The wife of South Carolina secessionist governor Francis W. Pickens and known as the “Queen of the Confederacy,” Lucy Holcombe Pickens (1832–1899) was during her lifetime one of the most famous women in the South. Indeed, she was the only woman pictured on Confederate currency. Rumor was that in her youth she published a novel under a pseudonym. Recently discovered as The Free Flag of Cuba; or, The Martyrdom of Lopez: A Tale of the Liberating Expedition of 1851, a romanticized account of the 1851 filibustering expedition to Cuba lead by Narciso López, it was published under the alias H. M. Hardimann in 1854. With this new edition, Orville Vernon Burton and Georganne B. Burton resurrect Holcombe’s lost work and prove it to be a window on many pressing nineteenth-century issues, including patriotism, freedom, independence, imperialism, nationalism, race, the role of southern women, and slavery.
A not-so-subtle plea for U.S. support for Cuban independence from Spain, Holcombe’s novel vindicates López and his men, who were officially regarded as mercenaries, some of them captured and executed. The young author was determined to have an influence on the national debates of her time, and her book declared to the world that the López campaign was noble and he and his men were martyred heroes.
Revealing the link between gender issues and filibustering, Holcombe’s tale clearly reflects the values southern aristocratic women expected in men, even if preserving those values meant death and defeat — a harbinger of ardent support for the Confederacy by women like Lucy. Like the South’s secession, the López expedition was an abject failure, and the novel eerily presages Lost Cause mythology.
With an illuminating introduction detailing the life of Lucy Petway Holcombe Pickens and the historical context of her novel, this new edition of The Free Flag of Cuba is a welcome glimpse into the mind and value system of the southern belle who would become a southern icon.
Georganne B. Burton is an independent scholar, writer, and community activist. The Burtons live in Urbana and have five daughters.
Professor of history, University Scholar, and Distinguished Teacher/Scholar at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Orville Vernon Burton is the author or editor of seven books, including In My Father’s House Are Many Mansions: Family and Community in Edgefield, South Carolina.
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