Mary Boykin Chesnut
Mary Boykin Chesnut
Mary Boykin Chesnut
Civil War diarist
Thousands of Americans recorded their thoughts and experiences during the Civil War period in diaries and journals. Since that time, many of these diaries have been studied by historians, and some of them have been published in book form. The most famous diary of the Civil War was written by Mary Boykin Chesnut. Chesnut was a well-educated woman from a wealthy and influential Southern family. She married James Chesnut Jr., who became a U.S. senator from South Carolina shortly before the start of the Civil War. Thanks to her political connections and her skills as an observer and writer, Chesnut was able to provide an inside view of the Confederacy for future generations to read and study.
Raised in a prominent Southern family
Mary Boykin Miller Chesnut was born on March 31, 1823, in Statesburg, South Carolina. She was the first of four children born to Stephen Decatur Miller, a prominent politician, and his wife Mary Boykin Miller. Chesnut's father served as a state senator, a U.S. congressman, and governor of South Carolina during her childhood.
Chesnut was educated in some of the best private girls' schools in the southeastern United States, including a boarding school in Charleston where the students were taught in French. In 1840, she married James Chesnut Jr., the son of one of the largest landowners in South Carolina. She then went to live at Mulberry Plantation, where her husband's family owned numerous slaves. The Chesnuts never had any children, so Mary had a great deal of time to read books and entertain.
Swept up in the secession movement
In 1858, James Chesnut Jr. was elected to represent South Carolina in the U.S. Senate. The Chesnuts moved to Washington, D.C., where Mary became friends with many prominent politicians and their wives. But this was a time of great political tension in the United States. The Northern and Southern sections of the country had been arguing over several issues—including slavery and the power of the national government to regulate it—for many years.
Growing numbers of Northerners believed that slavery was wrong. Some people wanted to outlaw it, while others wanted to prevent it from spreading beyond the Southern states where it was already allowed. But slavery played a big role in the Southern economy and culture. As a result, many Southerners felt threatened by Northern efforts to contain slavery. They believed that each state should decide for itself whether to allow slavery. They did not want the national government to pass laws that would interfere with their traditional way of life.
This ongoing dispute came to a crisis in November 1860, when Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; see entry) was elected president of the United States. Lincoln was a Northerner who opposed slavery, although he wanted to eliminate it gradually rather than outlaw it immediately. Following Lincoln's election, many people in the South felt that the national government could no longer represent their interests. Several Southern states decided to secede (withdraw) from the United States and form a new country that allowed slavery, called the Confederate States of America. But it soon became clear that Northern leaders were willing to fight to keep the Southern states in the Union. The two sides went to war a few months later.
Inspired to record historic events in her diary
Chesnut's husband was the first Southern senator to resign from his position in the U.S. Congress following Lincoln's election. Before long, he became a delegate (representative) in the provisional (temporary) Confederate Congress. The Chesnuts moved to Montgomery, Alabama, where a number of influential Southerners were meeting to establish a government for their new nation. Chesnut's home was one of the most popular gathering places for Confederate officials. On many occasions, her living room was full of important people socializing, exchanging information, and holding political debates.
In February 1861, Chesnut began recording what she saw and heard during these meetings in a diary. "From the beginning of secession, she recognized the depth of the political and social upheaval in which her region was engaged, and she felt herself qualified by education, social position, and native intelligence to report what she observed," Elisabeth Muhlenfeld explained in Mary Boykin Chesnut: A Biography.
One of Chesnut's best friends during this time was Varina Davis, wife of Confederate president Jefferson Davis (1808–1889; see entry). This friendship gave her access to the top officials in the new government, which put her in a unique position to record what was going on in the Confederacy. In fact, the observations she made in her journal covered everything from parties and romances, to rumors and disagreements, to battles and funerals.
