Mary Boykin Chesnut "Diarist From Dixie" March 31, 1832 - November 22, 1886
Mary Boykin Chesnut, daughter of former South Carolina governor and U.S. senator Stephen Decatur Miller, was born to the life of the rich Southern planters. At 17, she married James Chesnut, Jr., a member of another great plantation family who also became a U.S. senator, member of the Confederate Provisional Congress, brigadier general, and close friend and confidant of Jefferson Davis. Childless, the couple was free to travel widely.
In Montgomery for the formation of the Confederate states, in Charleston when Fort Sumter was bombarded, and in Richmond for many of the military and political crises, Mary Chesnut was in the right places at the right times to be an observer of the events and personalities that shaped the young nation- and she wrote it all down. Smart, educated, articulate, vibrant, and shrewd, she kept a completely candid diary- entering details, intimate observations, and evaluations of the exciting times. As a member of the inner social circles of the Confederacy and a close friend of the President's wife, Varina Davis, Chesnut's opportunities for information and insights were endless. In her writing she reveals herself to be an outspoken feminist, considering her times, and one who hated slavery in spite of being a member of a great slave-holding family. Chesnut watched as her world was "literally kicked to pieces" and recorded the death throes of a lost American society.
Chesnut rewrote her diary after the war, condensing it from 400,000 words to 150,000 words and deleting the more personal passages. She realized her records would "at some future day afford facts about these times and prove useful to more important people than I." She never published the diary, but left it to a friend when she died in 1886. It was first published in 1905, 40 years after the war, under the title A Diary from Dixie.
Fascinating Fact: The Chesnuts lost much of their fortune in the war. A diary entry for the first week of May 1865 reads, "In crossing the Wateree at Chesnut's Ferry we had not a cent to pay the ferry man- silver being required. The first solid half dollar (we earned was) for butter... John C. and my husband laughed at my peddling- and borrowed the money."
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