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April l2th. -Anderson will not capitulate. Yesterday's was the merriest, maddest dinner we have had yet. Men were audaciously wise and witty. We had an unspoken foreboding that it was to be our last pleasant meeting. Mr. Miles dined with us to-day. Mrs. Henry King rushed in saying, The news, I come for the latest news. All the men of the King family are on the Island," of which fact she seemed proud.
While she was here our peace negotiator, or envoy, came in-that is, Mr. Chesnut returned. His interview with Colonel Anderson had been deeply interesting, but -Mr. Chesnut was not inclined to be communicative. He wanted his dinner. He felt for Anderson and had telegraphed to President Davis for instructions-what answer to give Anderson, etc. He has now gone back to Fort Sumter with additional instructions. When they were about to leave the wharf A. H. Boykin sprang into the boat in great excitement. He thought himself ill-used, with a likelihood of fighting and he to be left behind!
I do not pretend to go to sleep. How can I? If Anderson does not accept terms at four, the orders are, he shall be fired upon. I count four, St Michael's bells chime out and I begin to hope. At half-past four the heavy booming of a- cannon. I sprang out of bed, and on my knees prostate I prayed as I never prayed before.
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 a shawl and went, too. It was to the housetop. The shells were bursting. In the dark I heard a man say," Waste of ammunition." I knew my husband was rowing about in a boat somewhere in that dark bay, and that the shells were roofing it over, bursting toward the fort. If Anderson was obstinate, Colonel Chestnut was to order the fort on one side to open fire. Certainly fire had begun. The regular roar of the cannon, there it was. And who could tell what each volley accomplished of death and destruction?
The women were wild there on the housetop. Prayers came from the women and imprecations from the men. And then a shell would light up the scene. Tonight they say the forces are to attempt to land. We watched up there, and everybody wondered that Fort Sumter did not fire a shot.
Today Miles and Manning, colonels now, aides to Beauregard, dined with us. The latter hoped I would keep the peace. I gave him only good words, for he was to be under fire all day and night, down in the bay carrying orders, etc.
Last night, or this morning truly, up on the housetop I was so weak and weary I sat down on something that looked like a black stool. "Get up, you foolish woman. Your dress is on fire," cried a man. And he put me out. I was on a chimney and the sparks had caught my clothes. Susan Preston and Mr. Venable then came up. But my fire had been extinguished before it burst out into a regular blaze.
Do you know, after all that noise and our tears and prayers, nobody has been hurt; sound and fury signifying nothing- a delusion and a snare.
Louisa Hamilton came here now. This is a sort of news center. Jack Hamilton, her handsome young husband, has all the credit of a famous battery, which is made of railroad iron. Petigru calls it the boomerang, because it throws the balls back the way they came; so Lou Hamilton tells us. During her first marriage, she had no children; hence the value of this lately achieved baby. To divert Loiusa from the glories of "the Battery " of which she raves, we asked if the baby could talk yet. " No, not exactly, but he imitated the big gun when he hears that. He claps his hands and cries ' Boom, boom.' " Her mind is distinctly occupied by three things: Lieutenant Hamilton, whom she calls " Randolph," the baby, and the big gun, and it refuses to hold more.
Pryor, of Virginia, spoke from the piazza of the Charles-ton hotel. I asked what he said. An irreverent woman replied: " Oh, they all say the same thing, but he made great play with that long hair of his, which he is always tossing aside!
Somebody came in just now and reported Colonel Chesnut asleep on the sofa in General Beauregard's room. After two such nights he must be so tired as to be able to sleep anywhere.
Just bade farewell to Langdon Cheves. He is forced to go home and leave this interesting place. Says lie feels like the man that was not killed at Thermopyl. I think he said that unfortunate had to hang himself when he got home for very shame. Maybe he fell on his sword, which was the strictly classic way of ending matters.
I do not wonder at Louisa Hamilton's baby; we hear nothing, can listen to nothing; boom, boom goes the cannon all the time. The nervous strain is awful, alone in this darkened room. " Richmond and Washington ablaze," say the papers-blazing with excitement. Why not? To us these last days' events seem frightfully great. We were all women on that iron balcony. Men are only seen at a distance now. Stark Means, marching under the piazza at the head of his regiment, held his cap in his hand all the time he was in sight. Means was leaning over and looking with tearful eyes, when an unknown creature asked, " Why did he take his hat off? " Mrs. Means stood straight up and said: " He did that in honor of his mother; he saw me." She is a proud mother, and at the same time most unhappy. Her lovely daughter Emma is dying in there, before her eyes, of consumption. At that moment I am sure Mrs. Means had a spasm of the heart; at least, she looked as I feel sometimes. She took my arm and we came in.
April 13th. -Nobody has been hurt after all. How gay we were last night. Reaction after the dread of all the slaughter we thought those dreadful cannon were making. Not even a battery the worse for wear. Fort Sumter has been on fire. Anderson has not yet silenced any of our guns. So the aides, still with swords and red sashes by way of uniform, tell us. But the sound of those guns makes regular meals impossible. None of us go to table. Tea-trays pervade the corridors going everywhere. Some of the anxious hearts lie on their beds and moan in solitary misery. Wigfall and I solace ourselves with tea in my room. These women have all a satisfying faith. " God is on our side," they say. When we are shut in Mrs. Wig-fall and I ask " Why? " " Of course, lie hates the Yankees, we are told. You'll think that well of Him."
Not by one word or look can we detect any change in the demeanor of these Negro servants. Lawrence sits at our door, sleepy and respectful, and profoundly indifferent. So are they all, but they carry it too far. You could not tell that they even heard the awful roar going on in the bay, though it has been dinning in their ears night and day. People talk before them as if they were chairs and tables. They make no sign. Are they totally stupid? or wiser than we are; silent and strong, biding their time?
So tea and toast came; also came Colonel Manning, red sash and sword, to announce that he had been under fire, and didn't mind it. He said gaily: " It is one of those things a fellow never knows how he will come out until he has been tried. Now I know I am a worthy descendant of my old Irish hero of an ancestor, who held the British officer before him as a shield in the Revolution, and backed out of danger gracefully." We talked of St. Valentine's eve, or the maid of Perth, and the drop of the white doe's blood that sometimes spoiled all.
The war-steamers are still there, outside the bar. And there are people who thought the Charleston bar "no good " to Charleston. The bar is the silent partner, or sleeping partner, and in this fray it is doing us yeoman service.