Chesnut witnessed some of the major events of the Civil War. Her husband participated in the April 1861 bombing of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, which marked the official start of the war, as she watched from a rooftop in town. Following the Confederate victory in the first major battle of the war, the First Battle of Manassas (also known as the First Battle of Bull Run) in July 1861, she visited wounded Confederate soldiers in Richmond, Virginia. Chesnut moved to Richmond in 1862, when her husband became the personal aide to President Davis. They lived near the Confederate White House and entertained generals and other important people. She moved to Columbia, South Carolina, in 1864, where she helped out in an army hospital. She recorded all of these experiences in her diary.
During the early years of the war, Chesnut kept her journal in an elegant red leather-bound book with a little brass lock. As the war went on, and the South suffered from severe supply shortages, however, she ended up writing on scraps of paper and in the back of old cookbooks. Calling herself "a close observer . . . of men and manners," she tried to record things as they happened without coloring the facts with her own opinions.
Diary is finally published forty years after the war ends
Chesnut stopped writing in her diary in June 1865, shortly after the Civil War ended in a Union victory. She and her husband returned to Mulberry Plantation to find it badly damaged, and all of her family's possessions and crops destroyed. Their fortune gone, she began running a small dairy business to help make ends meet. In the 1870s, she translated several French novels and tried her hand at writing fiction.
In 1881, Chesnut began revising her Civil War diary for publication. During the war, she was too busy to provide a complete record of events as they occurred. Instead, she made detailed notes that she could look back on later to help her remember. She always intended to flesh out her description of the war. Chesnut worked on the project for several years, but never finished the revision to her satisfaction. She struggled through legal and financial troubles, and had to deal with the death of her husband and her mother during this time. She also suffered from heart problems herself. Chesnut died on November 22, 1886, in Camden, South Carolina.
Shortly before her death, Chesnut asked a trusted younger friend, Isabella Martin, to take care of her diaries and finish preparing them for publication. But after looking at the journals, Martin felt that they were too personal to be published. She recognized the historical value of the documents, but she worried about embarrassing the people who were mentioned. So she set the diaries aside for many years.
In 1904, Martin met a writer from New York named Myrta Lockett Avary. Avary read Chesnut's journals and insisted on publishing them. Excerpts first appeared in the popular magazine Saturday Evening Post under the title "A Diary from Dixie." In 1905, the excerpts were compiled into a book of the same name. But the book was much different from the original journal entries Chesnut had written during the Civil War. Martin, who served as editor of the book, cut nearly half of the material in order to avoid offending people. It still received good reviews, however, and was frequently quoted by Civil War historians over the years.
A novelist named Ben Ames Williams published another edition of Chesnut's diaries in 1949. This edition was more complete than the first, but Williams still cut or changed Chesnut's original words. The complete, unchanged journal did not appear until 1981. Mary Chesnut's Civil War, edited by historian C. Vann Woodward, won the Pulitzer Prize upon its publication. It has since become the most famous diary of the Civil War period. Muhlenfeld called it "a stunning eyewitness account of the society that was the Confederacy."
Where to Learn More
Chesnut, Mary Boykin Miller. A Diary from Dixie. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1949. Reprint, New York: Random House, 1997.
Chesnut, Mary Boykin Miller. The Private Mary Chesnut: The UnpublishedCivil War Diaries. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.
DeCredico, Mary A. Mary Boykin Chesnut: A Confederate Woman's Life. Madison, WI: Madison House, 1996.
Muhlenfeld, Elisabeth. Mary Boykin Chesnut: A Biography. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981.
Excerpts from Mary Boykin Chesnut's Diary
One of the reasons that Chesnut's diary became the most famous remembrance of the Civil War was that she covered such a wide range of topics. During the four years that she kept a journal, she recorded her thoughts on all of the most important people and events of the war. The following excerpts provide a sample of some of the issues she covered.
