Refugitta of Richmond: The Wartime Recollections, Grave and Gay, of Constance Cary Harris edited by Nathaniel C. Hughes Jr. and S. Kittrell Rushing. University of Tennessee Press, 2011. Cloth, ISBN: 1572337478. $46.00
Constance Cary Harrison’s accounts of Civil War Richmond have supplied many a historian with an insider’s view of life in the Confederate capital. Drew Gilpin Faust’s Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War and Sarah E. Gardner’s Blood and Irony: Southern White Women’s Narratives of the Civil War, 1861-1937 are two that cite Harrison’s 1911 reminiscence, Recollections Grave and Gay, noting that her fluency with language and her social connections imparted an aristocratic air to her writings. Indeed, Harrison considered herself an aristocrat as she was among the fortunate few whose ancestry included the family of Thomas Jefferson. Her memoir, reprinted as Refugitta of Richmond (her nom de plume), reveals a young woman on the cusp of maturity recounting a life she never expected to endure.
Constance Cary came to Richmond with her mother and two younger brothers in the winter of 1861-62 at the age of eighteen. Writing of the first outbreak of battle at Manassas, Cary and her widowed mother, Monimia, tended to the wounded at Bristoe Station, “carrying milk, water brandy, and bread…” to the men (36). This was but a youthful adventure compared to the heart wrenching hospital care Cary rendered to the wounded and to amputees at Camp Winder later in the war. By then the blockade had taken its toll and food and medical supplies had grown scarce; the afflicted patients were half starved and exhausted from their long journey to the camp. Cary’s descriptions of the surgical amputations were most illuminating –severed arms lying on the floor, patients asleep under chloroform, “blood gushing profusely from the flaps [the surgeons] were sewing together….” (125).
As stoic as she was about the awful conditions of Camp Winder, she was a fountain of joy over the parties, gaieties, and social events afforded her while she resided in Richmond. Surrounded by relatives, Constance Cary enjoyed friendships with such notables as Jefferson and Varina Davis, Mary and James Chesnut, and Judah Benjamin. There are times in Cary’s account of wartime Richmond when one wishes she had seen her reduced circumstances as that of a privileged insider whose deprivations were mild compared to those of the masses of poor whites just scraping by and slaves whose rations were cut due to the blockade and the South’s compromised transportation system. It is a glaring contrast to read about the gowns and fashions that upper-crust women wore to dinner parties where the offerings included creamed oysters, chicken salad, and champagne. Only months before one such elegant affair, hungry desperate women organized a bread riot and carried off flour and bacon. Cary mentions this but insists that “the painful situation” was met by “prompt but kind measures….” (93). In fact Jefferson Davis appeared in their midst and threw fifty-cent gold pieces into the throng. When this did not quell the riot, he threatened gunfire. Eventually forty-three women and twenty-five men were arrested, the women labeled as prostitutes and amazons.
Glossing over such class discrepancies was not the only insensitivity included in her memoir. Her views on slavery, which she said she abhorred and which her grandparents had repudiated, were compromised when she visited a family in King William County. There she noted the idyllic slave cabins “bowered in foliage…each having its neat patch of ground with corn, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, and cabbage. …No sign here of the horrors for which John Brown had died on the scaffold at Harper’s Ferry! (96) The scene made her pause and wonder if slaves “could be happier free” and allowed that “Southerners of the old regime” were more trusted by freedpeople than abolitionists (97).
Cary’s most interesting accounts are found in her descriptions of the runaway Jefferson Davis family and the president’s subsequent capture. Included among the detainees was Burton Norvell Harrison, who served as the personal secretary to Jefferson Davis and who would become her husband. His imprisonment in Washington revealed vivid accounts of the hanging of Lincoln’s assassins. Although he lacked a view from his cell window, he could hear men building the scaffolding in the prison yard and doors clanging as the convicted were taken from their cells. At his regular exercise in the yard later that day he was forced to view the four graves while the guards looked on. Transported to Fort Delaware, Harrison languished until Cary and her mother moved to Washington in order to obtain his release January 16, 1866. In October of that same year, Cary and her mother sailed to France, where she spent the winter finishing her education at the Paris Conservatoire. She returned to the United States, married Harrison in 1867, and lived the rest of her life in the North, principally in New York City. Constance Cary Harrison continued to write and subsequently published thirty pieces before her husband died in 1905. She finished her memoir in 1911 and lingered until 1920, a remarkable specimen of southern gentility and pride.
The editors are to be commended for bringing into print – on the one hundredth anniversary of its original publication – this remarkable reminiscence with notes to help the reader with identifications. Although much work no doubt went into the project, there are a few omissions. One index entry, Mrs. Jefferson Davis, bears the name Winnie rather than Varina in parenthesis, and “slavery” is not included in the index. The editors did not mention that Mary Chesnut’s Civil War, edited by C. Vann Woodward, should be read alongside Chesnut’s Diary from Dixie for readers interested in the manipulation of her wartime recollections. In addition, there are many more published southern women’s accounts than the editors acknowledge in their Preface, giving the impression that there were just two worthy of mention beside Harrison’s memoir. Terms such as “darky” are left in the original, but a language disclaimer in the Introduction would have eased this book into the twenty-first century.
Elizabeth Hayes Turner is a Professor of History at the University of North Texas and the author of Women and Gender in the New South, 1865-1945 (2009).