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on July 7, 1999
The 1982 Pulitzer prize winner in history, Mary Chesnut's Civil War is a heavily footnoted look at the social and political climate in South Carolina from 1861-1865. Because Mrs. Chesnut was the wife of a prominent politician of the day, she had communication with many famous political figures, such as Varina Davis, the wife of Jefferson Davis (the President of the Confederacy.) This book is worth reading cover to cover because of the personal commentary of Mrs. Chesnut about the War between the States, and also her observations on what was being said by others and in the media, nearly on a daily basis. Mr. Woodward's extensive footnotes help the modern day reader to grasp literary references and differences in language made by Mrs. Chesnut, and also aid in the identification of all the personalities she includes in her observations.
Although not unbiased, Mrs. Chesnut makes an attempt to be more objective than subjective and sees her writings as a possible important part of history in the future. One gets a great sense of a real person--someone who shows hope one day, despair the next.
History and Civil War enthusiasts will enjoy this poignant and truthful look on Southern morals, everyday life and behind-the-scenes political observations. Although it is hard to stay focused on at times because of less relevant information, there are many nuggets of valuable observations that make this book worth reading.
Another interesting look at the Southern point of view is Sarah Morgan: Civil War Diary of a Southern Woman.
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on September 16, 2005
Mary Chesnut was a name dropper, and thank goodness, because in passing along her gossip, opinions, news, and personal undertakings, she created the most comprehensive day-to-day record of life in the Confederacy that we have. Although this is both a diary and a later refurbishment of earlier writings (to the point it almost becomes a memoir in epistolary form) Mrs. Chesnut, an aristocratic lady in a position to know a great deal about the workings of her short-lived nation, makes everything seem like a first-hand conversation. Chesnut, like Mrs. Grant and Amanda Wilson, a Civil War-era diarist from Cincinnati, Ohio, has a true gift at making the distant seem immediate. Her reports on the initial euphoria of southern independence from the north and later the reality of hardship and war, are touching, even for one not in deep sympathy with her ideals. What I took away from this diary was something of the horror of loss, as Mary Chesnut's society reeled from death after death, not just of men from combat, but children and women in part from the deprivations war mandated they endure. By the mid-point of her diary, it is a rare entry, indeed, in which Chesnut does not tell of the passing of at least one more friend, or son of a friend. She lived through the destruction of a society and a war in which blood flowed in rivers. Chesnut personally knew a number of the primary figures of the American Civil War, including the wife of Jefferson Davis. She gives a point of view that is not hamstrung by being modern in sensibility, and charts a course of the war's prosecution that might vicariously suggest a later alteration of the record in northern-authored history books. For all these reasons, Chesnut's diary is worth reading.
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VINE VOICEon July 18, 2000
I found the reading of this Pulitzer-prize-winning book an excellent way to seem to live in South Carolina and Virginia during the Civil War. I have no Southern background, and have always been pleased the Civil War turned out as it did, but his book gives some insight into the thinking of the secessionists and Southerners in the time of the War. The book is excellently edited, and the literary footnotes are a big help to see what the intelligent Southerner was reading during the war. Now I would like to read a biography of Mrs. Chesnut or of her husband. (The frank tension between Mary and her husband is an interesting sidelight to the main story of the diary.)
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on March 14, 2007
Reading this book is like opening a door through time and having a daily cup of coffee & gossip session with Mary Chesnut. She was from a fine family with her father being a senator and one of the largest slave owners in South Carolina. Her husband, John Chesnut Jr., was also a senator before the war. He remained politically connected in the Confederacy. He was a general and an aid to Jefferson Davis. Given her situation in life it is not surprising that Mrs. Chesnut had an elite circle of friends and knew everyone that was anyone.

Mary loved to gossip and name drop and had very strong opinions on any given subject. She had no children so she had plenty of time to be self indulgent and a bit vain. She really must have been a fascinating person as people seem to be drawn to her. Varina Davis was one of her closest friends and she visited the Davis home frequently. She believed slavery to be wrong & hated the fact that there were so many racially mixed children that looked very much like the master of the plantations. She complained about the costs involved in keeping slaves and thought the time had come to abolish slavery. On the other hand, she spoke of slaves like children that needed to be cared for. She also had never had to take care of herself or run a house. She relied totally on her servants for everything.

