Magnificent Hetty Cary: Betsy Ross of the South

One of the more prominent socialites and colorful characters in Richmond society during the Civil War was displaced Marylander Hetty Cary. A descendant of Thomas Jefferson, Cary was born near Baltimore in 1836, and was living in that city when the Civil War began in 1861. Baltimore had a large number of Confederate sympathizers, and after the Baltimore Riot of April 19th, the Union Army took control. Despite the presence of a large number of Federal troops, Hetty defiantly flew a smuggled Confederate flag from her window.

Hetty and her sister Jennie, also an ardent southern sympathizer, sewed uniforms for Confederate soldiers and had completed several by late June of 1861. Federal authorities decided they’d had enough of the Cary clan and were about to arrest them, but the two escaped to Virginia with their brother. They smuggled out the uniforms, as well as drugs and medications for southern hospitals, and arrived in Richmond on July 9th.

Joining them in the Confederate capital was a cousin,  Constance Cary, who had been displaced from her home in Fairfax, Virginia. Following the First Battle of Bull Run, Confederate commanders  in the field decided to adapt a new battle flag.  The Confederacy’s national flag looked a lot like the U.S. flag, and it was thought this would lead to confusion during battle. The three Cary ladies were asked to sew the first three examples of this new battle flag, and were allowed to choose which generals they wanted to present them to. Hetty chose to display the fitting symbol of her unflagging devotion to the South to General Joseph E. Johnston.

The Cary belles became fixtures on the Richmond social scene. Hetty hobnobbed with the Confederate elite — from President Jefferson Davis on down.  From all reports, Hetty was lauded as the most beautiful women in not only Richmond, but in the entire Confederacy. One admirer was so smitten that he described her to the New Orleans Crescent newspaper in words that seem a bit over the top, even for the Victorian prose of the time:

Look well at her, for you have never seen, and will probably never see again, so beautiful a woman! Observe her magnificent form, her rounded arms, her neck and shoulders perfect as if from the sculptor’s chisel, her auburn hair, the poise of her well-shaped head. Saw you ever such color on a woman’s cheek?  And she is not less intelligent than beautiful…. It is worth a king’s ransom, a lifetime of trouble, to look at one such woman.

Louise Wigfall, daughter of Confederate Senator Louis Wigfall, wrote “Of all the women I have ever met, I think she was the most beautiful — and combined with great loveliness of person, a brilliancy of wit which made her remarkable.”

Mary Chestnut, another prominent Richmond socialite, wrote that her own husband was enamored with Hetty and openly flirted with her. Chestnut also noted that cavalry General J.E.B. Stuart was “devoted” to Hetty.

Stuart may have been devoted to her, but Hetty, who could pick any general she wanted, chose to marry Brigadier General John Pegram, a West Point graduate who had fought in various theatres before being assigned to the Army of Northern Virginia’s 2nd Corps. The two were married in Richmond on January 19th, 1865 at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.  The guest list included Jefferson Davis and his wife, Varina. The wedding was a major social event, and a momentary diversion from the fact that the Confederacy was crumbling, and that the Union Army was just a few miles away.

Following the wedding, the two left for Pegram’s headquarters a few miles  south of Richmond near Petersburg.  Hetty got to work making soldier’s uniforms and Pegram went back to leading his troops.  On February 6th, Pegram was shot and killed at  the Battle of Hatcher’s Run. His funeral was held at St. Paul’s, three weeks to the day after the couple was married. Pegram was buried in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond.

After the war, Hetty returned to Baltimore and led a quiet life out of the limelight, apparently of her own choosing. She taught school from 1866 until 1879, when she married Johns Hopkins University professor Newell Martin, whom she had met on a trip overseas. After her marriage to Martin, Hetty finally returned to the social scene in Baltimore.  She died in Baltimore on September 27, 1892 and was buried in the cemetery of St. Thomas Episcopal Church.

Her husband survived her, however, an 1896 medical journal reported that he left the United States for England due to his own ill health not long after Hetty’s passing. He died in Burley in Wharfedale, Yorkshire on October 27, 1896.

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