Chesnut, Mary Boykin (1823–1886)
Chesnut, Mary Boykin (1823–1886)
Southern intellectual, socialite, and candid diarist of the American Civil War. Born Mary Boykin Miller on March 31, 1823, in Statesburg, South Carolina; died of a heart attack on November 22, 1886, in Camden, South Carolina; eldest child of Stephen Decatur Miller (a governor, U.S. senator, and U.S. congressional representative) and Mary (Boykin) Miller; attended private schools in Camden and at Madame Talvande's School in Charleston, South Carolina, excelling in French, literature and history; married James Chesnut, Jr. (a U.S. senator from Camden, South Carolina), on June 23, 1840 (died 1885); no children.
Moved to Washington, D.C., when James Chesnut elected to U.S. Senate (1858); moved to Charleston after James resigned his office and departed to assist in the draft of South Carolina's Ordinance of Secession (1860); briefly resided in Montgomery, Alabama, for the Confederate Provisional Congress; began and kept a private diary, later to be published as A Diary From Dixie, written in Charleston, Camden, Columbia, Montgomery, and Richmond (1861–65); witnessed the attack on Fort Sumpter (April 12, 1861); observed the decline and collapse of the Confederate government in Richmond and took flight as a war refugee (1865); laboriously revised and re-revised wartime diaries for possible publication (1881–84).
Selected literary works:
Two Years of my Life (unpublished novel); The Bright Side of Richmond (unpublished short story); The Captain and the Colonel (unpublished novel); "The Arrest of a Spy" (short story, 1885); A Diary From Dixie (published posthumously, 1905).
Mary Boykin Chesnut was one of the most remarkable women of the Civil War era. Though she was well acquainted with many notables, she was not herself a celebrity. By the time of her death, few people in America knew her name. The publication, 19 years later, of a work based on her Civil War diaries has nonetheless made Mary Boykin Chesnut famous as the author of the most insightful view of the inner circle of Confederate society. Comparatively little is known of Chesnut except for the person depicted in the diaries. They reveal her, however, quite fully. According to Bell Irvin Wiley, "Mary Chesnut enjoys the distinction of being one of the most amply portrayed women in American history. This is because of the frankness and fullness of her journal."
It is the quality of her journals, rather than her deeds, which assures Mary Chesnut's place in history. The writer of these diaries was a woman of intelligence, wit, and charm. She recognized the historic importance of the events unfolding around her and resolved to keep a daily record of those momentous days. She possessed the rigorous mind, the skill at writing, and the necessary intimate contact with Southerners in power to make such an undertaking successful. Mary Boykin Chesnut was a woman of her times and lived a life that was characteristic of many antebellum Southern women of the privileged class, but the private Mary Chesnut was anything but typical. She possessed ideas and attitudes significantly unrepresentative of her gender, class, and region.
Mary Boykin Miller was the first child of Stephen Decatur Miller, a lawyer who had already served in the U.S. House of Representatives. At the time of her birth, he was a senator in the South Carolina Legislature. By Mary's fifth birthday, he had been elected governor of their state. The political atmosphere of her home life doubtless had a potent effect on Mary, who was quickly maturing into a young sophisticate who loved nothing better than reading speeches and engaging in rousing debate. Within eight years of her birth, three siblings (Stephen Decatur, Jr., 1825, Catherine, 1827, and Sarah Amelia, 1831) were added to the family. A powerful influence in Mary's youth was her maternal grandmother, Mary Whitaker Boykin , who undertook to teach Mary the art of plantation household management.
South Carolina law prevented Governor Miller from seeking a second term, so in 1830, he successfully campaigned for the U.S. Senate. He was a "firebreathing nullifier," a radical states' rights advocate whose politics reflected the mood of South Carolina at the time. His campaign slogan expressed the widespread hostility felt in South Carolina against the U.S. Congress: "Three ways to reform Congress; the ballot box, the jury box and the cartridge box!" Because of poor health, Miller resigned his seat in the Senate and returned home to Statesburg in 1833. In 1835, he sold his property and made preparations to move to Mississippi, where he owned plantations being managed by overseers. This was an unexpected change for one so successful in politics and so inexperienced as an agriculturalist. In all likelihood, the rising popularity of John C. Calhoun in South Carolina was pushing Miller out of the limelight. For whatever reason, Miller decided to try his hand at planting in the deep south.
