Notable South Carolinians- Mary Boykin Chesnut
South Carolina is often referenced when our nation’s Civil War is discussed. On December 20, 1860 we became the first state to secede from a Union we helped form. South Carolinians fired the war’s first shots on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor on April 12, 1861. Our state also had a brief visit from General Sherman that still whispers in the wind. Most major battles during the war were fought in Virginia and Tennessee. Still, many South Carolinians made names for themselves in the bloody struggle that claimed 600,000 lives. Wade Hampton III, Joseph Kershaw, States Rights Gist and Milledge Luke Bonham were just a few names of Sandlappers who fought valiantly for the CSA. These soldiers have long been revered for their leadership and sacrifice. One of the state’s greatest icons during the war was not a man who fought in any battles. In fact, this idealistic personality wasn’t a man at all. She was a strong willed belle from the High Hills of Santee. She kept a personal diary that chronicled her experiences during the Civil War. Her account of the epic conflict became the greatest piece of Confederate literature ever written. Her name was Mary Boykin Chesnut.
Mary Boykin Miller was born on March 31, 1823 to Mary Boykin and Stephen Decatur Miller on her grandparents plantation near Stateburg, South Carolina. The Miller Family was prosperous and highly educated. Stephen Miller served in the House of Representatives before his election as Governor of South Carolina in 1828. Mary Miller was blessed with the tools to succeed at an early age. As an adolescent she displayed her cunning intellect and independent spirit. She was sent to a French Huguenot school in Charleston called Madame Talvande’s French School for Young Ladies. Here the young Miller received an education that was unparalleled. Mary became fluent in German and French while discovering her talent for writing. She also developed a love for music and the arts. At the age of 13 she was introduced to James Chesnut, Jr. at her exclusive Charleston school. Chesnut, a native of Camden, was educated at the College of New Jersey. James hailed from one of the wealthiest families in Kershaw County. His father, James Sr., owned several local plantations. Despite being eight years her senior, Chesnut was smitten with Mary Boykin Miller.
Mary Miller and James Chesnut became immediate friends. Soon a romance began to blossom. In the 1830′s women married much younger than they do today. Still, their age gap was one that caused concerns for the Miller family. They thought Mary was too young to be pursued by Chesnut. Despite objection from her family, Mary and James both knew they were a good match. Mary was outspoken and passionate, while she described James as “cool and reserved” in his temperament. Both Mary and James were highly respected people. Despite their high social standing they both treated people with the utmost respect. Shortly after the pair began to court, James Chesnut was admitted to the South Carolina bar. Two years later the couple decided to tie the knot. In the spring of 1840 Mary Miller and James Chesnut were married. Mary Chesnut was only seventeen, yet she had matured well beyond her years.
The Chesnuts started their new life together at Mulberry Plantation, three miles south of Camden. Life was good for the Chesnuts in the waning years of the Antebellum South. James was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives in the same year of their marriage. He served in this capacity for twelve years. For Mary Chesnut, life on the plantation was fairly dull and complacent. She bided her time by listening to the latest society gossip, singing and playing her guitar. She had become an accomplished musician while attending school in Charleston. One of the most pleasurable things Mary Chesnut did during these years was teaching slave children to read and write. This was something she also did as a young child. She gladly repeated this courageous offense as an adult. The punishment for teaching slaves to read and write in Antebellum South Carolina was severe.
In 1858 James Chesnut was elected to the United States Senate on the Democratic ticket. Though he wanted slavery to remain in place, he did not seek a dissolved Union. When Abraham Lincoln was elected President many Southerners became enraged. Lincoln’s promise of slavery’s abolishment threatened their way of life. Chesnut became the first Southern senator to resign his post. Mary began her famous diary in November of 1860 with her reaction to Lincoln’s election. Chesnut was certainly no fan of the revered son of Springfield, yet she respected his honesty and courage in the face of a crumbling nation. South Carolina became the first state to secede on December 20th. Many people were overjoyed with this decision, not knowing what tumult lied ahead. Ten more Southern states followed our lead, forming the Confederate States of America.
Mary Chesnut first believed the conflict would be resolved without bloodshed. In early Spring 1861, James was selected as an aid to General P.G.T. Beauregard. Fort Sumter was the lone fort in South Carolina held by the Federal Army. Beauregard asked Major Robert Anderson to give up Sumter without a fight. Anderson politely refused. The Confederates began the bombardment of Fort Sumter. The Civil War had begun. The ironic twist was that Beauregard studied under Robert Anderson at West Point. Mary was there in Charleston with James when the battle began. She watched from a high rooftop as cannons lit up the night sky. After bombarding Fort Sumter for an extended period of time, James Chesnut took a boat to Sumter to accept Anderson’s terms for surrender. Robert Anderson thanked Chesnut for his gracious terms and said he hoped the two would one day meet again as brothers in heaven.
