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Source: From ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SOUTHERN CULTURE edited by Charles Reagan Wilson and William Ferris Copyright (c) 1989 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher.

Mary Boykin Miller Chesnut, 1823-1886

Chesnut, Mary Boykin Miller 1823-1886, Diarist and Author Mary Boykin Miller Chesnut was born 31 March 1823 in Stateboro[*], S.C., eldest child of Mary Boykin and Stephen Decatur Miller, who had served as U.S. congressman and senator and in 1826 was elected governor of South Carolina as a proponent of nullification. Educated first at home and in Camden schools, Mary Miller was sent at 13 to a French boarding school in Charleston, where she remained for two years broken by a six-month stay on her father's cotton plantation in frontier Mississippi. In 1838 Miller died and Mary returned to Camden. On 23 April 1840 she married James Chesnut, Jr. (1815-85), only surviving son of one of South Carolina's largest landowners.

Chesnut spent most of the next 20 years in Camden and at Mulberry, her husband's family plantation. When James was elected to the Senate in 1858, his wife accompanied him to Washington where friendships were begun with many politicians who would become the leading figures of the Confederacy, among them Varina and Jefferson Davis. Following Lincoln's election, James Chesnut returned to South Carolina to participate in the drafting of an ordinance of secession and subsequently served in the Provisional Congress of the Confederate States of America. He served as aide to General P.G.T. Beauregard and President Jefferson Davis, and he achieved the rank of general. During the war, Mary accompanied her husband to Charleston, Montgomery, Columbia, and Richmond, her drawing room always serving as a salon for the Confederate elite. From February 1861 to July 1865 she recorded her experiences in a series of diaries, which became the principal source materials for her famous portrait of the Confederacy.

Following the war, the Chesnuts returned to Camden and worked unsuccessfully to extricate themselves from heavy debts. After a first abortive attempt in the 1870s to smooth the diaries into publishable form, Mary Chesnut tried her hand at fiction. She completed but never published three novels, then in the early 1880s expanded and extensively revised her diaries into the book now known as Mary Chesnut's Civil War (first published in truncated and poorly edited versions in 1905 and 1949 as A Diary From Dixie.

Although unfinished at the time of her death on 22 November 1886, Mary Chesnut's Civil War is generally acknowledged today as the finest literary work of the Confederacy. Spiced by the author's sharp intelligence, irreverent wit, and keen sense of irony and metaphorical vision, it uses a diary format to evoke a full, accurate picture of the South in civil war. Chesnut's book, valued as a rich historical source, owes much of its fascination to its juxtaposition of the loves and griefs of individuals against vast social upheaval and much of its power to the contrasts and continuities drawn between the antebellum world and a war-torn country.

Elisabeth Muhlenfeld
Florida State University

Elisabeth Muhlenfeld, Mary Boykin Chesnut: A Biography (1981); C. Vann Woodward, ed., Mary Chesnut's Civil War (1981), with Elisabeth Muhlenfeld, eds., The Private Mary Chesnut: The Unpublished Civil War Diaries (1985).

*NOTE: The South Carolina Encyclopedia (2006) states that she was born was born near Stateburg, not Stateboro.

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