S. Army, he turned it down because he could not bring himself to fight against his beloved state of Virginia.  General Robert E. Lee, like so many others, remained in the Confederacy.

General Robert E. Lee

General Robert E. Lee

Edmund J. Davis

Edmund J. Davis

Edmund J. Davis, a judge in the Brownsville district, opposed secession, and his views probably caused him to lose his bid to represent his district at the Secession Convention.  After Texas seceded Davis refused to take the oath of loyalty to the Confederacy, and like Sam Houston, the state vacated Davis’ judgeship.  He fled to Louisiana and then with John L. Haynes and Andrew Jackson Hamilton, Texans who also opposed secession, he went to Washington to meet with President Abraham Lincoln. With Lincoln’s support for providing arms, the first and largest unit—the First Texas Cavalry Regiment—was organized on November 6, 1862, in New Orleans under the command of Edmund J. Davis (who later served as Texas governor during the period of reconstruction).  The regiment remained in Louisiana, except for brief forays into Texas, until November 2, 1863, when it landed on the south Texas coast as part of the 6,000-man Rio Grande Campaign.  The invasion force was tasked with stopping the Confederate wagons loaded with cotton that came down through Texas to reach the old port at Bagdad on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande.  Waiting off shore were hundreds of European (mostly British) ships eager to receive the cotton in exchange for Winchester rifles, ammunition, medical supplies, and other essentials for the Confederate Army.

Confederate cotton across the Rio Grande from Brownsville

Confederate cotton across the Rio Grande from Brownsville

After only a month on the Rio Grande, the regiment’s ranks grew by more than 50 percent as refugees, Unionists, and Confederate deserters fled south. Texas was the only southern state that bordered a neutral country, and the Rio Grande served as the dividing line that offered an escape route.  Although the officers of the First Texas Cavalry were primarily men from mainstream southern backgrounds, the rank and file consisted in large part of Spanish-speaking Texans and first-generation immigrants, including German Unionists from settlements in the Hill Country. Most of the troops did not own slaves and saw no reason to fight for those that did.

Tejanos in the Civil War

Tejanos in the Civil War

With the occupation of Brownsville and the increase in the number of volunteers, the Second Cavalry Regiment was formed and then both regiments merged into the First Texas Volunteer Cavalry.  In preparation for a federal invasion of Texas from Louisiana, most of the Union troops were pulled out of the Rio Grande Campaign and only a few hundred were left in the area between Brownsville and Brazos Santiago, a port across from the southern tip of Padre Island on the Gulf coast.

Seizing the opportunity, Confederate troops retook Brownsville on June 29, 1864, and chased the remaining federal troops, including the remaining Texas Volunteer Cavalry, to Brazos Santiago.

One month after Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, the federal infantry on Brazos Santiago made an ill-advised decision to advance toward Brownsville.  The Confederates who had been keeping a watchful eye on the Union troops met them at Palmito Ranch on May 12, 1865, killing, wounding and capturing more than two-thirds of the Yankee force to win what has been called the last battle of the Civil War.

War Clouds Gather Over Indianola

Indianola was a southern town with a seaport’s connection to the broader cosmopolitan world of commerce, business

Indianola Port in 1860

Indianola Port in 1860

cooperation, and a diverse blend of residents newly arrived from all over Europe.  The soil—gritty shell beaches cut by a crisscross of shallow bayous and lakes—did not lend itself to cotton growing.  The vast slave plantations thrived much further east and north in the rich bottomlands of East Texas.  The slaves sold on the front porch of the Casimir House, an elegant hotel and social center that used slaves to serve its guests, generally were taken inland by planters who came to Indianola to purchase supplies.  Most of the blacks in Indianola were free—having bought their freedom or been freed by generous owners.  They worked the docks and they operated pig farms out on Powderhorn Lake.  Unlike most southern towns, the residents of Indianola accepted the presence of free blacks, and they were allowed to go about their business without interference.

