It is just as well Harriet Beecher Stowe knew nothing about Mary Chesnut.
The child of fervently puritanical parents and driven by her abolitionist beliefs to write “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Stowe created an incredibly successful and influential novel although she had no firsthand knowledge of her subject. It was serialized in the National Era in 1851, in the year before it appeared in book form.
Stowe was convinced that all slaveholders were brutish oppressors (as some undoubtedly were), but what would she have made of Mary Boykin Miller, who as a young girl taught slaves on two plantations to read and write although this was strictly forbidden in South Carolina? Both she and the man she married were opposed to slavery.
In every regard, Mary Chesnut, as she became, was a remarkable woman. On the one hand a witty and popular gossip, she was on the other shrewd, perceptive, lacking in illusions and capable of writing a highly personal work the like of which, at a time of uncertainty and danger, had never appeared before, nor has again.
Hardly likely to revise her beliefs, Stowe probably would have dismissed Mary as an irrelevance, an aberration of the plantocracy.
Mary was born March 31, 1823, at Pleasant Hill, a plantation near Camden, but grew up on Plane Hill, another one, near Statesburg. She was the first child of Stephen Decatur Miller, for a time governor of South Carolina, and the former Mary Boykin, who was 19 when her daughter was born. A bright youngster, Mary entered Madame Talvande’s French School for Young Ladies in Charleston in 1835, and when she left in 1838, she spoke French fluently. She had been well-educated.
She was just 17 when in 1840 she married James Chesnut Jr., the son of wealthy parents, and settled at Mulberry, a luxurious plantation home where all the Chesnuts resided. Taking little or no part in the running of the plantation but sometimes acting as a hostess, Mary seems to have been contented enough.
James served first in the state legislature and then in 1855 became a U.S. senator. By nature gregarious, if at time capable of caustic comment, Mary had a well-attended salon in Washington. She became and remained a close friend of Varina Davis, future first lady of the Confederacy, although at first the two women did not get on well.
Then came secession. James Chestnut resigned, and back they went to Mulberry before moving to Montgomery and then to Richmond after Virginia left the Union. The Chesnuts’ marriage was childless; perhaps that was just as well, considering what was to befall them.
Mary never lost her distaste of slavery. As a child on her paternal grandparents’ plantation, she had rescued a slave there from illiteracy with her grandmother’s consent. It was an establishment where slaves were treated humanely. She again broke the law at Mulberry, also with family permission, by teaching other slaves to read and write.
She commenced her diary as the South began to understand how formidable the forces were that were mustering to crush the Confederacy. James may have disliked slavery, but he was an ardent secessionist, serving on Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard’s staff, initially as a brigadier general and ultimately as a general. Although he saw action at First Manassas, his were primarily administrative duties.
Mary’s voluminous journal was filled with opinions, not always favorable, of those who guided the destiny of the fledgling Confederacy and to some degree contributed to its downfall.
She personally witnessed indecision, infighting and bitter rivalries among them. Reading her work, one realizes how aware she was of the inadequacies of Jefferson Davis’ administration. Perhaps she even sensed the disastrous outcome of the struggle for Southern independence.
She also revealed the privations endured by civilians as the blockade tightened its grip. Women could go without fashionable garments, but prices spiraled ever higher, and food became so scarce that the specter of starvation was never far away. This is a word portrait of the Confederacy at bay, always enthralling for its scope and honesty.
When the Confederacy collapsed, the Chesnuts returned to the wreck of their home. The plantation was lost to them, sold to pay off massive debts. They became small-time farmers. Mary was aided loyally by Molly, who had been her maid, a slave who repaid the kindness she had received. Assuredly, Stowe would not have understood this.
The struggle to survive was desperate, worsened by the increasing ill health of both Mary and James, the former troubled by heart and lung problems.
Despite the daunting situation in which she found herself, Mary began to revise her journal. Some of it had to be deleted as being of a highly personal nature, but much possibly might be published at a future date. It was a task she never finished.
She made three unsuccessful attempts to get novels published, but fiction seems not to have been her forte. She was 63 when she died at Camden on Nov. 22, 1886, her husband having died on Feb. 1, 1885.
Mary never referred to her journal as “A Diary From Dixie,” which was a title used by the Saturday Evening Post when part of her work was serialized in 1905, the year of the book’s publication. Both this edition and another published in 1949 were poorly edited. Not until C. Vann Woodward’s “Mary Chesnut’s Civil War” won acclaim in 1981 did her diary receive the treatment it deserved.
“Nothing but tall, blackened chimneys to show that any man had ever trod this road before,” Mary Boykin Chesnut wrote, summing up in a single sentence the tragedy of a cause utterly lost. Ironically, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s subsequent novels never achieved anything like the success of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” which President Lincoln had told her started the Civil War.
Peter Cliffe, a retired corporate administrator, lives in Hertfordshire, England. He became interested in the Civil War while working with a multinational firm in this country.