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Jerry TurnerAn excellent book to read if one wants an inside picture of upper crust life in the great war.
— Mexia Daily News
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Lucy Petway Holcombe was nineteen when her fiancé was killed in a filibustering expedition to free Cuba from the bondage of Spanish rule. The year was 1851 and the young girl expressed her feelings by writing, "What life is more sublime than one given to a nation struggling for the principles of moral and political freedom?" Sentiment such as this, typical of Victorian prose, was just as typically forgotten, but not by Lucy. She patterned her life on noble principles with an eye to her own interests and strove to be worthy of her patriotic heritage, a heritage that began in America in the seventeenth century with the arrival of William Holcombe of Pembrokeshire, Wales.
William Holcombe settled in the tidewater lands of Virginia. Succeeding generations of Holcombes followed William's example of faith in this new land. Lucy's much-lauded grandfather, Philemon Holcombe III, served in General Washington's army and rose from the ranks to become a major. He saw action with General Harry Lee's Light Horse Brigade and served as aide-de-camp to the Marquis de Lafayette at the siege of Yorktown. The Major's wartime tales of surviving on parched corn and sweet potatoes amused his grandchildren. Lucy, however, was more impressed by his marriage in 1781 to Lucy Maria Anderson, a blood relation of the French Queen, Marie Antionette.
After the wars, Major Holcombe and Lucy Maria settled in Amelia County, Virginia, on his father's 800-acre plantation, The Oaks, near Seven Pines. Here they raised a large family of ten children, the last of whom, born in 1806, was Beverly Lafayette, the father of Lucy Holcombe Pickens. Years later, Lucy's older sister, Anna Eliza, was to say of their grandmother, "She petted especially her little namesake, my sister, Lucy, saying, 'There never was a sweeter child.'"
The Holcombe plantation thrived until successive years of crop failure resulted in Major Philemon Holcombe's ruin as a farmer. In an effort to rebuild their fortune, Major Holcombe and Lucy Maria, now in their sixties, resolved to move to the "Congressional Reservation" of Western Tennessee. Here the soil was said to be rich and ideal for raising cotton.
They left The Oaks in the care of an elder son, and with household belongings loaded onto wagons, headed westward early in January 1828. Their unmarried son, Beverly Lafayette, and two married daughters, Frances and husband Thomas Watkins, and Amanda with husband George Wyett, accompanied them. The Holcombe caravan of many wagons, carriages, slaves, horses, and livestock traveled over rutted roads and unbroken land. At night the large party made a wondrous sight, bedded down in tents and wagons and ringed by numerous campfires, livestock, and dogs. Sometime in March of 1828, they reached Fayette County, Tennessee, and the village of La Grange on the Wolf River. It would seem their destination was not chosen haphazardly. La Grange was named for the summer home of Major Holcombe's idol, the Marquis de Lafayette. Major Holcombe purchased an old house in the village and acreage to plant in cotton and wheat.
Sometime during that first year, possibly while wintering in New Orleans, Beverly Holcombe met seventeen-year-old Eugenia Dorothea Vaughan Hunt, elder daughter of John Hunt, a wealthy land-owner near La Grange. They were married in July of 1829 by Wiley B. Peck, and Eugenia wrote in her journal, "Very happy prayed that my mother might know it, husband 24 years old, handsome, very erect, weight 156. Six feet high, brave, manly, generous, polite and courteous to all, a great favorite with my best of fathers, and idol of mine."
It is presumed that the births of their five children took place at La Grange in the white frame house called Ingleside owned by Eugenia's father. In this bucolic setting on 29 December 1830, their first born, Anna Eliza arrived. The child showed promise of beauty at an early age. Her brown eyes looked serenely on the world, but beyond the quiet confines of "Ingleside," the nation experienced rapid, and not always welcome, changes under the presidency of Andrew Jackson.
The United States of America, consisting of twenty-four states in 1830, boasted thirteen million inhabitants sprinkled throughout cities, villages, and remote settlements. Trade and commerce flourished, bringing change economically, socially, and politically. Two competing political parties, the Whigs and the Democrats, emerged, splitting the people. Because of disputes with President Jackson over a national bank, the various local banks closed. Then Jackson, in a move that caused much grief, forcibly moved the Native American Indians, the Cherokees, from their home grounds in the southeast to reservations west of the Mississippi River.
During this time of turbulence and change, Anna Eliza's antithesis arrived. The Holcombes' second child, Lucy, was born 11 June 1832, a time when the sweet scent of magnolia blossoms lay heavy on the summer breeze. Eugenia Dorothea Vaughan Hunt Holcombe cradled her newborn daughter and examined each tiny feature. Satisfied that her "summer child" was perfect in every way, Eugenia kissed the babe and named her for her two grandmothers vowing, "that so fair a bud should not be reared in sin."
