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Mary Chesnut’s Civil War diary is one of the most insightful accounts of the war, as well as one of the most fascinating portrayals of life in the Confederacy. Often within the context of women’s issues, Chesnut blends fiction and memoir with an intellectual deftness that transforms simple personal recollection into conscientious literary anecdote. In her journal and its revisions, Chesnut creates a powerful literary work with enduring historical, political, and social implications.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Political Upbringing
Born March 31, 1823, in Stateburg, South Carolina, Mary Boykin Miller was the oldest of four children born to Mary Boykin and Stephen Decatur Miller. A lawyer and politician who served as a state senator, the governor of South Carolina, and a United States senator, Miller was a significant influence on his daughter’s political development.
Because her father’s various positions required the family to move often, Chesnut was educated at home before attending a day school in Camden, South Carolina, beginning in 1833. In 1835, Chesnut was enrolled in Madame Talvande’s French School for Young Ladies in Charleston, South Carolina, where she excelled in her general studies. Along with becoming fluent in French and learning to read German, Chesnut developed a love of literature and honed her skills as a witty conversationalist, a talent that would serve her well in political circles. During her time in Charleston, Chesnut met her future husband, James Chesnut, a Princeton graduate who was immediately attracted to her intelligence and energy.
After Chesnut married in April 1840, she and James moved to Mulberry Plantation, the Chesnut family estate, located three miles south of Camden, South Carolina. Quiet, provincial plantation life proved tiresome for Chesnut, a vivacious woman with literary interests and a need for interaction beyond the boundaries of the plantation. Her frustration increased when it became clear that she and her husband were unable to conceive children. In addition to feeling, as a diary entry reveals, that she had failed to fulfill her role as a wife, mother, and hostess, Chesnut had no outlet for her energy and creativity.
Politics and War
James became involved in state politics, and by 1854 the Chesnuts had moved to an elegant new home in Camden, a place well-suited to entertaining. When James was elected to the United States Senate in 1858, Chesnut accompanied him to Washington, D.C., enthusiastically entering the social scene there. Although the Chesnuts never defended slavery, James was a proponent of states’ rights, a platform that led to his resigning from the Senate in 1860 after the election of Abraham Lincoln. Fearing that Civil War was imminent, Chesnut began the diary that she would continue until the summer of1865.
Chesnut wrote her diary from many locations as she and her husband traveled throughout the South in support of the right of southern states to secede. In early 1861, Chesnut was in Montgomery, Alabama, while James attended the constitutional convention that formed the Confederacy. Next, she went to Charleston, where James was involved in negotiations over Fort Sumter. A witness to the first battle of the war in April 1861, Chesnut viewed the shelling of Fort Sumter from a rooftop. After the Battle of Manassas in July 1861, Chesnut visited the sick and wounded, facing, for the first time, the grim reality of her compatriots’ deaths.
Following an illness in 1862, Chesnut went to Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital, with her husband, who had attained the rank of colonel and was appointed as an aide to Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America. Chesnut’s diary reveals that her spirits improved as she renewed her acquaintance with Varina Davis, a friend of many years. Unfortunately, the longer the war went on, Chesnut could not always find paper, and she wrote part of her diary on the back of a recipe book and on whatever scraps of cheap paper she came across. When Union troops advanced on Richmond in 1863, Chesnut burned her papers and letters, including parts of her diary, because she feared her candid discussions about the condition of the Confederacy could be used to the North’s advantage.
After the War
At the end of the war, the Chesnuts, without resources, moved back to Camden. Northern forces had burned one hundred bales of cotton and dam aged mills and gins at Mulberry Plantation, making the years following the war financially difficult. With the death of James’s father in 1866, James inherited the Mulberry and Sandy Hill plantations, but the properties brought with them heavy debt. By 1868, Chesnut’s husband had returned to politics, and she had taken over the management of their business interests. Although still in debt, the Chesnuts, following a strict budget and selling family heir looms, were able to build a new house in Camden in 1873. There, Chesnut renewed her interest in her wartime diary. She attempted to write about her life and war experiences in three unpublished novels but eventually realized that a modified diary would best tell her story.
In 1875, Chesnut worked to revise her diary; however, her husband and another reader of the manuscript suggested that the content would be offensive to some influential people. Plagued by poor health, Chesnut put the diary aside until 1881. For the next three and a half years, she continued her revising—a process that included omissions, fictional additions, and stylistic improvements while retaining the form and immediacy of a diary. During this period, Chesnut published ”The Arrest of a Spy,” an expanded piece from her diary, in the Charleston Weekly News and Courier series entitled ”Our Women in the War.” She received ten dollars for the piece, her only published item during her lifetime.
