Mary Chesnut's Diary

Mary Chesnut's Diary

by Mary Boykin Chesnut


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“Mary Chestnut’s Diary” is a vivid first hand narrative of the Civil War. Mary Boykin Chestnut was married to James Chestnut, Jr., an important Confederate general. Written between 1861 and 1865, her diaries offer some of our most detailed and personal accounts of one of America’s most troubling and conflicted eras. The diary spans the entirety of the war, allowing readers to witness battles both small and large; political, military, and domestic life; and the dynamic conflicts that ensued between race, class, and democracy. Chestnut was one of the rare few who witnessed the first shots of the war, and her diary takes us through the hills and homes of the war—from Alabama to Virginia. We see the emotional energy created by such a conflict with an intimacy only to be read in a diary. Always aware of the historical significance of her surroundings, the journals read as great reporting. Chestnut’s entries skillfully capture a nation finding its voice amidst great turmoil. Essential reading for any Civil War buff or student of American history, “Mary Chestnut’s Diary” is an invaluable document of one of America’s greatest conflicts. This edition is printed on premium acid-free paper.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781420965575
Publisher: Neeland Media
Publication date: 12/17/2019
Pages: 278
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.63(d)

About the Author

Mary Boykin Chesnut (1823-1886) was born into a wealthy South Carolina family. Her father, Stephen Decatur Miller, was a senator who supported states’ rights and the legalization of slavery. She married James Chestnut in 1840 and they moved to Camden, New Jersey. Her husband later became a US senator but in 1860, after Abraham Lincoln was elected, he resigned his position. The couple relocated to North Carolina during the Civil War, and Mary recorded her thoughts in a diary that would be published in full after her death.

Catherine Clinton was born in Seattle and grew up in Kansas City. She is the Denman Professor of American History at the University of Texas at San Antonio and is an international research professor at Queen's University Belfast. She has served on several faculties in her more than thirty years of teaching, including the University of Benghazi, Harvard University, and the Citadel (the Military College of South Carolina). She is the author and editor of more than two dozen volumes, including The Plantation MistressHarriet Tubman: The Road to FreedomMrs. Lincoln: A Life, and edits her own series for Oxford University Press: Viewpoints on American Culture. She has served as a consultant on several film projects, including Steven Spielberg's Lincoln (2012). An elected member of the Society of American Historians, she remains a lifetime member of both the Lincoln Forum and the Southern Association for Women Historians.

Table of Contents

Introduction Catherine Clinton xi

Suggestions for Further Reading xxv

A Note on the Text xxvii

Mary Chesnut's Diary

Chapter I Charleston, S. C., November 8, 1860-December 27, 1860.

The news of Lincoln's election

Raising the Palmetto flag

The author's husband resigns as United States Senator

The Ordinance of Secession

Anderson takes possession of Fort Sumter 1

Chapter II Montgomery, Ala., February 19, 1861-March 11, 1861.

Making the Confederate Constitution

Robert Toombs

Anecdote of General Scott

Lincoln's trip through Baltimore

Howell Cobb and Benjamin H. Hill

Hoisting the Confederate flag

Mrs. Lincoln's economy in the White House

Hopes for peace

Despondent talk with anti-secession leaders

The South unprepared

Fort Sumter 6

Chapter III Charleston, S. C., March 26, 1861-April 15, 1861.

A soft-hearted slave-owner

Social gaiety in the midst of war talk

Beauregard a hero and a demigod

The first shot of the war

Anderson refuses to capitulate

The bombardment of Fort Sumter as seen from the housetops

War steamers arrive in Charleston harbor

"Bull Run" Russell

Demeanor of the negroes 19

Chapter IV Camden, S. C., April 20, 1861-April 22, 1861.

After Sumter was taken

the jeunesse dorée

The story of Beaufort Watts

Maria Whitaker's twins

The inconsistencies of life 37

Chapter V Montgomery, Ala., April 27, 1861-May 20, 1861.

Baltimore in a blaze

Anderson's account of the surrender of Fort Sumter

A talk with Alexander H. Stephens

Reports from Washington

An unexpected reception

Southern leaders take hopeless views of the future

Planning war measures

Removal of the capital 42

Chapter VI Charleston, S. C, May 25, 1861-June 24, 1861.

Waiting for a battle in Virginia

Ellsworth at Alexandria

Big Bethel

Moving forward to the battleground

Mr. Petigru against secession

Mr. Chesnut goes to the front

Russell's letters to the London Times 50

Chapter VII Richmond, Va., June 27, 1861-July 4, 1861.

