Orthodoxy and the First Shot of the American Civil War

Lucy Pickens, mother of a baptized Orthodox Christian, was featured on the Confederate $100 bill.

This is about as unlikely a title for an article on American Orthodox history I ever expected to come up with! But a visit to a used bookstore in Canada a week ago has thrown up some whole new avenues for research. I found a slender volume entitled “Lincoln and the Russians.” (Woldman, Albert A., Lincoln and the Russians. New York: Collier Books, 1952. )  I haven’t finished reading the book yet but it already underscores to me how essential it is to research the history of Orthodoxy in the Americas within the wider context of the relationship between the “Great Powers” of the world stage from the fifteenth century to the present. (More on this theme at a later date, God willing.)

The story I want to recount today is not found in this book: rather a search suggested itself to me after I started reading the book. So here is the headline:

An Orthodox Christian fired the First Shot in the American Civil War!

How could this be you ask? Well, truth is, there seem to be a number of different understandings of what constitutes the first shot of the Civil War and who it was that fired it. But I want to share one of the most common ones here as it relates to a fascinating detail of Orthodox history in the USA. In 2011 we are remembering the one hundred and fiftieth outbreak of the civil war, which is generally dated to April 12, 1861. That was the day the Confederates opened fire on the Union controlled Ft. Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina. (Some people reckon the date back to January 9, 1861 when the ship “The Star of the West” was sent to re-supply the Union forces in Charleston harbor and was driven away by Confederate fire.)

According to Southern folklore, it was the young daughter of the Governor of South Carolina who was given a lighted taper to fire the first cannon, by her father the Governor. (Some versions place this in January, some in April 1861.) What is well documented is that the Governor of South Carolina was Francis W. Pickens. He became Governor only weeks before South Carolina became the first state to secede form the Union on December 20, 1860. His daughter was also given the name Francis, although she was more commonly referred to as “Douschka. “ (That’s Russian for “Little Darling.) The little girl’s Russian connection is also suggested by her full legal name: Francis Eugenia Olga Neva Pickens.

So what was Francis W Pickens doing before he became the sixty-ninth Governor of South Carolina? (As an aside it is interesting to note that Philip Ludwell I is officially listed as the ninth.) Pickens was the US Ambassador to Russia. Whilst there, he and his third wife, Lucy Petway Holcombe, became intimate friends of the Russian Czar Alexander and his German born wife Marie of Hesse. Such close friends that when the Pickens’s daughter was born they agreed that she would be baptized as an Orthodox Christian and the Czar and Czarina stood as her Godparents. It was the Czarina who insisted she take the names “Olga” and “Neva.” The Czar simply took to calling her “Douschka.” The baptism took place in the Imperial palace in St. Petersburg in 1859.

I have found no evidence thus far to suggest that Governor Pickens or his wife Lucy embraced Orthodoxy. However, they are said to have studied the differences between Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant doctrine. There is also a very beautiful account of their attending the Easter Night service in St. Petersburg.

Lucy Pickens went on to be known as “The Queen of the Confederacy” and she is the only woman depicted on the currency of the Confederate States of America. The “Holcombe Legion” of the Confederate Army was named after her and she reputedly funded it by the sale of diamonds given her by the Russian Czar. Douschka likewise went on to live a colorful life and became known as “The Joan of Arc of Carolina.” This was for her leadership in the post Civil War “Red Shirt” movement which fought openly to defeat Republican political candidates and limit the civil rights of the newly freed black population. All very ironic, given that it was her Godfather, Alexander II who liberated the serfs in Russia!

To conclude, here is the Douschka Pickens Civil War story as recounted in a book from the beginning of the twentieth century:

 “It is said that General Pickens on the twelfth day of April, 1861, at Charleston, took his little daughter in his arms and placed in her tiny hand the lighted match that fired the first gun of the war on Ft. Sumter. Mrs. Pickens held all through her life the friendship of the Imperial Family of Russia, and on the marriage of their daughter, ‘Douschka,’ a silver tea service was sent to her by the Imperial Family.” (Logan, Mrs. John A, The Part Taken by Women in American History, Wilmington, Delaware: The Perry-Nalle Publishing Co., 1912.)

Copyright – Nicholas Chapman, Herkimer, New York, June 27, 2011

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