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Celebrating 100 Years of a Unique Southern Voice: Mary Chesnut's A Diary from Dixie

Though Mary Boykin Miller Chesnut's A Diary from Dixie remained unpublished until 1905, nineteen years after her death, many critics since have labeled it one of the most important southern literary works of the nineteenth century. The editors of the first edition claim that "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." Documenting the American South invites you to celebrate the 100th anniversary of this unique Civil War journal.

Chesnut was born March 31, 1823 in Statesboro, South Carolina. Her father, Stephen Decatur Miller, was a former U.S. congressman and became governor of South Carolina in 1826. Mary wed James Chesnut, Jr. on April 23, 1840, and the couple lived in South Carolina until James' election to the U.S. Senate in 1858 took them to Washington. After Abraham Lincoln's election, they left the city to join South Carolina's secession movement. James became a brigadier-general in the Confederate army and served as an aide to Jefferson Davis and General P.G.T. Beauregard. Mary often traveled with her husband on his military assignments and kept a series of diaries. A Diary from Dixie chronicles these journeys across the South. The trips—which included stops in Charleston, South Carolina; Montgomery, Alabama; Richmond, Virginia; and Flat Rock, North Carolina—brought her into intimate contact with important southern figures such as Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis. These unique experiences allow her to represent vividly the effects of the war on individuals as well as on life in the South as a whole.

The Chesnuts wanted to bring Mary's stories to the public but could not secure a publisher for the diaries in the 1870s. Mary also tried to produce three novels; however, these also remained unpublished. When she died on November 22, 1889, she was still hard at work on revisions of A Diary from Dixie.

A Diary from Dixie is part of the "First-Person Narratives of the American South" digital collection, which includes diaries, autobiographies, memoirs, travel accounts, and ex-slave narratives written by southerners whose voices were less prominent in their time, including African Americans, women, enlisted men, laborers, and Native Americans.

Jennifer L. Larson