Arrival at the new capital

Criticism of Jefferson Davis

Soldiers everywhere

Mrs. Davis's drawing-room

A day at the Champ de Mars

The armies assembling for Bull Run

Col. L. Q. C. Lamar 60

Chapter VIII Fauquier White Sulphur Springs, Va., July 6, 1681-July 11, 1861.

Cars crowded with soldiers

A Yankee spy

Anecdotes of Lincoln

Gaiety in social life

Listening for guns

A horse for Beauregard 68

Chapter IX Richmond, Va., July 13, 1861-September 2, 1861.

General Lee and Joe Johnston

The battle of Bull Run

Colonel Bartow's death

Rejoicings and funerals

Anecdotes of the battle

An interview Robert E. Lee

Treatment of prisoners

Toombs thrown from his horse

Criticism of the Administration

Paying the soldiers

Suspected women searched

Mason and Slidell 72

Chapter X Camden, S. C., September 9, 1861-September 19, 1861.

The author's sister, Kate Williams

Old Colonel Chesnut

Roanoke Island surrenders

Up Country and Low Country

Family silver to be taken for war expenses

Mary McDuffie Hampton

The Merrimac and the Monitor 111

Chapter XI Columbia, S. C., February 20, 1862-July 21, 1862.

Dissensions among Southern leaders

Uncle Tom's Cabin

Conscription begins

Abuse of Jefferson Davis

The battle of Shiloh

Beauregard flanked at Nashville

Old Colonel Chesnut again

New Orleans lost

The battle of Williamsburg

Dinners, teas, and breakfasts

Wade Hampton at home wounded

Battle of the Chickahominy

Albert Sidney Johnston's death

Richmond in sore straits

A wedding and its tragic ending

Malvern Hill

Recognition of the Confederacy in Europe 115

Chapter XII Flat Rock, N. C., August 1, 1862 August 8, 1862.

A mountain summer resort

George Cuthbert

A disappointed cavalier

Antietam and Chancellorsville

General Chesnut's work for the army 183

Chapter XIII Portland, Ala, July 8, 1863-July 30, 1863.

A journey from Columbia to Southern Alabama

The surrender of Vicksburg

A terrible night in a swamp on a riverside

A good pair of shoes

The author at her mother's home

Anecdotes of negroes

A Federal Cynic 188

Chapter XIV Richmond, Va., August 10, 1863-September 7, 1863.

General Hood in Richmond

A brigade marches through the town

Rags and tatters

Two love affairs and a wedding

The battle of Brandy Station

The Robert Barnwell tragedy 199

Chapter XV Camden, S. C., September 10, 1863-November 5, 1863.

A bride's dressing-table

Home once more at Mulberry

Longstreet's army seen going West

Constance and Hetty Cary

At church during Stoneman's raid

Richmond narrowly escapes capture

A battle on the Chickahominy

A picnic at Mulberry 209

Chapter XVI Richmond, Va., November 28, 1863-April 11, 1864.

Mr. Davis visits Charleston

Adventures by rail

A winter of mad gaiety

Weddings, dinner-parties, and private theatricals

Battles around Chattanooga

Bragg in disfavor

General Hood and his love affairs

Some Kentucky generals

Burton Harrison and Miss Constance Cary

George Eliot

Thackeray's death

Mrs. R. E. Lee and her daughters

Richmond almost lost

Colonel Dahlgren's death

General Grant

Depreciated currency

Fourteen generals at church 220

Chapter XVII Camden, S. C., May 8, 1864-June 1, 1864.

A farewell to Richmond

"Little Joe's" pathetic death and funeral

An old silk dress

The battle of the Wilderness

Spottsylvania Court House

At Mulberry once more

Old Colonel Chesnut's grief at his wife's death 265

Chapter XVIII Columbia, S. C., July 6, 1864-January 17, 1865.

Gen. Joe Johnston superseded and the Alabama sunk

The author's new home

Sherman at Atlanta

The battle of Mobile Bay

At the hospital in Columbia

Wade Hampton's two sons shot

Hood crushed at Nashville

Farewell to Mulberry

Sherman's advance eastward

The end near 273

Chapter XIX Lincolnton, N. C., February 16, 1865,-March 15, 1865.

The flight from Columbia

A corps of generals without troops

Broken-hearted and an exile

Taken for millionaires

A walk with Gen Joseph E. Johnston

The burning of Columbia

Confederate money refused in the shops

Selling old clothes to obtain food

Gen. Joe Johnston and President Davis again

Braving it out

Mulberry saved by a faithful negro

Ordered to Chester, S. C. 300

Chapter XX Chester, S. C., March 21, 1865-May 1, 1865.

