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A very interesting and unique perspective on the American Civil War, and daily life during it. Some free copies are available for participants...please call (931)232-5706, ext. 108.
Mary Boykin Chesnut began her diary on February 18, 1861, and ended it on June 26, 1865. She was an eyewitness to many historic events as she accompanied her husband to significant sites of the Civil War. Among them were Montgomery, Alabama and Richmond, Virginia, where the Provisional Congress of the Confederate States of America convened; Charleston, where she was among witnesses of the first shots of the Civil War; 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 again 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 near Camden. While the property was relatively isolated in thousands of acres of plantation and woodland, they entertained many visitors.
Chesnut was aware of the historical importance of what she witnessed. The diary was filled with the cycle of changing fortunes of the South during the Civil War. Chesnut edited it and wrote new drafts in 1881-1884 for publication, and retained the sense of events unfolding without foreknowledge. She had the sense of the South's living through its time on a world stage. Politically aware, Chesnut analyzed and portrayed the various classes of the South through the years of the war.
She portrayed southern society in detail and studied the mixed roles of men and women. She was forthright about the complex and fraught situations related to slavery, particularly the abuses of women's sexuality and the power exercised by white men. For instance, Chesnut discussed the problem of white planters' fathering mixed-race children with enslaved women within their extended households.
Examination of Mary Chesnut's papers has revealed the history of her development as a writer and of her work on the diary as a book. Before working to revise her diary as a book in the 1880s, Chesnut wrote a translation of French poetry, essays, and a family history. She also wrote three full novels that she never published: The Captain and the Colonel,completed about 1875; and Two Years of My Life, finished about the same time. She finished most of a draft of a third long novel, called Manassas. Elisabeth Muhlenfeld, who edited the first two novels for publication by the University of Virginia Press in 2002 and wrote a biography of Chesnut, described them as her writing "apprenticeship."
Chesnut used her diary and notes to work toward a final version in 1881-1884. Based on her drafts, historians do not believe she was finished with her work. She created literature while keeping the sense of events unfolding; she described people in penetrating and enlivening terms and conveyed a novelistic sense of events. Chesnut captured the growing difficulties of all classes of the Confederacy as the society faced defeat at the end of the war. Literary scholars have called the Chesnut diary the most important work by aConfederate author. Edmund Wilson called it a " 'work of art'-informal department or not". He writes,
"The very rhythm of her opening pages at once puts us under the spell of a writer who is not merely jotting down her days but establishing, as a novelist does, an atmosphere, an emotional tone...Starting out with situations or relationships of which she cannot know the outcome, she takes advantage of the actual turn of events to develop them and round them out as if she were molding a novel."
Because Chesnut had no children, before her death she gave her diary to her closest friend Isabella D. Martin and urged her to have it published. The diary was first published in 1905 as a heavily edited and abridged edition. Williams' version was described as more readable, but sacrificing historical reliability and many of Chesnut's literary references. 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.