Compliments of Carolina Living!
Carolina Famous Faces
Mary Boykin Chesnut
Fascinating. Riveting. Amazing.
One of the characteristics of the Carolinas which remains so appealing to many is the wealth of history – people, places and events – which occurred here as the United States was evolving. There are so many battle sites that can be visited – from both the American Revolution and the Civil War. There are plantation homes which can be found along the rivers and byways. And there are the stories which have been handed down, or in this case, written down.
I must confess that I had never read Mary Chesnut’s A Diary from Dixie, nor the expanded, annotated and thoroughly remarkable Mary Chesnut’s Civil War, which was published in 1982 and received the Pulitzer Prize for history. (Many historians consider it the finest literary work of the Confederacy.)
Here’s what one reviewer on Amazon said: “Mary was a witty and perceptive woman who was ahead of her time. She’s someone I’d like to have lunch with.” I couldn’t agree more.
Here’s a bit of her story. Mary Boykin Miller was born into a world of privilege and politics. Her father served as U.S. congressman and Senator, and was elected Governor of South Carolina. Educated first at home, then in Camden, SC schools and finally at Mme. Talvande’s French School for Young Ladies (in Charleston), in 1840, at 17, she was married to James Chesnut Jr., a man eight years older, who had already begun to make a name for himself as U.S. Senator.
As the only surviving son of one of South Carolina’s largest landowners, the pair were evenly matched in terms of aristocratic background and interest in politics. For the next 20 years, Mary spent most of her time at Mulberry, a plantation in Camden, owned by the Chesnut family. (She also spent time at Bloomsbury, another family plantation which is now an award-winning B&B which attracts guests from everywhere).
Her husband resigned from the U.S. senate when Lincoln was elected President, returning to South Carolina to help draft the ordinance of secession. He became a Brigadier General and served as aide to President Jefferson Davis.
As a political and social insider, Mrs. Chesnut was in a position to know the inner workings of the confederacy and the war. Moreover, she was intelligent, and possessed a keen sense of irony. She was witty and articulate. And she kept a diary, beginning with Lincoln’s election. The result is endlessly fascinating.
It may be hard to describe a Civil War diary as riveting, but in many ways it is. Readers discover what’s happening in the war as it happens. As readers, we know the ending of course, but each page is a revelation. One little known fact is her relationship with her slave, Molly, who became her business partner in later life. Her interaction with Molly is quite interesting.
Mary Chesnut died in 1886. The couple never had children, and Mrs. Chesnut gave her diary to her best friend, Isabella Martin. Published several times, the most recent edition is carefully researched and annotated. More than 200 of her photographs are held at the South Caroliniana Library, on the Horseshoe of the University of South Carolina.