Every day she would write something in her diary. She might mention her activities, a comment or message from her husband, or an update on a family member or friend; but most days she wrote about the people of Charleston, South Carolina and her observations about her new country, The Confederate States of America.
And her country was at War!
Mary Boykin Chesnut left us a treasure; her diary! While most memoirs and written recollections from the Civil War period emphasize military strategies, information about battles, or focus on famous individuals, Mary Chestnut had a different interest. In her words we can see the growing dissatisfaction of the Southern aristocrats and politicians with the United States government, then the exuberance of the citizenry at the secession of South Carolina and the formation of the new Confederate nation, next their pride in early military victories, later the gradual realization of the tremendous toll the war brought in lives lost and human suffering, and then the agony as they realized their cause was lost. Some of her passages are found below.
Mary’s father had been a Governor of South Carolina and the family lived primarily in Charleston where they were served by household slaves. Mary attended the city’s best finishing school where she became fluent in French and German and began a life-long interest in writing.
At seventeen she married James Chesnut, a successful lawyer and emerging politician who became a U.S. Senator in 1858. However, in December, 1860 James became the first Senator to resign his seat after South Carolina seceded and he became an officer in the state’s militia; and a few months later was commissioned into the Confederate army.
James had grown up on a large plantation called “Mulberry” near Camden, South Carolina where his father owned over 500 slaves. Although her family and her husband’s family owned slaves, Mary was not silent about her belief that slavery demeaned the other positive aspects of Southern heritage and culture. She once wrote to a friend, “Can we not, with the great minds in the South, find some way to end this (slavery), it breeds hypocrisy.” And noting that some slave owners took advantage of female slaves, she added, “It undermines the sanctity of marriage. God forgive us, but ours is a monstrous system.”
James, on the other hand, believed slavery was a god-given right, and a legal right in the United States; however, he only periodically personally owned any slaves, and then usually as butlers and housekeepers. James and Mary must have had some interesting conversations as she was known for speaking her mind, of course within the genteel courtesies of the day.
In late 1860, when South Carolina became the first Southern state to secede from the Union and her husband resigned from the United States Senate, Mary began a new dairy in which she recorded her daily thoughts for the next five years. These are only a few excerpts.
On South Carolina’s secession and knowing other states would follow: “It has come to this. We are divorced, North and South, because we hate each other so. Or so it seems. Are not my old friends still my friends?”
While Mary believed slavery was wrong, she was still devoted to the South and supported South Carolina’s Secession Declaration: “We (South Carolina) should not have to leave the United States but we must. The Northern people can be our friends but the (U.S.) government is no friend of South Carolina.”
They often stayed at the plantation his father owned and they had their own home in Charleston. However, in early 1861 her husband, by then a Major in the state militia, obtained rooms for them on the top floor of a hotel which overlooked Charleston Harbor; so that he would be close to his garrison. Mary was keenly aware that Southern forces intended to take over all Federal facilities in and around the city and the harbor and had already forced the evacuation of several forts and docks. Mary and her husband were personally acquainted with Major Robert Anderson, the officer in charge of the last Union contingent that remained in the area. New Union President Abraham Lincoln needed to decide whether Anderson and his U.S. Army troops should abandon Charleston Harbor, or remain and make a stand in one of the forts. If the Union forces stayed, it would probably mean War!
Mary hoped Anderson’s troops would just leave but on April 2, 1861 she wrote, “Why did that green goose Anderson go into Fort Sumter?”
Mary not only had a front row seat to the drama unfolding in the harbor, she had a very personal involvement. Her husband had been one of three Southern officers to row out to the Fort to meet with Major Anderson to offer an ultimatum; surrender or be attacked! She must have been very anxious as she waited the outcome.
She only had to wait until early on the morning of April 12. “At the heavy booming of cannon, I sprang out of bed, and on my knees, I prayed as I have never prayed before. There was a sound of stir all over the house, pattering of feet in the corridor-all seemed hurrying.” Mary then went to rooftop and noticed, “The women were wild, they prayed while the men stood yelling their encouragement to the gunners.” Then on a more personal note she wrote, “I knew my husband was rowing about in a boat somewhere in that dark bay, and who could tell what each volley accomplished of death and destruction.”
Mary’s husband survived the battle, the Union soldiers left Charleston Harbor, and the Confederates moved into Fort Sumter. Charleston settled back into daily routines, but Mary was pensive. “And so we fool on, into the black cloud ahead of us.” A few days later she added, “This Southern Confederacy must be supported now by calm determination and cool brains. We have risked all and we must play our best, for the state is life or death. Woe to those who began the war if they were not in bitter earnest.”
She noted the excitement and optimism in Charleston where most believed that the South would quickly win the War. “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.” And about a dinner she and her husband hosted: “We enjoyed the merriest, maddest dinner we have had yet. The men were more audaciously wise and witty than usual” and she added, “For once in my life I listened.”
