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Mary Chesnut’s War

Written by: Barton A. Myers, Washington and Lee University

By the end of this section, you will:

  • Explain the various factors that contributed to the Union victory in the Civil War

Suggested Sequencing

Use this Narrative alongside the Women during the Civil War Narrative to allow students to analyze and compare women’s experiences during the Civil War.

Mary Boykin Chesnut was born Mary Boykin Miller on March 31, 1823, in South Carolina. Her father, Stephen Decatur Miller, was a politician who promoted states’ rights and argued in favor of the position – held by other southerners such as John Calhoun – that slavery was a “positive good.” Miller became governor of South Carolina in 1828 and a U.S. senator in 1830. As the daughter of an elite southerner, Chesnut was educated in Charleston, South Carolina, at Madame Talvande’s French School for Young Ladies. She was a celebrated beauty in Charleston society who traveled widely throughout the United States during the antebellum years, including to the American West and New Orleans.

Photograph of Mary Chesnut.

Mary Chesnut, pictured here in a photograph from the 1860s, was an elite Southern woman who documented her experience of the war in a diary.

In April 1840, Mary married the wealthy James Chesnut, Jr., a Princeton graduate, and the two settled at his family home, Mulberry, outside Camden, South Carolina. James was one of South Carolina’s most influential politicians and served as a U.S. senator in the 1850s, during the sectionalism crisis that led to the Civil War. In 1860, Mary Chesnut traveled to Florida to see her sister and was on the return journey when she heard of Abraham Lincoln’s election to the presidency. James Chesnut quickly resigned from the Senate and played an important role in drafting the South Carolina ordinance of secession. He was later part of the negotiating party sent to receive the surrender of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor in April 1861, putting the family at the center of the secession crisis.

Mary Chesnut’s wartime diary has become a leading account of the elite white southern woman’s experience during the Civil War era. Noted southern historian Drew Gilpin Faust called Chesnut the “most ambitious among these would-be historian diarists.” While her husband worked for the war effort, Chesnut lived in Richmond, Virginia, during the summer of 1861 before moving back to South Carolina. During the final months of the war, she fled South Carolina and her home because of the invasion of Union General William Tecumseh Sherman’s army, which eventually devastated Columbia, South Carolina, near Camden. The experience of becoming a refugee in North Carolina stripped her of the finery and trappings of gentility she had enjoyed her entire life. While living with a wealthy woman from North Carolina, she found opportunity to both praise and criticize. “Mine hostess is young & handsome, very well educated, talks well, seems so ladylike & kind,” but, Chesnut added, she “lives amidst dirt in a way that would shame the poorest overseer’s wife. A Lady evidently, she is manners & taste! & surroundings worthy a barbarian.”

With hundreds of thousands of white men away serving in the ranks of Confederate armies, southern women frequently experienced the collapse of the institution of slavery firsthand. Chesnut claimed not to have feared her slaves, but the murder of her cousin Betsey Witherspoon by her own slaves caused her and many of her neighbors to reconsider. Chesnut’s assessment of slavery focused on the social evils of the institution for white women, in that it gave white men virtually unfettered sexual access to black women.

The Civil War changed the nature of both leisure pursuits and work for plantation wives. Elite women of the South passed many hours reading during the war, though they often lamented the lack of reading material, partly a phenomenon of the South’s prewar dependence on periodicals from northern states and abroad. Chesnut borrowed Edward Creasy’s Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World from a library in Columbia, South Carolina, in early 1862 and read that historical work with an eye toward understanding the conflict occurring around her in the 1860s.

The war threw many white southern women into the public world of work in new ways. Chesnut deplored the idea of white women working as laborers and secretarial staff in the Confederate government’s burgeoning war machine. She was especially concerned about the freedom this gave younger women to interact with men unsupervised by other and older women.

Between November 1863 and early May 1864, Chesnut was again living in Richmond. She worked briefly at a Richmond hospital as a nurse, but she had to give up the work after fainting regularly because of what she saw. She spent time raising money and procuring medical supplies, only to feel pressure from other women to return to nursing work. When she did, it was only for half a day, feeding injured soldiers at a wayside hospital where patients had only minor injuries. She continued to object to the new social interactions between soldiers and unmarried women working in hospitals, primarily because of the soldiers’ inappropriate flirting and advances. The difficult work of nursing reinforced her feeling of inadequacy and her inability to function in a world without her accustomed privilege and protected femininity. This led her to reassert the superiority of her elite, protected position and disdain the “Florence Nightingale business.”

During the course of the war, Chesnut continued to support the political career of her husband. Historian Douglas Southall Freeman argues that James Chesnut’s various posts in the Confederate Senate, as executive council on military affairs in South Carolina, and as an aide to Jefferson Davis, made him the de facto liaison officer between South Carolina and the Davis administration. At one point, Mary Chesnut lived in a house directly across from the “White House” of the Confederacy in Richmond, becoming a confidant of the First Lady of the Confederacy, Varina Davis.

Photograph of James Chesnut, Jr.

James Chesnut, Jr., pictured here in an 1860s photograph, was an elite member of the Confederacy’s government.

Ultimately, Mary Chesnut produced seven volumes of wartime records. After the war, she wrote three unpublished novels and revised her diaries of the war years. Eminent southern historian C. Vann Woodward received the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1982 for Mary Chesnut’s Civil War, his edited version of her diary. Chesnut’s reflections on the Civil War are an invaluable resource to study the conflict from the perspective of a wealthy, politically connected Confederate woman.

