This epic memoir and narrative spans the years of 1861 to 1865—the years of the American Civil War—and captures all that one woman, Mary Chesnut, saw, heard, and felt during this tumultuous time in American history.
Mary Chesnut was a privileged woman born into a prominent South Carolina planter family in 1863. She attended a French boarding school for girls in Charleston and at the age of seventeen married James Chesnut, Jr. In 1858, James Chesnut was elected the U.S. Senator from South Carolina. Mary became a lady of society, hostess, and distinguished first lady in Washington, and she carried out her roll of senatorial wife extraordinarily well.
The diary opens on November 8, 1860, as Mary describes being on a train and learning that Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the United States. From this moment onward, Mary vowed to “tell the story in my own way” (p. 1). Indeed, following Lincoln’s election and the South’s secession from the Union, Mary declared herself an unofficial observer of the goings-on around her, and she faithfully recorded everything she deemed noteworthy in her diary.
Mary continued to record her impressions over the next five years as she traveled throughout the South with her husband. After the secession, James Chesnut resigned from his post as U.S. Senator and became an aide to the Confederate president Jefferson Davis. As a result of her husband’s prominent position within the government, Mary was privy to information that was not common knowledge and traveled within a circle of influential figures. In her diary, she made note of what was said by visitors to her home, many who played key roles in the Civil War.
In addition to military news and information about the state of the Confederacy, Mary also recorded her personal opinions of those she encountered. She shared dinner party stories, discussed fashion, and shared humorous moments between James Chestnut and herself. She listed the deaths as they mounted among her family and friends and recorded with growing sadness the number of battles lost as the inevitable outcome of the war unraveled before her eyes.
The diary, one of the most frequently cited memoirs of the war, is rich with details about the men and women who live in our history books today. The diary mentions race, finances, and wartime sacrifices. It struggles, in many ways, to come to terms with the notion of freedom. Mary Chesnut’s Diary gives readers a first-hand glimpse into the life of one woman living during a time of a nation divided and a future uncertain for all involved.
Mary Boykin Chesnut (1823 – 1886) married James Chesnut, Jr., at the age of seventeen. Her writings were first published in 1905.
Catherine Clinton is a writer, scholar, and professor. She holds a chair in American history at Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland where she founded and heads a postgraduate program in American history. She is a member of the Advisory Council of Ford’s Theatre Foundation in Washington, D.C., the Virginia Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission, and serves on the editorial boards of Civil War History and Civil War Times. She wrote her first book, ThePlantation Mistress: Woman’s World in the Old South, in 1982. The Christian Science Monitor and the Chicago Tribunenamed one of her biographies, Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom, among the best nonfiction books of 2004.
Q. You were born in Seattle, raised in Kansas City, and have lived in many different cities across the United States, including Richmond, Virginia, and Spartanburg, South Carolina. Now that you are settled in Northern Ireland, describe how the various places in which you have lived have piqued your interest in the American Civil War. Was any one place of primary influence?
I spent my formative years in Kansas City, and much like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, I had dreams of other places. I spent a year abroad after completing my undergraduate degree at Harvard and my year in an American Studies program at the University of Sussex broadened my horizons considerably, and perhaps kept me spinning, in terms of my academic interests. I was fascinated by the fact that so many foreigners believed America was strongly defined by its Civil War and the significance of slavery in shaping America’s past. I have always been particularly fond of travel and encouraged people to learn more about themselves by venturing out into the world, beyond comfortable boundaries. I also believe what Faulkner reminded us: “A fish doesn’t think much about the meaning of water, until the fish is out of the water.”
Q. What were your initial reactions when you first came across Mary Chesnut’s memoir as an undergraduate? How would you compare Mary’s diary to other personal narratives of the Civil War?
When I first encountered Mary Chesnut’s diary, I was astonished by the vibrancy and intensity of her prose—the way she used equal doses of wit and pathos to beguile readers. In her own day, her bracing insights might have been judged vulgar, but for me they were riveting. After I had read over a hundred published collections of letters, journals, and memoirs, I was even more awestruck by her accomplishment, as she still reigns as one of the most vivid diarists of the age. Her distinctive voice—whether what she is saying is “right” or “wrong”—allows us to eavesdrop on the past.
Q. In addition to the wartime discussion of battles and deaths, the diary is full of humorous tidbits of life for Mary Chesnut in the South during secession. Can you talk about your favorite moment in the diary?
I am most fond of Chesnut when her tart observations hit the mark—as when a Yankee woman magazine writer abuses the South, but Chesnut skewers her, as she “used ‘incredible’ for ‘incredulous,’ I said not a word in defense of my native land. I left her ‘incredible.’ Another person came in, while she was pouring upon me her home troubles, and asked if she did not know I was a Carolinian. Then she gracefully reversed her engine, and took the other tack, sounding our praise, but I left her incredible and I remained incredulous, too” (p. 10).