Christened Lucy Petway Holcombe, this child began life in the slave-holding plantation society of western Tennessee. By dint of her personality, intellect, and desire for independence, she would gain some recognition in her time.
Lucy brought much joy to her family with her happy disposition and enthusiasm, a perfect foil for her older sister's serious, sensible ways. Her red-gold curls and large, deep-blue eyes marked her as a pretty child although her features were thought not to be as fine as those of her older sister. Lucy's personality made up for any physical flaws and she looked with eagerness on a world from which she excluded everything but beauty, happiness, and herself. Once reminded by her mother that one must have direction and usefulness to find happiness, Lucy replied, "No, Mama, happy people are the most useful because they haven't anything else to do. You may find an example in myself."
"Ah, but Lucy, my dear," her mother reminded, "one cannot walk through life with no better guide than its own rash dictates. Flowers grow in our path but thorns flourish there too."
"We need only pluck the flowers," the young Lucy answered. "But, you are right, Mama, and between you and Anna Eliza I have great hopes for myself."
The Holcombes delighted in their two daughters but expressed great hopes for a son and two years after Lucy's birth, John Theodore Hunt was born 3 February 1834. Named for his maternal grandfather, "Thee" as he was affectionately known, possessed many of the happy traits of his sister Lucy. His mother prayed that Theodore might study for the church but the boy managed to avoid studious pursuits. Tall and handsome with the Holcombe blue eyes, Thee was more inclined to read novels and hunt with his dogs. The third daughter, Martha Maria Edgeworth, arrived 16 November 1836. A precocious child, Martha Maria called herself "Ladybug." She died from the croup at three years of age. Her mother had her portrait painted showing a tiny ladybug on the hem of her dress. Philemon Eugene was born 24 October 1838. Named for his paternal grandfather, Philemon suffered deafness at an early age, an affliction that later did not hinder the skill of this tall, athletic hunter. Both parents encouraged the children to do well and bring honor to the family. Their gentle, loving mother, a devout Presbyterian, also instructed her children in reading, writing, arithmetic, and music.
The children's father made certain that each one "sat a horse" as befitted their Virginia ancestry. Emphasis was placed on their heritage and Lucy, impressed by her paternal great-grandmother's claim of royal lineage, wrapped herself in a cocoon of pride. In the antebellum South, ancestry and honor ranked above wealth in determining social standing. Thus, other peoples' perception of her honorable ancestors gave Lucy her identity and strengthened her loyalty to her own family. It may also have accounted for her rebellious impatience with rule or rulers, said to be a characteristic of the Holcombes.
In 1839 Beverly moved his family from the village of La Grange to a house called Westover in the settlement of Woodstock on the Wolf River. This Fayette county site lay several miles north of La Grange and south of Somerville, the county seat. On these nine hundred acres he established a cotton plantation and valued this productive land at twenty dollars an acre. The greater part of his property was contiguous to that owned by John Hunt. Eugenia hinted in her diary that her "kind and good father" influenced or helped in the purchase. Although John Hunt had children by another marriage, it is apparent from Eugenia's many references to her father's generosity that he favored her, his oldest child.
Isolated from the village of La Grange, the Holcombe children played with the young slave children. Some antebellum Southerners warned that slave playmates set bad examples and, conversely, close contact with slave children gave White children a demeaning sense of superiority. This supposition did not seem to apply to the Holcombes who seemed to treat their slaves humanely. They clothed and housed them decently, and, in spite of the law forbidding teaching slaves, the Holcombes gave their slaves lessons in reading and writing and made a point of referring to them as "servants." Nevertheless, these servants were still human beings in bondage.
In these first few years on their plantation, the physical stress of childbirth and the duties as plantation mistress severely taxed Eugenia's health. She employed Maria Hawley, a spinster teacher from Kentucky, to serve as her companion and governess to the children. Eugenia described the somewhat severe and opinionated Miss Hawley as, "one of the excellent of earth, yes lovely in person and character." Lucy, then seven years of age, was allowed to accompany her governess on a visit to Louisville, Kentucky.
Early on a windy March morning in 1840, Lucy embarked on her first adventure away from home and mother. High-wheeled stagecoaches followed the slightly graded Stage Road from Somerville to Bolivar, a distance of about fifteen miles. After Bolivar the condition of the roads changed from graded to little more than rough paths for the several hundred-mile trip to Louisville. From sunup to sunset passengers bounced about on the stiff-backed coach seats. Every ten to twenty miles the coachman pulled up for a rest and a change of team. By the end of each day, tired, shaken, and appalled by the crowded inns and the greasy, tasteless food, the travelers fell into fitful sleep in beds that very often accommodated other occupants. After four or five strenuous days and sleepless nights, under none too clean conditions, they reached Louisville.
