Mary Boykin Miller was born on March 31, 1823, on her maternal grandparents' plantation, Mount Pleasant, near Stateburg, South Carolina. Her parents were Mary Boykin and Stephen Decatur Miller. In 1829 he was elected governor of South Carolina and in 1831 as a U.S. Senator. The family then lived in Charleston. Mary was the oldest of four children; she had a younger brother Stephen and two sisters: Catherine and Sarah Amelia.
At age 12, Mary began her formal education in Charleston, where she boarded at Madame Talvande's French School for Young Ladies, which attracted daughters from the elite of the planter class. Talvande was among the many French colonial refugees who had settled in Charleston from Haiti after its revolution. Mary became fluent in French and German, and received a strong education.
Leaving politics, her father took his family to Mississippi where he bought extensive acreage. It was a crude, rough frontier compared to Charleston. He owned three cotton plantations and hundreds of slaves. Mary lived in Mississippi for short periods between school terms but was much more fond of the city.
|Mary and her husband, James Chesnut, Jr., 1840, the year of their wedding|
|Mulberry Plantation House|
|James Chesnut, Sr. - "The Old Colonel"|
|Senator and Mrs. James Chesnut Jr. of South Carolina|
Intelligent and witty, Mary Chesnut took part in her husband’s career, as entertaining was an important part of building political networks. She had her best times when they were in the capitals of Washington, D.C. and Richmond. She suffered from depression, in part because of her inability to have children. The Chesnuts’ marriage was at times stormy due to their differences in temperament (she was more hot-tempered and sometimes considered her husband reserved), but their companionship was mostly warm and affectionate.
Chesnut served as a senator until South Carolina's secession from the Union in 1860.
Once the Civil War broke out, Chesnut became an aide to President Jefferson Davis and was commissioned a brigadier general in the Confederate Army.
|Chesnut Home in Columbia, South Carolina|
|Wade Hampton III|
Mary Chesnut edited her diary and wrote new drafts in 1881-1884, intended for publication. Because she had no children, before her death she gave her diary to her closest friend, Isabella D. Martin, and urged her to have it published.
|John Chesnut, later in his life|
She became dependent on a butter and egg business for her survival, which she ran with the assistance of Molly, her maid who was one of her former slaves. Molly remained with her to the end of her life.
|Sarsfield, Camden, South Carolina|
Mary Chesnut's diary was first published in 1905 as a heavily edited and abridged edition. The version by C. Vann Woodward retained more of her original work, provides an overview of her life and society in the "Introduction", and was annotated to identify fully the large cast of characters, places and events.