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Mrs Chesnut's Diary


Introduction

In Mrs. Chesnut's Diary are vivid pictures of the social life that went on uninterruptedly in the midst of war; of the economic conditions that resulted from blockaded ports; of the manner in which the spirits of the people rose and fell with each victory or defeat, and of the momentous events that took place in Charleston, Montgomery, and Richmond. But the Diary has an importance quite apart from the interest that lies in these pictures.

Mrs. Chesnut was close to forty years of age when the war began, and thus had lived through the most stirring scenes in the controversies that led to it. In this Diary, as perhaps nowhere else in the literature of the war, will be found the Southern spirit of that time expressed in words which are not alone charming as literature, but genuinely human in their spontaneousness, their delightfully unconscious frankness. Her words are the farthest possible removed from anything deliberate, academic, or purely intellectual. They ring so true that they start echoes. The most uncompromising Northern heart can scarcely fail to be moved by their abounding sincerity, surcharged though it be with that old Southern fire which overwhelmed the army of McDowell at Bull Run.

In making more clear the unyielding tenacity of the South and the stern conditions in which the war was prosecuted, the Diary has further importance. At the beginning there was no Southern leader, in so far as we can gather from Mrs. Chesnut's reports of her talks with them, who had any hope that the South would win in the end, provided the North should be able to enlist her full resources. The result, however, was that the South struck something like terror to many hearts, and raised serious expectations that two great European powers would recognize her independence. The South fought as long as she had any soldiers left who were capable of fighting, and at last "robbed the cradle and the grave." Nothing then remained except to "wait for another generation to grow up." The North, so far as her stock of men of fighting age was concerned, had done scarcely more than make a beginning, while the South was virtually exhausted when the war was half over.

Unlike the South, the North was never reduced to extremities which led the wives of Cabinet officers and commanding generals to gather in Washington hotels and private drawing-rooms, in order to knit heavy socks for soldiers whose feet otherwise would go bare: scenes like these were common in Richmond, and Mrs. Chesnut often made one of the company. Nor were gently nurtured women of the North forced to wear coarse and ill-fitting shoes, such as negro cobblers made, the alternative being to dispense with shoes altogether. Gold might rise in the North to 2.80, but there came a time in the South when a thousand dollars in paper money were needed to buy a kitchen utensil, which before the war could have been bought for less than one dollar in gold. Long before the conflict ended it was a common remark in the South that, "in going to market, you take your money in your basket, and bring your purchases home in your pocket."

In the North the counterpart to these facts were such items as butter at 50 cents a pound and flour at $12 a barrel. People in the North actually thrived on high prices. Villages and small towns, as well as large cities, had their "bloated bondholders" in plenty, while farmers everywhere were able to clear their lands of mortgages and put money in the bank besides. Planters in the South, meanwhile, were borrowing money to support the negroes in idleness at home, while . they themselves were fighting at the front. Old Colonel Chesnut, the author's father-in-law, in April, 1862, estimated that he had already lost half a million in bank stock and railroad bonds. When the war closed, he had borrowed such large sums himself and had such large sums due to him from others, that he saw no likelihood of the obligations on either side ever being discharged.

Mrs. Chesnut wrote her Diary from day to day, as the mood or an occasion prompted her to do so. The fortunes of war changed the place of her abode almost as frequently as the seasons changed, but wherever she might be the Diary was continued. She began to write in Charleston when the Convention was passing the Ordinance of Secession. Thence she went to Montgomery, Ala., where the Confederacy was organized and Jefferson Davis was inaugurated as its President. She went to receptions where, sitting aside on sofas with Davis, Stephens, Toombs, Cobb, or Hunter, she talked of the probable outcome of the war, should war come, setting down in her Diary what she heard from others and all that she thought herself. Returning to Charleston, where her husband, in a small boat, conveyed to Major Anderson the ultimatum of the Governor of South Carolina, she saw from a housetop the first act of war committed in the bombardment of Fort Sumter. During the ensuing four years, Mrs. Chesnut 's time was mainly passed between Columbia and Richmond. For shorter periods she was at the Fauquier White Sulphur Springs in Virginia, Flat Rock in North Carolina, Portland in Alabama (the home of her mother) , Camden and Chester in South Carolina, and Lincolnton in North Carolina.

In all these places Mrs. Chesnut was in close touch with men and women who were in the forefront of the social, military, and political life of the South. Those who live in her pages make up indeed a catalogue of the heroes of the Confederacy President Jefferson Davis, Vice-President Alexander H. Stephens, General Robert E. Lee, General "Stonewall" Jackson, General Joseph E. Johnston, General Pierre G. T. Beauregard, General Wade Hampton, General Joseph B. Kershaw, General John B. Hood, General John S. Preston, General Robert Toombs, R. M. T. Hunter, Judge Louis T. Wigfall, and so many others that one almost hears the roll-call. That this statement is not exaggerated may be judged from a glance at the index, which has been prepared with a view to the inclusion of all important names mentioned in the text.