April 13th. -I did not know that one could live such days of excitement. Some one called: " Come out! There is a crowd coming." A mob it was, indeed, but it was headed by Colonels Chesnut and Manning. The crowd was shouting and showing these two as messengers of good news. They were escorted to Beauregard 's headquarters. Fort Sumter had surrendered! Those upon the housetops shouted to us " The fort is on fire." That had been the story once or twice before.
When we had calmed down, Colonel Chesnut, who had taken it all quietly enough, if anything more unruffled than usual in his serenity, told us how the surrender came about. Wigfall was with them on Morris Island when they saw the fire in the fort; he jumped in a little boat, and with his handkerchief as a white flag, rowed over. Wig-fall went in through a porthole. When Colonel Chesnut arrived shortly after, and was received at the regular entrance, Colonel Anderson told him he had need to pick his way warily, for the place was all mined. As far as I can make out the fort surrendered to Wigfall. But it is all confusion. Our flag is flying there. Fire-engines have been sent for to put out the fire. Everybody tells you half of something and then rushes off to tell something else or to hear the last news.
Mary Boykin Chesnut
Mary Miller was born in Pleasant Hill, South Carolina, on 31st March, 1823. The daughter of Stephen Miller, the governor of South Carolina, and Mary Boykin, Mary attended private schools in Camden and Charleston.
On 23rd April, 1840, Mary married James Chesnut, the owner of a large plantation in Mulberry, South Carolina. When Chesnut was elected to the Senate in 1858, Mary accompanied her husband to Washington.
On the outbreak of the American Civil War Chesnut joined the Confederate Army and became a military aide to General P. G. T. Beauregard. Promoted to the rank of general, Chesnut worked as an advisor to President Jefferson Davis. Mary always accompanied her husband during the war and spent time in Charleston, Montgomery, Columbia and Richmond.
Mary and James Chesnut
Chesnut was opposed to slavery but believed in the right of the Southern states to leave the Union. Between February, 1861 and July, 1865, Chesnut kept a 400,000 word diary of the conflict.
After the war Mary wrote three novels. However, none of these were published during her lifetime. Mary Boykin Chesnut died in Camden, South Carolina, on 22nd November, 1886. Her book, A Diary From Dixie, was not published until 1905.
Mary Boykin Chesnut
Mary Boykin Miller was born on March 31, 1823, on her grandparents’ plantation near Stateburg, South Carolina, in the High Hills of Santee. Her grandfather, Burwell Boykin, served as an officer in the Revolutionary War under Francis Marion and established one of the largest upcountry plantations in the state. Her father, Stephen Decatur Miller, served in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, and as governor of South Carolina.
Image: Mary Boykin Chesnut by Samuel Osgood, 1856
Mary grew up in the family’s modest country house in Stateburg called Plane Hill and attended school in Camden, South Carolina. When she was twelve years old, the family moved to Mississippi, but Mary stayed behind to continue her studies. She was enrolled in Madame Talvande’s French School for Young Ladies in Charleston, where she excelled in a course of study which stressed foreign language, history, rhetoric, literature and science – most unusual for the times.
She also acquired the grace and poise that made her popular at social gatherings, and the ideals that contributed to her intellectual independence. She formed lasting friendships with many other daughters of the planter elite, including her closest friend Mary Serena Chesnut Williams, a niece of James Chesnut, Jr.
James Chesnut, Jr.
James was born at Mulberry Plantation near Camden, South Carolina, January 18, 1815. The son of one of the state’s largest landholders, James had recently graduated from Princeton and was in Charleston studying law. He often dropped by to visit his niece at Madame Talvande’s and soon became enamored with classmate Mary Boykin Miller, who was only 13 years old.
Exaggerated rumors of Chesnut’s intentions prompted Stephen Miller to remove his daughter from the school in the fall of 1836 and bring her to Mississippi to join the rest of the family. The change from the cosmopolitan life of Charleston to the Mississippi frontier was drastic. Mary later viewed the Mississippi journey as an adventure that altered her attitudes toward Indians, slaves, and whites. She wrote in her diary that Mississippi was where, “I received…my first ideas that negroes were not a divine institution for our benefit—or we for theirs.”
Mary returned to Madame Talvande’s school in the fall of 1837, but following the death of her father in March 1838, she accompanied her mother back to Mississippi to settle financial affairs there. During the months required to reconcile the estate, James Chesnut wrote often and sent presents of books to help Mary pass the time.
Despite stiff competition from other suitors, Chesnut convinced Mary to marry him upon her return to South Carolina in March 1839. The wedding, however, was delayed indefinitely when James accompanied his older brother, John, to Europe to consult with physicians there about John’s failing health. The trip proved unsuccessful and John died in December 1839, leaving James the only surviving male heir to the Chesnut fortune.
Marriage and Family
On April 23, 1840, Mary Boykin Miller married James Chesnut, Jr., a member of another great plantation family. He was a lawyer and politician eight years her senior. The couple had no children, and were free to travel widely.
James Chesnut took his 17-year-old bride to live at Mulberry, the plantation home of the Chesnuts, located three miles south of Camden. Life at Mulberry was gracious, staid, and, from Mary’s point of view, tedious. The couple shared the large, Federal-style home with James’ parents, James Chesnut II and Mary Cox Chesnut, and his two sisters, Sarah and Emma, eleven and ten years her senior, respectively.
Accustomed since childhood to being the center of attention, Mary’s situation at Mulberry produced intense anxiety and frustration. She often felt inadequate and childish under what she perceived as the reproachful watch of her in-laws.
James Chesnut, Sr. was one of the wealthiest planters in the South, who owned 448 slaves and many large plantations. Despite the fact that James, Jr. was the only son, little of that property was in his name. Since his father only gave James a small allowance, he had to live mainly on his law practice.
Mary spent much of her time at Mulberry reading her way through the Chesnut library, one of the finest private collections in the South at that time. Her tastes in books ranged from the works of prominent European philosophers to what would have been considered by many of her contemporaries as decadent novels. Reading was her primary means of escape and sharpened her powers of observation.
Other activities included visiting or entertaining her many relatives in the area and helping Mary Cox Chesnut in small ways to manage the plantation staff. The stagnation of plantation life, however, took a toll on Mary’s psyche and may have contributed to her frequent bouts of illness.
In 1845, she became seriously ill with what she termed gastric fever, one of the recurring maladies that plagued her throughout her adult life. Concerned for her health, James decided to take Mary on a trip to the fashionable resorts of Saratoga and Newport in hopes that a change of scenery would lift her spirits and thereby improve her health.