In April 1861, Confederate forces fired upon Fort Sumter to begin the Civil War. This fort, located in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, was held by Federal troops. Southern leaders viewed these troops as a symbol of Northern authority and were determined to remove them. The Confederacy gained control of the fort after two days of intense bombing. Chesnut watched the battle from the roof of a house in Charleston:
There was a sound of stir all over the house, pattering of feet in the corridors. All seemed hurrying one way, I put on my double gown and went too. It was to the housetop. The shells were bursting. . . . The regular roar of the cannon—there it was. . . . The women were wild there on the housetop. Prayers came from the women and imprecations [curses] from the men. And then a shell would light up the scene. . . . We watched up there, and everybody wondered that Fort Sumter did not fire a shot.
In April 1862, Union admiral David Farragut (1801–1870; see entry) led a daring navy mission up the Mississippi River that ended with the capture of the Southern port city of New Orleans, Louisiana. The fall of New Orleans was one in a series of significant Confederate defeats in the Civil War's western theater. Like many other Southerners, Chesnut grew depressed upon hearing the news:
Battle after battle—disaster after disaster. . . . How could I sleep? The power they [Union forces] are bringing to bear against our country is tremendous. . . . Every morning's paper enough to kill a well woman [or] age a strong and hearty one. . . . New Orleans gone—and with it the Confederacy. Are we not cut in two? The Mississippi ruins us if it is lost. . . . I have nothing to chronicle but disasters. . . . The reality is hideous.
Chesnut received more bad news in 1864. She learned that a close friend's son had been killed in battle. This event prompted her to write the following passage about the horrors of war:
When I remember all—the true hearted—the light hearted—the gay and gallant [courageous] boys—who have come laughing singing—dancing in my way—in the three years past—I have looked into their brave young eyes—And helped them—as I could every way—And then seen them no more forever—they lie stark—and cold—dead upon the battle field or mouldering away in hospitals or prisons—which is worse—I think if I consider the long array of those bright youths and loyal men—who have gone to their death almost before my very eyes—my heart might break too. Is any thing worth it? This fearful sacrifice—this awful penalty we pay for war?
After the war ended in 1865, Chesnut returned to her South Carolina plantation to find that it had been badly damaged by Union troops. Many of her former slaves were still there, but she realized that the South had changed forever:
My negroes—now free citizens of the U.S.A.—are more humble & affectionate & anxious to be allowed to remain as they are than the outside world—the readers of Mrs. [Harriet Beecher] Stowe [author of the antislavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin]—could ever conceive—not one expressed the slightest pleasure at the sudden freedom—but they will all go after a while—if they can better their condition.
Mary Boykin Chesnut
Mary Boykin Chesnut
Diarist Mary Boykin Chesnut (1823-1886) captured an intimate view of the political and personal struggles of the Confederate South during the Civil War. Her journal of the war years describes not only the difficulties of war, but also reveals her personal views on the similarities between the system of slavery and the position of women in the South.
The Civil War diaries of Mary Boykin Chesnut, a Southern woman from a well-to-do political family, provide an in-depth view of the attitudes and experiences of Southerners during the war between the states. After the war Chesnut recognized the literary and historic value of her observations and began to revise her diaries, but only one small excerpt was published during her lifetime. Following her death in 1886, heavily edited versions of her diary were released, and it was not until 1981 that a complete edition of her work appeared. Chesnut's writing is valued for its revealing personal anecdotes and candid opinions that reflect a strong support for women's rights and the abolition of slavery.
Chesnut was born Mary Boykin Miller on March 31, 1823, in Statesburg, South Carolina. She was the oldest child of Mary Boykin, the daughter of wealthy plantation owners, and Stephen Decatur Miller, a prominent politician who strongly supported states' rights. Her father was a South Carolina senator at the time of Chesnut's birth and had previously served as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. During her early years, Chesnut and her family lived on the plantation of her maternal grandparents near Camden, South Carolina. When her father was elected governor of the state in 1828, the Millers moved to the capital city of Columbia, returning to Camden when Stephen Miller won a U.S. Senate seat in 1830. By the time her father resigned from the Senate in 1833 due to health problems, Chesnut had begun attending a local school in Camden.
