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Book Review

Mary Chesnutís Illustrated Diary: Mulberry Edition Boxed Set

Mary Chesnut’s diary was chosen by the Wall Street Journal as one of the five most important diaries to come out of the Civil War and by as one of the six essential books to read to better understand the conflict. Excerpts from her diary were serialized in 1905 in the Saturday Evening Post. Even so, most Americans to whom her name is now familiar, probably know of her because Ken Burns included excerpts from her diary in his remarkable documentary: The Civil War.

Chesnut’s epic historic narrative records her private conversations with the most prominent leaders of the Southern Confederacy, including her husband, Gen. James Chesnut, Jr.—who resigned his U.S. Senate seat to join the Confederacy—and her striking firsthand observations of military conflicts including the firing on Fort Sumter.

Mary Chesnut’s position as a member of genteel Southern society and wife to an aide to President Jefferson David, afforded her an unparalleled opportunity to garner direct knowledge of the leaders of the Confederacy and their wives and families—the Lees, Prestons, Hamptons, Beauregards, Jacksons, and, most importantly, Jefferson and Varina Davis. She recorded her diary entries at every chance she could find during the chaos of the war years. And, for the next twenty years, she shaped her narrative into what is now hailed as one of the greatest literary epics of her century.

Here is her diary entry about the night Confederate batteries opened fire on Fort Sumter. “There was a sound of stir all over the house, pattering of feed in the corridors. All seemed hurrying one way. I put on my double-gown and a shawl and went, too. It was to the housetop. The shells were bursting. In the dark I heard a man say, ‘Waste of ammunition.’ I knew my husband was rowing about in a boat somewhere in that dark bay, and that the shells were roofing it over, bursting toward the fort. If Anderson [Major Robert Anderson, commander of the Union
forces at Fort Sumter] was obstinate, Colonel Chesnut was to order the fort on one side to open fire. Certainly fire had begun. The regular roar of the cannon, there it was. And who could tell what each volley accomplished of death and destruction?

“The women were wild there on the housetop. Prayers came from the women and imprecations from the men. And then a shell would light up the scene. Tonight they say the forces are to attempt to land. We watched up there, and everybody wondered that Fort Sumter did not fire a shot.

“Last night, or this morning truly up on the housetop I was so weak and weary I sat down on something that looked like a black stool. ‘Get up, you foolish woman. Your dress is one fire,’ cried a man. And he put me out. I was on a chimney and the sparks had caught my clothes.”

She was in favor of the South’s seceding from the Union, but she despaired of the war it would almost certainly bring on. A little more than a month before the attack on Fort Sumter she wrote, “We separated North from South because of incompatibility of temper. We are divorced because we have hated each other so. If we could only separate, a separation a l’agréable’ as the French say it, and not have a horrid fight for divorce.”

As Abraham Lincoln was about to become president, Mary Chesnut shared many Southerners’ low regard for him. On March 1, 1861 she wrote: “Brewster says Lincoln passed through Baltimore disguised, and at night, and that he did well, for just now Baltimore is dangerous ground. [There was, in fact, a plot to assassinate the president-elect in Baltimore.] He says that he hears from all quarters that the vulgarity of Lincoln, his wife, and his son is beyond credence, a thing you must see before you can believe it.”

The Chesnuts’ home, Mulberry Plantation, was, of course, a working plantation of several thousand acres, and the Chesnuts owned slaves. Mary was ambivalent about the arrangement. She wrote: “God forgive us, but ours is a monstrous system, and wrong and iniquity.” On the other hand, she seems to have been perfectly comfortable with having personal servants. In March of 1862 she wrote: “I did leave with regret Maum Mary. She was such a good, well-informed old thing. My Molly, though perfection otherwise, does not receive the confidential communications of new-made generals at the earliest moment. She is of very limited military information. Maum Mary was the comfort of my life. She saved me from all trouble as far as she could. Seventy, if she is a day, she is spry and active as a cat, of a curiosity that knows no bounds, black and clean; also, she knows a joke at first sight, and she is honest.”

Mary watched the slaves for any signs of change in this tumultuous time. During the shelling of Fort Sumter, she wrote: “Not by one word or look can we detect any change in the demeanor of these negro servants. Lawrence sits at our door, sleepy and respectful, and profoundly indifferent. So are they all, but they carry it too far. You could not tell that they even heard the awful roar going on in the Bay, though it has been dinning in their ears night and day. People talk before them as if they were chairs and tables. They make no sign. Are they stolidly stupid? Or wiser than we are; silent and strong, biding their time?”

Two months later she notes a potential change in the attitude of at least some of the slaves. “Yesterday some of the negro men on the plantation were found with pistols. I have never before seen aught about any negro to show that they knew we had a war on hand in which they have any interest.”

We find a less sanguine tone four months later when she wrote: “The negroes on the coast received the Rutledge’s Mounted Rifles apparently with great rejoicings. The troops were gratified to find the negroes in such a friendly state of mind. One servant whispered to his master, ‘Don’t you mind ‘em, don’t trust ‘em’ meaning the negroes. The master then dressed himself as a Federal officer and went down to a negro quarter. The very first greeting was, ‘Ki! Massa, you come fuh ketch rebels? We kin show you way you can ketch thirty to-night.’ They took him to the
Confederate camp, or pointed it out, and then added for his edification, ‘We kin ketch officer fuh you whenever you want ‘em.’”

