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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.
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on December 11, 1999
(...)certainly I always thought "Diary from Dixie" was the real thing but I discovered while reading "Mary Chesnut's Civil War" (edited by C. Vann Woodward, Yale University 1981) that, in the first place, the material that is exerpted in "Diary from Dixie" was actually written by Mary Chesnut between 1881-1884, nearly 20 years after the Civil War ended. Secondly, "Diary from Dixie" (which was published 15 years after Chesnut died) was put together and edited by two other women who were under contract to their publishing company to produce a heavily abridged, selectively-edited volume of about 130,000 words in length (Chesnut's 1880's "Diary" is more than three times that in length). Woodward maintains that the editors were "concerned that Chesnut passages out of line with the current Southern version of the Confederate legend be deleted. Mrs. Witherspoon's death is mentioned, for example, but with no hint that her slaves had anything to do with it."
Mary Chesnut is so interesting that it only makes sense to read her work as she intended it to be read and for that you need "Mary Chesnut's Civil War." Out-of-print now but also worth reading is "The Private Mary Chesnut: the Unpublished Civil War Diaries" (Oxford University 1984) which is the actual journal text that Chesnut wrote during the war (and on which she based her 1880's "Diary"). Note, however, that this book only covers the entries made during 1861 and 1865 (the original journals for 1862, 1863 and 1864 have not survived).
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on April 9, 2005
Mary Chesnut's diary of life in the South during the American Civil War is possibly the best of all American diaries. You could spend weeks making your way through the labyrinth of events -- trivial and important -- and personalities found in the diary.

This edition of the diary is superseded by a better one: "Mary Chesnut's Civil War" edited by C. Vann Woodward which won a Pulitzer Prize for History in 1982. Woodward's edition offers a more complete text and is heavily footnoted with explanatory material. The text in Woodward includes many interesting passages excluded from "A Diary from Dixie" because of limitations of space and because some of them reflected unfavorably on the South and Southerners.

One virtue of this edition is a fine foreword about the diary by literary critic Edmund Wilson, but Wilson's foreword can also be read in his book "Patriotic Gore." I recommend you read Woodward's "Mary Chesnut's Civil War" instead of this book.

Smallchief
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on June 19, 1998
The keeper of this diary writes in an intimate and honest manner about herself and those around her, and about Southern hopes for victory or at least peaceful co-existence. The diary entries draw you in to her world. You feel like you are chatting with her in the parlor or at her desk as she relates the events of the day, what famous figures she dined or went riding with, etc. Very enjoyable and poignant to read. This was a brave woman who did her best under consistently deteriorating circumstances. I found her comments about her marriage particularly surprising and honest given the standards and social mores of the time. Her husband seems emotionally remote and she chides him for being so. Definitely not given to "hero worshipping," the author gives her honest opinions - good and bad - of just about everyone around her. I recommend this book, even if you aren't a Civil War buff.
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VINE VOICEon March 3, 2001
I was unaware, until I read the previous reviewer's remarks, of the fact that this was a heavily edited version of Chestnut's Journals, of which broad and more forthright passages had been deleted. Certainly, more liveliness is needed here to keep one's rapt attention. But, of course, this is a fault inherent in journals as a genre, such as those of Samuel Pepys for instance, every day can not be a page out of The Three Musketeers. Chestnut, as has been noted, is both cultured and independently minded, debunking the myths of Southern ignorance and complacency, especially among women. This alone makes the book an interesting read. Nevertheless, one grows weary after a while, slogging along to the pathetic outcome that we know awaits the trials under which this woman bears up so bravely.-What interested me the most was that, at times, there are sparks of poetic insight that could have sprung straight from Faulkner or even Proust, such as "Of all our sorrows, memory is the worst." p.102 or "Time works its wonders like enchantment." p.141 One ponders what would have been the outcome had Ms. Chestnut turned her hand to novels or poetry!-I only gave the book 4 stars because of the expurgation of the journals and the slogging reading at times. But I'm going to check out the texts mentioned by the previous reviewer and hopefully return with an extra star tacked on to my reviews.
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on March 14, 2000
At times, the outdated prose gets a little difficult to wade through, but overall this is a fascinating account of life during this turbulent time in our history. Another reviewer mentioned "The Private Mary Chesnut: Unpublished Civil War Diaries", which seems to be Mrs. Chesnut's actual diaries kept during the war and offer a much more vivid picture. I wasn't aware that "Diary From Dixie" was a rewrite until now. I did enjoy it immensely (when I'd look up from reading it seemed odd that it was 1999 and not 1865!) and look forward to also reading the previously unpublished version.
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on June 24, 2005
C-Span did a series called "American Writers" in 2001 and although I consider myself well read it was the first time I had ever heard of Mary Chesnut.

This story of the Civil War, told from the perspective of the civilians at home, was a real eye opener. Mary Chesnut, the wife of a Confederate general, was well off, but even Mary and the ladies in her circle couldn't get shoes to replace their worn ones and could only afford the outrageous prices for food because they had money. One can only imagine the suffering of those less fortunate. Life for civilians was severe and the news from the front, often heartbreaking, added to their woes. This is a unique first person account of the Civil War.

I remember reading that the author of "Gone With the Wind", Margaret Mitchell, did about five years of research before she actually started writing her book. I feel it is highly likely that she read Mary Chesnut's book as part of that research.
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on July 22, 2004
This book deserves 5 stars for educational value alone. While it does have its slow points, I can say that I have learned more about antebellum culture and Southern war perspective from this book than any other I have read up to this point. The book gives us a glimpse into the mindsets of a demographic of the Southern population we can rarely find anywhere else, and it's incredible to believe that this work was almost thrown into the fire for fear of capture when McClellan's forces dwelt a mere six miles from Richmond's door in early 1862.
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on December 30, 2012
This is a PDF of the diary. Buy the book if you want to be able to search or highlight passages.
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on September 26, 2003
I enjoyed this book immensely, and its tales of Antebellum southern manners being put to test by the war. Mary's insights and daily activies shed light on things I had never really considered, and highlighted the extreme poverty the South faced during and after the war. It wasn't hard reading, and I always appreciate pictures being included in a biography.
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