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.
Further Reading on Mary Boykin Chesnut
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.