“The Arrest of a Spy,” in F.W. Dawson, editor, Our Women in the War, 1885
A Diary from Dixie as Written by Mary Boykin Chesnut, Wife of James Chesnut, Jr., United States Senator from South Carolina, 1859-1861, and Afterward an Aide to Jefferson Davis and a Brigadier-General in the Confederate Army, 1905 (Isabella D. Martin and Myrta Lockett Avary, editors)
A Diary from Dixie, 1949, 1980 (Ben Ames Williams, editor)
Mary Chesnut’s Civil War, 1981 (C. Vann Woodward, editor)
The Private Mary Chesnut: The Unpublished Civil War Diaries, 1984 (C. Vann Woodward and Elizabeth Muhlenfeld, editors)
Two Novels, 2002 (posthumous publication of The Captain and the Colonel and Two Years: Or, The Way We Lived Then)
Mary Boykin Chesnut, who wrote one of the most perceptive books on Confederate life during the Civil War, was the eldest daughter of Stephen D. Miller and Mary Boykin Miller. Her mother belonged to a respected plantation-owning piedmont family, whereas her father came from a farmer’s family. After graduating from South Carolina College, Stephen Miller had become a lawyer, and he later served in the state senate where he was an advocate of state’s rights. In 1828, he was elected governor and served in the U.S. Senate from 1830 to 1833.
Between 1833 and the spring of 1835, Mary attended Stella Phelps’s school for young ladies in Camden and then was enrolled in a French boarding school in Charleston conducted by Madame Ann Marsan Talvande. There she became fluent in French. In 1836, Mary joined her family at her father’s plantation in Mississippi and for a short time experienced life on what was then still the frontier. Four years later, she married James Chesnut, the twenty-five-year-old son of a prominent planter.
During the next twenty years, Mary Boykin Chesnut, now the wife of the heir of a wealthy Southern planter, led a comfortable life based on a slave economy. Her husband’s political career developed during this time, and after his election to the U.S. Senate in 1858, Mary accompanied him to Washington, D.C., where she was enthralled by the social and political activities.
Chesnut was traveling in the Deep South when Abraham Lincoln was elected president. Her husband was the first Southern senator to resign his seat. The Chesnuts thereupon went to Montgomery, Alabama, where they witnessed the birth of the Confederacy. Realizing the importance of what was happening, Chesnut decided to keep a journal to record her daily activities (she ultimately filled at least ten volumes, perhaps more). She was in Charleston when Fort Sumter was shelled, and she spent portions of the war years in Camden and Columbia, South Carolina, as well as in Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital, where she socialized with the leading figures of the Confederacy, among them Varina Davis, the wife of President Jefferson Davis, who became a good friend.
The last twenty years of Chesnut’s life were much less exciting and financially more insecure than her younger years. The Chesnuts’ income was drastically reduced as a result of postwar economic conditions and past debts, but a butter and egg business, carried on with the help of the Chesnuts’ black maid, brought in some money. Toward the end of her life, Chesnut lamented the fact that she had not had children of her own, but she found solace in her sister’s children, who were frequent guests of the Chesnuts.
Throughout her life, Chesnut loved to read, and she managed to find books and periodicals even during the war. In the early 1870’s, when reading matter was particularly scarce, she helped to run a book pool. It was at this time that she found an outlet from the stress of her reduced circumstances through writing. Besides undertaking the translation of some French fiction and writing down some family history, she also wrote three novels: The Captain and the Colonel, based on her observations and experiences in the war; Two Years: Or, The Way We Lived Then, a memoir; and “Manassas,” of which only a few pages survive. The first two were finally published in 2002. The only work published during her lifetime was the short article “The Arrest of a Spy,” which appeared in April, 1884, in a Charleston newspaper and for which she received ten dollars.
In 1875, Chesnut turned to her wartime journal and began refining it, eliminating passages she considered too personal and supplying missing data; of the original journal, only four hundred pages survive. Between 1881 and 1883, however, she undertook an extensive revision of the work from the perspective of almost twenty years later. At that stage, she changed the original journal considerably, embellishing original passages and using skills she had learned from writing her novels. The resulting forty-eight volumes of this revision, which were published twenty years after her death, made Mary Chesnut famous as a diarist (more accurately a memorialist) of the Civil War. This work and the original revision show her to have been a “feminine” and intelligent woman who was a good conversationalist, a shrewd judge of human nature, and an independent thinker when it came to such institutions as slavery.