The Original Steel Magnolia

mary chesnut

“No wonder men were willing to fight for such a country as ours—and such women. They were enough to make heroes of any material.”- President Jefferson Davis, C.S.A.

Mary Boykin Chesnut’s diary is a touching human and intimate history of a civilization locked in a struggle for life or death. Out of respect to her, and to preserve the authenticity of her experience, I have striven to let her speak in her own words as much as possible.

From the spring of 1861 to the summer of 1865, Mary Boykin Chesnut wrote what would become the greatest diary of the War of Southern Independence. Born in 1823, Mary was a member of some of the most powerful and prestigious families in South Carolina. “My father was a South Carolina nullifier, governor of the state at the time of the nullification row, and then a U.S. Senator,” explained Mary. “So I was of necessity a rebel born.” Mary described her father-in-law, James Chesnut, Sr., owner of one of the largest plantations in South Carolina, as “the last of the lordly planters who ruled this Southern world.” Mary’s husband, James Chesnut, Jr., was a U.S. Senator up until the secession of South Carolina, after which he served as a high- ranking Confederate official. Before the war, Mary lived in Washington, D.C., with her husband. During the war, she traveled across the South, including Montgomery, Charleston, Columbia, and Richmond. From her vantage point at the top of Southern society, Mary was privileged with special insight into the innermost workings of the newborn Confederacy.

Mary may have been an old-fashioned Southern belle, but there was much more to her than hoop skirts, fans, and parasols. Mary was a highly educated and cultured lady, conversant on current events, literature, and history, and fluent in French and German. To keep abreast of the news, Mary regularly read Southern, Northern, and English newspapers. Most of all, however, Mary loved literature, often quoting authors and poets such as Shakespeare, Milton, Dickens, and Thackeray. William G. Simms, the leading Southern—and arguably American—author of the age, was a friend of her family. During the war, however, Mary found it difficult to focus on her beloved books. “For the first time in my life, no book can interest me. Life is so real, so utterly earnest – fiction is so flat, comparatively.” Convinced that silence fostered apathy and ignorance, Mary was famous for her forthright and forceful disposition. “I sometimes fear I am so vain, so conceited—think myself so clever and my neighbors such geese that pride comes before a fall.” Mary may not have had the sweetest sigh or the softest voice, but she was known for her “irrepressible” laughter. Armed with her intelligence, wit, and passion, Mary made an ideal observer of the historic events unfolding around her.

Mary believed Southern secession was the consequence of the brewing political, economic, and cultural dissension between the North and South. “We are divorced, North from South, because we hated each other so.” Specifically, Mary attributed Southern secession to the treachery and tyranny of the North against the South. “I think incompatibility of temper began when it was made plain to us that we get all the opprobrium of slavery and they all the money there is in it—with their tariff.” Mary wrote that federal taxes had “milked” the South for the benefit of the North. “The tariff, in some inscrutable way, took all our money.” In discussing the grievances which culminated in Southern secession, Mary referenced the Nullification Crisis (South Carolina’s resistance to the “Tariff of Abominations”) and the Blufton Movement (South Carolina’s call for secession over the “Black Tariff”). Mary resented the duplicity and avarice of the North in condemning the South for slavery while perpetuating and profiting from it. “We bore the ban of slavery. They got the money. They grow rich, we grow poor.” Although Mary was a self- proclaimed “seceder,” she admitted that she “dreaded the future.” Indeed, unlike many of her compatriots, who “breathed fire and defiance,” Mary feared the coming conflict. “I remember feeling nervous dread and horror of this break with so great a power as the U.S.A., but I was ready and willing.” Like many Southerners, Mary was proud of the parallels between the War of Southern Independence and the War of American Independence. “Alas,” she ruminated, “we have yet to make good on our second declaration, of Southern independence from Yankee meddling and Yankee rule.” Mary sensed that same principles which justified American secession in 1776 also justified Southern secession in 1861. “Is not the South as much ours—our country—to declare its independence as the Colonies owned their own country? We were not even a colony of New England,” Mary heard someone exclaim. “Might makes right,” was the grim reply.

