Thursday, March 28, 2013

Mary Boykin Chesnut, born March 31, 1823

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.

In 1836, while in Charleston, thirteen-year-old Mary Boykin Miller met her future husband, James Chesnut, Jr. (1815–85), who was eight years her senior. Her parents at first opposed his suit, but at sixteen Mary began to take an interest in the young man. At age seventeen, she married Chesnut on April 23, 1840.

Mary and her husband, James Chesnut, Jr., 1840, the year of their wedding
 They first lived with his parents and sisters at Mulberry, their plantation outside  Camden, South Carolina.

Mulberry Plantation House
His father, James Chesnut, Sr. (who Mary referred to as the old Colonel), had gradually purchased and reunited the land holdings of his father John. He was said to own about five square miles at the maximum and to hold about 500 slaves.

James Chesnut, Sr. - "The Old Colonel"
 She was 38 years old when the Civil War began.
Senator and Mrs. James Chesnut Jr. of South Carolina

In 1858, by then an established lawyer and politician, James Chesnut, Jr. was elected a U.S. Senator from 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.

General Chesnut
Mary Boykin Chesnut began her diary on February 18, 1861, and ended it on June 26, 1865. In Charleston, she was among witnesses of the first shots of the Civil War.

During the war, they lived for a time in Columbia, South Carolina, where her husband served as the Chief of the Department of the Military of South Carolina and brigadier general in command of South Carolina reserve forces; and in Richmond, where her husband served as an aide to the president. At times they also lived with her parents-in-law at their house at Mulberry Plantation.  While the property was relatively isolated, they entertained many visitors.
Chesnut Home in Columbia, South Carolina
As she describes in her diary, the Chesnuts had a wide circle of friends and acquaintances in the upper society of the South and government of the Confederacy. Among them were, for example, Confederate general John Bell Hood, politician John Manning,  general and politician John Preston and his wife Caroline, general and politician Wade Hampton III,, politician Clement Clay and his wife Virginia, and general and politician Louis Wigfall and his wife Charlotte (also known as Louise). The Chesnuts were also family friends of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his wife Varina Howell Davis.

Wade Hampton III
Also among these circles were Sara Rice Pryor and her husband Roger, a Congressman. Sara Pryor, Virginia Clay-Clopton and Louise Wigfall Wright wrote memoirs of the war years which were published in the early twentieth century.
Virginia Clay-Clopton
Like many of the planter elite, the Chesnuts fell onto hard times after the war. They lost 1,000 slaves as property through emancipation. James Chesnut, Sr. died in 1866; his will left his son the use of Mulberry Plantation and Sandy Field, both of which were encumbered by debt, and eighty-three "slaves" by name, who were by then freed. The Chesnuts struggled to build up the plantations and support his father's dependents.

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
By his father's will, James Chesnut, Jr. had the use of Mulberry and Sandy Field plantations only during his lifetime. In February 1885, both he and Mary's mother died. The plantations passed on to a male Chesnut descendant, and Mary Boykin Chesnut received almost no income for her support. She also found her husband had many debts related to the estate, which he had been unable to clear. 

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.
She struggled with illness and finances in her last year.  She died of a heart attack on November 22,1886 at her home, Sarsfield, in Camden, South Carolina. She was 63 years old.
Sarsfield, Camden, South Carolina
She was buried next to her husband in Knights Hill Cemetery in Camden, South Carolina.
Chesnut Graves

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.

Mulberry Plantation was declared a National Historic Landmark in 2000.

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