In a letter to Preston Powers in 1878, Louisa McCord lamented that her father, who had been appointed the first president of the Second Bank of the United States (1819 to 1822) by President James Monroe and was Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, was now almost forgotten in the 22 years following his death. She continued, “In such a country as ours now is, that is enough to stamp into oblivion everything worth remembering.”
The interesting life story of Mrs. McCord is largely a tale of two cities: Charleston and Columbia, but most particularly Columbia. In that “oblivion” of things “worth remembering,” Mrs. McCord has become yet another case in point. Her former home at the corner of Bull and Pendleton streets stands in genteel oblivion across from the University of South Carolina campus and a parking garage, backed by a parking lot where her garden once stood. A historical marker, just placed in 2018, identifies the house as the residence of Louisa McCord, “noted author of essays, poetry, and drama.” It was here that this remarkable woman lived the most significant span of her life.
Mrs. McCord, however, is fully appreciated today by a new generation of scholars worldwide. Cambridge University historian Michael O’Brien places her “among the leading conservatives in American thought.” Her drama, poetry, letters, and political and social essays have been collected in a handsome two-volume edition by the University of Virginia Press with an appreciative introduction by Richard Lounsbury of Brigham Young University. Diarist Mary Boykin Chesnut, well known both in South Carolina and out, knew Mrs. McCord and was impressed, at times to the point of intimidation, by her fierce intellect. She called her the cleverest woman she knew, but Mrs. McCord was far more than clever.
Born Louisa Cheves in 1810 in Charleston to Mary Elizabeth Dulles and Langdon Cheves, Mrs. McCord was the fourth of 14 children. Her grandfather was a Scots-Indian trader, and her father clerked in a store, practiced law, and rose to become state attorney general, then Speaker of the United States House. Louisa displayed her remarkable character at an early age. Not satisfied with the usual round of instruction in French, needlework, and polite letters, she eavesdropped outside her father’s library door as her brothers were being taught mathematics. There she worked out the math problems on her slate until she was discovered by her father. From then on, she studied the same subjects with her brothers. Langdon always felt his daughter to be closest to him in intellect. When he entertained distinguished men at dinner or over a glass of Madeira, he did not exclude her.
In addition to their Charleston home, Langdon and Mary Elizabeth owned Lang Syne Plantation near Ft. Motte in Calhoun County. When her mother died, Louisa, at the age of 26, took over the role of its mistress, managing it well. Three years later she married widower David McCord of Columbia, born in 1797, and they had three children by 1845. Langdon Cheves gave the plantation to his daughter upon her marriage.
A young doctor from Quebec, Edward Worthington, who visited the McCords at Lang Syne and whom Louisa entertained with horseback “gallops” across the lush countryside, described her in a letter from 1894 as “a tall queenly woman; and a very queen at heart; motherly and kind. She treated me as though I were an overgrown boy.”
The Calhoun County plantation was actually the home of two noted South Carolina writers, both Mrs. McCord and later the 1929 Pulitzer Prize winner Julia Mood Peterkin, who used the Gullah residents of the plantation as the basis for her fictional characters.
Louisa and her husband shared the same interests in political economy and worked from matching desks. Mr. McCord was for the most part retired owing to fragile health, so he furthered his wife’s intellectual and literary pursuits while also publishing essays of his own. Louisa’s book-length translation and introduction to French economist Frέdέric Bastiat as well as her book of poems both appeared in 1848. She declared in a letter to William Porcher Miles this same year, “An effortless life, is, to a restless mind, a weary fate to be doomed to.” She would keep on writing, “as no other door is open to me.”
In 1849, the McCords built their Columbia house. It was situated in an acre and a half garden with long walks and fountains making use of the city’s newly laid water pipes. There she wrote essays on economics, and her contemporaries noted that she was the only woman in the field. There she also composed essays on women’s roles in society, servitude, the plight of industrial workers, politics, and secession, which she and her father advocated for various reasons, mainly the need for Southern economic independence. She blasted the utilitarian philosophy of John Stuart Mill and the “muddled” thinking of shrill English feminists. In her essay “British Philanthropy,” she wrote to her women feminist readers, “God is God; but ye are not his prophets.” Yet, she maintained that “many a woman of dominant intellect is obliged to submit to the rule of an animal in pantaloons, in every way her inferior.”
In her essay “Justice and Fraternity,” she praised South Carolinians for their principles, which she described as “among the most conservative in the country” because they did not include man’s “tinkerings” with God’s natural order that resulted in such new programs as “the follies of socialism and communism.” She wrote, “God directs and man perverts.” And in “British Philanthropy,” she railed at what she called “the nauseous froth scum of sickly philanthropy.”
Clearly Mrs. McCord did not mince words, and her command of the language was comparable to Mary Chesnut’s. One can see why many chose not to tangle with her. One of her associates, however, was the South’s leading literary figure, William Gilmore Simms, who published her work in The Southern Quarterly Review and ensured that her books were reviewed there as well.
Mrs. McCord liked Columbia and enjoyed living next to South Carolina College, where her husband had been a trustee, and they participated in its intellectual life. In Columbia’s famously hot summers, however, the city was often nearly deserted. During these months she and her family moved to cooler climates. A highlight of their travels to Europe included a reception in the Court of Napoleon III, a visit to the studio of sculptor Hiram Powers in Florence, and an audience with Pope Pius IX.
