Mary Boykin Miller Chesnut (March 31, 1823 – November 22, 1886), better known as Mary Boykin Chesnut, was a South Carolina author noted for writing a sophisticated diary describing the American Civil War and her circles of Southern society. In 1981 it was republished under the title Mary Chesnut's Civil War and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1982.
As the daughter of a governor and senator from South Carolina and wife of senator and Confederate General James Chestnut, Jr., who was an aide to President Jefferson Davis, she knew intimately the Confederacy's political and military leaders. Because of her extensive travels with her husband she found herself at Montgomery when the new nation was founded, at Charleston when the war started, and at Richmond with President Davis and his inner circle.
Her diary showed her to be a well educated woman who was familiar with literary works, who spoke French fluently and who also worked daily in hospitals aiding the sick and wounded.
After the war she and her husband struggled to recoup their financial losses but never succeeded in reestablishing themselves as wealthy and powerful members of South Carolina society.
She was born Mary Boykin Miller on March 31, 1823, on her grandparents' plantation, near Statesburg, South Carolina. Her parents were Mary Boykin (1804–85) and Stephen Decatur Miller (1788–1838). When she was born her father was one of South Carolina's state senators. In 1828 he became the governor of South Carolina and in 1830 a U. S. Senator. Her father was also instrumental in the founding of the South Carolina State's Rights Party.
She was educated in Charleston at Mme. Ann Marsan Talvande's boarding school where she became fluent in French and studied history, rhetoric, the natural sciences and literature.
After several years of courtship, Mary Boykin Miller married James Chesnut, Jr. (1815 – 1885) at the age of 17 on April 23, 1840. He was a lawyer who had graduated from Princeton University in 1835 and a politician eight years her senior. He later became a U.S. Senator from South Carolina like her father. He served in the Senate from 1858 until South Carolina's secession from the Union in 1860. He was the first senator to resign his seat in the U.S. Senate before the war.
Once the Civil War broke out, James Chesnut, Jr. became an aide to President Jefferson Davis and a Brigadier general in the Confederate Army.
As described in depth in her diary, the Chesnuts had a wide circle of friends and acquaintances in the society of the South and the Confederacy. Among their friends were, Confederate general John Bell Hood, Confederate politician John Lawrence Manning, Confederate general and politician John S. Preston and his wife Caroline, Confederate general and politician Wade Hampton III, Confederate politician Clement C. Clay and his wife Virginia, and Confederate general and politician Louis T. Wigfall and his wife Charlotte. The Chesnuts were also intimate family friends of President Jefferson Davis and his wife Varina Howell.
Mary Chesnut took an active part in her husband’s career. The Chesnuts’ marriage was at times stormy due to differences in temperament. Nevertheless their companionship was mostly warm and affectionate. They had no children and her failure to bear children led to feelings of inadequacy because of her barrenness. Her feelings were clearly influenced by her inlaws, who had 13 children, her husband being their only surviving son.
Her husband proved to be quite devoted, though, deciding not to run for political office on a couple of occasions because of her health. On those occasions he took her to health resorts in Saratoga Springs, New York, Newport, Rhode Island and even on trips to Europe.
In 1858 when her husband James was elected to the United States Senate they moved to Washington, D.C. from their home in Camden. In November 1860 her husband resigned his seat when Abraham Lincoln was elected. They returned to Camden but James spent most of his time in Columbia where he became a delegate to the Secession Convention and helped draft the state's Ordinance of Secession.
She wrote of this event that she felt "a nervous dread & horror of this break with so great a power as U.S.A." Soon after the convention her husband was called to Montgomery, Alabama to participate in the formation of the Southern Confederacy. It was during this time that she decided to keep a journal.
Once war seemed imminent she wrote, "This southern Confederacy must be supported now by calm determination & cool brains. We have risked all, & we must play our best for the stake is life or death."
She next found herself in Charleston, S.C. where her husband reported for duty on General P. G. T. Beauregard's staff. There she witnessed the bombardment of Fort Sumter from a hotel roof. When she heard the cannon fire that launched the battle she said, "I sprang out of bed. And on my knees—prostrate—I prayed as I never prayed before."
From there her travels would take her back to Alabama, back and forth between Richmond and Columbia several times until ultimately in 1865 as General Sherman marched through Columbia and burned most of it to the ground she found herself a refugee in North Carolina. She went from privileged and wealthy to poor and dependent on others for food and shelter. After hearing the full reports of the damage Sherman inflicted on Columbia she wrote, "Oh my Heavenly Father look down & pity us."
Her acceptance that the Confederacy had lost led her to lament, "late in life we are to begin anew."