She observed Confederate soldiers going off to fight with their servants: “A gentleman took his manservant with him to clean his boots, polish his sword and forage for rations.”
She also noted the haphazard start by her new Confederate government: “The new government is off to a shaky start.” And, “There is a perfect magazine of discord and discontent in that (Jefferson Davis) cabinet. It only wants a hand to apply a torch and up they go.”
She visited Richmond after the Confederates won the first battle at Bull Run (which most Southerners called Manassas): “The city seemed lifted up, and everyone appeared to walk on air.” A few days after the Manassas battle she noted that a friend in Washington DC had written this in a letter to Mary: “We (the Confederate Army) might have walked into Washington any day for a week after Manassas, such was the consternation and confusion there.”
The Union soon imposed a naval blockade at all major Southern ports, so delivery of imported goods became erratic. To avoid capture, ships had to “run the blockade” and then could usually only deliver the goods to remote coastal docks. Their arrivals caused a profound change in mood: “An iron steamer has run the blockade at Savannah. We raise our wilted heads like flowers after a shower.”
The Southern Press seemed to run unfettered throughout the war, printing attacks on the Confederate government, detailing troop movements, and providing opinions on the effectiveness of prospective military plans. “The north does not need spies – for our own newspapers tell every word there is to be told by friend or foe.”
In April 1862, the Union Naval and Army forces captured New Orleans, the South’s largest city and most important port: “New Orleans gone-and with it the Confederacy? Are we not cut in two? That Mississippi ruins us if lost”
In late September 1862, Abraham Lincoln published the Emancipation Proclamation, to become effective on January 1, 1863: “If anything can reconcile me to the idea of a horrid failure after all of our efforts to make good our independence of Yankees, it is Mr. Lincoln’s proclamation freeing the Negroes. There is no turning back now, slavery will surely end.” Several days later she added, “Three hundred of Mr. Walter Blake’s Negroes have gone to the Yankees.” And later, “Some fear the Negroes will riot, but I think most will not-they also want peace.”
As the Confederate military situation worsened, so did the political climate: “The Confederacy has been beaten to death by the politicians”. And: “It is like a Greek tragedy, where you know what the outcome is bound to be.” And a bit later: “If it is as the newspapers say, why waste our blood? Why should we fight and die when it is no use?”
As did many women in both North and South, Mary volunteered time at local hospitals to care for wounded soldiers. “Who are these southern boys, sometimes I can barely understand the language they speak, except suffering always sounds the same.” And, “The boys just want to go home but I know many will not see their mothers again, so I wash their faces and pray with them.” And, “The wounds of war are so harsh, perhaps the dead are better.”
And, then as Union forces began their advances throughout the South: “The dreadful work of death is beginning again.” And, “The deep waters are closing over us.”
As General Sherman’s Union troops advanced on Atlanta in late 1864, they left a wide path of destruction: “They say no living thing is found in Sherman’s track, only chimneys and telegraph poles to carry the news of his attacks backwards.” A few weeks later: “Our all depends on that Army at Atlanta. If that fails us, the game is up.” Then, after the fall of Atlanta: “The agony is over. There is no hope, but we will try to have no fear.”
After Christmas of 1864: “Darkest of all Decembers ever my life has known, sitting here by the embers stunned, helpless, alone.”
As the war dragged on, the deprivations grew worse for all southerners: “I daily part with my raiment for food. We find no one who will exchange wearables for Confederate money. So, we are devouring our clothes.”
On Lincoln’s assassination: “This is dreadful. Who caused this calamity, for we will all be blamed.” A few days later: “What will the Yankees do to us now? Will retributions begin?”
In one of her final entries after the surrender of the last large Southern army: “We are scattered, stunned, the remnant of heart left alive is filled with brotherly hate. Whose fault? Everybody blames someone else. Only the dead heroes left stiff and dark on the battlefield escape.”
After the War, Mary stopped writing daily in her diary. She and her husband returned to his family plantation in Camden only to find that the house had been vandalized, food crops and livestock had been stolen, and the cotton fields had been burned: so they settled back into a life far different than they had known before the war. James reopened his law practice but, in the devastated southern economy, there were few clients who could pay for his services.
Mary spent the last few years of her life organizing her papers with the intention of writing a historical narrative of the Civil War, including recollections from notes she had kept that were not originally in the diary. When her husband died in 1885, Mary was left to live in near poverty, and subsisted only with care provided by a few former slaves. She died at age 63 in 1886.
She had not finished her memoir.
Fortunately, Mary’s relatives found and preserved her diaries and notes. Over the next century several renditions of Mary’s diary were published, however, most included inaccurate annotations and fictional entries. However, in 1981, C. Van Woodward wrote “Mary Chesnut’s Civil War Diary” which won a Pulitzer Prize. It is still the most historically accurate version and the only one I recommend.
Contact the author at email@example.com