Almost as soon as she and James had boarded the ship in Charleston for the voyage north, Mary began to show signs of recovering. She enjoyed the bustling activity of the northern cities, and after visiting for a month at the resorts, the couple decided to travel to Europe. Upon their return to Mulberry, Mary resolved to make such trips to the north as often as possible.
She and James also decided that they should have a home of their own closer to the Camden town center. In 1848, they moved into Frogden, a relatively modest wood frame house that still stands at 101 Union Street. Six years later, they built a larger and more elegant home called Kamschatka, after the remote Siberian peninsula by that name. It remains one of Camden’s finest antebellum residences.
James Chesnut in Politics
James’ political career began in 1840 when he was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives. He served four terms there, from 1840 to 1846 and from 1850 to 1852. In 1852, he was elected to the South Carolina Senate and served as its president from 1856 to 1858.
He gained a reputation as a solid, though an uninspiring orator and became an acknowledged leader of the conservative wing of the states’ rights movement. His popularity as a politician stemmed from his cool and reserved demeanor. His election to the U.S. Senate in 1858 was considered a victory for the moderates over the fire-eaters.
Mary actively participated in James’ career. She took pride in his position and helped with his correspondence and speeches, though she often disagreed with his conservative views. Her own political views, she admitted in a letter to James while he was serving as a South Carolina representative to the Nashville Convention to discuss the Wilmot Proviso of 1850, were “heterodox.”
Though a daughter of a framer of the positive good position on slavery and wife to the son of one of the largest slave owners in South Carolina, Mary was against slavery. She felt deep compassion for the plight of slaves, and believed that gradual emancipation was the correct solution to the problem.
At the same time, however, she was an avowed fire-eater on the question of states’ rights, despised northern abolitionists for their moral judgments against southern society and supported South Carolina’s secession from the Union.
After James’ election to the U.S. Senate in 1858, the Chesnuts sold Kamschatka and moved to Washington, DC. She naturally gravitated to a social circle that contained the wives of many of the South’s most influential politicians. Among her closest friends were the wives of Senators Louis T. Wigfall of Texas and Clement Clay of Alabama. She also formed a close relationship with Varina Davis, Jefferson Davis’ wife. Mary made regular appearances at balls, dinners, and teas and gained a reputation among both men and women as a charming hostess and excellent conversationalist.
Image: James and Mary Boykin Chesnut
As a young couple
The Civil War
Mary was on her way home from a two-week visit to her sister’s home in Florida in November 1860, when she learned that Abraham Lincoln had been elected president, and James had resigned from the U.S. Senate on November 10, 1860. Having grown accustomed to the excitement of Washington, DC, Mary had mixed feelings about leaving the city to return to South Carolina. Of James’ decision to resign Mary wrote, “I thought him right – but going back to Mulberry to live was indeed offering up my life on the altar of the country.”
James Chesnut was intimately involved in the formation of the Confederacy and served in a variety of high-level posts. Immediately after resigning from the Senate, he went to Columbia to assist in the organization of the South Carolina Secession Convention. He was a delegate to the convention when it convened in mid-December in Charleston, and served as a member of the committee charged with drafting the Ordinance of Secession. When the Confederacy formed a provisional Congress at Montgomery, Alabama, early the next year, Chesnut helped draft the nation’s permanent constitution.
Mary Boykin Chesnut’s Diary
The diary Mary Boykin Chesnut began in February 1861 was a way to record the events of her life during a period that she knew would alter the course of history. She was very politically aware, and analyzed the changing fortunes of the South through the war years. She also portrayed Southern society and the mixed roles of men and women.
In April 1861, during the siege of Fort Sumter, James Chesnut served as an aide to General P.G.T. Beauregard and rowed at night across Charleston Harbor to relay evacuation orders to Major Robert Anderson of the occupying Union force. After Anderson declined to surrender, Chesnut gave orders to nearby Fort Johnson to open fire on Fort Sumter, and the first shots of the Civil War were fired, on April 12, 1861. Mary’s diary tells of her excitement at sitting on the roof of a house in Charleston watching the bombardment of Fort Sumter.
In the summer of 1861 Chesnut also took part in the Battle of First Bull Run as an aide-de-camp to Beauregard. He then served a similar position for CSA President Jefferson Davis’ staff.
Mary accompanied James to his various posts throughout the war, acted as his administrative aide, and hosted or attended an endless round of social gatherings. Mary also made frequent trips to relatives and friends, sewed shirts for soldiers and sewed sandbags for coastal defense, and raised supplies for Richmond hospitals.
During the war, Mary came in contact with nearly all of the Confederacy’s most influential leaders. Charming, outgoing, intelligent, and inquisitive, she had a unique ability to extract first-hand, often sensitive, information from a litany of political and military leaders that she came into contact with on an almost daily basis through the many social gatherings she hosted or attended.
In her diary, Mary wrote historically valuable portraits of close friends such as Jefferson and Varina Davis, the Lees, Louis T. Wigfall, C. Clement Clay, the Prestons, Stephen R. Mallory, Robert M.T. Hunter, and Generals John Bell Hood, Wade Hampton and Joseph E. Johnston. She described people in penetrating and enlivening terms, and captured the growing difficulties of all classes in the Confederacy.
Throughout the war, Mulberry was Mary’s primary residence, though James’ duties required extended trips to Richmond and Columbia. While it was relatively isolated in thousands of acres of plantation and woodland, they entertained many visitors.
The following passage is one of her most vivid descriptions of Mulberry and her life there during the early years of the conflict:
My sleeping apartment is large and airy–has windows opening on the lawn east and south in those deep window seats, idly looking out, I spend much time. A part of the yard which was a deer park once has the appearance of the primeval forest–the forest trees having been unmolested… are now of immense size.
In the spring the air is laden with opopanaz, violets, jasmine, crab apple blossoms, roses. Araby the blest never was sweeter perfume. And yet there hangs here as in every Southern landscape the saddest pall. There are browsing on the lawn, when Kentucky bluegrass flourishing, Devon cows and sheep, horses, mares and colts. It helps to enliven it.
Then carriages are coming up to the door and driving away incessantly…I take this somnolent life coolly. I could sleep upon bare boards if I could once more be amidst the stir and excitement of a live world. These people have grown accustom to dullness. They were born and bred in it. They like it as well as anything else.
In 1864 James Chesnut received a commission as a brigadier general and commanded the South Carolina reserves until the end of the war. He was assigned to the relative safety of Chester, South Carolina, and Mary joined him there.
