Lady On A C-Note


Early in the Civil War, Lucy Holcombe Pickens, wife of Francis Pickens, South Carolina's governor when the state seceded and during the first two years of the war, appeared on the CSA dollar bill. Later, she appeared on its $100 bill.

Lucy Holcombe Pickens was born in LaGrange, Tennessee, in 1832, not far from where the Battle of Shiloh would be fought 30 years later. She was the granddaughter of Major Philemon Holcombe, who had served in the Revolutionary War in Colonel Harry Lee's Light Horse Brigade and then as aide-de-camp to the Marquis de Lafayette. When crop failure struck in Virginia in 1828, the major moved his family to Tennessee.

The Holcombes sent their two daughters, Anna Eliza and Lucy Petway, to study at Moravian Seminary for Women in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. But failure at farming again caused a family upheaval. Lucy's father, Beverly Lafayette Holcombe, not only lost his farm but also his money, which he staked on a horse race. As with many Tennesseans before him, he left the well-known sign, GTT ("Gone to Texas"). In 1850, the family followed him, settling in Marshall, Texas.

Lucy was a well-educated Southern belle, a notorious flirt who left in her wake dozens of suitors. One of them, to whom she may have been engaged, was Colonel William Logan Crittenden, a Kentucky nephew of Attorney General (under President William Henry Harrison) and later Senator John H. Crittenden. The colonel was executed in Cuba in 1851 in the abortive American-financed expedition of Narciso Lopez to free the island from Spanish control.

Lucy turned to writing, publishing poems and a novel* under pseudonyms, and dallying with the emerging women's movement of the day. In 1857, she captured the attention of Francis W. Pickens of the famed Edgefield, South Carolina, political clan. His father, Andrew, had been governor of South Carolina. When he met Lucy at Virginia's mineral springs, he was a U.S. Congressman and the owner of 500 slaves and of plantations in Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina. He also was 25 years older than Lucy and had been married twice before.

His personal ambitions dovetailed with Lucy's. Because she said she wanted to marry someone who would take her abroad, he postponed his plans for becoming a U.S. Senator in favor of becoming an ambassador. President James Buchanan gave him Russia, and he and Lucy wed in time to catch the ship to Europe. Spending Pickens's money freely, Lucy dazzled the royal courts, attracting special attention from Tsar Alexander II, soon to be famous for freeing the serfs. There was a rumor, widely circulated, that she bore the tsar an illegitimate child.

The Pickenses returned just weeks before South Carolina seceded in December 1860, in time for Pickens to be elected governor. Lucy became the center of attention in South Carolina, giving grand parties and putting on grand airs, rivaled only by those of Mary Boykin Chestnut. (A fellow diarist and society belle, Mary Chestnut referred to the governor's wife as "Lucy Long-Tongue.") In a show of patriotism for "the Cause," Lucy sold some of the jewelry that had been showered on her by Alexander II to buy uniforms for South Carolina soldiers. Grateful for the gesture, the commander of the Citadel offered to raise a force of infantry, artillery, and cavalry, named, in Lucy's honor, the Holcombe Legion. Few of its men would survive the war; its losses at Gettysburg were especially heavy. Its flag was a blue banner with the South Carolina white palmetto tree on it and also a lone star of Texas, Lucy's home.

Pickens died in poverty in 1869, still awaiting a pardon from the U.S. government, but Lucy lived on until 1899, watching relative after relative die and letting others live off her, selling furniture, artworks, and jewels to hold a small piece of land.

Lucy's biography is pieced together well by Elizabeth Wittenmyer Lewis in Queen of the Confederacy: The Innocent Deceits of Lucy Holcombe Pickens (University of North Texas Press). Some footnotes in the book hold personal interest.

*In 2004, historians Georganne and Orville Vernon Burton discovered her novel of the Cuban invasion, The Free Flag of Cuba; or, The Martyrdom of Lopez: A Tale of the Liberating Expedition of 1851, in the University of Illinois library. It was written in 1854 and published under the name of H. M. Hardimann. The Louisiana State University Press has published an edition annotated by the Burtons (2004).

This article originally appeared in a slightly longer version under the title “Iron Fist in a Velvet Glove” as the August 5, 2002, column in the series Southern Seen by Dr. Larry T. McGehee, vice president and professor of religion at Wofford College, Spartanburg, South Carolina. Southern Seen, a weekly column, appears in about 100 small-town Southern newspapers. Reprinted with his permission. The column is archived at