Chesnut did not accompany the rest of her family at first. At age 12, she was enrolled at Madame Talvande's French School for Young Ladies in Charleston. There, she received the usual instruction deemed necessary for women of her position. Fortunately, she also gained a more serious academic background in history, rhetoric, natural science, German, and a mastery of French. In Charleston, Chesnut learned to love the city, an affection that would be abiding. As she grew older, her need for the bustle and stimulation of urban life, and her loathing of the boredom of quiet plantation life, developed into an illness. When residing in the country, chronic headaches invariably plagued her, but the symptoms would disappear upon arrival in Washington, Richmond, or Charleston. Her own words confirm that her illness was probably psychosomatic. "I am always ill. The name of my disease is longing to get away from here and go to Richmond." On another occasion she brooded, "We go home Monday … already I feel the dread stillness and torpor of our Sahara."
While in Charleston, 13-year-old Mary met and was courted by James Chesnut, Jr., the 21-year-old son of one of South Carolina's wealthiest families. James, of Mulberry Plantation near Camden, was a recent graduate of Princeton University and was in Charleston reading law in the office of James L. Petrigru. James became Mary's regular escort, accompanying her to dances, on strolls along the Battery, and to the theater, to see "whatever was worth seeing," she wrote, "and a good deal besides."
As her diary reveals, Mary came to detest slavery as an abominable social evil. Her first revulsion of bondage occurred when she came upon the captured Seminole chief Osceola being exhibited on the street. "They were like a monkey show," she recalled. "Osceola [had] the saddest face I ever saw. It seemed to me that my country had not dealt magnanimously with these aborigines of the soil."
In 1838, Mary's father died in Mississippi. After a brief sojourn there to assist her mother in settling the estate, she returned to Camden and became engaged to James. On June 23, 1840, the 17-year-old Mary married James, who was then 25. Although there is scant information about Chesnut during the next 20 years, it is known that life at Mulberry Plantation was not pleasant for her. Frustrated that she was not mistress of her own household, she lived in submission to her mother-in-law's close ordering of the home, feeling she had no specific role in the scheme of things. To make matters worse, Chesnut's inability to become pregnant increased her insecurity and unhappiness. She lamented that her mother-in-law, "was bragging to me with exquisite taste—me a childless wretch, of her twenty-seven grandchildren, and Col. Chesnut, a man who rarely wounds me, said to her, 'You have not been a useless woman in this world' because she had so many children. And what of me! God help me—no good have I done—to myself or anyone else—with the power I boast of so—the power to make myself loved. Where am I now. Where are my friends. I am allowed to have none."
There surely was never anyone like her—physically and intellectually so perfectly fearless—fearless of facts and fearless of the truth—never afraid where it would lead her or land her.
Outlets for Mary's creativity were few, and she was beset by recurring bouts of depression. She sublimated her despondency over her childlessness by occasionally "borrowing" one or more of her nieces or nephews for extended visits. Excursions to the city were fairly reliable therapy for Chesnut's depression, but they were not frequent. Like many women of her time, she took opium to help her cope with her problems. Her diary contains several references to its effect on her:
Yesterday on the cars we had a mad woman raving at being separated from her daughter. It excited me so, I quickly took opium and that I kept it up. It enables me to retain every particle of mind or sense or brains I ever have, and so quiets my nerves that I can calmly reason and take rational views of things otherwise maddening.
Mrs. Davis … sat with me and told me unutterable stories of the war—but I forget after so much opium. Mr. Chesnut … sat up and gave me such a scolding.
Came home disheartened and miserable … was so ill I had to take morphine to go down. I know I talked sad nonsense all the evening. I felt mad with suspense and anxiety and morphine!
From 1842 to 1852, James Chesnut served in the South Carolina legislature; he then served one term in the state senate, from 1854 to 1858. In 1858, he was elected to the U.S. Senate. Here, finally, Mary found an environment in which she could thrive. Unquestionably, Washington was her element. The love of things political, fostered in childhood, came to fruition, and Mary easily won friends among Washington's elite. Her natural wit and spirited conversation made her a focal point of many social gatherings, a role she relished.