Review Questions

1. Why would a historian find Mary Chesnut’s life useful in a narrative about the American Civil War?

  1. Chesnut was a sympathizer and spy for the Union.
  2. Chesnut’s nursing skills revolutionized the manner in which the wounded were cared for during wartime.
  3. Chesnut’s diaries left a detailed record of the life of an upper-class Confederate woman during the war.
  4. Chesnut’s written opinions were objective.

2. Before the Civil War, Mary Chesnut could be best described as

  1. a woman who worked hard on her farm on the southern frontier
  2. one of the few working women who served as a nurse in Southern society
  3. a woman of high social standing in the South
  4. a prominent educator of young women

3. During the Civil War, Mary Chesnut volunteered as a

  1. fundraiser for the Confederate cause
  2. nurse for portions of the war
  3. secretary in the executive branch in the Confederate government
  4. reader to wounded soldiers

4. What did Mary Chesnut’s father and husband have in common?

  1. Both were wealthy and prominent politicians who supported states’ rights in South Carolina.
  2. Both were influential industrialists who engaged in profitable trade with their counterparts in the North.
  3. Both supported the candidacy of Abraham Lincoln and participated in negotiations aimed at peaceful resolution of the crisis at Fort Sumter.
  4. Both profited handsomely from munitions sales during the Civil War.

5. While Mary Chesnut lived as a refugee in North Carolina, she wrote in her diary about

  1. her gratitude to her hostess for providing shelter under difficult circumstances
  2. the harsh conditions at the end of the conflict and criticisms of her young hostess’s housekeeping
  3. anger regarding her hostess’s inappropriate flirting with James Chesnut
  4. disdain for the poor service provided by the hostess’s slaves and her lifelong fear of slave rebellions

Free Response Questions

  1. Describe how Mary Chesnut serves as an example of the changed role of women in the Confederacy during the Civil War.
  2. Explain Mary Chesnut’s opinion of slavery as that of the perspective of an upper-class white southern woman.

AP Practice Questions

“Unlike the South, the North was never reduced to extremities which led the wives of Cabinet officers and commanding generals to gather in Washington hotels and private drawing-rooms, in order to knit heavy socks for soldiers whose feet otherwise would go bare: scenes like these were common in Richmond, . . . Nor were gently nurtured women of the North forced to wear coarse and ill-fitting shoes, such as negro cobblers made, the alternative being to dispense with shoes altogether. Gold might rise in the North to [$]2.80, but there came a time in the South, when a thousand dollars in paper money were needed to buy a kitchen utensil, which before the war could have been bought for less than one dollar in gold. Long before the conflict ended it was a common remark in the South that, ‘in going to market, you take your money in your basket, and bring your purchases home in your pocket.’

In the North the counterpart to these facts were such items as butter at 50 cents a pound and flour at [$]12 a barrel. People in the North actually thrived on high prices. Villages and small towns, as well as large cities, had their ‘bloated bondholders’ in plenty, while farmers everywhere were able to clear their lands of mortgages and put money in the bank besides.”

Mary Boykin Chesnut, A Diary from Dixie,1823-1886

Refer to the excerpt provided.

1. The hardships described were most likely caused by the collapse of the Confederate economy due to the

  1. strikes and rebellions by slaves
  2. refusal of Confederate citizens to pay taxes
  3. wartime shortages of consumer goods, leading to higher prices
  4. closure of European businesses such as cotton gins and textile mills

2. The hardships described in the excerpt were most likely similar to those suffered by

  1. Patriots during the American Revolution, who experienced inflated prices for many necessities
  2. Texans during the revolution against Mexico, who struggled against the atrocities committed by Santa Anna’s troops
  3. American Indians during the migration of whites across the Appalachians, who outnumbered and outgunned them
  4. French fur trappers during the War of 1812, who found the market for their product severely reduced

3. On the basis of the experiences of Mary Chesnut, a historian could draw the conclusion that

  1. the social structure of the South experienced upheaval immediately after the Civil War
  2. there was little change in the lives of the southern landed gentry after the Civil War
  3. after the Civil War, former plantation owners soon regained their social standing by investing in the development of factories
  4. after the Civil War, life for working-class people in the South quickly returned to normal

4. A historian could use the work of Mary Chesnut to support which of the following claims about the effects of war on women?

  1. War leaves the role of women largely unchanged.
  2. Women make significant political advancements during wartime but return to their traditional roles after the war is over.
  3. Women take on nontraditional roles during war.
  4. During wartime, women are willing to make nontraditional contributions but are more than willing to return to their traditional roles during peacetime.

Primary Sources

Woodward, C. Vann, ed. Mary Chesnut’s Civil War. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1981.

Chesnut, Mary Boykin. “Mary Boykin Miller Chesnut, 1823-1886. A Diary from Dixie, as Written by Mary Boykin Chesnut, Wife of James Chesnut, Jr., United States Senator from South Carolina, 1859-1861, and Afterward an Aide to Jefferson Davis and a Brigadier-General in the Confederate Army.” Documenting the American South; University of North Carolina.

“Photographs of Women During the Civil War: Selected Images.” Library of Congress.

Suggested Resources

Clinton, Catherine, and Nina Silber, eds. Divided Houses: Gender and the Civil War. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Faust, Drew Gilpin. Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

McCurry, Stephanie. Women’s War: Fighting and Surviving the American Civil War. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019.

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