Following the war, the Chesnuts returned to Camden and worked unsuccessfully to extricate themselves from heavy debts. After a first abortive attempt in the 1870s to smooth the diaries into publishable form, Mary Chesnut tried her hand at fiction. She completed but never published three novels, then in the early 1880s expanded and extensively revised her diaries into the book now known as Mary Chesnut's Civil War (first published in truncated and poorly edited versions in 1905 and 1949 as A Diary From Dixie).
In 1885, her mother and her husband died within days of each other. Chesnut was left alone with only a house in Camden she called Sarsfield. Widowed and almost penniless she became dependent on her butter and egg business.
Mary Boykin Chesnut died in her own home in Camden, South Carolina in 1886 and was buried next to her husband in Knights Hill Cemetery in Camden, South Carolina.
After Mary's death, printed versions of her work appeared in the early 1900s. Censored versions of her diaries came out in 1905 and in 1949, under the title, Diary from Dixie. 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.
Mary Boykin Chesnut began her diary on February 18, 1861, and ended it on June 26, 1865. During much of that time she was an eyewitness to many historic events as she accompanied her husband on his travels.
In her diary she offered her impression of events as they unfolded during the Civil War, but she also edited it after the war for publication. She was very politically aware, and analyzed the changing fortunes of the South and its various classes. She also portrayed southern society and the mixed roles of men and women, including the complex situations related to slavery. Chesnut very boldly confronted the problem of white men fathering children with enslaved women in their own extended households.
She was conscious of trying to create a work of literature and described the people in penetrating and enlivening terms. She revised it in the 1870s and 1880s for publication, but kept its character of unfolding and surprising events. Literary scholars have called the Chesnut diary the "most important work by a Confederate author". Chesnut captured the growing difficulties of all classes of the Confederacy.
Because Chesnut had no children, before her death she gave her diary to her closest friend Isabella D. Martin and urged her to have it published. The diary was first published in 1905 as a heavily edited and abridged edition.
She wrote often about the evils of slavery and referred to it as the 'Ostrich game'. In different passages she proclaims "I hate slavery," her "soul is sickened" by it and she wonders "if it be a sin to think slavery a curse to any land."
She did not think highly of Harriet Beecher Stowe and other New England abolitionists like Horace Greeley, Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson writing they, "live in nice New England homes, clean, sweet-smelling, shut up in libraries, writing books which ease their hearts of their bitterness against us. What self-denial they do practice is to tell John Brown to come down here and cut our throats in Christ's name….
In one passage she wrote, "God forgive us, but ours is a monstrous system and wrong and iniquity. Perhaps the rest of the world is as bad—this only I see. Like the patriarchs of our old 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."
Mary reflected often in her diary on marriage. One entry, after 20 years of marriage, muses: "It is only in books that people fall in love with their wives…. After all, is it not as with any other copartnership, say traveling companions? Their future opinion of each other, 'the happiness of the association,' depends entirely on what they really are, not what they felt or thought about each other before they had any possible way of acquiring accurate information as to character, habits, etc. Love makes it worse.
"He then said he had stayed, and from his own conviction of duty and not from my persuasion. Which is the honest truth, but he cannot forbear the gratification of taunting me with his ruin, for which I am no more responsible than the man in the moon. But it is the habit of all men to fancy that in some inscrutable way their wives are the cause of all evil in their lives."
"One can never exaggerate the horrors of war on one's own soil. You understate the agony, strive as you will to speak, the agony of heart, mind, body. A few more men killed. A few more women weeping their eyes out, and nothing whatever decided by it more than we knew before the battle."
"Why do you hate republics? Because the mob rules republics. And the mob always prefers Barrabas to Jesus Christ. And yet people do love to be popular and to have the votes of the mob. One begins to understand the power which the ability to vote gives the meanest citizen."
Although unfinished at the time of her death Mary Chesnut's Civil War is generally acknowledged today as the finest literary work of the Confederacy.
In 1982, Mary Chesnut's Civil War, edited by American historian C. Vann Woodward, and published by Yale University Press, won a Pulitzer Prize.
Ken Burns used extensive readings from Chesnut's diary in his 1990 documentary television series, The Civil War, with Academy Award-nominated actress Julie Harris reading these sections.
In February 2000, the United States Department of the Interior announced that Mulberry Plantation, the house of James and Mary Boykin Chesnut in Camden, South Carolina, had been designated a National Historic Landmark, due to its importance to America's national heritage and literature. The plantation and its buildings are also representative of James and Mary Chesnut's elite social and political class.
The Chesnut Cottage was the home of General James and Mary Boykin Chesnut while they lived in Columbia, S.C. In October of 1864, the Chesnuts hosted President Jefferson Davis and his traveling party in their home. President Davis gave his last speech to the citizens of Columbia from the front porch of the Cottage. Original copies of the first publication in the Saturday Evening Post (five issues) and first editions of the English and American versions are on display at the Cottage.
Most of her original copybooks and notes survive and are located in the South Caroliniana Library at the University of South Carolina.
All links retrieved May 14, 2013.
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