HISTORY: Civil war diarist Mary Boykin Chesnut

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S.C. Encyclopedia  |  Mary Boykin Miller Chesnut was born on her father’s plantation near Stateburg in Sumter District on March 31, 1823. She is recognized as “the preeminent writer of the Confederacy” 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—including slavery. The resulting publication, much revised and more appropriately labeled a memoir, secured her place in southern literary history.

Chesnut

Chesnut was the eldest child of Stephen Decatur Miller and Mary Boykin. Her father, a leader in the states’ 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’s 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’s 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’s 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’s 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’s 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 “discrete, cautious, lazy for the roles they were playing.” The couple returned to South Carolina in 1862 as James became chairman of the state’s 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’s 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’s will left his property to his son and, on James’s 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’s Hill Cemetery in Camden.

— Excerpted from an entry by James O. Farmer Jr.  This entry hasn’t been updated since 2006.  To read more about this or 2,000 other entries about South Carolina, check out The South Carolina Encyclopedia, published in 2006 by USC Press. (Information used by permission.) 

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