Born on March 31, 1823 into an aristocratic family in Statesburg, South Carolina, Chesnut received all the benefits her family background afforded her. She was educated at an exclusive boarding school in Charleston, yet she was also well groomed in the domestic arts. Married at seventeen to James Chesnut, she left her childhood behind to move in with her husband's parents at his family plantation, Mulberry, near Camden, South Carolina. However, she was given little to do; her mother-in-law retained control over the household. Further complicating her situation was her inability to bear children, and the first twenty years of her marriage offered few outlets for her frustration.
Chesnut's fortunes changed in 1858 with the election of her husband to the U.S. Senate. The couple moved to Washington, D.C., where she became acquainted with many of the prominent politicians of the day including Jefferson and Varina Davis. Chesnut began to keep her diary in 1861, after James resigned his seat in the Senate in protest over the election of Abraham Lincoln as president. However, the commentary in her diary reflects both her centrality and her marginality as a Southern woman. She operated within the structure of Southern society, staunchly supporting the war, and enjoying the privilege of a slave society, yet she also criticized social conventions. Although she harbored an aversion to slavery, her allegiance to her class and social standing were much stronger. She was hardly an abolitionist, and her antislavery opinions were, as she termed it, "narrowly self-interested." Her quarrel with the slave system was that it "threatened and degraded her position as a woman." In fact, she criticized Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin for taking "an extraordinary freak of nature and presenting it as a specimen of a class—a common type." She argued that Southern women of her class "hate[d] slavery worse than Mrs. Stowe."
Chesnut used her diary to criticize both slavery and Yankee "interference" and also to record personal information. In 1862, James received a commission as an aide to President of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis, and the Chesnuts moved to Richmond, Virginia. During these years, Chesnut's diary was filled with comments in praise of General Robert E. Lee and her distress concerning the long casualty lists. She noted, "Think of all these young lives sacrificed!" The war, however, took its toll on James, and the couple moved back to South Carolina in April 1864. Chesnut noted, "We are at sea. Our boat has sprung a leak." Nevertheless, as it became apparent that the South was fighting a losing battle, Chesnut was forced to retreat once again, this time to Lincolntown, North Carolina. She wrote, "We had as much right to fight to get out as they had a right to fight to keep us in. If they try to play the masters—anywhere upon the habitable globe I will go, never to see a Yankee. And if I die on the way, so much the better." For Mary Chesnut, the war resulted in the resumption of Northern patriarchy, and upon return to Camden, South Carolina, discovery of the destruction of Mulberry by Union forces. Deeply in debt, the Chesnuts faced new challenges in the postbellum era, complications they had never had to face as members of the elite.
Mary Boykin Chesnut's diary provides not only a glimpse into the life and experiences of a privileged Southern woman, but also a look at one who defied the Southern stereotype. Her diary, however, underwent numerous revisions. At her death in 1886, she left behind many versions of the diary; entire sections between 1862 and 1864 are completely missing and may have been destroyed during the war. Chesnut had begun to revise her diary after the war, but she was forced to stop in the mid-1870s, only to resume in 1881. She continued this task until 1885 and the death of both her husband and her mother, and she never returned to the project. She died in 1886.
Historians need to remember that, as Chesnut worked on her revisions, she was aware of the South's postbellum attitudes toward slavery, and this may explain some of her ambivalence on the subject of slavery. Jennifer Harrison
From ABC-CLIO's Encyclopedia of the American Civil War, David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler, editors
DeCredico, Mary A. Mary Boykin Chesnut: A Confederate Woman's Life. Madison, WI: Madison House, 1996; Muhlenfeld, Elisabeth. Mary Boykin Chesnut: A Biography Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1981; Williams, Ben Ames, ed. Mary Boykin Chesnut: A Diary from Dixie Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1949; Woodward, C. Vann, and Elisabeth Muhlenfeld. The Private Mary Chesnut: The Unpublished Civil War Diaries Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1984.