The End is Near
In the fall of 1864, General William Tecumseh Sherman began his famous March to the Sea. After Sherman made Georgia “howl”, he plowed his way through the heart of South Carolina. He was met with little resistance. Mary Chesnut wrote of the fear he and his troops struck in their hearts. By this time Confederate money was worth next to nothing. Mary was forced to sell her old clothes to buy food for survival.
Near the end of the war, Mary began to view Mulberry in a different light. The place and its occupants symbolized the gentile society of the old guard planter elite, which she often criticized but could not help but feel nostalgia for on the eve of its demise. Leaving Mulberry in December 1864, she wrote, “Took a last fond farewell of Mulberry – once so hated, now so beloved.”
Mary was at Chester when the news of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox arrived. As had been commonplace throughout the war, a number of prominent people in the Confederate hierarchy – including John Bell Hood, Clement Clay, and Varina Davis and her children – came to the Chester house, for discussion and comfort.
“Night and day,” she wrote, “this landing and these steps are crowded with the Elite of the Confederacy – going and coming – and when night comes… more beds are made on the floor of the landing place… The whole house is a bivouac.”
After the war ended, Mary and James returned to Mulberry, which had been damaged by a Union raiding party. War had ravaged their holdings and freed their slaves. A diary entry for the first week of May 1865 reads, “In crossing the Wateree [River] at Chesnut’s Ferry, we had not a cent to pay the ferry man – silver being required.”
The Chesnuts went from great prosperity to desolation in the short span of five years. James’ father died at the age of 90 in 1866, leaving Mulberry and extensive debts to James, who spent his time trying to get the plantation back in order and again assumed a prominent role in local and state politics.
Though bitterly upset by the shattered society around her and often suffering bouts of depression and illness, Mary ran the household and started a small dairy business with an outlet in Charleston that for some time was the only family income. Mary wrote: “The first solid half dollar [we earned was] for butter… John C. and my husband laughed at my peddling – and borrowed the money.”
James worried about Mary’s future. Should he die before her, she would be left with nothing Mulberry would belong to the direct Chesnut descendants. So in 1872, James and Mary began building a simpler home in Camden, which they named Sarsfield. Because materials were expensive and scarce, James had the separate kitchen building behind Mulberry razed, and the bricks used to erect the new house. The house was built with considerable input from Mary, and featured a comfortable library with a bay window that overlooked the grounds, which was originally more than 50 acres.
Paring Down the Diary
In the early 1870s while still living at Mulberry, Mary began to think seriously about revising her diary for publication. After moving to Sarsfield, she began writing in earnest, but switched her attention from the diary to writing fiction. She wrote two novels simultaneously during the years between 1872 and 1876. One was autobiographical, centering on her experiences in Mississippi, and named Two Years of My Life. The other was a war novel called The Captain and the Colonel.
Realizing that the material she collected during the Civil War offered a much more interesting story than the fiction she was attempting to write, Chesnut abandoned the novels in 1875 and began the arduous process of paring down the diary, which in its raw form filled numerous notebooks of varying size and amounted to more than 400,000 words.
Mary Chesnut kept the diary of her wartime experiences between February 18, 1861 and June 26, 1865. With the exception of a very hectic period in 1863 and early 1864, she was faithful to her resolution to keep a record of the times. Seven volumes of her original journal survive, though it is known that at least five additional volumes existed. The passages in them are often cryptic references to people and events, written hastily between social gatherings, frequent trips, and bouts of illness.
In its original form, the diary was an uneven, sometimes cryptic, collection of passages written in a free-flowing stream of consciousness during brief lulls in an extremely hectic schedule. Kept under lock and key, it contained Mary’s most private thoughts and was clearly intended for her eyes only. It was peppered with frank, often critical remarks about Southern leaders, people within her social circle, and even her friends and family.
By the spring of 1876, Mary had made the initial edit of the years between 1861 and 1864, and then abruptly stopped work. Despite her efforts to be succinct, her first version of the revised diary would have amounted to well over two thousand pages. It is possible that she stopped work on the diary because she felt that the material was still too controversial to publish.
The sensitivity of some issues Mary addressed in her diary – her opposition to slavery and her ideas about the place of women in a male dominated society – could be considered heretical. She was forthright about complex situations related to slavery, particularly the problem of white men fathering children with enslaved women in their own extended households. Such revelations, should they have become public during the Civil War or its immediate aftermath, would have caused great harm to her social standing.
By 1880 Mary began to have problems with her lungs and heart, and at times was forced to stop editing her diary. She also watched her mother and James fall into bad health in the early part of the decade.
In the early 1880s, despite failing health that often confined her to her bed, Mary resumed the process of editing her diary. It is not known exactly how many of the original journals she had in front of her when she compiled the work that ultimately was published as her diary. Portions of the original journal that survive today span from February 18, 1861 through December 8, 1861, January through February 1865, and May 7 through June of 1865.
There were undoubtably other volumes, though there were probably several extended periods during the busy years of 1863 and 1864 where she made few, if any, entries. To fill those gaps when revising her journal, she used newspaper clippings, correspondence that she had saved, and her memory to recreate events and conversations.
Her intention was to eliminate all of what she deemed trivial and personal and to provide a solid historical accounting of her experiences. She took many liberties with the original material, sometimes omitting important elements and substituting new passages in their place. Events that occupied two sentences in the original journal were often expanded to occupy several pages of text.
James Chesnut died in February 1885. Their relationship, which Mary admitted in her journal had been strained at times, had, through many shared experiences of happiness and tragedy, grown into one of deep mutual understanding and love.
After James’ death, Mary was left with a struggling dairy farm and a strong desire to complete her memoirs. Grief stricken, she became intensely depressed, and fell ill again. She found life extremely difficult without her husband’s companionship. She lived the last twenty months of her life at Sarsfield her annual income was a paltry sum of 100 dollars.
She managed to find the strength, however, to continue writing. In the end, she condensed her diary down from 400,000 words to 150,000 words, deleting the more personal passages. She realized her records would “at some future day afford facts about these times and prove useful to more important people than I.”
Though the final version was much more polished and showed Mary’s desire to create a readable piece of literature, the basic form of the book followed that of the original diary. Conscious from the start of the historical importance of the moment, she took pains to paint a complete and accurate picture of the rise and fall of the Confederacy.
Through her travels and a certain amount of luck, she was an eyewitness to many important events during the war. As she put it in her diary in the latter stages of the war, “It was a way I had, always to stumble in upon the real show.”
