Without the intercession of Ken Burns and his Civil War mini-series, we may never have known about Mary Boykin Chesnut and “A Diary from Dixie”. Mrs. Chesnut gives us a view of the Confederacy at the very highest levels. She opens a window into the inner workings of the Confederate government and events that surrounded it with an eyewitness account of its rise and fall.
Born Mary Boykin Miller was born in 1823 on her maternal grandparents’ plantation, Mount Pleasant, near Stateburg, South Carolina, in the High Hills of Santee. Her father was Stephen Decatur Miller who served as a U.S. Representative, Governor of South Carolina and U.S. Senator. He was a well-known advocate of nullification and Mary Chesnut pointed out that she was the proud daughter of a South Carolina nullifier.
At the age of 17, Mary married James Chesnut Jr. in 1840. At first, they lived on his father’s plantation, Mulberry, near Camden, South Carolina. James Chesnut Sr., known as the old Colonel, had extensive holdings in both land and slaves. In 1849, he was said to hold about five square miles of land and have about 500 slaves.
In 1858, James Chesnut Jr. who was an established politician and lawyer, was elected U.S. Senator. He served in this position until South Carolina seceded from the Union in December 1860.
Chesnut participated in the South Carolina secession convention in December 1860 and was subsequently elected to the Provisional Congress of the Confederate States of America. He was a member of the committee which drafted the Constitution of the Confederacy. Once the Civil War broke out, Chesnut became an aide to President Jefferson Davis and was commissioned a brigadier general in the Confederate Army. Chesnut was the officer who took the surrender demand to Major Robert Anderson at Fort Sumter.
Mary Chesnut began her diary on February 17, 1861 and ended it on June 26, 1865. In it she documented many of the major events in the life of the Confederate States. The Chesnuts had a wide circle of friends and acquaintances in the upper society of the South and government of the Confederacy.
Among them were, for example, Confederate general John Bell Hood, politician John L. Manning, general and politician John S. Preston and his wife Caroline, general and politician Wade Hampton III, politician Clement C. Clay and his wife Virginia, and general and politician Louis T. Wigfall and his wife Charlotte (also known as Louise). The Chesnuts were also family friends of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his wife Varina Howell.
Mary Chesnut was in Montgomery, Alabama during the founding Congress of the Confederacy and the election of Jefferson Davis as its President. The Chesnuts returned to Charleston where her husband was an aide to General P.G.T. Beauregard. She was an eyewitness to the opening act of the war, the firing on Fort Sumter. She spent the war between Charleston, her family’s plantation and Richmond.
Mary Chesnut was present in Richmond at the close of the war. In fact, she was in the same church as Jefferson Davis when he received Robert E. Lee’s message that his lines were broken in three places and he was withdrawing from the city.Her description of Davis’ reaction was that his face turned as white as milk.
Mary Chesnut was fully aware of the events that she witnessed. The diary was filled with the cycle of changing fortunes of the South during the Civil War. Although she edited her diary in 1881-84 for publication, she was able to retain the sense of immediacy without any foreknowledge.
Mary Chesnut was a keen observer of the people around her. She analyzed and portrayed the various classes of the South through the years of the war. Her portrayal of Southern society was detailed. She was able to study the roles of men and women in society. She did not shrink from a frank discussion of slavery and its impact on Southern society.
After the war, the Chesnuts, like many of the planter elites, fell on hard times. They lost all of their slaves through emancipation. In 1866 James Chesnut Sr. died leaving James Jr. his two plantations, both of which were encumbered by debt. The younger Chesnut struggled to maintain the properties.
The estates were left to him for his use during his lifetime. Upon his death in 1885, a male Chesnut heir took possession leaving Mary with almost no income. Mary struggled through the last year of her life and died on November 22, 1886 at her home at Sarsfield, South Carolina.
Because Mary and James were childless, she gave her diary to her closest friend Isabella D. Martin and urged her to have it published. It was first published in 1905 as a heavily edited and abridged version. Since then there have been four more publications with annotations to identify fully the large cast of characters, places and events.