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Women's History Month: Civil War diarist Mary Boykin Chesnut

Mary Boykin Chesnut (1823-1886) was a Civil War diarist who is best known for her Diary from Dixie”one of the most famous diaries of the Civil War era. She was born in Statesboro, SC. Her father, Steven Decatur Miller, served as governor of South Carolina. Educated at home and in Camden, she also spent time at a French boarding school in Charleston.

The Mary Chesnut Cottage is a Bed and Breakfast on Hampton Street
The Mary Chesnut Cottage is a Bed and Breakfast on Hampton Street
photo by author

In 1840,at the age of 17, she married James Chesnut, Jr and spent most of the next 20 years on Mulberry, her husband’s family plantation outside of Camden, SC. When Chesnut was elected to the US Senate in 1858, Mary accompanied him and began friendships with those who would eventually lead the Confederacy such as Jefferson Davis and his wife, Varina. When Abraham Lincoln was elected, the Chesnuts returned to South Carolina and James had a hand in drafting the state’s Ordinance of Secession. He also served in the Provisional Confederate Congress. Chesnut served in the Confederate Army as an aide to General P.G.T. Beauregard and also as an aide to President Jefferson Davis. During the war, the Chesnuts lived in Charleston, Montgomery, Columbia, and Richmond and Mary’s drawing room served as a salon for the Confederate elite. From February 1861 to July, 1865 Mary recorded her experiences in a series of diaries which became the source material for her famous portrait of the Confederacy.

After the war, the Chesnuts returned to Camden and, in an attempt to extricate themselves from heavy debt, Mary attempted to put her diaries in publishable form. After trying her hand at fiction, she returned to the diary project and expanded and revised her diaries in to the book now known as A Diary from Dixie.

Mary Chesnut died in 1886 and her diary is regarded as the finest literary work of the confederacy. According to theEncylopedia of Southern Culture, Chesnut’s diary is, “Spiced by the author's sharp intelligence, irreverent wit, and keen sense of irony and metaphorical vision, it uses a diary format to evoke a full, accurate picture of the South in civil war. Chesnut's book, valued as a rich historical source, owes much of its fascination to its juxtaposition of the loves and griefs of individuals against vast social upheaval and much of its power to the contrasts and continuities drawn between the antebellum world and a war-torn country.”

In Columbia, the Chesnuts lived in a house at 1718 Hampton Street and entertained Jefferson Davis there in October of 1864. It was from the front porch that Davis gave his last speech to the City of Columbia. The Chesnut Cottage is currently a bed and breakfast.

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