As her Diary constantly shows, Mrs. Chesnut was a woman of society in the best sense. She had love of companionship, native wit, an acute mind, knowledge of books, and a searching insight into the motives of men and women. She was also a notable housewife, much given to hospitality; and her heart was of the warmest and tenderest, as those who knew her well bore witness.

Mary Boykin Miller, born March 31, 1823, was the daughter of Stephen Decatur Miller, a man of distinction in the public affairs of South Carolina. Mr. Miller was elected to Congress in 1817, became Governor in 1828, and was chosen United States Senator in 1830. He was a strong supporter of the Nullification movement. In 1833, owing to ill-health, he resigned his seat in the Senate and not long afterward removed to Mississippi, where he engaged in cotton planting until his death, in March, 1838.

His daughter, Mary, was married to James Chesnut, Jr.,April 23, 1840, when seventeen years of age. Thenceforth her home was mainly at Mulberry, near Camden, one of several plantations owned by her father-in-law. Of the domestic life at Mulberry a pleasing picture has come down to us, as preserved in a time-worn scrap-book and written some years before the war :

"In our drive of about three miles to Mulberry, we were struck with the wealth of forest trees along our way for which the environs of Camden are noted. Here is a bridge completely canopied with overarching branches; and, for the remainder of our journey, we pass through an aromatic avenue of crab-trees with the Yellow Jessamine and the Cherokee rose, entwining every shrub, post, and pillar within reach and lending an almost tropical luxuriance and sweetness to the way.

"But here is the house a brick building, capacious and massive, a house that is a home for a large family, one of the homesteads of the olden times, where home comforts and blessings cluster, sacred alike for its joys and its sorrows. Birthdays, wedding-days, 'Merry Christmases,' departures for school and college, and home returnings have enriched this abode with the treasures of life.

"A warm welcome greets us as we enter. The furniture within is in keeping with things without; nothing is tawdry; there is no gingerbread gilding; all is handsome and substantial. In the 'old arm-chair' sits the venerable mother. The father is on his usual ride about the plantation; but will be back presently. A lovely old age is this mother's, calm and serene, as the soft mellow days of our own gentle autumn. She came from the North to the South many years ago, a fair young bride.

"The Old Colonel enters. He bears himself erect, walks at a brisk gait, and needs no spectacles, yet he is over eighty. He is a typical Southern planter. From the beginning he has been one of the most intelligent patrons of the Wateree Mission to the Negroes, taking a personal interest in them, attending the mission church and worshiping with his own people. May his children see to it that this holy charity is continued to their servants forever!"

James Chesnut, 'Jr., was the son and heir of Colonel James Chesnut, whose wife was Mary Coxe, of Philadelphia. Mary Coxe's sister married Horace Binney, the eminent Philadelphia lawyer. James Chesnut, Jr., was born in 1815 and graduated from Princeton. For fourteen years he served in the legislature of South Carolina, and in January, 1859, was appointed to fill a vacancy in the United States Senate. In November, 1860, when South Carolina was about to secede, he resigned from the Senate and thenceforth was active in the Southern cause, first as an aide to General Beauregard, then as an aide to President Davis, and finally as a brigadier-general of reserves in command of the coast of South Carolina.

General Chesnut was active in public life in South Carolina after the war, in so far as the circumstances of Reconstruction permitted, and in 1868 was a delegate from that State to the National convention which nominated Horatio Seymour for President. His death occurred at Sarsfield, February 1, 1885. One who knew him well wrote:

"While papers were teeming with tribute to this knightly gentleman, whose services to his State were part of her history in her prime tribute that did him no more than justice, in recounting his public virtues I thought there was another phase of his character which the world did not know and the press did not chronicle that which showed his beautiful kindness and his courtesy to his own household, and especially to his dependents.

"Among all the preachers of the South Carolina Conference, a few remained of those who ever counted it as one of the highest honors conferred upon them by their Lord that it was permitted to them to preach the gospel to the slaves of the Southern plantations. Some of these retained kind recollections of the cordial hospitality shown the plantation missionary at Mulberry and Sandy Hill, and of the care taken at these places that the plantation chapel should be neat and comfortable, and that the slaves should have their spiritual as well as their bodily needs supplied.

"To these it was no matter of surprise to learn that at his death General Chesnut, statesman and soldier, was surrounded by faithful friends, born in slavery on his own plantation, and that the last prayer he ever heard came from the lips of a negro man, old Scipio, his father's body-servant; and that he was borne to his grave amid the tears and lamentations of those whom no Emancipation Proclamation could sever from him, and who cried aloud: 'O my master! my master! he was so good to me! He was all to us! We have lost our best friend! '"

Mrs. Chesnut 's anguish when her husband died, is not to be forgotten ; the 'bitter cry' never quite spent itself, though she was brave and bright to the end. Her friends were near in that supreme moment at Sarsfield, when, on November 22, 1886, her own heart ceased to beat. Her servants had been true to her; no blandishments of freedom had drawn Ellen or Molly away from 'Miss Mary.' Mrs. Chesnut lies buried in the family cemetery at Knight 's Hill, where also sleep her husband and many other members of the Chesnut family."