When she was 12, Chesnut was sent to Charleston, South Carolina, to attend Madame Talvande's French School for Young Ladies. There she completed her education with academic courses in literature, science, and history as well as instruction in music, singing, and dancing. In 1836, she met James Chesnut, Jr., a Princeton University graduate who had come to the school to visit his niece. James took an interest in the lively and intelligent girl, and over the following years he began to court her despite objections from Chesnut's family. The two were married on April 23, 1840, and at the age of 17, Chesnut settled with her husband at his family's plantation, Mulberry, outside Camden.
Supported South's Stand on States' Rights
Chesnut had a flair for society life and a passion for literature. She found Mulberry to be a stifling environment where it was difficult to indulge in these interests. In 1848, she and James built a house in the town of Camden where she was able to escape the tedium of the plantation. Her husband had begun a promising career in state politics, and by 1854 they were able to move to a larger and more impressive home—called Kamchatka—in Camden. With James's election to the U.S. Senate in 1858, the couple left for Washington, D.C., where Chesnut enjoyed a thriving social scene. She also took an interest in the divisive political arguments over states' rights that had continued to gain intensity in the national government. Chesnut supported the position that her father had promoted during his career and that her husband now championed. Even though neither she nor James believed in the institution of slavery, they did uphold the right of states to make their own decisions on such matters. The election of Abraham Lincoln, who opposed slavery, to the presidency in 1860 angered Southerners, and with the secession of Southern states from the Union, the threat of a civil war loomed over the nation. When on November 10, 1860, her husband became the first Southern senator to resign from his post, Chesnut realized that a critical period of history was unfolding.
In February of 1861, Chesnut began a diary that recorded the explosive happenings around her as well as her own thoughts about the issues, events, and people that she encountered during the years of the Civil War, from 1861 until 1865. Her writings also captured Chesnut's spirited personality and her intolerance for the indecisive and foolish. Following her husband on his various duties in the South at this time, Chesnut provides a first-hand view of the political world of the Confederacy. In the first part of 1861, she went to Montgomery, Alabama, where James participated in the Confederate Provisional Congress. They then traveled to Charleston, South Carolina, where James was part of negotiations over the departure of Northern troops from nearby Fort Sumter. When Southern forces opened fire on the fort in the first battle of the war, Chesnut joined others in town in viewing the skirmish from a rooftop.
Recorded Experiences of Civil War
The novelty of war was soon replaced by a horror at the realities: destruction of property, political confusion, poverty and hunger, and the tremendous number of wounded and dead. Chesnut recorded the stories she heard about various battles as well as her personal experiences, such as tending sick and wounded soldiers and mourning the loss of friends and acquaintances. She had strong criticism for the fearful and conservative decisions of Southern leaders, including her husband. Chesnut was frustrated by James's lack of interest in the bloody conflicts in nearby Virginia and his reluctance to ask for the diplomatic posts in Europe that he wanted. In her diary she complained about her lack of power as a woman in the South, stating that she wished she could be a man so she could be more active in the war effort. She even admitted the hope that Confederate president Jefferson Davis would name her, instead of her timid husband, to a post in Paris.
James Chesnut was promoted to the rank of colonel and named an aide to Jefferson Davis in 1862. He and his wife moved to the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, where they became close and loyal friends of Davis and his wife, Varina, whom Chesnut had known for many years. The pressures of his post in Richmond placed a great strain on James, however, and in 1864 he successfully arranged for a transfer to Columbia, South Carolina. There he attained the rank of brigadier general and organized reserve troops. By the beginning of 1865, Union troops under General Sherman had entered North Carolina and the defeat of the South appeared inevitable. Chesnut removed to Lincolnton, North Carolina, to wait out the war in safety.