The resulting work is an understated masterpiece of Southern literature. The practice that she had in her earlier attempts at fiction served her well when rewriting the journal. She had become accomplished at characterization and dialogue, and used several different narration techniques, alternating between the first and third persons. Literary scholars have called the Chesnut diary the most important work by a Confederate author.
Mary Boykin Chesnut died of a heart attack at Sarsfield on November 22, 1886, at the age of 63. Mary and James are buried side by side in the Chesnut family plot at Knights Hill Cemetery in Camden.
Some months before her death, Mary gave her diary to her closest friend, Isabella D. Martin, and urged her to have it published. It was not until nearly 20 years later, however, that a New York journalist, Myrta Lockett Avary, stumbled upon the work and convinced Martin to co-edit and publish it.
Mary Chesnut’s writing was finally published in 1905 as A Diary from Dixie, edited by Isabella D. Martin and Myrta Lockett Avary. Though the editing was sloppy and heavy-handed, the genius of Chesnut’s writing shone through, and the work was a popular success.
In 1949, another version edited by novelist Ben Ames Williams, also named A Diary from Dixie, was published. Though it included more material than the previous publication and was annotated to identify the people and places, it fell far short of conveying the full breadth and import of Chesnut’s work.
The 1981 version of the diary, Mary Chesnut’s Civil War, was edited by prominent historian C. Vann Woodward and is considered the most reliable edition. This edition combines the diary and the memoir – what Mary actually recorded during the war and what she wrote twenty years later. It won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1982.
Woodward summed up the significance of the diary in the following passage:
The importance of Mary Chesnut’s work…lies not in autobiography, fortuitous self-revelations, or opportunities for editorial detective work. She is remembered only for the vivid picture she left of a society in the throes of its life-and-death struggle, its moment of high drama in world history…The enduring value of the work, crude and unfinished as it is, lies in the life and reality with which it endows people and events and with which it evokes the chaos and complexity of a society at war. Her cast of characters includes slaves and brown half brothers, poor whites and sandhillers, overseers and drivers, common soldiers and solid yeomen, as well as the very top elite of state, military, and society that thronged her drawing room and saw her daily. She brings to life the historic crisis of her age with the literary techniques she learned in the meantime…
In 1984, Woodward and Elisabeth Muhlenfeld published the original journals on which the larger work was based as The Private Mary Chesnut: The Original Civil War Journals.
When the National Portrait Gallery devoted a gallery to the Civil War in the mid-1980s, Mary Boykin Chesnut held center stage – the only woman in the room – surrounded by Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee. In a very flattering portrait by Samuel Osgood, Chesnut stood alone among all those powerful men.
In 1990, Ken Burns used extensive readings from Chesnut’s diary in his award-winning documentary television series, The Civil War. Academy Award-nominated actress Julie Harris read these sections.
In 2000, Mulberry Plantation was designated a National Historic Landmark, the highest honor for a site, due to its importance to America’s national heritage and literature. The plantation was where Mary Boykin Chesnut resided when she wrote most of her diary. The plantation and its buildings are representative of James and Mary Chesnut’s elite social and political class.
The U.S. Post Office honored her with a stamp in their Civil War series, along with only two other women, nurses Clara Barton and Phoebe Pember. In 2001, CSPAN’s American Writers Series included four writers to represent the Civil War era: Abraham Lincoln, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Frederick Douglass and Mary Chesnut.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: My maiden name is Boykin, and I was born in North Carolina. When I did some rudimentary research about my family’s history several years ago, I recall seeing the name Burwell Boykin, who was Mary Boykin Chesnut’s grandfather. If I didn’t insist on writing all these blogs :), I might have time to find out more about my ancestors.
Mary Boykin Chesnut
Mary Boykin Chesnut was a plantation owner who became known for the diary she kept during the Civil War. Mary Boykin Chesnut was born near Camden, South Carolina, the daughter of Mary and Stephen Miller, a plantation owner and politician. Until 1835, her family lived at Mount Pleasant, a plantation owned by her paternal grandparents. She learned the business of running a plantation from her grandmother, and claimed that she did not know her grandparents' workers were slaves until she was nine years old.
When Mary was thirteen, she began a courtship with James Chesnut, from a nearby plantation. The courtship resulted in marriage in 1840, and the couple moved to Mulberry, the Chesnut family plantation near Camden. They lived with James's grandparents, his parents and his two sisters. With so many women on the plantation, Chesnut had little to do. She filled her days with reading and entertainment. She also taught the slaves how to read and write, something she had begun as a child at Mount Pleasant.
James served in the United States Senate, but resigned in 1860 when Lincoln became president. Chesnut and her husband remained active in politics, ardent supporters of Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy. James became an aide to Jefferson Davis, while Mary and Varina Davis became lifelong friends. While her husband supported the war through his political activities, Mary remained at home, sewing shirts for soldiers and providing provisions to local hospitals. When the war ended, Mary and James returned to Mulberry, deeply in debt and near bankruptcy. With the help of their former slaves, now paid farmhands, they were able to rebuild the plantation and became prosperous once again.
It was toward the end of her life that Mary decided to publish the diary she had kept throughout the Civil War. She carefully edited it for publication, so historians question the strong anti-slavery sentiments prevalent throughout the diary. Published in 1905, the diary includes tales of mistreatment of slaves, including instances of slaves being shot out of fear they would join the Union and attack their masters. Chesnut also claimed to dislike slavery because it was unprofitable, and because she believed slaves were "dirty Africans." Unfortunately, it is hard to know if she really believed what she wrote, or if she changed it for later readers who, after the Civil War, likely were not Confederate sympathizers.
During the Secession Winter of 1860-1861, one of the most respected ladies of Charleston, S.C., put pen to paper, beginning a remarkable diary of immense sophistication and insight into the political and societal realities of upper-class life in the South. The diarist, Mary Boykin Chesnut, was the wife of James Chesnut, a U.S. senator until South Carolina had seceded who went on to a brigadier generalcy in the Confederate Army and a position as a personal aide to Jefferson Davis.
Mary Boykin Miller was born on March 31, 1823, the daughter of Stephen Decatur Miller, an eminent Palmetto State politician recently returned from a term in the U.S. House of Representatives who would go on to serve as governor and in the U.S. Senate. Befitting her family’s station, young Mary was educated at Mme. Talvande’s French School for Young Ladies, becoming fluent in French and German. In April 1840, she married Chesnut, eight years her senior and the scion of another prominent South Carolina political family.
