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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Mary Boykin Chesnut

Historians and literary critics alike have praised Mary Boykin Chesnut’s “diary” for its vivid and sweeping narrative of Confederate life during the Civil War. As her editor C. Vann Woodward points out, the enduring value of Chesnut’s autobiographical writing lies not so much in the information it contains, but “in the life and reality with which it endows people and events and with which it evokes the chaos and complexity of a society at war.” A politically astute, well-educated, and gregarious woman whose father and husband were southern political figures, Mary Chesnut was in an ideal position to observe and record the intricacies of her society and her era. Born in Statesburg, South Carolina, she was the oldest daughter of Mary Boykin and Stephen Miller. Her father was, at various periods, a U.S. Congressman and Senator, governor and state senator.

According to her biographer Elisabeth Muhlenfeld, young Mary Miller received an unusually solid education for a nineteenth-century southern woman. She attended Madame Talvande’s French School for Young Ladies in Charleston where she excelled in a course of study which stressed foreign language, history, rhetoric, literature, and science, as well as traditional female “accomplishments.” While in attendance at Madame Talvande’s, she met James Chesnut Jr., whom she married when she was barely seventeen. From a wealthy Camden family, her husband, a Princeton graduate and lawyer, served in various political positions before the war, including a U.S. Senate seat which he gave up in 1860 when differences between the North and South became insurmountable. His connections with such figures as Jefferson Davis during the war years opened windows of opportunity for his wife’s observations of and relationships with key figures in the national drama, as did her own enjoyment of friendships with a broad spectrum of the Confederacy’s most prominent men and women. After the war the Chesnuts’ land and plantation near Camden were lost to debt; and after James’s death in 1884, Mary was left with a struggling dairy farm and a strong desire to complete her memoirs. Always in danger from heart trouble, she died of an attack before seeing her work published.

Like many other southern autobiographers writing about the Civil War, many of them women who struggled through the vicissitudes of a war on home territory, Chesnut created her “diary” out of a complexly rendered combination of an actual diary written during the war and her memories of the past. The 1984 publication of The Private Mary Chesnut, edited by Woodward and Muhlenfeld, makes the original, and highly personal, diary available for the first time. This actual diary, which she kept under lock and key, was not meant for publication; and the autobiographical book known as her “diary” was actually written twenty years after the war, in 1881 – 1884. Woodward’s 1981 edition, entitled Mary Chesnut’s Civil War, incorporates part of the original diary with the retrospective memoirs. Mary Chesnut’s writing was first published in 1905 and later in 1949 in an edition by Ben Ames Williams with the title (not one of Chesnut’s choosing) A Diary from Dixie. Unlike Williams’s Diary, Woodward’s edition provides a synthesis of the two forms of autobiography, the diary and the memoir, in a responsibly edited combination of what Chesnut actually wrote during the war and twenty years later. One of her stated purposes in her revision of the eighties, Woodward discovers through her correspondence, was what she called “leaving myself out.” To whatever extent she succeeded, Woodward attempts to right the balance by reinserting personal comments which the previous editions have left unpublished. In the selections reprinted in the book from Woodward’s edition, deleted passages have been indicated by brackets. Mary Chesnut’s Civil War thus captures the sweep and chaos of a society at war, as did Williams’s A Diary from Dixie, but the more recent edition also allows an intimate picture of the woman as writer of her own story of that society.

Chesnut describes herself as writing “like a spider, spinning [her] own entrails.” This web of self, like Chesnut’s sense of history, is complexly attached to and woven out of a keen awareness of the white woman’s position in a patriarchal slave society. At a personal level Chesnut, who was childless and married to the only son of a wealthy planter family, was painfully cognizant of white woman’s role as the bearer of legitimate heirs. Her attitude toward slavery and patriarchal ideology has been seen as radically feminist for the times, and it has become commonplace to point out that Chesnut saw miscegenation as the embodiment of the evil of slavery and of the double standard that allowed the white southern male sexual freedom and marital infidelity while his wife and daughter were bound by the prohibitions of chastity. In her frequently quoted diatribes against this aspect of slavery, such as the one reproduced in the book, though, Chesnut seems so intent on pitying the white women whose husbands are involved in philanderings in the slave quarters that she has no sympathy left for the black women who became their victims. She views black women instead as symbols of sexuality, ironically with freedoms not allowed “respectable” white women. Moreover, she seems to blame black women for a sexual coercion only white men could instigate or force, thereby focusing her bitterness at the victims of slavery, not the victimizers.

Thus Chesnut, a member of the wealthy planter class, abhorred slavery and its sexual vices; but, like many white women of her time and position, seemed to remain blind, or at least myopic, concerning the intersections of gender and race with the power structures of the system in which she lived much of her life. Yet, despite her limited critique of the patriarchal underpinnings of slavery, Mary Boykin Chesnut’s massive volume paints a valuable portrait, interior as well as exterior, of the Old South’s physical and ideological struggle to survive, its ultimate failure to do so, and perhaps some of the reasons behind that failure.
Minrose C. Gwin
University of New Mexico

In the Heath Anthology
from Mary Chesnut's Civil War (1861)  [n.b., Published in 1981]

Other Works
A Diary from Dixie (1905)

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A Diary from Dixie
The complete text of Chestnut's Diary including frontispiece, title page, and illustrations.

The Glass Ceiling Biographies
A comprehensive biography and a selected bibliography.

Secondary Sources