The Chesnuts settled in South Carolina at the close of the war with France, but lived originally on the frontier of Virginia. Their Virginia home had been invaded by French and Indians, and in an expedition to Fort Duquesne the father was killed. John Chesnut removed from Virginia to South Carolina soon afterward and served in the Revolution as a captain. His son James, the "Old Colonel," was educated at Princeton, took an active part in public affairs in South Carolina, and prospered greatly as a planter. He survived until after the War, being a nonogenarian when the conflict closed. In a charming sketch of him in one of the closing pages of this Diary, occurs the following passage: "Colonel Chesnut, now ninety-three, blind and deaf, is apparently as strong as ever, and certainly as resolute of will. Partly patriarch, partly grand seigneur, this old man is of a species that we shall see no more; the last of a race of lordly planters who ruled this Southern world, but now a splendid wreck."

Three miles from Camden still stands Mulberry. During one of the raids committed in the neighborhood by Sherman's men early in 1865, the house escaped destruction almost as if by accident. The picture of it in this book is from a recent photograph. A change has indeed come over it, since the days when the household servants and dependents numbered between sixty and seventy, and its owner was lord of a thousand slaves. After the war, Mulberry ceased to be the author's home, she and General Chesnut building for themselves another to which they gave the name of Sarsfield. Sarsfield, of which an illustration is given, still stands in the pine lands not far from Mulberry. Bloomsbury, another of old Colonel Chesnut 's plantation dwellings, survived the march of Sherman, and is now the home of David R. Williams, Jr., and Ellen Manning, his wife, whose children roam its halls, as grandchildren of the author's sister Kate. Other Chesnut plantations were Cool Spring, Knight's Hill, The Hermitage, and Sandy Hill. The Diary, as it now exists in forty-eight thin volumes, of the small quarto size, is entirely in Mrs. Chesnut 's handwriting. She originally wrote it on what was known as "Confederate paper," but transcribed it afterward.

When Richmond was threatened, or when Sherman was coming, she buried it or in some other way secreted it from the enemy. On occasion it shared its hiding-place with family silver, or with a drinking-cup which had been presented to General Hood by the ladies of Richmond. Mrs. Chesnut was fond of inserting on blank pages of the Diary current newspaper accounts of campaigns and battles, or lists of killed and wounded. One item of this kind, a newspaper "extra," issued in Chester, S. C., and announcing the assassination of Lincoln, is reproduced in this volume. Mrs. Chesnut, by oral and written bequest, gave the Diary to her friend whose name leads the signatures to this Introduction. In the Diary, here and there, Mrs. Chesnut 's expectation that the work would some day be printed is disclosed, but at the time of her death it did not seem wise to undertake publication for a considerable period. Yellow with age as the pages now are, the only harm that has come to them in the passing of many years, is that a few corners have been broken and frayed, as shown in one of the pages here reproduced in facsimile.

In the summer of 1904, the woman whose office it has been to assist in preparing the Diary for the press, went South to collect material for another work to follow her A Virginia Girl in the Civil War. Her investigations led her to Columbia, where, while the guest of Miss Martin, she learned of the Diary's existence. Soon afterward an arrangement was made with her publishers under which the Diary's owner and herself agreed to condense and revise the manuscript for publication. The Diary was found to be of too great length for reproduction in full, parts of it being of personal or local interest rather than general. The editing of the book called also for the insertion of a considerable number of foot-notes, in order that persons named, or events referred to, might be the better understood by the present generation.

Mrs. Chesnut was a conspicuous example of the wellborn and high-bred woman, who, with active sympathy and unremitting courage, supported the Southern cause. Born and reared when Nullification was in the ascendent, and acquiring an education which developed and refined her natural literary gifts, she found in the throes of a great conflict at arms the impulse which wrought into vital expression in words her steadfast loyalty to the waning fortunes of a political faith, which, in South Carolina, had become a religion.

Many men have produced narratives of the war between the States, and a few women have written notable chronicles of it ; but none has given to the world a record more radiant than hers, or one more passionately sincere. Every line in this Diary throbs with the tumult of deep spiritual passion, and bespeaks the luminous mind, the unconquered soul, of the woman who wrote it.

ISABELLA D. MARTIN,
MYRTA LOCKETT AVARY.

You can read this diary here in pdf format

Note: 1981: Mary Chesnut's Civil War, edited and Introduction by C. Vann Woodward. Reprinted in 1993. This version by C. Vann Woodward retained more of her original work, provides an overview of her life and society in the "Introduction", and was annotated to identify fully the large cast of characters, places and events. You can also order this book through our amazon shopping mall in various formats.


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