In 1851, from her house on Pendleton Street, she published her masterpiece, the closet drama Caius Gracchus. Reviewers from DeBow’s to The Southern Quarterly Review found it “brilliant” and an “anomaly” because it was “a work of tremendous power written by a woman with such a strong wrist.”
The play is set in the Roman Republic in the political turmoil of the late second century B.C. She used Plutarch’s Lives as a source, specifically his account of the most celebrated of Roman women, Cornelia, mother of the Gracchi. The response of Cornelia to the failure and death of her son, which does not appear in Plutarch, is the central focus of Mrs. McCord’s tragedy. The play describes her own complicated situation and that of all women like her. Mrs. McCord’s biographer Richard Lounsbury says that her subject allowed her to speak in roles otherwise denied to the women of her day. This sophisticated literary work is only now being seen as such by modern critics. Her contemporary reviewers, however, recognized her “terseness, vigor, earnestness, and … energy.”
Mary Chesnut was one of the friends who understood that Cornelia was a self-portrait. In visiting Mrs. McCord’s Columbia home during the war, and after hearing how she took command in getting her wounded son back home from Virginia by chartering a special train, Mrs. Chesnut cried out in admiration, “Mother of the Gracchi.” Mrs. McCord was indeed Cornelia, the Roman matron expressing herself through her son. She thus lived a powerful role in the life of her community without disrupting what she considered the natural order of things.
David McCord died in the Columbia house in 1855 at age 58. That same year, Louisa lost her brother Charles, and her father had a stroke that resulted in senile dementia. She cared for him in Columbia until his death in 1857. In her Memoir of Langdon Cheves she declared, “My feelings towards my Father have through life been almost those of worship, rather than simply of affection.” She faced Fort Sumter’s conflict in April 1861 without husband or father. It was left to her to provide strength to the family during the war that followed.
The romance of war had no attractions for her, as it often did for her friend Mrs. Chesnut, who delighted in leaving quiet Camden for the intrigues of Richmond, Virginia. Mrs. Chesnut noted in her diary that Mrs. McCord did not approve of her and her friends’ “whispers.” Instead of gossiping, Mrs. McCord went to work. She fitted out a company of soldiers at her own expense, and she became the first president of both Columbia’s Soldiers’ Relief and Soldiers’ Clothing associations. When the college was made a Confederate hospital in 1862, she became the unofficial manager and was praised by her superiors for “enthusiasm” and “common sense.”
Sorrows came thick and fast with the war. Her brother John’s only son was killed. Her beloved sister Sophia Haskell lost two sons in a single month. Her dear brother Langdon was killed defending Charleston. Then her only son, Langdon Cheves McCord, died in January 1863 despite her efforts to save him. Her daughter, Louisa McCord Smythe, wrote in her memoir For Old Lang Syne that in their Columbia home her mother knitted soldiers’ clothing “day and night.” When grief took away her mother’s comfort of sleep, her daughter Louisa reflected that she “used to wake at night and hear the click, click of her [mother’s] needles, and shudder at the groans and sobs when she supposed no one heard her.”
In February 1865 the Columbia house was looted by Gen. William T. Sherman’s troops. A soldier left her a warning on a page torn from her dead son’s notebook: “Ladies, I pity you. Leave this town.” That night Columbia went up in flames. In her memoir The Burning of Columbia, McCord wrote that during the occupation of her house, her father’s watch was taken from her, and she was choked by men who were trying to force their way past her to go upstairs where her daughters were hidden. The soldiers were interrupted by an officer sent to make the house the headquarters of Union Gen. Oliver Otis Howard, who later headed the Freedmen’s Bureau and was the namesake of Howard University. This saved the home from burning, but it was ransacked once again at the troops’ departure. Perhaps the greatest loss to history and literature was the scattering of Mrs. McCord’s personal papers over the house’s yard like a fall of snow. Among these documents were her dead father’s and dead son’s letters.
Following the sack of Columbia, Mrs. McCord set up a soup kitchen in the house yard. She collected scraps of food to make iron pots of soup to feed the starving citizens cup by precious cup. With both her daughters married and no longer able to stand the violence of the Reconstruction era, she moved to Canada in 1871 and refused to take the Oath of Allegiance to the Union to “support, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
In 1876, with the end of Reconstruction, she returned to Charleston to live with her only surviving child, Louisa, who had married Augustine Smythe. She stayed with her daughter and son-in-law until her death three years later in 1879. In her last months she tried to write her story in what Richard Lounsbury calls “a world which she knew had a short memory, and that memory inaccurate.” She spent her final energies composing her recollections of her beloved father. She died after five days of great suffering from a stomach ailment at the age of 69. In the Charleston newspaper, her obituary amounted only to a few lines. It did not mention her services during the war or give a single word about her writing.
Atlanta may have its Scarlett O’Hara. Give me Columbia’s Louisa McCord.
Dr. Kibler received his doctorate in English at the University of South Carolina. His most recent work is The Classical Origins of Southern Literature.