Mary Chesnut’s Civil War
is a compilation of journals written by an aristocratic Southern woman during and after the American Civil War. Published in 1981, the volume includes a lengthy introduction by its editor, historian C. Vann Woodward, as well as annotations that clarify Chesnut’s references to people and books. A version of Chesnut’s Civil War chronicle first appeared in 1905. Titled Diary from Dixie
, this early publication was based on Chesnut’s 1880s revisions of her 1860s journals. Woodward’s book recovers her original wartime journals, which he supplements, when necessary, with material from the 1880s revisions.
Woodward’s Introduction is divided into four sections. The first and final sections address the various versions of Chestnut’s “diary” and Woodward’s “Editorial Problems and Policies.” The middle sections briefly profile Mary Chesnut’s life and her “heretical” views on slavery and women.
Chesnut was born in 1823 in South Carolina. After serving as governor of the state, Chesnut’s father became a U. S. senator; her mother’s family belonged to the wealthy class of plantation owners. Mary Chesnut (née Miller) attended Madame Talvande’s French School for Ladies in Charleston. This exclusive academy provided the daughters of affluent families with a strong education. Chesnut learned French and developed a passion for literature and writing. In 1833, Chesnut’s father left politics and purchased three plantations in Mississippi, along with hundreds of slaves. Chesnut preferred living in the city and only joined her family in Mississippi during school breaks.
At age seventeen, Mary Miller became Mary Chesnut after wedding James Chesnut, Jr., a lawyer and the son of a plantation owner. James Chesnut had political ambitions, and in 1858, was elected to represent South Carolina in the US Senate. He held this office until South Carolina seceded from the union in 1860.
By birth and by marriage, Mary Chesnut belonged to families of the planter elite, but she was a candid opponent of slavery. In letters to friends she referred to the institution as “a monstrous system” that “breeds hypocrisy.” Because she esteemed most traditions of the South, Chesnut considered slavery a blemish on an otherwise honorable and admirable culture. Her love for the South also meant she supported the decision to break from the North to form an independent confederacy. In addition to heretical abolitionist views, Chesnut also had feminist inclinations that take shape in her written criticisms of patriarchy and its oppression of women.
Following Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860, South Carolina declared secession, James Chesnut resigned from the national senate, and Mary Chesnut began to keep a journal. The Chesnuts were well established in South Carolina’s elite social and political circles, and much of the detail in the early journal writings centers on parties, marriages, and gossip about notable individuals of the day. Chesnut frequently refers to Confederate generals and politicians with whom she regularly socialized, including General John Bell Hood and the prominent secessionist John S. Preston.
Chesnut’s journal records her first-hand account of the firing on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. Her husband served in the South Carolina militia, and they had moved to a harbor-side hotel near his barracks. Antagonism between the South and the North had not yet erupted in war, but the Southern rebels had begun to evict Northern troops from Federal sites. On April 11, 1861, James Chesnut was one of three officers dispatched by boat to instruct the Union officer at Fort Sumter to evacuate his brigade or become cannon fodder.
The Union officer refused to comply with the evacuation order. Chesnut wrote, “At the heavy booming of cannon, I sprang out of bed” and raced to the hotel rooftop. As cannon fire burst over the dark harbor, she prayed, knowing her husband was out there, “rowing about in a boat.” Southern forces captured Fort Sumter, and James Chesnut survived his boat journey.
Following their military success in Charleston Harbor, Southerners grew confident they would quickly win independence from the North. Chesnut’s journal reads, “Charleston is crowded with soldiers, the new ones are running in. They fear the war will be over before they get sight of the fun.” Later that summer, after Confederate troops prevailed at the battle of Bull Run, Chesnut was in Richmond, Virginia and experienced the thrill of victory that energized the town. She particularly enjoyed the social opportunities in Richmond, where “life was one extended house-party and gossip-fest.”
James Chesnut became an aide to the Confederate’s new president, Jefferson Davis, but that did not prevent his wife from acknowledging the political disorganization of the Confederacy. Noting that Davis’s cabinet was rife with intrigue and infighting, she suggested that, with such internal conflict, the Confederate government might self-destruct. Indeed, Chesnut’s gnawing fears about the fate of the South were not unfounded.
The Union navy’s organized blockades around the South’s major ports were the beginning of the end of Chesnut’s aristocratic culture. Foreign imports of luxury items dwindled, prices increased, and high society women like Chesnut had to make do without the latest fashions. In 1862, Union forces seized control of New Orleans and its port, the largest in the South. With a note of despair, Chesnut wrote, “New Orleans gone – and with it the Confederacy?”
The Confederate military continued to lose ground against the North. On January 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. While Chesnut considered whites superior to blacks, she nevertheless abhorred slavery. After news of the Proclamation, she conceded that if anything could reconcile her to Southern defeat, “it is Mr. Lincoln’s proclamation freeing the Negroes.”
The materials that remain from Chesnut’s original journals suggest she wrote less frequently from 1863 to 1864. She became a hospital volunteer, tending to wounded soldiers; Woodward claims that such wartime demands explain the decline in regular journal entries. Moreover, Chesnut’s world was being “kicked to pieces.” Food and clothing were scarce, and the value of Confederate currency collapsed.
In late 1864, the city of Atlanta fell to General Sherman and his Union soldiers, and with it fell Southern hopes. Hearing of the destruction, Chesnut wrote, “They say no living thing is found in Sherman’s track, only chimney’s and telegraph poles.” The Confederacy conceded defeat in 1865. After the war, Chestnut stopped updating her journal.
Because of her privileged position in the social and political worlds of the Confederacy, Mary Chesnut was able to document in detail the passing of the old order in the South. Mary Chesnut’s Civil War
is widely respected as the definitive compilation of her writings. The book earned Woodward the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for History.