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Chesnut, Mary (Boykin) Miller

CHESNUT, Mary (Boykin) Miller

Born 31 March 1823, Camden, South Carolina; died 22 November 1886, Camden, South Carolina

Daughter of Stephen D. and Mary Boykin Miller; married JamesChesnut, 1840 (died 1885)

Mary Miller Chesnut was the oldest daughter of the Nullification Governor of South Carolina. In 1859 her husband was elected U.S. senator, only to resign his seat a year later. He returned to South Carolina to serve in the secession convention and was appointed a delegate to the Confederate Constitutional Convention and Provisional Congress in Montgomery, Alabama.

Chesnut began keeping a daily journal in December 1860. In manuscript form, it runs to over 400,000 thousand words, She willed the diary to her friend Isabella Martin who edited it with Myrta Lockett Avary in 1905. This edition is roughly one-third of the original and focuses on Chesnut herself. Much interesting gossip was omitted for fear it would offend former Confederates or their descendants. In 1949 novelist Ben Ames Williams edited a more complete edition which is twice the length of the former; Williams restored all of the rumors and gossip which make the diary so fascinating.

A Diary from Dixie is perhaps the most valuable source for the study of the social history of the Confederacy. Because of her husband's position and her own charm, Chesnut was accepted everywhere and was on intimate terms with the most important people in the Confederate government. Their wives and daughters gravitated to her, and from this web of acquaintances emerges a detailed portrait of life in the Civil War South. The diary gives the reader an insider's view of the war. Despite death and military reversals, romance and pleasure continued. Unlike other Confederate diarists who confidently predicted victory, Chesnut saw that, unless quarreling and jealousy among members of the administration and the army ceased, there would be defeat. While she was usually fair in her judgements of people and events, she reflects a definite bias in favor of Jefferson Davis, whom her husband served as aide.

Chesnut's own personality is clearly revealed in the diary. Though she loved and respected her husband, she admits that after 20 years of marriage, she did not really know him. There are some tender moments between them, but it appears that Chesnut was too stern and unbending for his vivacious wife. Whenever they returned to the Chesnut family plantation in Camden, she was seized by fevers and headaches which were probably psychosomatic. She was highly critical of her tyrannical ninety-year-old father-in-law, for he represented the epitome of the slaveholding Southerner. She detested slavery, claiming it forced white women not only to compete sexually with their husbands' slave mistresses, but also to pretend that the mulatto offspring "drop from the clouds."

Chesnut's diary explores the problems of an intelligent woman in a society which did not expect women to be more than wives and mothers. Chesnut believed a woman must defer to her husband, but she herself did not do so happily and often violated Chesnut's explicit instructions about spending money for entertainment and luxuries. Her devious attempts to outwit her husband are comical and remind the reader of early television husband-wife situation comedies. Chesnut bemoaned the fact she did not have children, yet did not envy other women their confinements and responsibilities. Though somewhat vain and pampered by modern standards, Chesnut had a delightful sense of humor and a keen eye for the absurdities of life. These qualities, combined with her literary style, make the diary a pleasure to read.

After the war, the Chesnuts returned to Camden. James became involved in state and local politics while Chesnut ran a butter business and revised her diary. James Chesnut died in 1885, and she died a year later in 1886.

Other Works:

Mary Chesnut's Civil War (1981).

The manuscript edition of Mary Chesnut's A Diary from Dixie is in the South Carolina Library at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, South Carolina.

Bibliography:

Avary, M. L., and I. Martin, eds., A Diary from Dixie (1905). Muhlenfield, E., Mary Boykin Chesnut: A Biography (1981). Wiley, B. I., Confederate Women (1975). Williams, B. A., ed., A Diary from Dixie (1949). Wilson, E., Patriotic Gore (1962). Woodward, C. V. "May Chesnut in Search of her Genre" in Yale Review (Winter 1984)

—JANET E. KAUFMAN

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