With growing hopelessness she recorded the incoming news of the disintegration of the Confederate forces. In April of 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse, ending the Civil War. Chesnut returned to her home state, settling in the town of Chester. Her house there served as a temporary place of refuge for Varina Davis and her four children as they attempted to escape arrest by Union forces in the war's aftermath.
Revised Diary for Publication
The Chesnuts returned to Camden, where the Mulberry plantation had suffered extensive damage at the hands of the Union Army. With few resources, they worked to piece together a new life, struggling to overcome the heavy debt into which both Mulberry and the family's Sandy Hill plantation had fallen. Both properties were inherited by James at the death of his father in 1866, and he and his wife returned to some level of comfort when they were able to build a new home, Sarsfield, in Camden in 1873. It was then that Chesnut began to evaluate the extensive diaries that she had compiled during the war. She hoped to use the material as the basis for novels, but after an unsatisfactory attempt at fiction, she decided to prepare her diaries for publication in their original first-person format. While working to edit the material and polish the prose over the next few years, she published one story from her diary in the Charleston Weekly News and Courier as "The Arrest of a Spy." This was the only item that Chesnut published during her life.
In the late 1870s and early 1880s, Chesnut's work was interrupted by a series of ailments of her lungs and heart. Her husband and mother also fell into poor health and died within a week of each other in January of 1885. This experience left her depressed and reduced in fortunes, due to a clause in James's father's will that required the plantations to be passed on to a male heir. Because Chesnut had never had children, she found herself in her final years with only the Sarsfield home and a small income of 100 dollars a year, which she supplemented by selling eggs and butter. Despite her hardships, she continued to rework various portions of the diary until her death of a heart attack in Camden on November 22, 1886.
Diary Published after Death
Editions of Chesnut's diary appeared in the early 1900s under the title, A Diary from Dixie. Early editors of the work, however, took great liberties in removing material they thought inappropriate or unnecessary. But even these incomplete versions became extremely popular for their wealth of information about the difficulties of Southern life during the Civil War. The diary also revealed a strong support for the end of slavery among Southern women, whom Chesnut felt were also enduring a kind of enslavement by the traditional male-dominated society of the South. The author reveals a strong revulsion for the moral lapses that such a system tolerated, giving the example of her father-in-law's liaison with one of his slave women. Readers also appreciated Chesnut's intellectual bent and her references to a wide range of literary works, as well as her often humorous jabs at what she perceived as the ridiculous side of society. A 1981 edition entitled Mary Chesnut's Civil War provided for the first time the complete version of the diary that Chesnut had intended for readers, revealing the full depths of her valuable personal history of the Civil War South.
For more information see Chesnut, Mary Boykin, Mary Boykin's Civil War, edited by C. Vann Woodward, Yale University Press, 1981; Chesnut, Mary Boykin, The Private Mary Chesnut: The Unpublished Civil War Diaries, edited by C. Vann Woodward and Elisabeth Muhlenfeld, Oxford University Press, 1984; and Muhlenfeld, Elisabeth, Mary Boykin Chesnut: A Biography, Louisiana State University Press, 1981. □
Chesnut, Mary Boykin
Mary Boykin Chesnut kept a famous diary that captured the struggles people experienced during the American Civil War (1861–65; a war between the northern and southern states). Her journal of the war years gives readers an in-depth view of what life was like for Southerners, especially women, during the war.
Mary Boykin Chesnut was born Mary Boykin Miller on March 31, 1823, in Statesburg, South Carolina. She was the oldest child of Mary Boykin Miller, the daughter of wealthy owners of a plantation (a large farm or estate with resident workers or slaves). Her father was Stephen Decatur Miller, a prominent politician who strongly supported states' rights, the idea that individual U.S. states should have supreme powers over the national government to set their own policies, including the power to legalize slavery. He was a South Carolina senator at the time of Chesnut's birth and had previously served as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. During her early years, Chesnut and her family lived on her grandparents' plantation near Camden, South Carolina. When her father was elected governor of South Carolina in 1828, the Millers moved to the capital city of Columbia, returning to Camden when Stephen Miller won a U.S. Senate seat in 1830. By the time her father resigned from the Senate in 1833 due to health problems, Chesnut had begun attending a local school in Camden.