South Carolina was filled with optimism early in the conflict. There was spotty hand to hand combat with both sides boasting of a quick and virtually painless war. Mary was one of these great optimists. She was in Richmond with her husband when he fought at the Battle of Bull Run. Mrs. Chesnut spoke of the great feelings of Southern Patriotism running through the Confederate capital. A few days later Mary witnessed her first army hospital. After viewing multiple amputations and deaths, her romanticized view of the war came to a screeching halt. Chesnut also viewed the Confederate leadership as lacking, noting she could have done better if given the chance. Unfortunately, as a 19th Century woman she was given no such opportunity. The war raged on much longer than anyone foresaw. Despite many victories the South was slowly running out of steam. The Union Army had more than three times the man power of the Confederate Army. The South fought valiantly but the Federals boasted every economic advantage and held most of the intangibles. In May of 1863, Confederate Titan Stonewall Jackson died shortly after being shot by his own men. Two months later the Confederacy was dealt another huge blow at Gettysburg. Mary Chesnut’s life, along with many prosperous Southerners, would change forever.
By 1864 the Confederate Army was a sad sight. Chesnut noted the poor living conditions the soldiers faced each day. Many of these men had very few clothes or shoes to wear. Ammunition was low, or simply non-existent in some cases. Disease and malnourishment became commonplace. Major Confederate cities were taken. In the Fall of 1864 General William Tecumseh Sherman began his famous March to the Sea. After Sherman made Georgia “howl”, he plowed his way through the heart of South Carolina. He was met with little resistance. The only place Sherman’s torrid pace was slowed was at Rivers Bridge in southern Bamberg County. Chesnut spoke of the fear Sherman and his troops struck in their hearts. By this time Confederate money was worth next to nothing. Mrs. Chesnut was forced to sell her old clothes to buy food for survival. At the war’s conclusion the South was left in considerable ruins. The Chesnuts went from great prosperity to desolation in the span of five years. After the war the resourceful Mary Chesnut ran a business selling milk and eggs. She partnered with one of her former slaves to make a decent living during this time. James Chesnut paid his former slaves what little he could to help restore Mulberry Plantation. The home had been looted by Union forces during the war.
In 1873 James and Mary Chesnut built a simpler home in Camden they called Sarsfield. Mulberry Plantation was to go only to James, Sr.’s male heirs. James Jr. feared Mary would have nowhere to live if he died before her. Mary Boykin Chesnut published only one story from her diary in her lifetime. This story, titled “The Arrest of a Spy”, appeared in the Charleston Weekly News and Courier. By 1880 Mary began to have problems with her lungs and heart. During this time she was forced to stop editing her diary. She also watched her mother and James fall into bad health in the early part of the decade. Mary Boykin Miller and James Chesnut both passed away in the Winter of 1885. Having no children of her own, Mary Chesnut found life to be extremely difficult without her husband’s companionship. She lived the last twenty months of her life at Sarsfield. Her annual income was a paltry sum of 100 dollars. She sold eggs and butter just to get by. Chesnut had seen most every social situation in her life. She had also endured through the toughest of times, surely being a testament to a strong willed woman of the highest character. Mary Chesnut died of a heart attack on November 22, 1886.
The first edition of her diary came to print in 1905 as A Diary from Dixie. Mary had encouraged her best friend Isabella to have it published after her death. In 1981 Southern Historian C. Vann Woodward finished an annotated edition of her diary that he titled Mary Chesnut’s Civil War. His impressive reworking of the diary won him a Pulitzer Prize for History in 1982. The most widespread critical acclaim for the diary came in 1990 with Ken Burns’ The Civil War. This award winning documentary features many selections from Chesnut’s diary. The Civil War is widely considered Ken Burns’ “magnum opus”. The illustrious cast of narrators includes Morgan Freeman, Garrison Keillor and Jason Robards. American stage and screen legend Julie Harris lends her voice as Mary Chesnut.
Mary Boykin Chesnut’s voice and opinion, like many women of the 19th Century, has grown louder and gained widespread influence since her death. Most people today associate her with her famous dairy. Mary Chesnut was much more than a stream of manuscript written on old paper. She questioned Old South principles and the lack of civil rights for women when others were silent. Her passion for womens suffrage is evident in her diary. Chesnut also pointed out the social evils of the institution of slavery. She was graceful in prosperous times and tough as nails in times of desperation. Mary Boykin Chesnut, through her undying contributions to this state and honest perspective in our darkest days, is a South Carolinian worth noting.
INDIGO BLUE NOTES: Mulberry Plantation, home of James and Mary Chesnut, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. Mulberry was most recently listed as a National Historic Landmark in 2000 for Mary Boykin Chesnut’s literary contributions during the Civil War. The house is located three miles south of Historic Camden.
Mulberry Plantation 559 Sumter Highway (Highway 521) Camden, South Carolina 29020
Indigo Blue would like to wish everyone a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! We are so excited about 2010! We already have a few stories lined up to go in January from exciting spots in York and Lancaster Counties. Thank you to all the people that have given their encouragement and support. Stay tuned! -Stephen Farnsworth