Mary Chesnut’s Civil War

See image credit below.

See image credit below.

In her book on the American Civil War, Mary Boykin Chesnut, the wife of a Confederate general, describes a woman seeking a pardon for her husband: “She was strong, and her way of telling her story was hard and cold enough. She told it simply, but over and over again, with slight variations as to words – never as to facts. She seemed afraid we would forget.”

This passage is but one of many in the book that signals Chesnut’s desire to tell the story of the South during the Civil War. She wants to document history so that her readers won’t forget. At the same time, she wants to record more than just the facts of history, by telling her story over and over again artfully.

Thirty years ago, I first encountered Chesnut’s writing and fell in love (total love!) with her firsthand, play-by-play accounts of the Civil War. Chesnut lived in or visited various locations throughout the South, most notably Montgomery, Alabama, Columbia, South Carolina, and Richmond, Virginia, where she came into regular contact with the Jefferson Davises and the Robert E. Lees. In every location, she opened her home to others as a social gathering place. Visiting did not end for Chesnut and the other gentile Southern ladies of her community, but now their conversations turned to war.

It was widely known throughout the community that Chesnut kept a detailed diary about her society’s comings and goings and the ladies’ conversations. Because she had had a ringside seat to the Confederacy, friends pressed her to publish the diary after the war. From 1881 to 1884, she worked on a version for publication. She deleted and moved sections, added dialogue and other novel-like detail to create a hybrid of diary, memoir, autobiography, and even to some extent, novel. She wove together accounts of her own experiences with stories that others have told her and created an anthology of anecdotes about members of the Confederate society, a crazy quilt of Civil War lore.

Chesnut writes, “History reveals men’s deeds – their outward characters but not themselves. There is a secret self that hath its own life ‘rounded by a dream’ – unpenetrated, unguessed.” What she attempted to give us in her revision was the “unpenetrated, unguessed” “secret self” of the women in the Confederacy. To be sure, her diary gives us an intimate glimpse into the history of the day – the official, public activities of the men of the Confederacy – but it also brings to vivid life the stories and concerns of the women of the Confederacy. Her revised diary is filled with hundreds of pages of women’s talk, gossip, and conversation, suggesting that to understand the true story of the Confederacy one need only listen more attentively to women’s voices.

Unfortunately, when Chesnut died in 1886, her manuscript was unfinished. A heavily edited and abridged version was published in 1905 as A Diary from DixieGone are the scenes, the dialogue, much of the story Chesnut tried to bring to life in her 1880s revision.

Fast forward to 1981. Eminent Southern historian C. Vann Woodward decided to resurrect the original diaries, creating the Pulitzer-Prize-winning volume, Mary Chesnut’s Civil War.

Suffice it to say, if you want a gripping account of the Civil War from the perspective of the Confederacy, read Mary Chesnut. If you want to learn more about the ideal of the “Southern lady” (the white upper-class Southern lady on her pedestal), read Mary Chesnut. And if you just plain want to listen in on other people’s conversations, read Mary Chesnut.

Should you read A Diary from Dixie or Mary Chesnut’s Civil War? Despite my quibbles with Woodward’s editing, I’d recommend reading his version.

Stay tuned next week for another take on the Civil War, this one also from a woman’s perspective. Laird Hunt’s novel Neverhomefeatures an Indiana woman who disguises herself as a soldier and fights for the Union Army.

Listen: Listen as I read entries from April 1861. These excerpts – which describe the beginning of the Civil War when the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter in South Carolina – are taken from Mary Chesnut’s Civil War (edited by C. Vann Woodward and published in 1981). The clip runs 18 minutes.

Image credit: Portrait of Mary Boykin Chesnut, public domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fw-refugees-chestnut-full.jpg

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