When Chesnut was twelve, she was sent to Charleston, South Carolina, to attend Madame Talvande's French School for Young Ladies. There she completed her education with classes in literature, science, and history, as well as instruction in music, singing, and dancing. In 1836 she met James Chesnut, Jr., a Princeton University graduate who had visited the school to see his niece. James took an interest in the lively and intelligent girl, and over the following years he began to show romantic interest in her, despite objections from the Chesnut family. Even though Mary's family took her away for a time to Mississippi, partly to avoid James Chesnut's attentions, she married James on April 23, 1840, at the age of seventeen. She settled with her husband at his family's plantation outside Camden.
When James Chesnut was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1858, the couple moved to Washington, D.C. There Mary Chesnut enjoyed the social scene and became interested in the intense political arguments over states' rights. Mary supported the position that her father had promoted during his career and that her husband now championed. Although neither she nor James believed in the institution of slavery, they did uphold the right of states to make their own decisions on such matters.
Abraham Lincoln's election to the presidency in 1860 angered Southerners, and with the secession (formal withdrawal) of Southern states from the United States, the threat of civil war loomed. On November 10, 1860, James Chesnut became the first Southern senator to resign from his post.
In February 1861 Mary began a diary that recorded the explosive happenings around her during the years of the Civil War. Following her husband on his duties in the South, she provides a firsthand view of the political world of the Confederacy (the name for the Southern states that had seceded and fought as a group). After the war's first battles, she soon began to write of the horrors of the war as well. She recorded the stories she heard about various battles as well as her personal experiences, including tending sick and wounded soldiers and mourning the loss of friends and acquaintances. She strongly criticized the decisions of Southern leaders, and she complained about her lack of power as a woman in the South.
As the war worsened for the South, defeat seemed impossible to avoid by the beginning of 1865. To avoid danger, Mary moved to North Carolina, where, with growing hopelessness, she recorded the news of the Confederate army's collapse. In April of 1865, Confederate general Robert E. Lee (1807–1870) surrendered in Appomattox, Virginia, ending the Civil War.
Publication of diary
After the war the Chesnuts returned to Camden. In 1873 Mary began to evaluate the extensive diaries that she had compiled during the war, and eventually she decided to publish them. While working to prepare and polish the material over the next few years, she published one story from her diary in the Charleston Weekly News and Courier. This was the only item that Mary published during her life.
In the late 1870s and early 1880s, Mary's work was interrupted by a series of illnesses affecting her lungs and heart. Both her husband and mother had died in January 1885, and she was left depressed and with a reduced income. She died of a heart attack in Camden on November 22, 1886.
After Mary's death, printed versions of her work appeared in the early 1900s. Although editors removed some material, even these incomplete versions became extremely popular for their wealth of information about the difficulties of Southern life during the Civil War. The diary also revealed her strong support for greater rights for Southern women, whom Mary felt were also enduring a kind of slavery in the traditional male-dominated society of the South. In 1981 a publication entitled Mary Chesnut's Civil War provided for the first time the complete version of her diary, revealing the full depths of Mary Chesnut's valuable personal history of the Civil War.
For More Information
Chesnut, Mary Boykin. A Diary from Dixie. Rev. ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980.
Decredico, Mary A. Mary Boykin Chesnut: A Confederate Woman's Life. Madison, WI: Madison House, 1996.
Muhlenfeld, Elisabeth. Mary Boykin Chesnut: A Biography. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981.
Chesnut, Mary Boykin
CHESNUT, MARY BOYKIN
(b. March 31, 1823; d. November 22, 1886) Author of an important Civil War diary.
