Friday, January 16, 2015

First White, Then Black

Much as I like my history, I can only take so many lectures about battle strategies and ammunition.

Happily, today's brown bag lunch lecture offering at the Museum of the Confederacy was "One Bright Moment: The Wedding of Hetty Cary and John Pegram," part of their Civil War Sesquicentennial series. And, yes, for those counting, the commemoration is lasting even longer than the war, we found out today, since Lee surrendered in April but the series goes until December.

But while I had been expecting a sweet, southern wedding tale, it turned out to be far darker. "Ill omens attended the marriage," a friend wrote at the time. Yikes.

According to reports, Hetty was considered the most beautiful woman Maryland had ever produced. And while she and her family lived in Baltimore, their sympathies were with the Confederate cause. She even participated in a sewing circle to make Confederate flags and uniforms.

In fact, a confederate flag Hetty had made stood framed in the back of the room. After the talk, they were unveiling another Confederate flag recently restored that had been made by one of her sisters.

Needless to say, those kinds of loyalties made it tough to stay in Baltimore, so in 1861 they went to Richmond where Hetty met John, after he'd secured a letter of introduction from her parents. Slick move, dude.

Next thing you know, he's asking for four days' leave so he can marry her at St. Paul's in the  society wedding of the season. This is where the ill omens come in.

When Hetty tried on her bridal veil for friends before the wedding, she looked in the mirror at her reflection and the mirror promptly fell off the wall and broke. On the big day, Varina Davis sent the president's horse and carriage to take her to the church but the horses reared, balked and refused to move. The bridal couple had to take a hack and were late for their own ceremony.

As Hetty made her way into St. Paul's for the 8:00 ceremony, she dropped her handkerchief on the floor. Stooping to pick it up, she tore her veil. That's a lot of bad vibes for one bride.

Three weeks later, her new husband was dead, shot through the heart on the battlefield near where he'd been born in Petersburg. The new bride didn't make it a month before becoming a widow.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that Hetty and John's wedding wasn't really much of a bright spot.

Still, the story was an interesting one and far more compelling than another battlefield saga. When the Q & A began, a man in the back surprised everyone, including Kelly Hancock (who'd done the research and delivered the talk) with more details.

A descendant of the Cary family, he'd assembled a scrapbook of letters between Cary family members, family photographs and lots of other minutiae about the broader context of the very story we'd just heard. You could see the history buffs - Kelly included - in the room salivating to get a look at it.

I left them to their research. I'd gotten more than what I'd come for: a little slice of local cultural history with just enough feminine details to balance out the military stuff.

What a terrible time to be in love. Come on, Museum of the Confederacy, let's have a lecture about that.

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