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02.07.15 : Chesnut, Mary Boykin, The Private Mary Chesnut: The Unpublished Civil War Diaries (1860-1865), C. Vann Woodward and Elizabeth Muhlenfled, editors and annotators, published in 1984 (previously by others in 1904, 1949 and 1981 with differing emphasis).

Notes Concerning the Author:

Mary Boykin Chesnut (1823-1886) was born on a farm near Stateburg, South Carolina to notable parents Stephen Decatur Miller and his wife Mary Boykin Miller.  She grew up in Charleston and received a fine education.  Her father was a U. S. Representative, Governor of South Carolina and U. S. Senator.  After leaving the Senate, father Stephen relocated the family to Mississippi, where he had purchased 3 cotton farms.  But Mary was growing up by then and preferred to spend her time in Charleston.

In 1840, at the age of 17 years, Mary married 25-year-old James Chesnut, Jr. of Camden, South Carolina, a lawyer and aspiring politician.  Her husband was elected to the U. S. Senate in 1858 and resigned upon the secession of his State.  During the War Between the States, James Chesnut was an aide to President Jefferson Davis and a brigadier general in the Confederate Army.  Mary was an “intelligent and witty” woman of 38 to 43 years of age during the military struggle.  And she maintained an extensive diary throughout the conflict.  She was well connected to political and military leaders, empowering her diary with exceptional insight.  Nineteen years after her death it was published as a book and has been republished and reprinted many times, but with differing emphasis.  It was first published in 1904, then by Ben Ames Williams under the title, A Diary from Dixie, in 1949, then and this is our recommendation, edited and annotated by C. Vann Woodward in 1981.

Like so many authors whose work is recommended by the Society, Mary Boykin Chesnut was not an academic and did not make her living writing history or biography.  She just lived it.  You may also be interested in reading Mary Boykin Chesnut: A Biography by Elizabeth Muhlenfeld with foreword by C. Vann Woodward, published in 1981 by Louisiana State University Press.


Historian C. Vann Woodward and Chesnut’s biographer, Elisabeth Muhlenfeld, present here the previously unpublished Civil War diaries of Mary Boykin Chesnut.  The ideal diarist, Mary Chesnut was at the right place at the right time with the right connections.  Daughter of one senator from South Carolina and wife of another, she had kin and friends all over the Confederacy and knew intimately its political and military leaders.  She was at Montgomery when the new nation was founded; at Charleston when, as Lincoln’s navy fleet approached offshore, Confederates forced the evacuation of Fort Sumter, and at Richmond during many crises.  She traveled extensively during the war and, eventually watched the South “literally kicked to pieces.”  As a witness to this she left the most vivid account we have of the historic conflict, including the Federal war against civilians. The diaries, filled with personal revelations and indiscretions, are indispensable to an appreciation of our most famous Southern literary insight into those who lived through the War Between the States.

Availability of this Book

Mary Chesnut’s Civil War is readily available as is the biography.  We suggest and consideration of a used copy.  You will encounter the 1949 publication by Ben Ames Williams and reprints of it, but should insist on the Woodward and Muhlenfeld publication, even though more expensive.  Why?  Because Mary Chesnut rewrote her diary several times in a novelistic fashion.  She is therefore misused by historians, especially hostile politically correct historians.  A much more definitive text is that edited recently by Woodward and Muhlenfeld.