The Chesnuts had no children, so upon Mary’s death in 1886, the diary passed to her closest friend, Isabella D. Martin, who received the family’s blessing to seek publication. The first edition of the diary, although heavily abridged and edited, was printed in 1905 as A Diary from Dixie, with a fuller version released in 1949. A new, fully annotated edition, edited by C. Vann Woodward, won the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for history. Chesnut and her diary gained even greater fame with the release of Ken Burn’s documentary, The Civil War, which included numerous quotations from the book read by Academy Award-nominated actress Julie Harris.
Who was Mary Boykin Miller?
Mary Boykin Miller was born March 31, 1823 in the High Hills of Santee, South Carolina. At the age of 17 she married James Chesnut, a prominent lawyer and politician who was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1858, and went on to serve the Confederacy as an aide to Jefferson Davis and as a brigadier general. The Chesnuts moved in the very highest circles of Southern society.
Mary was a South Carolina author noted for a book published as her Civil War diary, a “vivid picture of a society in the throes of its life-and-death struggle.” She described the war from within her upper-class circles of Southern planter society, but encompassed all classes in her book.
Chesnut worked toward a final form of her book in 1881-1884, based on her extensive diary written during the war years. It was published after her death in 1905. C. Vann Woodward annotated edition of the diary, Mary Chesnut’s Civil War (1981), won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1982.
The following is an excerpt from Mary’s diary entries while she was at the First Battle at Fort Sumter from April 11th, 1861 to April 13th, 1861.
April 12th. Anderson will not capitulate. Yesterday’s was the merriest, maddest dinner we have had yet. Men were audaciously wise and witty. We had an unspoken foreboding that it was to be our last pleasant meeting. Mr. Miles dined with us to-day. Mrs. Henry King rushed in saying, “The news, I come for the latest news. All the men of the King family are on the Island,” of which fact she seemed proud.
While she was here our peace negotiator, or envoy, came in – that is, Mr. Chesnut returned. His interview with Colonel Anderson had been deeply interesting, but Mr. Chesnut was not inclined to be communicative. He wanted his dinner. He felt for Anderson and had telegraphed to President Davis for instructions – what answer to give Anderson, etc. He has now gone back to Fort Sumter with additional instructions. When they were about to leave the wharf A. H. Boykin sprang into the boat in great excitement. He thought himself ill-used, with a likelihood of fighting and he to be left behind!
I do not pretend to go to sleep. How can I? If Anderson does not accept terms at four, the orders are, he shall be fired upon. I count four, St. Michael’s bells chime out and I begin to hope. At half-past four the heavy booming of a cannon. I sprang out of bed, and on my knees prostrate I prayed as I never prayed before.
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 a shawl and went, too. It was to the housetop. The shells were bursting. In the dark I heard a man say, “Waste of ammunition.” I knew my husband was rowing about in a boat somewhere in that dark bay, and that the shells were roofing it over, bursting toward the fort. If Anderson was obstinate, Colonel Chesnut was to order the fort on one side to open fire. Certainly fire had begun. The regular roar of the cannon, there it was. And who could tell what each volley accomplished of death and destruction?
The women were wild there on the housetop. Prayers came from the women and imprecations from the men. And then a shell would light up the scene. To-night they say the forces are to attempt to land. We watched up there, and everybody wondered that Fort Sumter did not fire a shot.
To-day Miles and Manning, colonels now, aides to Beauregard, dined with us. The latter hoped I would keep the peace. I gave him only good words, for he was to be under fire all day and night, down in the bay carrying orders, etc.
Last night, or this morning truly, up on the housetop I was so weak and weary I sat down on something that looked like a black stool. “Get up, you foolish woman. Your dress is on fire,” cried a man. And he put me out. I was on a chimney and the sparks had caught my clothes. Susan Preston and Mr. Venable then came up. But my fire had been extinguished before it burst out into a regular blaze.
Do you know, after all that noise and our tears and prayers, nobody has been hurt sound and fury signifying nothing – a delusion and a snare.
Louisa Hamilton came here now. This is a sort of news center. Jack Hamilton, her handsome young husband, has all the credit of a famous battery, which is made of railroad iron. Mr. Petigru calls it the boomerang, because it throws the balls back the way they came so Lou Hamilton tells us. During her first marriage, she had no children hence the value of this lately achieved baby. To divert Louisa from the glories of “the Battery,” of which she raves, we asked if the baby could talk yet. “No, not exactly, but he imitates the big gun when he hears that. He claps his hands and cries ‘Boom, boom.’ ” Her mind is distinctly occupied by three things: Lieutenant Hamilton, whom she calls “Randolph,” the baby, and the big gun, and it refuses to hold more.
Pryor, of Virginia, spoke from the piazza of the Charleston hotel. I asked what he said. An irreverent woman replied: “Oh, they all say the same thing, but he made great play with that long hair of his, which he is always tossing aside!”
Somebody came in just now and reported Colonel Chesnut asleep on the sofa in General Beauregard’s room. After two such nights he must be so tired as to be able to sleep anywhere.
Just bade farewell to Langdon Cheves. He is forced to go home and leave this interesting place. Says he feels like the man that was not killed at Thermopylae. I think he said that unfortunate had to hang himself when he got home for very shame. Maybe he fell on his sword, which was the strictly classic way of ending matters.
I do not wonder at Louisa Hamilton’s baby we hear nothing, can listen to nothing boom, boom goes the cannon all the time. The nervous strain is awful, alone in this darkened room. “Richmond and Washington ablaze,” say the papers – blazing with excitement. Why not? To us these last days’ events seem frightfully great. We were all women on that iron balcony. Men are only seen at a distance now. Stark Means, marching under the piazza at the head of his regiment, held his cap in his hand all the time he was in sight. Mrs. Means was leaning over and looking with tearful eyes, when an unknown creature asked, “Why did he take his hat off?” Mrs. Means stood straight up and said: “He did that in honor of his mother he saw me.” She is a proud mother, and at the same time most unhappy. Her lovely daughter Emma is dying in there, before her eyes, of consumption. At that moment I am sure Mrs. Means had a spasm of the heart at least, she looked as I feel sometimes. She took my arm and we came in.
April 13th. Nobody has been hurt after all. How gay we were last night. Reaction after the dread of all the slaughter we thought those dreadful cannon were making. Not even a battery the worse for wear. Fort Sumter has been on fire. Anderson has not yet silenced any of our guns. So the aides, still with swords and red sashes by way of uniform, tell us. But the sound of those guns makes regular meals impossible. None of us go to table. Tea-trays pervade the corridors going everywhere. Some of the anxious hearts lie on their beds and moan in solitary misery. Mrs. Wigfall and I solace ourselves with tea in my room. These women have all a satisfying faith. “God is on our side,” they say. When we are shut in Mrs. Wigfall and I ask “Why?” “Of course, He hates the Yankees, we are told. You’ll think that well of Him.”