How to live without money

Keeping house once more

Other refugees tell stories of their flight

The Hood melodrama over

The exodus from Richmond

Passengers in a box car

A visit from General Hood

The fall of Richmond

Lee's surrender

Yankees hovering around

In pursuit of President Davis 320

Chapter XXI Camden, S. C., May 2, 1865-August 2, 1865.

Once more at Bloomsbury

Surprising fidelity of negroes

Stories of escape

Federal soldiers who plundered old estates

Mulberry partly in ruins

Old Colonel Chesnut last of the grand seigniors

Two classes of sufferers

A wedding and a funeral

Blood not shed in vain 335

Reading Group Guide


This epic memoir and narrative spans the years of 1861 to 1865—the years of the American Civil War—and captures all that one woman, Mary Chesnut, saw, heard, and felt during this tumultuous time in American history.

Mary Chesnut was a privileged woman born into a prominent South Carolina planter family in 1863. She attended a French boarding school for girls in Charleston and at the age of seventeen married James Chesnut, Jr. In 1858, James Chesnut was elected the U.S. Senator from South Carolina. Mary became a lady of society, hostess, and distinguished first lady in Washington, and she carried out her roll of senatorial wife extraordinarily well.

The diary opens on November 8, 1860, as Mary describes being on a train and learning that Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the United States. From this moment onward, Mary vowed to "tell the story in my own way" (p. 1). Indeed, following Lincoln's election and the South's secession from the Union, Mary declared herself an unofficial observer of the goings-on around her, and she faithfully recorded everything she deemed noteworthy in her diary.

Mary continued to record her impressions over the next five years as she traveled throughout the South with her husband. After the secession, James Chesnut resigned from his post as U.S. Senator and became an aide to the Confederate president Jefferson Davis. As a result of her husband's prominent position within the government, Mary was privy to information that was not common knowledge and traveled within a circle of influential figures. In her diary, she made note of what was said by visitors to her home, many who played key roles in the Civil War.

In addition to military news and information about the state of the Confederacy, Mary also recorded her personal opinions of those she encountered. She shared dinner party stories, discussed fashion, and shared humorous moments between James Chestnut and herself. She listed the deaths as they mounted among her family and friends and recorded with growing sadness the number of battles lost as the inevitable outcome of the war unraveled before her eyes.

The diary, one of the most frequently cited memoirs of the war, is rich with details about the men and women who live in our history books today. The diary mentions race, finances, and wartime sacrifices. It struggles, in many ways, to come to terms with the notion of freedom. Mary Chesnut's Diary gives readers a first-hand glimpse into the life of one woman living during a time of a nation divided and a future uncertain for all involved.



Mary Boykin Chesnut (1823 – 1886) married James Chesnut, Jr., at the age of seventeen. Her writings were first published in 1905.

(Introduction By)

Catherine Clinton is a writer, scholar, and professor. She holds a chair in American history at Queen's University Belfast in Northern Ireland where she founded and heads a postgraduate program in American history. She is a member of the Advisory Council of Ford's Theatre Foundation in Washington, D.C., the Virginia Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission, and serves on the editorial boards of Civil War History and Civil War Times. She wrote her first book, ThePlantation Mistress: Woman's World in the Old South, in 1982. The Christian Science Monitor and the Chicago Tribunenamed one of her biographies, Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom, among the best nonfiction books of 2004.



Q. You were born in Seattle, raised in Kansas City, and have lived in many different cities across the United States, including Richmond, Virginia, and Spartanburg, South Carolina. Now that you are settled in Northern Ireland, describe how the various places in which you have lived have piqued your interest in the American Civil War. Was any one place of primary influence?

I spent my formative years in Kansas City, and much like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, I had dreams of other places. I spent a year abroad after completing my undergraduate degree at Harvard and my year in an American Studies program at the University of Sussex broadened my horizons considerably, and perhaps kept me spinning, in terms of my academic interests. I was fascinated by the fact that so many foreigners believed America was strongly defined by its Civil War and the significance of slavery in shaping America's past. I have always been particularly fond of travel and encouraged people to learn more about themselves by venturing out into the world, beyond comfortable boundaries. I also believe what Faulkner reminded us: "A fish doesn't think much about the meaning of water, until the fish is out of the water."

