MARY BOYKIN CHESNUT In every regard, Mary Boykin Chesnut was a remarkable woman. She penned the best known diary that detailed the Civil War from a southerner’s point of view. Despite her being a staunch defender of the Confederate cause, Mary also spoke openly about her opposition to slavery. She was raised in a family that depended on slavery for their very existence, but she still felt deeply that somehow it was morally wrong. Mary Boykin Miller was born on March 31, 1823. She was born on her grandparents’ plantation near Statesburg, South Carolina.
She was the eldest child of Mary Boykin and Stephen Decatur Miller. (Chesnut – #4, pg xviii) Her father was elected governor of South Carolina when Mary was only five years old. After his term was over he was elected to the U. S. Senate. Mary’s childhood revolved around politics because of her father and as she grew up she was greatly influenced by him, even though he died when she was only fifteen. (Chesnut – #4, pg xix) Mary Boykin Chesnut was born on her grandparents’ estate at Mount Pleasant, South Carolina on March 31, 1823. She learned early about the workings of a plantation by observing her grandmother.
Her grandmother worked with the servants and sewing crew so easily and effectively that Mary was nearly nine years old before she became aware that her grandmother’s coworkers were slaves. Having learned to respect these workers, she thought of them as near equals. Mary learned to read at an early age, probably from her grandmother also. Soon she was using this new-found ability to teach a favorite servant to read. It was illegal in South Carolina to teach a slave to read or write, but Mary was a favored grandchild and her grandmother was proud of her ability.
In 1831, however, her grandmother died. Mary was twelve years old when the entire family moved to Mississippi, where they owned some other plantations. James and Mary began a courtship that ended with James proposing to Mary when she was fifteen years old. Her mother and father did not approve of such an early marriage and forced Mary to write a letter of refusal to James. At the time of the proposal and refusal, James was in Europe with his ailing brother (It was the custom of wealthy Americans to sail to Europe for the best medical care if they fell very ill. Despite the setback, Mary and James continued their relationship. Two years later Mary’s mother, now a widow, relented. Mary wed James in 1840, beginning her days as Mary Boykin Chesnut. They moved to Mulberry Mississippi, to live with James’s parents. At Mulberry, however, Colonel James Chesnut and his wife, Mary Cox Chesnut, had been in charge of the estate for twenty-two years before his son James arrived with his new wife, Mary. Every detail of the daily management of the house already had been laid out. Consequently, the new Mrs. Chesnut found herself with little to do.
Mostly, however, Chesnut’s life, like the lives of most plantation women, was filled with entertaining the many visitors and with gossip. Later, as the Civil War swelled around her, Chesnut began a diary in which she wrote down bits of gossip about the neighbors as well as comments on the people she met, including Jefferson Davis, the future president of the Confederacy, and his wife, Varina, as well as many local politicians and plantation owners. Chesnut’s contact with the outside world was mostly through her sister and through her own husband.
She supported James in his political ambitions as he became a state legislator and later a United States senator. When in 1860 James resigned following the election of President Abraham Lincoln and returned home, Chesnut joined her husband in support of Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy. By this time, Chesnut had seen much that made her question the wisdom of slavery. She had objected to an advertisement in the Camden paper selling a slave “so white as to be mistaken for a citizen”. And she had seen numbers of light-colored children around many of the neighbor homes.
The sight led her to wonder about how having slave women, who were readily available and viewed as property, might tempt the male slave owners to behave in immoral ways. She had wondered also about the fate of slave women whom she had seen at auctions. Chesnut was strongly affected by these auctions, as shown in her later writing: “South Carolina slave holder as I am, my very soul sickens — it is too dreadful” Seeing separate church services for blacks and whites made her question why all “Christians” did not talk to one another.
Other things strengthened Chesnut’s hatred of slavery. A friend, Mary Whitherspoon, had returned home unexpectedly to find her slaves having a party and using the plantation silver. Threatened with floggings, the slaves had smothered Whitherspoon to death. At another household a mistreated maid had attempted to poison her master, a respected colonel. In yet another incident, Chesnut noted a slave woman so driven by her master that she took her own baby and waded into a raging river to end their lives and escape her woes.
In her diary, Chesnut wondered if it was a sin for a white southern woman to be opposed to slavery. Part of her dislike for slavery came from her belief that caring for the blacks was unprofitable. She wished the northerners “had the Negroes — we the cotton” She also disliked slavery because she thought of slaves as “dirty Africans” and because she was disgusted with the treatment many slaves received Chesnut stayed at the plantation for a few weeks while her husband went directly from his post as a senator in Washington to Columbia, the seat of South Carolina government.
Here he participated in the South Carolina Secession Convention and was appointed to a committee to prepare an Ordinance of Secession. An epidemic of smallpox interrupted the convention, however, and it was moved to Charleston, where Chesnut joined her husband. There she became caught up in the excitement of preparing for war: “Minutemen arming with immense blue cockades and red sashes soon with swords and gun marching and drilling” ( Chesnut continued her diary during these hectic times, although some of the war years are not included in the records that remain.
Chesnut wrote in longhand at least fifty volumes of her diary, which became a source of valuable information for future generations” (The diary was edited after the war, however, which led historians to question its accuracy. ). At the outset of the Civil War, Chesnut was still living at Mulberry even though her husband’s political activities often took him away from home. While she entertained at home, she listened to the news of the war. Chesnut sat many hours in her private room sewing shirts for the Confederate soldiers.
