Wednesday, January 8, 2014

January 8, 1864: The diary of Mary Boykin Chesnut

Hetty Cary was among Richmond's most popular belles during the Civil War.
On this day 150 years ago, Mary Boykin Chesnut wrote in her diary about a particularly busy night of socializing in wartime Richmond. The belle of the night was beautiful Hetty Cary.
January 8th. - Snow of the deepest. Nobody can come to-day, I thought. But they did! My girls, first; then Constance Cary tripped in - the clever Conny. Hetty is the beauty, so called, though she is clever enough, too; but Constance is actually clever and has a classically perfect outline. Next came the four Kentuckians and Preston Hampton. He is as tall as the Kentuckians and ever so much better looking. Then we had egg-nog.

I was to take Miss Cary to the Semmes's. My husband inquired the price of a carriage. It was twenty-five dollars an hour! He cursed by all his gods at such extravagance. The play was not worth the candle, or carriage, in this instance. In Confederate money it sounds so much worse than it is. I did not dream of asking him to go with me after that lively overture. "I did intend to go with you," he said, "but you do not ask me." "And I have been asking you for twenty years to go with me, in vain. Think of that!" I said, tragically. We could not wait for him to dress, so I sent the twenty-five-dollar-an-hour carriage back for him. We were behind time, as it was. When he came, the beautiful Hetty Cary and her friend, Captain Tucker, were with him. Major von Borcke and Preston Hampton were at the Cary's, in the drawing-room when we called for Constance, who was dressing. I challenge the world to produce finer specimens of humanity than these three: the Prussian von Borcke, Preston Hampton, and Hetty Cary.

We spoke to the Prussian about the vote of thanks passed by Congress yesterday - "thanks of the country to Major von Borcke." The poor man was as modest as a girl - in spite of his huge proportions. "That is a compliment, indeed!" said Hetty. "Yes. I saw it. And the happiest, the proudest day of my life as I read it. It was at the hotel breakfast-table. I try to hide my face with the newspaper, I feel it grow so red. But my friend he has his newspaper, too, and he sees the same thing. So he looks my way - he says, pointing to me - 'Why does he grow so red? He has got something there!' and he laughs. Then I try to read aloud the so kind compliments of the Congress - but - he - you - I can not - " He puts his hand to his throat. His broken English and the difficulty of his enunciation with that wound in his windpipe makes it all very touching - and very hard to understand.

The Semmes charade party was a perfect success. The play was charming. Sweet little Mrs. Lawson Clay had a seat for me banked up among women. The female part of the congregation, strictly segregated from the male, were placed all together in rows. They formed a gay parterre, edged by the men in their black coats and gray uniforms. Toward the back part of the room, the mass of black and gray was solid. Captain Tucker bewailed his fate. He was stranded out there with those forlorn men, but could see us laughing, and fancied what we were saying was worth a thousand charades. He preferred talking to a clever woman to any known way of passing a pleasant hour. "So do I," somebody said.

On a sofa of state in front of all sat the President and Mrs. Davis. Little Maggie Davis was one of the child actresses. Her parents had a right to be proud of her; with her flashing black eyes, she was a marked figure on the stage. She is a handsome creature and she acted her part admirably. The shrine was beautiful beyond words. The Semmes and Ives families are Roman Catholics, and understand getting up that sort of thing. First came the "Palmers Gray," then Mrs. Ives, a solitary figure, the loveliest of penitent women. The Eastern pilgrims were delightfully costumed; we could not understand how so much Christian piety could come clothed in such odalisque robes. Mrs. Ould, as a queen, was as handsome and regal as heart could wish for. She was accompanied by a very satisfactory king, whose name, if I ever knew, I have forgotten. There was a resplendent knight of St. John, and then an American Indian. After their orisons they all knelt and laid something on the altar as a votive gift.

Burton Harrison, the President's handsome young secretary, was gotten up as a big brave in a dress presented to Mr. Davis by Indians for some kindness he showed them years ago. It was a complete warrior's outfit, scant as that is. The feathers stuck in the back of Mr. Harrison's head had a charmingly comic effect. He had to shave himself as clean as a baby or he could not act the beardless chief, Spotted Tail, Billy Bowlegs, Big Thunder, or whatever his character was. So he folded up his loved and lost mustache, the Christianized red Indian, and laid it on the altar, the most sacred treasure of his life, the witness of his most heroic sacrifice, on the shrine.

Senator Hill, of Georgia, took me in to supper, where were ices, chicken salad, oysters, and champagne. The President came in alone, I suppose, for while we were talking after supper and your humble servant was standing between Mrs. Randolph and Mrs. Stanard, he approached, offered me his arm and we walked off, oblivious of Mr. Senator Hill. Remember this, ladies, and forgive me for recording it, but Mrs. Stanard and Mrs. Randolph are the handsomest women in Richmond; I am no older than they are, or younger, either, sad to say. Now, the President walked with me slowly up and down that long room, and our conversation was of the saddest. Nobody knows so well as he the difficulties which beset this hard-driven Confederacy. He has a voice which is perfectly modulated, a comfort in this loud and rough soldier world. I think there is a melancholy cadence in his voice at times, of which he is unconscious when he talks of things as they are now.

My husband was so intensely charmed with Hetty Cary that he declined at the first call to accompany his wife home in the twenty-five-dollar-an-hour carriage. He ordered it to return. When it came, his wife (a good manager) packed the Carys and him in with herself, leaving the other two men who came with the party, when it was divided into "trips," to make their way home in the cold. At our door, near daylight of that bitter cold morning, I had the pleasure to see my husband, like a man, stand and pay for that carriage! To-day he is pleased with himself, with me, and with all the world; says if there was no such word as "fascinating" you would have to invent one to describe Hetty Cary.

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