Discover the Diaries of Mary Chesnut

By:Page Ivey


South Carolina’s most famous diarist, Mary Boykin Chesnut, told the story of the Civil War from Lincoln’s election to the end at the Appomattox Court House in Virginia. She had a unique vantage point at the top of the political and social ladder. She dined with governors and ex-governors, and she knew Jefferson Davis, his wife and all the key players in the Confederacy. Her husband was negotiating with the US soldiers who held Fort Sumter the night the shelling started.

“I do not pretend to sleep. How can I? If Anderson does not accept terms at four, the orders are, he shall be fired upon,” Chesnut wrote on April 12, 1861, from her home in Charleston. “I count four, St. Michael’s bells chime out and I begin to hope. At half-past four the heavy booming of a cannon. I sprang out of bed, and on my knees prostrate began to pray as I never prayed before.”

Her account, which she edited for years in an attempt to get it published, was not published until after her death in 1886. It was given the name “Diary from Dixie” when it was serialized in the Saturday Evening Post in the early 1900s. Chesnut’s original diary is kept at the University of South Carolina’s South Caro​lin​ian​a Library, the oldest freestanding college library in the US, along with photos and other papers from the family.

Born Mary Boykin Miller in 1823, she spent much of her life near Camden. Her father was a US congressman and governor of South Carolina.

Miller was just 17 years old when she married James Chesnut Jr., who was elected to the US Senate in 1858. The couple spent fewer than two years in Washington, leaving upon Lincoln’s election in November 1860. That December, South Carolina voted to secede from the United States, and her husband became a brigadier general in the Confederate army. He was an aide to Davis, who gave his last speech in Columbia from the steps of the Chesnuts’ home, which is now a bed-and-breakfast in downtown Columbia.

Many sites in South Carolina have a connection to the Chesnuts, who lived in various locations around the state before settling near Camden after the war.Two of those sites are now B&Bs. The Chesnut Cottage in Columbia is located in the wartime home of the Chesnuts. The Bloomsbury Inn in Camden is located in the family home built by James Chesnut’s father about 10 years before the Civil War began. Both offer the opportunity to unwind while learning more about the woman who chronicled South Carolina’s war history.

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