From Dixie to Eden

published march 1, 2023 | written by emily cough | edited by bhhs staff
Photo of Constance Cary Harrison's "Golden-Rod: An Idyll of Mount Desert" book.

Bar Harbor has always been a place to get away from the hustle and bustle of the world since people began vacationing here–Maine’s old slogan is ‘Vacationland’, after all! The Wabanaki people that spent their summers here first knew it best: that the island had fair, mild weather, with a beautiful landscape and atmosphere to boot.

This hidden gem of an island couldn’t stay a secret for long, as artists and rusticators flocked here to claim their piece of the prize, and pretty soon, Mount Desert Island became the fashionable place to vacation. 

Being so far up north, it’s clear as day that there are some ideals and traditions not upheld here as they are further south in Dixieland; from the weather to the people, there are stark differences between the two halves of the east coast that just don’t match up with one another. So, with that being said, it’s not every day that there’s a clear connection between the North and South–but there certainly was during the most tumultuous time: the Civil War. 

It’s not often we hear about the Civil War having a connection so far up north as Bar Harbor. Sure, we learn about it in schools, as it was such a big part of our country’s history, but up here, it doesn’t play into a huge part of our identity. Of course, we have a monument to commemorate the MDI men who fought for freedom for the Union (which can be found at the Episcopal Church on Mount Desert Street), so it’s a part of our rich history, but it’s not a huge role in our way of being; it hasn’t shaped the way we do things here. Could it be because we’re so far north we weren’t physically affected by it? That our lands didn’t see the carnage of the battles? Or could that be just because we have an easier time adapting to change? It’s in our way of life here, just from the unpredictable seasonal weather (especially evident on a snowy day like today), so could that be the case? Down South the weather is like molasses; hot muggy weather coating your every movement and sticking to you like glue, making anyone reluctant to live any sort of fast-paced, ever-changing lifestyle. And we can’t say we blame them either–once we hit 90 degrees here, it’s nearly impossible for us mild-weather lovers to function. But really, how could the Civil War play a part here, if any? 

One of the biggest symbols of the Civil War was and remains to be the Confederate battle flag. Even today it remains a controversial emblem that symbolizes racism and slavery. But where did it begin? Where did that infamous flag get its origins? 

The answer: Constance Cary Harrison and her two cousins. Nicknamed the “Cary Invincibles,” the three Carys, Hetty, Jennie, and Constance, sewed up a few of the first iterations of the battle flag, with design elements created by William Porcher Miles and modifications given by General Joseph E. Johnston. 

Living in the heart of the South in Fairfax County, Virginia until the war broke out, Constance began to see the impending doom that would soon rock the country. Her mother, as her father passed away in 1854, moved them to Richmond, Virginia. There, Constance began to make a name for herself, or rather, she would publish articles in magazines under the pseudonym “Refugitta.” It was in Richmond where she would meet up and live with her two cousins, earning them the collective nickname of the “Cary Invincibles.” And from there, Constance used her skills to be a nurse for wounded soldiers. 

The “Cary Invincibles” also found more ways to support their Confederate troops, like organizing parties and hosting events. Their support for the men in gray ran deep, so much so that in Maryland, before the three came together, Hetty and Jennie had stirred quite a commotion in provocation against Union soldiers. There, they sang in defiance of them and dangled Confederate flags, while also gathering supplies and medication for the Confederate men they allied themselves with. 

As for Constance, details of her time during the war was intimately captured in Refugitta of Richmond: The Wartime Recollections, Grave and Gay, of Constance Cary Harrison. In her book, it offers a rare detailed glimpse of what it was like for a privileged white woman to live through the war. 

Following the end of the war, Constance wed Burton Harrison and made their home in New York City. And as we know by now, many of the elites who came to Bar Harbor in the summertime were from these big cities, like New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. So, perhaps through a new circle of friends they made in the Big Apple, the Harrisons heard of the new summer “it” destination: Bar Harbor. 

After staying at Captain Royal George Higgins’ cottage, some ten years later, they had their own cottage commissioned for themselves, called Sea Urchins (and can you guess who designed the gardens there? Hint: the same woman who designed the White House!). The cottage was the place to be when it came to entertaining and hospitality during their time there, and evidently remains the same today as it is used as the student center Deering Commons at COA. 

Throughout the years, Constance kept up with her writing and artistic endeavors. Her many works spanned across the years, many of which mirrored her life, including Golden-Rod, An Idyll of Mount Desert Island, written in 1880–a copy in which we have in our collection! 

While the connections between the North and South may be far and few, the ones that do spring up hold a lot of weight for us. Each little tidbit of history we can find that pertains to us helps to continue to tell the story of Bar Harbor. It is amazing how this small island has had such an expansive reach in the past two centuries, from the artwork that was produced here or the visitors and residents of great importance that shaped our country. We may be a small speck on a map, but to a great many people, like us at the Historical Society, our home feels weighty with history. 

Speaking of history, as always, we invite you to become a part of our Society as a member! Come stop by when we open our doors for this coming season and you may learn something about this small, impactful town you may not otherwise have known! Join us next week for another Way Back Wednesday, see you soon!