As secession talk grew, and a few agitators arrived from the north, Indianola residents expressed confidence that Southern saber rattling would force the North to back off.  However, after a newly arrived gentleman was forced onto an outbound ship following accusations of being an abolitionist, the city appointed a “vigilance committee,” a patrol to maintain order in the town.

During the fall of 1860 merchants continued to thrive, and talk of Lincoln’s possible election caused little concern and no apparent disruption in the cooperation between northern business people pouring into the port and local shipbuilders producing steamers at a brisk pace. The newspaper editor touted the rosy financial picture, expecting it to continue indefinitely.

News trickling in of Lincoln’s election stirred patriotism for the former Republic of Texas.  Caution was thrown aside as newspapers across the state called for secession instead of living under the evils of Lincoln’s “Black Republicanism.”

On the night of November 21, a well-advertised mass meeting took place at the courthouse, preceded by a parade.  Sam McBride, who owned one of the shipyards on Powder Horn Bayou, led the parade, carrying a flag emblazoned with a Lone Star, the symbol of the former Republic of Texas.  Sewn by local women for the event, the flag drew such wild applause it drowned out the band’s rousing march music. Participants carried twenty-eight poles topped by huge, transparent pieces of glass with candle or kerosene lamps illuminating phrases like The Issue is Upon Us; Who is not for us is Against us; The Time Has Come; States’ Right; Millions in Number, One in Sentiment; and The North has Broken the Symbols of Union.

The crowd filled the courthouse to overflowing. Judge J.J. Holt gave a rousing speech saying they must take decisive action.  Then he appointed a committee to draft resolutions representing the views of Indianola citizens.  While the crowd waited for the resolutions to be written, the band played the French national anthem, a stark symbol of revolution.  After another loud and emotion-laced speech, the committee returned with support of a secession convention and demands for Texas to reclaim its right to retake the powers it delegated to the federal government when it accepted statehood.  The dye was cast.

Civil War wood engraving by Thomas Nast is titled Union Troops in the Streets of Indianola, Texas.  It was published in the New York Illustrated News, April 6, 1861.  From the collection of the Calhoun County Museum, Port Lavaca, Texas

Civil War wood engraving by Thomas Nast is titled Union Troops in the Streets of Indianola, Texas. It was published in the New York Illustrated News, April 6, 1861. From the collection of the Calhoun County Museum, Port Lavaca, Texas

Even before the war officially began, United States military personnel that had manned the posts along the western edge of Texas settlement to protect colonists from Indian attack, began marching through the streets of Indianola to the docks where federal ships waited to carry them away.  Families living on the edge of Texas’ western frontier were left to protect themselves from the Comanches who soon took advantage of the opportunity to reclaim some of their hunting grounds.

Most Germans and other European immigrants that settled in Texas did not want the South to secede.  First, most of the new arrivals did not have land suitable for cotton or sugar cane production and did not need slave labor.  Second, they felt a loyalty to the United States, the country that had just welcomed them to its shores.  Finally, most immigrants did not believe in slavery, having come from countries where peasants worked for such meager livelihoods, that they yearned for the opportunities that freedom offered.  But, like other Unionists such as Sam Houston and Robert E. Lee, they felt a loyalty to their new home and did not leave the South.

Indianola merchants soon realized that they had been wrong in their belief that they could continue business as usual.  The federal government quickly began a blockade of all the Gulf Coast, which resulted in the nightly adventure of blockade runners moving into the Gulf with cotton bound for trade with European, especially British, ships eager to take the Confederacy’s “white gold” in exchange for essential Winchester rifles, medical supplies, clothing, and ammunition.  The dangerous blockade routes through bayous and backwater canals that were used to transport the valuable cotton could no longer sustain the commercial traffic.  Business in Indianola and in the towns it supplied in western Texas came to a sudden halt.

Invasion and occupation will be the topic of next week’s blog post.