She met virtually every political and military leader who would soon command the Confederacy. Among those, Jefferson and Varina Howell Davis became her closest friends. Mary defended Jefferson Davis against a multitude of critics and was his loyal supporter in the last dark days of the rebellion. She and Varina were especially close throughout their lives, except for a brief estrangement in 1861. The reasons for the rift were trivial, but Mary was angry enough to thoroughly castigate the Davises in her private journal. "We dined with the President," she wrote. "Mrs. Davis and himself are coarse talking people." A few days later, she added, "I think it provokes Mrs. Davis that men praise me so…. Mrs. Davis and Jeff Davis prove them selves anything but well bred by their talk." The conflict, however, was short-lived and soon the Chesnuts and Davises resumed cordial relations. Over 20 years later, in a letter to Varina, Mary said, "How I wish you could read over my journal. I have been two years overlooking it—copying—leaving myself out." Mary deleted a great deal more than herself, although she did strike out many of her more vainglorious statements. She also removed the critical comments about the Davises and quite a few others who were still living at the time.
By 1860, hostility between North and South had escalated. As a protest against the election of Abraham Lincoln, James resigned his seat in the Senate. The Chesnuts left Washington (Mary, reluctantly) and returned to South Carolina so that James could participate in the drafting of South Carolina's Ordinance of Secession. Then, in February of 1861, James and Mary traveled to Montgomery, Alabama, where the Confederate Provisional Congress organized a government and elected Jefferson Davis president. Realizing the historic significance of her times, Mary began keeping a journal on February 18, 1861, and made regular entries until June 26, 1865. Even though gaps exist in the extant manuscripts of Mary Boykin Chesnut's diary, it remains the most complete and forthright insider's view of the Confederacy. Chesnut's diary allows her a suitable format for her commentary on the events of the conflict. As well, it gives her ample opportunity to make personal evaluations of military commanders, political leaders, and their wives.
The diary was written in brief moments of privacy, whenever Chesnut could get away from the crowd of family and friends by whom she was usually surrounded. The journal was hastily scrawled upon whatever was available. The extant portions of Mary's diary are written on loose pieces of paper, pads, notebooks, and even a book bound with red leather. No one, not even her husband, was allowed to see it. This explains the remarkable candor with which Mary described people she encountered. At the time, Chesnut did not intend to publish, but when she finally decided to prepare it for the public in the 1880s, she deemed it necessary to revise substantially.
An example of Chesnut's redaction may be seen early in the diary, from her comments on the bombardment of Fort Sumpter. She was in Charleston on April 12, 1861, because James was involved in the negotiations between Confederate General Pierre Beauregard and Major Richard H. Anderson, who commanded the fort. Her original account said, "The live-long night I toss about—at half past four we hear the booming of the cannon. I start up, dress and rush to my sister's in misery. We go onto the housetop and see the shells bursting." By 1881, her actions as she recorded them, were more pious. "At half past four, I sprang out of bed and on my knees, prostrate I prayed as I never prayed before."
Although these references to fervent prayer were emendations, Chesnut's religious impulse was genuine. She was an essentially secular person who systematically read classic works of theological and devotional literature. Her religious reading regimen sprang from her desire to overcome feelings of resentment toward a number of relatives and acquaintances. On December 1, 1861, she wrote, "Went to church and made this resolution which only with God's help I can keep—not to be so bitter—not to abuse people and not to hate them so." Mary attended both Presbyterian and Episcopal churches but found that worship services at the church for slaves on Mulberry Plantation more closely approximated her conception of the true meaning of Christianity. She was keenly critical of the practice of advancing religious arguments to support political positions. She was especially opposed to mixing religion with war rhetoric.
One poor young man found dead with a shot through his heart had a Bible in his pocket in which was written: "Given to the defender of his country by the Bible Society." How dare men mix up the Bible so with their own bad passions.