She wrote this diary with the intention of including rumors, facts,and anything she might be thinking at the time. John Bell Hood was a frequent visitor and is talked of in her diary quite frequently. She talked about Hood's love for a woman and of his wounds. She referred to him as their "wounded knight". She was a very opinionated, outspoken, and (I think) spoiled women. There are no great military strategies and battle description in her book. She describes the dinners they had or how people were dressed. She talks of all the gossip about all the differert generals and the politics of the day. Reading her diary is like sitting down for coffee with her and listening to the events,real or rumored, that she chats about. She loves all the gossip and thrives on attention She had a front row seat to all events about the war, civilian life, and the downfall of the Confederacy It's wonderful to have the chance to get to know Mary Chesnut with her candid way of writting. She also writes of the trials and tribulations when everything was crashing down aroound her. Her first experience of wearing old clothes, food shortages, no money, & wondering all the while what was going to happen to her and her husband. People were dying all around her and her. Her entire culture & lifestyle were disapearing, everything simply falling apart, yet she kept up her writting. What a fascinating woman Mrs. Mary Chesnut must have been.

It may be a little difficult to read for some. I think maybe most difficult for men for much of it is "idle chatter" that women do when they get together. There is much information in here that you can only get from someone in the middle of it all.
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on April 10, 2005
"Mary Chesnuts's Civil War" is a monumental reading task: lviii introductory pages, 836 pages of smallish text, and 49 index pages listing more than 1,000 people mentioned in the text. The Editor received a Pulitzer Prize for his work.

The diary (actually much of it was written or elaborated nearly twenty years later) begins on February 16, 1861 at the time of the secession of the Southern states from the Union and ends abruptly on July 26, 1865 after the surrender of the Southern armies. Mrs. Chesnut, the friend of Southern leaders such as Jefferson Davis, spent most of the war years in Richmond and her plantation home in South Carolina.

Mary Chesnut purveys gossip among the elite and offers sharply worded opinions about the South, its leaders, negroes, and slavery. On page 71, we see for example that Robert E. Lee is being called a traitor by some people after his early military failures. Of Gen. Joe Johnston she says, "Being such a good hater, it is a pity he had not elected to hate somebody else than the president of our country." An outspoken woman of about 40 with a goodly share of self esteem Mrs Chesnut does not spare her husband -- who she despises -- and acquaintances from her worldly opinions. With passages on virtually every aspect of day to day living as well as the rush of events leading the downfall of the South, the diary of Mary Chesnut may be the best single source about life in the South during the Civil War.

The most vivid passages in the diary are about the end of the war when the fashionable Mrs. Chesnut feels the pinch of poverty and despair as the Yankee armies conquer South Carolina and burn down her plantation home. She captures the fear of Southerners, "as of a Bengal tiger in the home" of the Yankees and of the newly-freed negroes. "The weight that hangs upon our eyelids -- is of lead"

I haven't read this book cover to cover. I pick it up occasionally and randomly read a few pages or look up the entry for a event of interest. There is sufficient material to spend weeks reading and puzzling out the meaning of elliptical statements or distant relationships or obscure references. The Editor has done a splendid job identifying in notes nearly all of the people Ms. Chesnut mentions and in clarifying the events to which she refers. This is a book you might choose to take to a desert island as it is nearly unconquerable as well as fascinating.

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on March 15, 2013
This book was a fascinating depiction of a highly-placed lady in Southern society during the Civil War. It is interesting for the attitudes it shows and the history it dipicts. It helps to have some background in the history of this era, but it is not necessary. The book spends less time on history and more on the social events of the day. It is interesting for the attitudes and feelings about race and slavery as shown by someone who benefitted most from this institution.
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on September 2, 2008
I bought this book while at the Lookout Mountain battle site in Chattanooga. If you watched the PBS Civil War series, you will recognize Mary Chesnut's name.

This is a annotated compilation of her original diaries. Her husband was high up in Jefferson Davis' cabinet, so there are all sorts of stories about the Confederate elite, and the personalities involved.

There are even funny stories, and gossip.

Even though you know how the story will end, it's an interesting read, especially toward the end, as Sherman is on the march. It's long, but you can pick it up and put it down without losing the continuity.

Mary was a witty and perceptive woman who was ahead of her time. She's someone I'd like to have lunch with.
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on April 22, 2016
One of the most personal and direct views of the US Civil War that's readily available. Most journals from the time are in dusty inaccessible archives but this one is readily available in many different versions with different editing choices. Nobody has time to read the 50,000 second hand books on the Civil War- so best to start with the journals of people who lived through it and wrote down their feelings and experiences at the time it was happening. And this book is one of the most famous and detailed of the available first-hand literature.
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on April 14, 2014
Since I've read A Diary from Dixie over and over I welcomed Mary Chestnut's Civil War. I'm on page 700 and every page has been wonderful. Some, but not all, was familiar. I'd love to meet Mary, although I'm not on her side. She even makes Jefferson Davis sympathetic. The gossip was delicious!
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on March 10, 2014
I first heard of Mary Chesnut from the excellent PBS Civil War series, and when I saw she had written a book I had to have it. First-hand descriptions of history are priceless, & Mary was an intelligent woman years ahead of her time. Her observations are keen & her writing style is still solid today. This book does not disappoint--Civil War book fans would enjoy her period voice.
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