Louisa was 15 when the “revolution” began and her enthusiasm was undimmed when she wrote her memoirs 60 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 took place in South Carolina in December 1860, during the revolution for Southern independence. 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 it was a defensive, reactionary move, it also inspired hope among those who saw the Confederacy as what historian Michael T. Bernath has called a “moment of possibility”—an opportunity to effect a strikingly diverse variety of changes, from improving women’s education to rolling back democracy by imposing property requirements for suffrage.
It also exemplifies a neglected visual emblem of secessionist sentiments: 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 1860-61 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 20s and 30s—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 vehemently proslavery Southern elite. The image became a stereotype familiar to reporters, law enforcement officers, and anyone parsing regional differences.
Northerners regularly associated long hair with Southerners, especially those of elevated rank and extreme politics. In his autobiography, Bostonian Charles Francis Adams Jr. recalled that Lucius Q.C. Lamar, a fierce secessionist congressman from Mississippi, “looked the Southern college professor—lank, tall, bearded, long-haired, and large-featured.” A newspaper correspondent covering Abraham Lincoln’s March 1861 inauguration described the audience as a massive crowd of “old and young, of male and female,” with “but few Southerners, judging from the lack of long haired men in the crowd.” A wartime passenger on an Ohio River steamboat looked askance at a “very Southern looking young man with long hair, and an extensive display of very suspicious looking jewelry,” who was denouncing Lincoln as a racial egalitarian. To a Union prisoner of war, Confederates in Charleston were “long haired secession devils.” Perhaps no one epitomized the secessionist image better than Virginian politician and newspaper editor Roger A. Pryor, who traveled to South Carolina to press for an attack on Fort Sumter in hopes that this would propel his own state out of the Union. Contemporaries regarded the long-haired and heavily armed firebrand as “the very embodiment of Southern chivalry.”
Authors used the long-haired secessionist image to spice their narratives or vent their anger, but for Union spies on the border, identifying friends and foes was deadly serious. Albert D. Richardson, a New York Tribune correspondent who was captured and then escaped from a Confederate prison camp, read Kentuckians’ loyalties in their appearance. The “sinewy, long-limbed mountaineers” passing through Louisville were likely traveling to Indiana to enlist in the Union Army, while the “pale, long-haired young men” heading the other direction were Confederate recruits.
Hairstyles even offered vital clues to Allan Pinkerton, the famous detective who uncovered a plot to assassinate President-elect Lincoln as he passed through Baltimore en route to Washington in early 1861. Pinkerton recalled that Barnum’s Hotel was the “favorite resort” of Baltimore’s Southern sympathizers, and he identified them by their hair. During the evenings, “the corridors and parlors would be thronged by the tall, lank forms of the long-haired gentlemen who represented the aristocracy of the slaveholding interests.”
Pinkerton believed that the plot’s mastermind was hotel barber Cypriano Ferrandini, who allegedly had said that the “hireling Lincoln shall never, never be President,” and declared his readiness to die “for the rights of the South…” Pinkerton depicted Ferrandini as “a fitting representative of so desperate a cause,” complete with “his sallow face…and his long hair brushed fiercely back from his low forehead.”
From flappers’ bobbed hair to the forced haircuts inflicted at Indian boarding schools, hairstyles are closely tied to our identities and our ideals. After the Civil War, secessionists’ hairstyles were largely forgotten, though they are echoed in the Southern outlaw image which, like other recent long-haired figures, emerged in the 1960s. Ironically, the style of the chivalry was reborn among the rural working class.
Michael E. Woods is associate professor of history at Marshall University. He is the author of Bleeding Kansas: Slavery, Sectionalism, and Civil War on the Missouri–Kansas Border (Routledge, 2016) and Emotional and Sectional Conflict in the Antebellum United States (Cambridge University Press, 2014). This post originally appeared on July 31, 2018, in Muster, the blog of the Journal of the Civil War Era.