All the while, she wished that her own husband would become involved in the battles, but he was at first involved only in affairs of the state. For the next five years, the two spent little time at Mulberry. James Chesnut was convinced that the southern states could form an independent Confederacy that could become a reality without bloodshed. When six other states joined South Carolina in this effort, he, with Chesnut, moved to Montgomery, Alabama, to attend a new convention of representatives of the seceded states.
There Chesnut struck up a lifelong friendship with Jefferson Davis’s wife, Varina. During the war, the Chesnuts moved frequently. From Montgomery, James would go back to South Carolina for another convention while Mary would travel to Florida to visit her sick sister, Kate. They were in Montgomery when the new Confederacy was formed with Jefferson Davis as president, in Charleston when war was declared, and in Richmond, Virginia, during many of the events there during the war. At Richmond, Chesnut showed her commitment to the Confederacy by urging her husband to volunteer for the fight.
He, however, remained committed to the idea of a peaceful secession until the plans to take Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor began to take shape. By that time, Chesnut had returned to Mulberry and her husband had enlisted. He became an aide to Jefferson Davis. Meanwhile, life at Mulberry had changed. Chesnut spent many hours at her diary and even more time sewing shirts for soldiers. She also set out many mornings with loads of provisions for the hospital operated by Louisa McCord and the Wayside Hospital of Jane Fisher.
All the while she wrote about her frustration with her husband and other men who were not fighting: “Oh if I could put some of my reckless spirit into these discreet cautious lazy men”; “Beauregard is at Norfolk and if I was a man I should be there too! “; “If I was a man I would not doze and drink and drivel here until the fight is over in Virginia” (Muhlenfeld, p. 113). The diaries tell of her excitement at sitting on the housetop to watch the bombardment of Fort Sumter. Mostly, however, Chesnut’s writing documents divisions among southerners. Jefferson Davis was a hero to some, a tyrant to others.
Some men clamored to join the fighting; others used every trick to avoid it. One gentleman from a plantation was drafted as a private and insisted on taking along his servant and a baggage cart. According to Chesnut, he got both wishes. Another entry in the diary tells of panic about the blacks at the beginning of the war. The slaves were a large force and white southerners feared they would join on the side of the North. Chesnut writes of the anxiety over a Union attack that resulted in blacks being lined up and shot by their masters, who did the deed as coldly as they might shoot birds.
Over and over again, Chesnut writes of the many injustices against the blacks, injustices aggravated by the fears of the war. Moving to Columbia, then Alabama, then Richmond, Chesnut visited her mother and continued to entertain whenever there was opportunity to get more news of the war. When her husband was made brigadier general and assigned to Chester, South Carolina, Chesnut joined him there. She was in Chester when Senator Clement Clay brought the news that General Robert E. Lee had surrendered. By the time James and Mary Chesnut returned to Mulberry, James’s mother had died and his ninety-three-year-old father was blind and feeble.
Mulberry was now in poor condition from being pillaged by Union raiding parties during the war. The plantation was deeply in debt. The Chesnuts found themselves in much the same situation as many of their plantation-owning friends. War had ravaged their holdings and freed their slaves. It had left many of the owners nearly penniless. Chesnut’s chief source of funds was a milk and eggs business, which she and a former slave named Molly, operated as a partnership. Fortunately for the Chesnuts, their 500 former slaves were as much at sea as they. The slaves were free, but with nowhere to go and no way to earn their own living.
James offered to hire them to stay through the crop season of 1865 and most agreed. The plantation began to rebuild. James remained active in politics, leaving management of the planting and harvesting to his wife. She was such an effective manager that the Chesnuts were soon prosperous enough to build a second home in Camden. Still, the couple worried about Mary’s future if her husband James should die before her. James’s father had willed the property only to his own children. Should James die before Mary, she would be left with nothing; Mulberry would belong to the direct descendants of the old man.
In the 1870s, the couple arranged for Mary Chesnut’s security by building a third home, Sarsfield, which was held directly in her name. In 1884, her mother and her husband died within three weeks of each other. Chesnut was left alone with only Sarsfield as a land possession. In her last years, Chesnut began to think of writing as a means of earning money, so she began to organize her diary for publication. Much of her writing was corrected by her with publication in mind. It is, therefore, not easy to tell whether she really hated slavery or if she later changed her diary to make it seem so.
In all, it appears that Chesnut had long felt the sentiment she had expressed in a question in 1861: “I wonder if it be a sin to think slavery a curse to any land[? ] Men and women are punished when their masters and mistresses are brutes, not when they do wrong…. God forgive us, but ours is a monstrous system, a wrong and an iniquity” (Chesnut, p. 21). The diary of Chesnut, an interesting account of the Civil War from the viewpoint of an active southern woman, slave holder, and plantation owner, was published in 1905 under the title A Diary from Dixie. Works Cited 1. Chesnut, Mary Boykin. A Diary from Dixie. Ed.
Isabella Martin and Myrta Avary. 1905. New York: Random, 1997. 2. Chesnut, Mary Boykin. “Diary of a Southern Belle (excerpts). ” Diary of a Southern Belle (Excerpts) 1. 68 (10 Jan. 2009): MAS Ultra – School Edition. 3. Chesnut, Mary Boykin. Mary Chesnut’s Civil War. Ed. C. Vann Woodward. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1981. 4. Chesnut, Mary Boykin. The Private Mary Chesnut, The Unpublished Civil War Diaries. Ed. C. Vann Woodward and Elisabeth Muhlenfeld. New York: Oxford University Press. 1984. 5. Cliff, Peter. “Mary Chesnut’s Diary About the South. ” World & I 22. 1 (Jan. 2007):