Remembering the Civil War with Confederate Hair

With April comes spring flowers, events marking the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, and in states across the South there will be celebrations of Confederate History Month.  South Carolina got a head start on the party when folks in Charleston organized a Secession Ball.  And on April 26th (and in some states May 10th) Confederate organizations will pay homage to their ancestors with Confederate Memorial Day ceremonies.  But if you’re serious about your commemorations, why not buy some Confederate hair?

I’d like to tell you that I’m kidding about hair and hair collectibles, but I’m not.  In fact, when I was researching my first book on the United Daughters of the Confederacy, I frequently came across Confederate hair—either in a reference or, literally, hair.  The early years of the Lost Cause coincided with the Victorian era and people’s penchant for saving the hair of loved ones and doing things with it, like placing it in a locket or making hair or mourning jewelry.  One of the most fascinating references I found was to a hair wreath—made of the hair of several Confederate officers—that was on display at the Cotton States Exposition in Atlanta in 1895.  It was one of many “sacred relics” on display to honor the CSA.

While researching a manuscript collection at a major southern university (which shall remain nameless), I came across an envelope marked “Jefferson Davis’s hair.”  Believe me, that’ll stop you in your tracks.  But then curiosity will cause you to open it, which I did.  And there it was.  A lock of Jeff’s hair—hair that I have every reason to believe was the genuine article given the close relationship these individuals (whose papers I was researching) had with the former Confederate president.  In the same collection another envelope appeared, similarly identified, and once again, hair.

A few years after that I noticed that eBay had an entire category of “Historic Hair & Hair Collectibles.”  At the time, someone was auctioning off the tiniest sliver of Jefferson Davis’s hair along with documentation that it had been clipped while he was imprisoned at Fort Monroe.  The asking price was $1,200.  Recalling what I had found in the archive I realized I had probably been looking at close to a million dollars.

More recently, I conducted another search on eBay and while there is no single strand of Jeff Davis’s hair currently available, there is an entire set of “Civil War Hair” in which his is included—a bargain at $1,995 because it also has hair samples from the heads of Robert E. Lee, Mary Lincoln, John Brown, Mary Surratt, and William Clark Quantrill.  Frankly, I think that many of these individuals—were they alive—would cringe at the commingling of their historic hairs.

As we remember the Civil War and have conversations about its meaning, I think we should also pause and reflect on the idiosyncratic nature of how it is remembered.  Symposia, new books, and conferences aside, some folks may want something that is a little more personal.

Karen L. Cox is associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She is the author of Dreaming of Dixie: How the South Was Created in American Popular Culture as well as Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture, which won the 2004 Julia Cherry Spruill Prize for the best book in southern women’s history. You can become a fan of Dreaming of Dixie on Facebook.