Though Mary Boykin Chesnut was a loyal supporter of the Southern cause, she was not an uncritical one. Her keen powers of observation were more than matched by a willingness to face facts about Southern shortcomings. Her attitude about the South's peculiar institution is a case in point. Raised as a beneficiary of the slave system, Chesnut was an unlikely critic of slavery. The Boykins, the Millers, and the Chesnuts all held slaves, but they considered it a responsibility to treat them as humanely as possible, steadfastly refusing to use corporal punishment or allow families to be broken up. Mary's diary makes it plain that she loathed slavery, although an incongruity exists between these feelings and Chesnut's fondness for her affluent life, which was only possible because of slavery. On March 18, 1861, she wrote:
I wonder if it be a sin to think slavery a curse to any land. Sumner said not one word of this hated institution which is not true. Men and women are punished when their masters and mistresses are brutes and not when they do wrong…. God forgive us, but ours is a monstrous system and wrong and iniquity.
The single most important consideration in her condemnation of slavery was her conviction that it undermined the sexual morality of Southern men. She vented anger at the common practice of slave holders keeping mistresses among their female slaves.
This only I see: Like the patriarchs of old, our men live all in one house with their wives and their concubines, and the Mulattoes one sees in every family exactly resemble the white children—and every lady tells you who is the father of all the Mulatto children in everybody's household, but those in her own, she seems to think drop from the clouds or pretends so to think.
In another enlightening passage, Chesnut equates slavery with marriage. She was never reluctant to express antipathy to the monolithic authority of men in her society.
South Carolina slave holder as I am, my very soul is sickened—it is too dreadful. I tried to reason—this is not worse than the willing sale most women make of themselves in marriage—nor can the consequences be worse. The Bible authorizes marriage and slavery—poor women! Poor slaves!
She often groused at the double standard that so restricted the lives of women in her time.
I think these times make all women feel their humiliation in the affairs of the world. With men, it is on to the field—glory, honor, praise and power. Women can only stay at home…. Women are to be violated, rav ished and all manner of humiliation. How are the daughters of Eve punished.
At another time, she complained:
Dogmatic man rarely speaks at home but to find fault…. At every word the infatuated fool of a woman recoils as if she has received a slap in the face; and for dear life she begins to excuse herself for what is no fault of hers.
Not only did Chesnut think that slavery undermined morals, but she also believed that Southern principles of states' rights and high individualism undermined the war effort. Though loyal to Jefferson Davis, she was nonetheless outspoken in her criticism of many Confederate leaders, calling them quarrelsome and self-serving. She recognized that factionalism and dissension were rife in the government. Individual states looked to their own interests. Worse yet were the politicians and generals who sought to advance their own careers more than the common cause of the South. In her diary, in her parlor, and at her dining-room table, Mary Chesnut took to task scores of Southern luminaries:
One of the first things which depressed me was the kind of men put into office at this crisis. Invariably, some of the sleeping dead, head long forgotten or passed over, young and active spirits are ignored.
We are abusing one another as fiercely as ever we abused the yankees.
Every man in South Carolina was willing for a monarchy if he (himself) could be king—but not otherwise.
Oh, if I could put some of my reckless spirit into these discrete, cautious, lazy men.
Chesnut still considered Southerners, with all their flaws, as superior to Northerners, whom she judged to be self-righteous, hypocritical, materialistic, and power mad. She remained hopeful and supportive of the Confederacy even though she knew the odds against Southern victory grew slimmer every day. Acting out her patriotism, Chesnut made her contribution to the war effort by nursing wounded soldiers in the hospitals.
After General Robert E. Lee surrendered his army on April 9, 1865, it was only a short time before the complete collapse of the Confederacy, and the Chesnuts found themselves war refugees in flight before approaching federal troops. Mary continued her diary for a brief period after the war, terminating it in June of 1865, after the Chesnuts had returned to Camden. Even though James still owned property, he was otherwise nearly penniless and encumbered with an immense debt. Reconstruction was a harsh experience for former Confederates and their families. Mary's depression was deeper than it had been during the bleakest hours of war. "I write, myself now the wife of Damocles—for the sword seems suspended by a glittering hair—ready to fall and crush me," she lamented. "I could tear my hair and cry aloud for all that is past and gone." Eventually, her morale rebounded when she realized that for the first time in her life, it would be necessary for her to work to support her family. She began a small butter-and-egg business that supplemented what James earned through farming and legal fees.