Mary Boykin Chesnut penned one of the most significant Civil War diaries ever written. Born to a wealthy planter family in Statesburg, South Carolina, on March 31, 1823, Chesnut enjoyed all the advantages of privilege. Her father, Stephen Decatur Miller, was governor of South Carolina and a leading "nullifier," a states' rights advocate, in the 1820s, so she also received a formidable education in politics. Outgoing, vivacious, and mature beyond her seventeen years, she married James Chesnut, Jr., scion of another prominent South Carolina family, in 1840. Their marriage led them to the center of American and Confederate politics from 1840 until James's death in 1885. Mary Chesnut outlived her husband by one year, succumbing to heart disease on November 22, 1886.
Mary Boykin's marriage to James Chesnut had unanticipated consequences. James Chesnut rose through the ranks of South Carolina politics to become one of the state's most respected leaders. He was also the first U.S.
senator to resign his seat after the election of Abraham Lincoln in November 1860. Because of his status and prestige, the Palmetto State elected him to the Provisional Congress of the Confederate States of America. From there, he served in a number of official capacities and ultimately became a military aide to President Jefferson Davis. As a result, Mary Chesnut viewed the rise and fall of the Confederate nation from the vantage point of the highest social and political circles in Montgomery, Richmond, and Columbia.
From the beginning, Chesnut was a staunch defender of the Confederate cause. Despite championing secession and independence, however, the intelligent and ambitious Chesnut became disgusted with the caliber of politicians within the Confederate government. The antebellum elite that governed in Richmond was, to Chesnut, composed of "fossils" instead of "young & active spirits" who were required to lead the South to independence. One politician Chesnut did admire was President Jefferson Davis. He and his wife Varina became two of Chesnut's closest friends. Davis sought Chesnut out repeatedly to discuss the Southern cause. Hence she was a frequent visitor to their home and gained an intimate look at the tide of Confederate fortunes. Her diary entries reflect military reverses, include candid discussions of the nature and legitimacy of secession, detail political infighting, and chronicle the downward spiral of morale. Chesnut's accounts also portray the work many Southern women undertook in support of the cause and the very active social life she and members of the elite enjoyed even during the darkest days of the war.
Chesnut's diary also speaks openly about her opposition to slavery. In numerous passages, she railed against Northern abolitionists who invaded the region and sought to conquer the South. Yet Chesnut also assailed her countrymen for embracing an institution that she felt was morally wrong. For all her disgust, however, she, like all members of the Southern elite, was totally dependent on slavery. She might mention her loathing, but she did not rise in the morning, dress, or take a meal without the assistance of a slave.
In 1864 the Chesnuts returned to South Carolina. Here, Mary Chesnut would witness the final downfall of the plantation South. Forced to join the ranks of the refugees, she found herself in an unfamiliar position: she was dependent on strangers and was short of money. She struggled to stay ahead of the advancing Union armies, but with the news of General Robert E. Lee's surrender, Chesnut and her husband returned to their plantation traveling along Sherman's track. It was, as Chesnut recorded it, a journey marked by vistas of desolation.
Like so many Southerners, the Chesnuts lost everything in the aftermath of emancipation. With her former slave, she eked out a small income—$140 a year—with which she supported her husband and various relatives who returned to Camden, South Carolina, and the Mulberry plantation. She continued to revise and rewrite parts of her journals but died before they were finished. Happily, she entrusted them to a friend who saw to their eventual publication.
Mary Chesnut's life highlights the paradoxes of the Confederate experience and many Southerners' way of life. She championed liberty and scorned slavery, but her survival depended in every way on the institution. She contributed to the war effort, but never let those contributions intrude on her very active social life. Finally, she was forced to flee in the face of Sherman's juggernaut and experienced the very difficult life of a refugee. In her life and experiences, we can see a microcosm of the Confederate nation.
DeCredico, Mary A. Mary Boykin Chesnut: A Confederate Woman's Life. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1996.
Rable, George C. Civil Wars: Women and the Crisis of Southern Nationalism. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1991.
Mary A. DeCredico
See also:Sherman's March to the Sea.