Louisa was fifteen when the revolution began, and her enthusiasm was undimmed when she wrote her memoirs sixty years later. She recalled the spectacle: houses illuminated with candles, bells ringing, tar barrels burning, flags waving. Most of all, she remembered the people. “I can never forget how those men used to look standing on some impromptu platform,” she wrote, “with the wild light of the bonfires on their faces, and their hair which men wore longer in those days, blown back from their faces by the wind, or the energy of their own movements.” Their vitality still thrilled her: “such light in their eyes! So much hope and so much courage.”
These stirring scenes might evoke a campus protest in 1968, but they came from South Carolina in December 1860. Louisa McCord Smythe was the daughter of writer and lawyer David J. McCord and Louisa McCord, an accomplished author, fierce proslavery theorist, and ardent secessionist. Smythe’s recollection reminds us that secession was especially popular among younger southern whites. It demonstrates that although secession was a defensive, reactionary move, it also inspired hope among those who saw the Confederacy as what historian Michael T. Bernath has termed a “moment of possibility” – an opportunity for change of all sorts, from improving women’s education to stemming the tide of democracy.
It also illuminates a largely neglected visual signature of secessionist politics, a hirsutal affirmation of everything Smythe’s neighbors were celebrating: long hair.
Trimmed, wavy hair was fashionable for white men in late antebellum America, so those with longer locks stood out. Not all were fire-eating disunionists, of course, but during and after the 1860-1861 secession crisis, particularly in cities along the troubled Union-Confederate border, long hair marked the class, section, and ideology associated with secession. From Virginia to Arkansas, secessionists, many in their twenties and thirties, sent a political message just as powerful as that of a century later. In the 1960s, long hair signaled a provocative, bodily challenge to behavioral norms and political elites. In the 1860s, secessionists’ long hair made a comparably defiant statement, albeit on behalf of preserving, not subverting, the South’s peculiar social and political hierarchies. Unionists and secessionists alike identified long-haired men as members of the “chivalry”: the notoriously radical and vehemently proslavery southern elite. The image became a stereotype familiar to reporters, law enforcement officers, and anyone seeking to clarify regional difference.
The full article can be viewed on the Journal of the Civil War Era Muster blog.