Q. What is your background and how did you decide to become a writer? A scholar? Who are your influences?
I was very interested in writing from an early age and very lucky to have such wonderful mentors who helped me to thrive. My first experience writing was thanks to kindly teachers who mentored me, and I remember being published while still in grade school. My favorite aunt was a professor of English who kept me supplied with wonderful books like the Brothers Karamazovand Middlemarch. Being taken seriously at an early age encouraged me to take myself seriously.
Q. Throughout the diary there are examples of Mary Chesnut playing the role of the quintessential Southern belle, and yet at other moments she surprises the reader with her quick wit and brutal honesty. How does Mary Chesnut defy the stereotypes of her time?
During my earliest readings about slavery, I was convinced that the sexual double standard was key to understanding the system—most especially the way in which African American women were exploited by plantation masters during the antebellum era. I was fascinated by the psychosexual aspects of the system, and thunderstruck by those flashes when Chesnut dropped the veil and exposed slavery’s wrongs: “But what do you say to this—to a magnate who runs a hideous black harem with its consequences, under the same roof with his lovely white wife and his beautiful and accomplished daughters? He holds his head high and poses as the model of all human virtues to these poor women whom God and the laws have given him… You see Mrs. Stowe did not hit the sorest spot. She makes Legree a bachelor” (pp. 99–100). These rare but riveting moments bring alive women’s dilemmas in the Old South—for black women as well as white women. Chesnut was one of the few southern white women to break the silence on these issues.
Q. “Mary Chesnut was, above all, a propagandist for her class,” you write on page xxi of your introduction to the memoir. Can you expand this statement further? Do you think Mary was motivated to write in part to justify her belief in the establishment of slavery?
Mary Chesnut was like so many of the women of the ruling elite—whitewashing slavery as part of their patriotic duty, part of her cultural DNA. She deluded herself about blacks, describing them alternately as childlike and scheming. Her logic dead-ends as she wanders in the maze. She struggled with the contradictions such a hypocritical analysis imposed on white Americans, particularly southerners who knew better but feared severe withdrawal pains if they did not feed their addictions for delusion.
Q. There is an undeniable allure to Mary Chesnut and her diary, despite the glaring racism and class consciousness of the author. Why do you think we are drawn to Mary’s words? Is it “for what it reveals, as much as what it attempts to disguise”(p. xxii)?
Mary Chesnut was deeply caught up in the tangled threads she wove and rewove to produce her own historical tapestry, her own vivid version of the commonly agreed upon narrative. So not only the story, but the storytellers become the fabric of these Confederate fables. Chesnut called her writing “spinning her own entrails,” and compared herself to a spider. But still, with all her posing and revising, she often let the mask slip so we might gaze behind the scenes. We are drawn into her prose because of this sense that we are being given a clandestine view. It is this subversive, suggestive quality that reels readers in.
Q. If Mary Chesnut were alive today, who might be her role model?
Clearly, Mary Chesnut was a unique personality, and I cannot predict who she might seek as a mentor or exemplar, but I suspect that she would be delighted to find Hillary Clinton had been enlisted as Secretary of State and a former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin is weighing her options for the 2012 presidential race. And I predict that Chesnut would emulate Arianna Huffington. She would well wish the Internet had been around during her era so she might have earned more than the $10 she received for her only publication during her lifetime. Thus Chesnut could well be eager to blog. (She is already on Facebook and has been friended by Mary Lincoln and Harriet Tubman.)
Q. As a scholar and writer, how do you come to terms with the shortsightedness of Americans during the era of the Civil War? Do you find it difficult to keep your personal beliefs out of your scholarly research?
I find it fairly strange that we are expected to write without having personal beliefs… we all do and the more we try to hide them, the more we call attention to them. As scholars it’s not our job to suppress our beliefs any more than it is to celebrate them. As historians, it is our job to provide a fair and balanced assessment of the evidence we uncover, and to cogently develop our arguments in light of the historical context we develop—as well as within the context of who we are, when we are, to whom we are addressing our ideas, and (last but not least) why? After all, we pick the compelling stories we strive to tell. We may not agree with many or most of what our research hath wrought, and truths may not be self-evident, but whose truth and whose self? We are not required to abandon perspective, but to explain perspective and to create a context within which each of us can better appreciate the complexities of the past.
Q. What is next for you as a writer? As a scholar?
I will be completing a project on manhood, suicide, and the American Civil War during the Sesquicentennial years, demonstrating that there is always something new to research when you work on the American Civil War. It’s a field that seems to never lie fallow, still fertile and enriching, a century and a half later. And after the Sesquicentennial, there’s always the Centenary of World War I and Edith Wharton’s fascinating role within this era. So commemorations and fascinating women continue to lure me backward and forward.