Not by one word or look can we detect any change in the demeanor of these negro servants. Lawrence sits at our door, sleepy and respectful, and profoundly indifferent. So are they all, but they carry it too far. You could not tell that they even heard the awful roar going on in the bay, though it has been dinning in their ears night and day. People talk before them as if they were chairs and tables. They make no sign. Are they stolidly stupid? or wiser than we are silent and strong, biding their time?
So tea and toast came also came Colonel Manning, red sash and sword, to announce that he had been under fire, and didn’t mind it. He said gaily: “It is one of those things a fellow never knows how he will come out until he has been tried. Now I know I am a worthy descendant of my old Irish hero of an ancestor, who held the British officer before him as a shield in the Revolution, and backed out of danger gracefully.” We talked of St. Valentine’s eve, or the maid of Perth, and the drop of the white doe’s blood that sometimes spoiled all.
The war-steamers are still there, outside the bar. And there are people who thought the Charleston bar “no good” to Charleston. The bar is the silent partner, or sleeping partner, and in this fray it is doing us yeoman service.
April 15th. I did not know that one could live such days of excitement. Some one called: “Come out! There is a crowd coming.” A mob it was, indeed, but it was headed by Colonels Chesnut and Manning. The crowd was shouting and showing these two as messengers of good news. They were escorted to Beauregard’s headquarters. Fort Sumter had surrendered! Those upon the housetops shouted to us “The fort is on fire.” That had been the story once or twice before.
When we had calmed down, Colonel Chesnut, who had taken it all quietly enough, if anything more unruffled than usual in his serenity, told us how the surrender came about. Wigfall was with them on Morris Island when they saw the fire in the fort he jumped in a little boat, and with his handkerchief as a white flag, rowed over. Wigfall went in through a porthole. When Colonel Chesnut arrived shortly after, and was received at the regular entrance, Colonel Anderson told him he had need to pick his way warily, for the place was all mined. As far as I can make out the fort surrendered to Wigfall. But it is all confusion. Our flag is flying there. Fire-engines have been sent for to put out the fire. Everybody tells you half of something and then rushes off to tell something else or to hear the last news.
In the afternoon, Mrs. Preston, Mrs. Joe Heyward, and I drove around the Battery. We were in an open carriage.
What a changed scene – the very liveliest crowd I think I ever saw, everybody talking at once. All glasses were still turned on the grim old fort.
Russell,the correspondent of the London Times, was there. They took him everywhere. One man got out Thackeray to converse with him on equal terms. Poor Russell was awfully bored, they say. He only wanted to see the fort and to get news suitable to make up into an interesting article. Thackeray had become stale over the water.
Mrs. Frank Hampton and I went to see the camp of the Richland troops. South Carolina College had volunteered to a boy. Professor Venable (the mathematical), intends to raise a company from among them for the war, a permanent company. This is a grand frolic no more for the students, at least. Even the staid and severe of aspect, Clingman, is here. He says Virginia and North Carolina are arming to come to our rescue, for now the North will swoop down on us. Of that we may be sure. We have burned our ships. We are obliged to go on now. He calls us a poor, little, hot-blooded, headlong, rash, and troublesome sister State. General McQueen is in a rage because we are to send troops to Virginia.
Preston Hampton is in all the flush of his youth and beauty, six feet in stature and after all only in his teens he appeared in fine clothes and lemon-colored kid gloves to grace the scene. The camp in a fit of horse-play seized him and rubbed him in the mud. He fought manfully, but took it all naturally as a good joke.
Mrs. Frank Hampton knows already what civil war means. Her brother was in the New York Seventh Regiment, so roughly received in Baltimore. Frank will be in the opposite camp.
Good stories there may be and to spare for Russell, the man of the London Times, who has come over here to find out our weakness and our strength and to tell all the rest of the world about us.
Birth of Mary Chesnut
Author Mary Boykin Chesnut was born on March 31, 1823, near Stateburg, South Carolina. She kept a detailed diary of the Civil War from her perspective, and the resulting book had been labeled a masterpiece and a work of art.
Mary was the oldest of four children born to Stephen Decatur Miller. As the daughter of a South Carolina governor and US senator, she was immersed in politics from childhood. She attended a French school for young ladies and her family spent some time on a farm in Mississippi.
US #2343 – Mary’s father and husband were prevalent in South Carolina politics, giving her a front row seat to major events in the state.
At age 17, Mary married James Chestnut Jr. The only surviving son of one of the largest landowners in the state, he was elected to the US Senate in 1858 – a position he resigned from when Abraham Lincoln was elected president. He then returned south as a delegate to the Confederate Provisional Congress, and later served as personal aide to Jefferson Davis.
US #2975f – Chesnut’s husband was a personal aid to Jefferson Davis.
With her husband working as an aide to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Mary played a role in her husband’s career. They hosted regular events, which were important to build political connections. Mary was a popular hostess, and her hotel quarters in Montgomery soon became a fashionable salon where the elite of the new Confederacy came to socialize and exchange information.
Aware of the magnitude of the events unfolding around her, Mary began keeping a diary on February 18, 1861. She stated at the start, “The journal is intended to be entirely objective. My subjective days are over.” She was present at several historic moments from the meeting of the Provisional Congress of the Confederate States of America to witnessing the first shots of the war.
US #1178 – Chesnut’s diary includes a detailed account of the battle of Fort Sumter.
Everything Mary saw and heard she candidly recorded, from political rumors and firsthand reports of battles, to wartime romances, parties, and funerals. Her writing explored the conditions of the different social classes in the South during the war, covering slavery, the treatment of women, and more. After the war she converted her diary into a novel, though she didn’t finish it in her lifetime. She also wrote three other full novels that she never published. Mary died on November 22, 1886.
US #998 – Mary’s book is considered one of the most important works from the Confederacy during the war.
Excerpts from her journals appeared in The Saturday Evening Post under the title “A Diary from Dixie,” and later several heavily revised editions were also published. Finally in 1981, with the publication of Mary Chestnut’s Civil War, her journals appeared as she had originally written them, giving us one of the finest firsthand accounts of the Confederacy. This 1981 edition earned a Pulitzer Prize. The popular Ken Burns television series, The Civil War, included several readings from her diary.