Even so, the demeanor of the slaves at Mulberry Plantation seems to have remained unchanged throughout the war. On April 23, 1865 (two weeks after Lee surrendered to Grant) Mary observed: “These negroes are unchanged. The shining black mask they wear does not show a ripple of change; they are sphinxes. Ellen has had my diamonds to keep for a week or so. When the danger was over she handed them back to me with as little apparent interest in the matter as if they had been garden peas.”

She anguished at the plight of Confederate soldiers as the war wore on. We can see this in her entry for July 12, 1862: “Browne told us there was a son of the Duke of Somerset in Richmond. He laughed his fill at our ragged, dirty soldiers, but he stopped his laughing when he saw them under fire. Our men strip the Yankee dead of their shoes, but will not touch the shoes of a comrade. Poor fellows, they are nearly barefoot.”

By July of 1864 the awful cost of the war has become clear to her. “When I remember all the true-hearted, the light-hearted, the gay and gallant boys who have come laughing, singing and dancing in my way in the three years now past; how I have looked into their brave young eyes and helped them as I could in every way and then saw them no more forever; how they lie stark and cold, dead upon the battle-field, or moldering away in hospitals or prisons, which is worse—I think if I consider the long array of those bright youths and loyal men who have gone totheir death almost before my very eyes, my heart might break, too. Is
anything worth it—this fearful sacrifice, this awful penalty we pay for war?”

And she fully understands the Union strategy that has brought death to so many of these bright youths—and the man who devised this strategy—Grant. On New Years Day, 1864 she wrote: “He [Grant] don’t care a snap if men fall like the leaves fall; he fights to win, that chap does. He is not distracted by a thousand side issues; he does not see them. He is narrow and sure—sees only in a straight line.”

We can see her coming to grips with the harsh realities of the war in her May 27, 1864 entry: “Read to-day the list of killed and wounded [probably from the battle of the Wilderness and the battle at Spottsylvania Court House]. One long column was not enough for South Carolina’s dead. I see Mr. Federal Secretary Stanton says he can reenforce [sic.] Suwarrow Grant at his leisure whenever he calls for more. He has just sent him 25,000 veterans. Old Lincoln says, in his quaint backwoods way, ‘Keep a-peggin.’ Now we can only peg out. What have we left of
men, etc., to meet these ‘reenforcements as often as reenforcements are called for?’ Our fighting men have all gone to the front; only old men and little boys are at home now.”

We also get a sense of how the war took its toll on the Southern population. In February of 1865 Mary wrote: “Trying to brave it out. They have plenty, yet let our men freeze and starve in their prisons. Would you be willing to be as wicked as they are? A thousand times, no! But we must feed our army first—if we can do so much as that. Our captives need not starve if Lincoln would consent to exchange prisoners; but men are nothing to the United States—things to throw away. If they send our men back they strengthen our army, and so again their policy is to keep
everybody and everything here in order to help starve us out. That, too, is what Sherman’s destruction means—to starve us out.”

She no longer sees Lincoln as the vulgar clown, but bitterly, as the man who put Grant in charge of the Union army. “You never hear now of Lincoln’s nasty fun; only of his wisdom. Doesn’t take much soap and water to wash the hands that the rod of empire sway. They talked of Lincoln’s drunkenness, too. Now, since Vicksburg they have not a word to say against Grant’s habits. He has the disagreeable habit of not retreating before irresistible veterans.”

Mary Chesnut’s Civil War Photograph Album is the perfect complement to the diary. The diary is a wonder in itself, but the photograph album is a wealth of additional information. In it we can see her determination to create a valuable historical artifact. Mary collected some 200 wartime photographs, many of them the cartes de visite made popular by the technological wonder of the day—photography. She collected photographs of abolitionists, spies, bold cavalry raiders, scouts, foreign journalists, and royal heads of state in Europe to whom the South appealed for help. She also had a photograph taken of Molly, her personal slave. In addition to the photographs she collected during the war, she
wrote to Mrs. Robert E. Lee, General John Bell Hood, and others after requesting photographs. She even included photographs of Napoleon III, Charles Louis Napoleon Bonaparte (the last monarch of France), Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and Pope Pius IX. The photographs are arranged alphabetically, so it is easy to find individuals. Many of the photographs are also printed in miniature in the margins of the diary.

Footnotes to the diary are rather sparse, and sometimes, in reading through the diary, one encounters unfamiliar names—names Mary apparently assumed a reader would know. This is where the photograph album is a real boon. Not only do we get to see many of the people she discusses, but through the accompanying text we also get a fuller understanding of their places in the events of the day.

It is a wonder the album even exists. Mary’s three original albums were in the family for decades, but disappeared from the home of a family member in 1931. Then, Martha M. Daniels explains in the introduction: “…they became separated for an unknown period of time and then were found hundreds of miles apart in old bookstores. They were sold separately and passed quietly through the hands of Civil War collectors. One collector began to dismantle the albums and sell off prize photographs. Before too much damage was done, the albums were
saved—purchased in 1985 by Dr. John O’Brien of West Virginia, an eminent historian who knew their significance. He did not know about Mary Chesnut’s family and our search for the albums. We did not know about him.

“Then, in November 2007, the albums surfaced on eBay, only three days before they were to be sold at live auction. We decided that we would try to bring them home. Just before Christmas, 102 years after the publication of A Diary from Dixie, Mary Chesnut’s photograph album came to Mulberry Plantation in South Carolina—home of James and Mary Chesnut, now a National Historic Landmark and still our family home.” The albums will ultimately be reunited with the diaries in a library at the University of South Carolina.