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An invaluable insight into the Southern Confederacy
on October 2, 2003
This primary source document is one of the best windows we have into southern society during the American Civil War. Mary Chestnut was a southern aristocrat, married to the man who was the first to resign his seat in the US Senate before the war. She knew many prominent Confederate leaders well--Jefferson Davis, John Bell Hood, and Wade Hampton among them--and was acquainted with nearly all of the major players in the war (she even spent several occasions in the company of Robert E. Lee and Joseph Johnston). Because she knew so many people, she was in a position to cast a very revealing light on the war from the southern point of view.
Besides knowing so many influential leaders, Mary Chestnut also lived in both Confederate capitals--Montgomery, Alabama and Richmond, Virginia--while they were the government seats. Her husband's plantation was in South Carolina, and in fact her home in Columbia, South Carolina lay right in the path of Sherman's destructive march through the South. As such, Chestnut is poised to offer very interesting commentary on the fire that burned much of that city. Mary and her husband gave their all to the Confederacy, and lost much of what they had because of the Civil War.
Several things in this journal are unique and worthy of mention. First, Chestnut and her friends are living the high life for much of the war, having parties, dinners, and luncheons and more-or-less living it up, even when the Yankees are approaching Richmond. They live comfortable lives, and, though Mary has a very insightful perspective into the suffering of her soldiers, she often spends as much time complaining about some minor inconvenience (such as being without her maid for a week) as she does deploring the sorry state of the starved and ill-clothed soldiers. Mary does what she can, and helps in many ways, but she is not willing to give up her parties, even when her husband repeatedly begs her too.
This diary also provides a unique view of slavery. A staunch abolitionist, Chestnut hated slavery less for the cruel treatment of the slaves than for the insolent behavior of many of them. Her husband's slaves were well taken care of, and did less work than they consumed in goods. Mary recounts many horrific tales of what happened when the slaves were set free--a story of a white family going along a road and picking up a wagonload of Negro infants which had been abandoned by parents enjoying their freedom, for example. She never questions that slavery is wrong, but she does argue that Harriet Beecher Stowe's account of slavery was the exception, not the rule. This is an interesting perspective, whatever the truth of it.
All in all, this is a great diary, and a splendid resource. Thank goodness this book has been reissued. The edition edited by Ben Ames Williams contained unsatisfactory notes, including some in which Williams shamelessly engaged in self-promotion of his novel. This book is indispensable for anyone looking for primary accounts of the human aspect of the war between the states.