Q. What were your initial reactions when you first came across Mary Chesnut's memoir as an undergraduate? How would you compare Mary's diary to other personal narratives of the Civil War?

When I first encountered Mary Chesnut's diary, I was astonished by the vibrancy and intensity of her prose—the way she used equal doses of wit and pathos to beguile readers. In her own day, her bracing insights might have been judged vulgar, but for me they were riveting. After I had read over a hundred published collections of letters, journals, and memoirs, I was even more awestruck by her accomplishment, as she still reigns as one of the most vivid diarists of the age. Her distinctive voice—whether what she is saying is "right" or "wrong"—allows us to eavesdrop on the past.

Q. In addition to the wartime discussion of battles and deaths, the diary is full of humorous tidbits of life for Mary Chesnut in the South during secession. Can you talk about your favorite moment in the diary?

I am most fond of Chesnut when her tart observations hit the mark—as when a Yankee woman magazine writer abuses the South, but Chesnut skewers her, as she "used 'incredible' for 'incredulous,' I said not a word in defense of my native land. I left her 'incredible.' Another person came in, while she was pouring upon me her home troubles, and asked if she did not know I was a Carolinian. Then she gracefully reversed her engine, and took the other tack, sounding our praise, but I left her incredible and I remained incredulous, too" (p. 10).

Q. What is your background and how did you decide to become a writer? A scholar? Who are your influences?

I was very interested in writing from an early age and very lucky to have such wonderful mentors who helped me to thrive. My first experience writing was thanks to kindly teachers who mentored me, and I remember being published while still in grade school. My favorite aunt was a professor of English who kept me supplied with wonderful books like the Brothers Karamazovand Middlemarch. Being taken seriously at an early age encouraged me to take myself seriously.

Q. Throughout the diary there are examples of Mary Chesnut playing the role of the quintessential Southern belle, and yet at other moments she surprises the reader with her quick wit and brutal honesty. How does Mary Chesnut defy the stereotypes of her time?

During my earliest readings about slavery, I was convinced that the sexual double standard was key to understanding the system—most especially the way in which African American women were exploited by plantation masters during the antebellum era. I was fascinated by the psychosexual aspects of the system, and thunderstruck by those flashes when Chesnut dropped the veil and exposed slavery's wrongs: "But what do you say to this—to a magnate who runs a hideous black harem with its consequences, under the same roof with his lovely white wife and his beautiful and accomplished daughters? He holds his head high and poses as the model of all human virtues to these poor women whom God and the laws have given him… You see Mrs. Stowe did not hit the sorest spot. She makes Legree a bachelor" (pp. 99–100). These rare but riveting moments bring alive women's dilemmas in the Old South—for black women as well as white women. Chesnut was one of the few southern white women to break the silence on these issues.

Q. "Mary Chesnut was, above all, a propagandist for her class," you write on page xxi of your introduction to the memoir. Can you expand this statement further? Do you think Mary was motivated to write in part to justify her belief in the establishment of slavery?

Mary Chesnut was like so many of the women of the ruling elite—whitewashing slavery as part of their patriotic duty, part of her cultural DNA. She deluded herself about blacks, describing them alternately as childlike and scheming. Her logic dead-ends as she wanders in the maze. She struggled with the contradictions such a hypocritical analysis imposed on white Americans, particularly southerners who knew better but feared severe withdrawal pains if they did not feed their addictions for delusion.

Q. There is an undeniable allure to Mary Chesnut and her diary, despite the glaring racism and class consciousness of the author. Why do you think we are drawn to Mary's words? Is it "for what it reveals, as much as what it attempts to disguise"(p. xxii)?

Mary Chesnut was deeply caught up in the tangled threads she wove and rewove to produce her own historical tapestry, her own vivid version of the commonly agreed upon narrative. So not only the story, but the storytellers become the fabric of these Confederate fables. Chesnut called her writing "spinning her own entrails," and compared herself to a spider. But still, with all her posing and revising, she often let the mask slip so we might gaze behind the scenes. We are drawn into her prose because of this sense that we are being given a clandestine view. It is this subversive, suggestive quality that reels readers in.

Q. If Mary Chesnut were alive today, who might be her role model?

Clearly, Mary Chesnut was a unique personality, and I cannot predict who she might seek as a mentor or exemplar, but I suspect that she would be delighted to find Hillary Clinton had been enlisted as Secretary of State and a former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin is weighing her options for the 2012 presidential race. And I predict that Chesnut would emulate Arianna Huffington. She would well wish the Internet had been around during her era so she might have earned more than the $10 she received for her only publication during her lifetime. Thus Chesnut could well be eager to blog. (She is already on Facebook and has been friended by Mary Lincoln and Harriet Tubman.)