US #2975o – Fleetwood First Day Cover
One modern review of her book stated that “The very rhythm of her opening pages at once puts us under the spell of a writer who is not merely jotting down her days but establishing, as a novelist does, an atmosphere, an emotional tone… Starting out with situations or relationships of which she cannot know the outcome, she takes advantage of the actual turn of events to develop them and round them out as if she were molding a novel.”
Chesnut, Mary Boykin Miller
No other southern writer of her era possessed the combination of literary cultivation, psychological perception, opportunity to observe closely the upper echelons of the Confederacy, and a willingness to write candidly about people, events, and issues—including slavery.
Diarist. Chesnut was born on her father&rsquos plantation near Stateburg in Sumter District on March 31, 1823. She is recognized as &ldquothe preeminent writer of the Confederacy&rdquo because of the diary she kept during the Civil War and revised for publication in the early 1880s. No other southern writer of her era possessed the combination of literary cultivation, psychological perception, opportunity to observe closely the upper echelons of the Confederacy, and a willingness to write candidly about people, events, and issues&ndashincluding slavery. The resulting publication, much revised and more appropriately labeled a memoir, secured her place in southern literary history. Chesnut was the eldest child of Stephen Decatur Miller and Mary Boykin. Her father, a leader in the states&rsquo rights campaign, was elected governor in 1828 and U.S. senator in 1830. Thus, she grew up in a political environment. She received as good an education as could be provided a southern girl of her day, first at home and then at Madame Talvande&rsquos French School for Young Ladies in Charleston, where she acquired all of the intellectual and social equipment needed to flourish in her milieu. Her father&rsquos death in 1838 ended her carefree childhood, and she soon accepted a marriage proposal from James Chesnut, Jr., whom she had met in Charleston. They were married on April 23, 1840 she was barely seventeen.
Her new home, Mulberry, the baronial Chesnut plantation just south of Camden, was dominated by her parents-in-law, who would live twenty-five more years. Childless, Mary found little satisfaction and suffered bouts of depression and illness in this unfulfilling setting. She regarded her father-in-law, James Chesnut, Sr., as a tyrant and was appalled at the liberties he took with his female slaves. Although the couple moved to their own house in Camden in 1848, it was not until her husband&rsquos election to the U.S. Senate in 1858 that she found a society that suited her gifts and her zest for life. In Washington she flourished as a charming literary lady and valuable asset to her husband, attracting the admiration of several prominent men and arousing her husband&rsquos jealousy. Among her intimate friends was Varina Davis, wife of the senator and future Confederate president Jefferson Davis. When the secession of South Carolina ended this idyllic life after only two years, Chesnut quickly became an ardent southern patriot.
Chesnut began keeping a diary in February 1861, confessing regret that she had not done so earlier. James&rsquos prominent role in the new Confederacy carried her to the centers of action and allowed her to witness and record her impressions of those dramatic times. She was in Montgomery, Alabama, while the provisional Confederate government was being formed, in Charleston for the bombardment of Fort Sumter, and in Richmond when the new government moved to its permanent capitol. All the while she recorded her perceptive observations of people and events, and the frustrations of a spirited woman in a world of men, many of whom she considered too &ldquodiscrete, cautious, lazy for the roles they were playing.&rdquo The couple returned to South Carolina in 1862 as James became chairman of the state&rsquos Executive Council. James, urged on by Mary, accepted a post as aide to President Davis in December, and again in Richmond she experienced and wrote about the highs and lows of war. The death of her mother-in-law in 1864 brought them home again to care for his father, now ninety-three and blind.
In early 1865 Union forces ravaged Mulberry and the Chesnuts took refuge in North Carolina and then in Chester, South Carolina. After the war James inherited his father&rsquos property but also large debts. A butter-and-egg business provided the little cash they had for some time, but they grew closer as a couple. Since her father-in- law&rsquos will left his property to his son and, on James&rsquos death (he died in 1885), to his grandsons, Chesnut found security only in the new Camden home built for her in the early 1870s. There she completed the revisions and extensions of her war diary by the mid-1880s. However, before it was published, Mary Chesnut died of a heart attack on November 22, 1886. She was buried next to her husband in Knight&rsquos Hill Cemetery in Camden. Mary Chesnut was posthumously inducted into the South Carolina Academy of Authors in 1987.
DeCredico, Mary A. Mary Boykin Chesnut: A Confederate Woman&rsquos Life. Madison, Wis.: Madison House, 1996.
Muhlenfeld, Elisabeth. Mary Boykin Chesnut: A Biography. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981.
Woodward, C. Vann, ed. Mary Chesnut&rsquos Civil War. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1981.
Woodward, C. Vann, and Elisabeth Muhlenfeld, eds. The Private Mary Chesnut: The Unpublished Civil War Diaries. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.
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.
Discover the Diaries of Mary Chesnut
South Carolina's most famous diarist, Mary Boykin Chesnut, told the story of the Civil War from Lincoln's election to the end at the Appomattox Court House in Virginia. She had a unique vantage point at the top of the political and social ladder. She dined with governors and ex-governors, and she knew Jefferson Davis, his wife and all the key players in the Confederacy. Her husband was negotiating with the US soldiers who held Fort Sumter the night the shelling started.
"I do not pretend to sleep. How can I? If Anderson does not accept terms at four, the orders are, he shall be fired upon," Chesnut wrote on April 12, 1861, from her home in Charleston. "I count four, St. Michael's bells chime out and I begin to hope. At half-past four the heavy booming of a cannon. I sprang out of bed, and on my knees prostrate began to pray as I never prayed before."
Her account, which she edited for years in an attempt to get it published, was not published until after her death in 1886. It was given the name "Diary from Dixie" when it was serialized in the Saturday Evening Post in the early 1900s. Chesnut's original diary is kept at the University of South Carolina's South Caroliniana Library, the oldest freestanding college library in the US, along with photos and other papers from the family.
Born Mary Boykin Miller in 1823, she spent much of her life near Camden. Her father was a US congressman and governor of South Carolina.
Miller was just 17 years old when she married James Chesnut Jr., who was elected to the US Senate in 1858. The couple spent fewer than two years in Washington, leaving upon Lincoln's election in November 1860. That December, South Carolina voted to secede from the United States, and her husband became a brigadier general in the Confederate army. He was an aide to Davis, who gave his last speech in Columbia from the steps of the Chesnuts' home, which is now a bed-and-breakfast in downtown Columbia.