The recent republication of Mary Boykin Chestnut’s diary and the insightful introduction by famed author and historian Dr. Catherine Clinton introduces a new generation to the fascinating world of elite women during the Civil War years. As the wife of James Chestnut, former United States Senator, aide to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and later named a general in the Confederate Army, Mary Boykin Chestnut – whether ensconced pre-war in the midst of Washington society, on their plantation in the bucolic South Carolina countryside, or accompanying her husband to Richmond – was surrounded by the elite of Southern society and thus privy to information not always available to the general public.
This fine diary is a classic Civil War story published once again with a delightful introduction by well-known historian, Dr. Catherine Clinton. Although many of the old standard Civil War books are being re-issued as we commemorate the Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War, both new and previous readers of Chestnut’s classic story of the war will benefit from Clinton’s insightful introduction. Mary Boykin Chestnut’s diary tells the story of mid-19th Century men and women caught in the holocaust of Civil War and the eventual destruction of the slaveholding society in the South. Chestnut begins her diary in the late fall of 1860 and concludes on August 2, 1865.
Mary Boykin Chestnut was one of many who followed the young Confederate government from its Mississippi birth to the new capitol of Richmond, Virginia. As Southern society matrons followed their political or military minded family members to the new capitol, many found the company of Mary Boykin Chestnut important. With her husband serving as an aide to the new Southern president and her long friendship with First Lady Varina Davis, Chestnut was much sought after – for the latest news and government plans and also for potential advancement and/or the opportunity to obtain a position within the government or military for family members. Initially, in this capacity she was able to help some – through her husband’s influence; however, as the euphoria following Bull Run and the first early victories evaporated, Chestnut’s diary looks more at the changes surrounding her friends, family, and a concern for survival surfaces along with a more prominent concern for family, friends, and country emerges. In fact, Chestnut, as well as many close friends, lost family members – not only those caused by warfare – and some suffered destruction of property as Northern forces marched through areas of the South. War, as described in her diary, is not kind to individuals or the countryside.
As the war continues and Southern battlefield victories diminish, Boykin writes more of life in a society much diminished financially and emotionally. Both she and friends help with ill and injured soldiers: her descriptions are heart-rending. Concern for family and friends coupled with military reverses placed Chestnut among the many displaced citizens of the Southern states. She vividly describes her harrowing attempts to travel, locate suitable housing, and obtain food in the latter months of the Civil War.
While initially safely ensconced in Richmond where her husband served as an aide to President Davis, she filled her diary with both gentle warmth and wit offset by caustic comments. Mrs. Chestnut tells the tale of the rise and eventual fall of Richmond. Her delightful tales also provide insight into the early maneuvering for position within the Davis government. Throughout the diary, her journal entries reflect the establishment of the Southern nation, the drive for Southern independence, and the fortunes of a war for freedom – a defense from the supposed oppression of the United States and not considered that of a war to liberate their slaves – though that would eventually be the end result of the Civil War. It would, however, require powerful and passionate changes within the Northern president’s office, government officials, “reconstruction” of the Southern states and the people of the North to accomplish that end. Mary Boykin Chestnut’s diary gives the reader a personal view of life during and immediately following the American Civil War.
-Reviewed by Carol Campbell