In the 1870s, at the urging of friends who were already established writers, Chesnut began to consider the possibility of creating income through writing. After finding employment as a translator of French works into English, she soon determined to try her hand at fiction. First, she wrote a short novel based on her youth at Madame Talvande's school. Two Years of My Life, as she entitled it, was never submitted to a publisher. Chesnut's second attempt was a full-length novel of the Civil War to which she gave the title, The Captain and the Colonel. This work, semi-autobiographical like the first, was based on her Civil War diary. By 1875, she recognized that it was not nearly as interesting as the diary on which it was based. Another project abandoned. In 1883, Chesnut wrote a 3,000-word sketch entitled, "The Arrest of a Spy," which was published as part of a series, "Our Women in the War," in The Charleston Weekly News and Courier. For this essay, she was paid ten dollars.
Chesnut wanted to collect and publish her husband's papers, but friends advised her that her own recollections would be more interesting than those of "a dozen generals." It was Varina Howell Davis who most strongly encouraged Mary to publish a form of her wartime diary: "I think your diaries would sell better than any confederate history of a grave character. Between us, no one is so tired of confederate history as the confederates—they do not want to tell the truth or to hear it."
Chesnut wrote voluminously in the 1870s, but her health was in decline. She developed cardiac and respiratory problems that periodically drove her to bed. Between 1881 and 1884, she devoted herself to the task of revising, and revising again, her Civil War journal. Beyond simply deleting potentially embarrassing passages, she worked to make her prose as interesting as possible, since she believed that to be boring was the greatest sin of all. The book was essentially complete by 1884, although Chesnut had not yet written an introduction or a conclusion.
Serious blows were dealt Chesnut in 1885, which she called, "the black year of my life." The two persons dearest to her, her mother and husband, died in the month of February, only eight days apart. Her father-in-law, James Chesnut, Sr., had bequeathed his plantation to James, Jr., only for his lifetime. It was not his, then, to leave to Mary. Old Colonel Chesnut's will made it plain that at the time of his son's death, Mulberry would revert to a male heir who bore the name Chesnut. James Chesnut, Jr. did, however, leave Mary a large debt that brought her to virtual destitution. She wrote to her old friend, Varina Davis, a letter that unfortunately has not survived, but which evidently was a scorching denunciation of James Chesnut, Sr., and his troublesome will. Varina's reply was to the point:
The miseries that old men entail by their unbridled wills would be understood by mankind if the sex were reversed and women did it. The world would not hold the tirades that men would utter to condemn, or the books full of statutes which they would enact against us.
Mary's heart condition continued to worsen through 1885 and 1886. References to "my poor weak heart" are frequent in her final correspondence. In an 1886 letter to old friend Virginia Clay , she still has her sense of humor. Referring to an earthquake recently felt in Charleston, she exclaims, "Earthquakes for all and angina pectoris for me." On November 22, 1886, Mary Boykin Chesnut suffered a severe heart attack and died that day at the age of 63. She was buried next to James Chesnut, Jr., at Knights Hill in Camden, South Carolina.
Chesnut bequeathed her diaries to Isabella Martin , a South Carolina teacher with whom she had developed a cordial friendship. Eighteen years after Mary's death, Isabella Martin showed the journal to Myrta Lockett Avary , an experienced editor, and the two of them jointly edited the first edition of Chesnut's journal in 1904, which they entitled, A Diary From Dixie.
Chesnut, Mary Boykin. A Diary From Dixie. Edited by Isabella D. Martin and Myrta Lockett Avary. NY: Peter Smith, 1929.
——. A Diary From Dixie. Edited by Ben Ames Williams. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1949.
Muhlenfeld, Elizabeth. Mary Boykin Chesnut: A Biography. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981.
Wiley, Bell Irvin. Confederate Women. CT: Greenwood Press, 1975.
Woodward, C. Vann, and Elizabeth Muhlfeld. The Private Mary Chesnut: The Unpublished Civil War Diaries. NY: Oxford University Press, 1984.
Peter Harrison Branum , Ph.D. in Philosophy, Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama
"Chesnut, Mary Boykin (1823–1886)." Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 22, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/women/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/chesnut-mary-boykin-1823-1886
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