A pall of smoke hung over this busy port town on the Kentucky and Ohio Rivers. With youthful enthusiasm, the child begged her governess to take her at once to see the sights. Miss Hawley, exhausted from the trip, resisted. Not used to being thwarted, Lucy's deep blue eyes overflowed with tears. She shook her curls, stamped her foot and screamed, all her sweet, endearing ways forgotten. Three days of Lucy's screaming fits sickened her hosts. Bribery and persuasion could not pacify the spoiled and now homesick child and Miss Hawley could no longer stand her temper tantrums. She took Lucy and boarded a steamboat for the trip down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. At Memphis they took the coach for the fifty-mile drive to Somerville, Tennessee. Here Miss Hawley set the child on the back of a horse, behind a gentleman, and instructed him to take her home to Woodstock.
They started off, the horse plodding along the ten miles of an old Indian path that led through the forest to the Holcombe property. Twigs snapped beneath the horse's hooves—gun shots in the child's imagination—just as each dark tree trunk hid an Indian. After what must have seemed an eternity to Lucy, the red glow of sunset lighted a clearing at the end of the trail. If she peeked around the gentleman's broad back, she would see the tall chimneys of her home and smell the wood smoke curling upward. When brother Thee came running through the fields with his dogs it would be like Lucy to slip down from the horse and run laughing and screaming to roll and tumble with her brother.
Home at last, petted and praised, Lucy did not let her mother out of her sight. "Poor child, so tender, so loving, so strangely devoted to me, her father thinks she will die if she is ever separated from me ... "CHAPTER 2
"Riches have taken to themselves wings and flown away."
Eugenia Dorothea Holcombe
Lucy, born into an antebellum, slave-holding society, would be aware of the responsibility and demands of this oppressive system that the mistress of the plantation helped maintain. From dawn to dusk she would see her mother tend to the basic needs of the slaves and to the instruction and supervision of work. Everything was taught and done by hand on the premises—butchering, preserving, canning, soap making, butter churning, spinning, weaving, and sewing. The once-a-year supplies and storehouse of provisions were kept under locks, the keys fastened to the mistress's belt. Duties did not end with directing daily chores. Lucy might see her mother called out in the night to tend the sick, say prayers for the dying, or help with the birthing of a slave-child.
Slavery may have been essential to the South's economy and, as a social system, shaped the lives of its womenfolk. The Southern plantation mistress found herself locked into a position of isolation, sometimes in a hostile environment. Very often she had only her children and female house slaves for company. Tired and often distraught with worry and concern, she might take comfort in her religion. Religious convictions lay at the heart of the countrywoman's struggle to know herself and to apply that knowledge so as to live and die a Christian woman. Eugenia was no exception. With her prayers and Bible readings she imparted the tenets of the Presbyterian Church to her children and to her slaves.
Letter writing and journal keeping served as an emotional release and temporary respite from her responsibilities. Visits by relatives and friends, though welcomed, doubled the domestic demands, and travel away from the plantation was frowned upon unless accompanied by a male member of the family or an older friend. This situation was bound to stymie the personal development of the plantation mistress.
Before Eugenia Holcombe's marriage, she had received a fine classical education from Reverend Philip S. Fall, in Nashville, Tennessee. Ambitious and talented, Eugenia's mental attainments overshadowed those of her husband. It is most likely that Beverly Lafayette Holcombe, as the youngest and favorite son, pursued his love of horse breeding and racing rather than scholastics. A handsome, soft-spoken, generous man, with quite possibly a roving eye, Beverly continued his role of master-in-absentia, leaving Eugenia in full charge of the plantation. Having provided his wife with a home, children, servants, and a place in society, it probably never occurred to him that she would want anything more from life. Eugenia, on the other hand, may have felt trapped. She writes in her journal, "Nine years has robbed this world of many of its charms and shown me men and women as they are not as imagination painted them." Later she added, "A new year has commenced and with it a renewed desire to serve God better, to read the blessed Bible more, to pray more for my dear wayward thoughtless husband."
Eugenia feared for her daughters and did not want them to experience this form of feminine defeat. She felt it critical that they receive a fine education and wrote in her journal, "I wish for my precious daughters to be carefully educated and thoroughly informed, so highly accomplished in all things that would add to their happiness. A good education will make them independent." She began by introducing Anna Eliza and Lucy to the works of Robert Burns, Lord Byron, and Sir Walter Scott. Lucy, a bright, inquisitive child, added to these literary offerings her own favorites, The Fanciful Tales of Fashionable Women by Maria Edgeworth and Godey's Lady's Book. Wishing her daughters to be musically accomplished, Eugenia taught them to play her prized piano. Anna Eliza showed a fine talent for the piano but Lucy, fondly called "Petty" or "Push," preferred to sing, admitting that she wanted to be admired facing an appreciative audience.
Excerpted from Queen of the Confederacy by Elizabeth Wittenmyer Lewis. Copyright © 2002 Elizabeth Wittenmyer Lewis. Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press.
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