Q. As a scholar and writer, how do you come to terms with the shortsightedness of Americans during the era of the Civil War? Do you find it difficult to keep your personal beliefs out of your scholarly research?

I find it fairly strange that we are expected to write without having personal beliefs… we all do and the more we try to hide them, the more we call attention to them. As scholars it's not our job to suppress our beliefs any more than it is to celebrate them. As historians, it is our job to provide a fair and balanced assessment of the evidence we uncover, and to cogently develop our arguments in light of the historical context we develop—as well as within the context of who we are, when we are, to whom we are addressing our ideas, and (last but not least) why? After all, we pick the compelling stories we strive to tell. We may not agree with many or most of what our research hath wrought, and truths may not be self-evident, but whose truth and whose self? We are not required to abandon perspective, but to explain perspective and to create a context within which each of us can better appreciate the complexities of the past.

Q. What is next for you as a writer? As a scholar?

I will be completing a project on manhood, suicide, and the American Civil War during the Sesquicentennial years, demonstrating that there is always something new to research when you work on the American Civil War. It's a field that seems to never lie fallow, still fertile and enriching, a century and a half later. And after the Sesquicentennial, there's always the Centenary of World War I and Edith Wharton's fascinating role within this era. So commemorations and fascinating women continue to lure me backward and forward.

  • The diary opens just after Mary Chesnut learns that Lincoln has been elected president. Following such consequential news, Mary vows: "I have always kept a journal after a fashion of my own… from to-day forward I will tell the story in my own way" (p. 1). What do you think motivated Mary to begin writing at this moment in time? Was it due solely to Lincoln's election or do you think there were other reasons?
  • Much of what Mary describes in her journal differs from what we think of today when we imagine the Civil War and its prominent players. Consider, for example, Mary's recounting of an acquaintance's description of Lincoln: "the vulgarity of Lincoln, his wife, and his son is beyond credence, a thing you must see before you can believe it" (p. 11). How does this differ from our popular image of Lincoln? What are other examples of places where Mary describes a person or event in a different light than we have been taught?
  • Mary Chesnut's Diary has been broken up into sections according to the city in which Mary was residing. What effect do you think the structure has on the story overall? Did the shift from city to city help create a sense of uprootedness for you as a reader? Do you think that Mary felt similarly? Why or why not?
  • 4) As to be expected in any Civil War memoir, race and racism appear frequently throughout the diary. In seemingly offhanded ways, Mary remarks, "People talk before [slaves] as if they were chairs and tables. They make no sign. Are they stolidly stupid? Or wiser than we are?" (p. 34). How do you read such statements and do you fault Mary in any way? Is it possible in our present day to come to grips with Mary's statements?
  • Throughout the memoir Mary contradicts herself. She is happy about the war, she is depressed about the war; the war is about slavery, the war is not about slavery. As her contemporary Walt Whitman said, "Do I contradict myself? Very well then… I contradict myself." Do you think such contradictions are part of human nature? Do they make the diary seem more natural, or less so?
  • In many ways, Mary appears to be the quintessential southern lady, and yet in other ways, she seems to break down stereotypes of women of her era. What instances do you recall where Mary is predictable as a woman living in the South during the Civil War? Compare those moments when she is less so. Overall, how would you characterize her?
  • Mary gives us a few glimpses into intimate moments between husband and wife, such as the scene on page 133 in which she comes in late and scrambles eggs for James by the fire. What did you make of their relationship? Though they were unable to conceive children, do you think James and Mary were happily married?
  • Dinner parties figure prominently into the memoir. "They are the climax of the good things here" (p. 145), Mary writes, and later when General Lawton criticized the merrymaking during wartime, Mary defended the ritual: "I do not see how sadness and despondency would help us. If it would do any good, we would be sad enough" (p. 241). Why do you think gathering for dinner was so important to Mary and her group of high-society companions? Do you agree or disagree with General Lawton's point of view that parties shouldn't occur during a war?
  • What is Mary's relationship like with her slaves? To slavery? On page 277, she compares the savagery of slavery to the bad manners of a northern gentleman who forgot to acknowledge Mrs. Davis in a room. What does this say about Mary's belief system?
  • Do you notice a shift in tone at the end of the diary, once the war has been lost? How would you describer Mary's mood and reaction to end of the war? Is James's reaction any different?

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