Chesnut’s health began to decline, and she had little opportunity to continue working on her diary. In January 1885, James suffered a stroke and died in early February. Five days after his death, Chesnut’s mother died. These stresses added to Chesnut’s own deteriorating condition. Upon James’s death, the indebted family plantations, in accordance with his father’s will, were to pass to a male heir with the Chesnut name. Because she and James had no children, Chesnut was left with only her Camden home and an income slightly over one hundred dollars a year. By selling butter and eggs, she was able to earn an additional twelve dollars a month. Chesnut attempted another expansion of an excerpt from her diary, this time focusing on conditions in Richmond in 1864, but the piece was never published during her lifetime. A heart attack ended Chesnut’s life on November 22, 1886.
Works in Literary Context
Chesnut’s diary records her involvement in the war, her attitudes against slavery, and the limited role of women in society. No other civilian diary presents such a comprehensive insider’s view of the Civil War from a southern perspective. Without the diary and its revisions, Chesnut might have remained a mere social footnote to her husband’s career. With her diary, however, Chesnut has given generations a work of enduring literary significance, one that provides a clearer understanding of the Civil War and its tragic human consequences.
The writings of Mary Chesnut reveal that she, the wife of a southern senator who defended states’ rights and was the first to resign from the United States Senate, was an abolitionist who celebrated the end of slavery. Chesnut directly connected the structure of a slave society with the inferior political and social status of women. A married woman, she believed, was a slave, as was an unmarried woman who lived in her father’s house. The celebrated stereotype of southern women—their soft voices, genteel manners, and gracious accommodation of men—was evidence of their enslaved position. Her diary portrays a southern patriarchy—or society ruled by men—riddled with moral corruption, a reality plainly evident to Chesnut through the example of her father-in-law’s union with a slave woman. In her view, many southern women secretly favored the abolitionist cause in reaction to the corruptions of the patriarchal system.
Works in Critical Context
One problem for modern scholars is determining how much of the original diary Chesnut still possessed when she began revising it for publication. In all, about one hundred thousand words of the original diary have survived, but Chesnut may have had double that number when she rewrote the diary. This problem is difficult to resolve because Chesnut sometimes wrote diary entries on scraps of paper, and the revisions were also written on various kinds of paper and in notebooks. Not only did she burn some entries in 1863, but the entries for 1864 have also been lost, either by Chesnut or by her editors. Nevertheless, according to biographer Elisabeth Muhlenfeld, Chesnut’s diary is, ”Of all the books to come directly out of the Civil War, one of the most remarkable,” providing ”an important literary portrait of the Confederacy.”
The liberties taken by various editors altered Chesnut’s work, sometimes significantly, resulting in early editions that are faulty and incomplete, even though they have been praised for their candor. Chesnut left her manuscripts to longtime friend Isabella Martin, who, together with Myrta Lockett Avary, edited the revised version of the diary for publication by Apple-ton. Martin and Avary’s edition omits approximately one-third of the work and contains reworded passages and changed dates. Martin excluded or altered entries that she considered critical of the antebellum South or portrayed Chesnut as anything other than a ”Southern lady.” For example, where Chesnut included in her revised work an account from her original diary of slaves murdering one of her cousins, Martin changed the account to read that ”family troubles” killed Chesnut’s cousin. Serialized in The Saturday Evening Post from January 28 through February 22, 1905, the first edition of Chesnut’s diary was immediately successful and praised as an original document of the Civil War. Still, the persona, descriptions, characters, and dialogues that earned this early acclaim were not the spontaneous recordings of Chesnut but a painstakingly and consciously produced literary effort that had been shaped by editors.
A 1981 edition of Chestnut’s diary, edited by historian C. Vann Woodward and titled Mary Chestnut’s Civil War, won the 1982 Pulitzer Prize in History.
- Muhlenfeld, Elisabeth. Mary Boykin Chesnut: A Biography. Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State University Press, 1981.
- Flynn, James. ”Mary Chesnut’s Reconstruction: The Literary Imagination of a Diarist.” Kentucky Philological Association Bulletin (1983): 63-72.
- Hayhoe, George F. ”Mary Boykin Chesnut: The Making of a Reputation.” Mississippi Quarterly 35, no. 1 (1983): 60-72.
- Mentzer, Melissa A. ”Rewriting Herself: Mary Chesnut’s Narrative Strategies.” Connecticut Review 14 (Spring 1992): 49-55.
- Woodward, C. Vann. ”Mary Chesnut in Search of Her Genre.” Yale Review 72, no. 2 (1984): 199-209.
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