Although Mary was deeply rooted in the Southern planter aristocracy, she was a lifelong opponent of slavery. “God forgive us, but ours is a monstrous system,” Mary seethed. “Slavery has to go, of course, and joy go with it.” Mary recalled an antislavery letter she wrote to her sympathetic husband when she was still a young lady. “It is the most fervid abolition document I have ever read…I kept it—as showing how we were not as much of heathens down here as our enlightened enemies think.” Mary later wrote of the same letter, “I anticipated Mrs. Stowe not in imagining facts but in abhorrence and loathing.” Indeed, despite her opposition to slavery, Mary despised Northern abolitionists like Stowe, Greeley, and Garrison even more, considering them as hateful hypocrites who relieved their guilty consciences by spewing lies and inciting violence. “They…look for from us—and execute us for the want of it—a degree of virtue they were never able to practice themselves.” Mary scorned Northern abolitionists profiting from their propaganda without ever living among slaves, as she and the other antislavery ladies of her family did. “Their philanthropy is cheap,” scoffed Mary. “There are as noble, pure lives here as there—and a great deal more self-sacrifice.” Unlike Northern abolitionists, Mary explained, Southern abolitionists “do not preach and teach hate as a gospel and the sacred duty of murder and insurrection, but they strive to ameliorate the conditions of these Africans in every particular.” To Mary, slavery was not only morally corrosive, but also economically inefficient. “The negroes would be a good riddance. A hired man is far cheaper than a man whose father, mother, wife, and children have to be fed, clothed, housed, nursed, taxes paid, and doctors’ bills—all for his slovenly, lazy work. So for years we have though negroes a nuisance which did not pay.” Mary shared her husband and her father-in-law’s conviction that without the Union to support slavery, the South would have to abolish it before the war was over. “Let the war end either way, and you will be free,” Mary reassured a frightened slave. “We will have to free you before we get out of this thing.” Mary did not take the Northern crusade against slavery seriously, claiming the Yankees “discovered” emancipation as an expedient pretext for the enslavement of the entire South. “If we had only freed the negroes first and put them in the army,” an idea which Mary noted grew in popularity as the war worsened, “that would have trumped their trick.” Mary was the first to admit, however, that, “Ifs have ruined us.”

Slavery was not the only injustice which Mary protested. Often accused of fomenting “female rebellion,” Mary was an outspoken feminist. “I am always on the woman’s side,” Mary averred. In fact, Mary viewed slavery and patriarchy as interrelated forms of tyranny. “There is no slave, after all, like a wife,” she remarked. “Women are bought and sold every day.” The double standard between men and women offended Mary. “To men—glory, honor, praise, and power—if they are patriots. To women—daughters of Eve—punishment comes still in some shape, do what they will.” Mary resisted the stifling social roles into which women were forced. “South Carolina, as a rule, does not think it necessary for women to have any existence outside their pantries or nurseries, but for men, the pleasures of the world are reserved.” Mary viewed war as especially oppressive to women. “I think these times make women feel their humiliation in the affairs of the world. Women can only stay at home, and every paper reminds us that women are to be violated, ravished, and all manner of humiliation.” Mary, however, was proud of the valor with which Southern ladies faced the war. “These timid Southern women! Under the guns they are brave enough.”

Mary abhorred war and feared a clash between Southern “mettle” and Northern “metal.” At the sound of cannons firing upon Fort Sumter—the first shots of the war—Mary knelt at her bedside and prayed as she had never prayed before. Nevertheless, she recognized the South’s right to fight for her freedom and defend herself against subjugation. “This war was undertaken by us to shake off the yoke of foreign invaders, so we consider our cause righteous,” Mary concluded after a spirited dinner conversation. Mary compared the Union to the Roman Empire and the war to the Pharaoh’s resistance of the Jewish exodus from Egypt. “A Union, let them call it— empire and kingdom. We in this Union would be an unwilling bride—a Union where one party is tied and dragged in.” Mary was frustrated that the North would not respect the South’s independence and let it go in peace. “We would only be too grateful to be left alone. Only let us alone, we ask no more of gods or men.” Mary often sarcastically commented on the North’s “love” and “compliment” of the South in starting a war to keep them united, by force of arms if no longer by consent of the governed. “We ought to have as good a conceit of ourselves as they have of us—and to be willing to do as much to save ourselves from a nauseous Union with them as they are willing to do by way of revengeful coercion in forcing us back.” Mary scoffed at the notion that Confederate soldiers were fighting and dying for slavery. “Can that be, when not one third of our volunteer army are slaveowners—and not one third of that third does not dislike slavery as much as Stowe or Greeley? And few have found their hatred or love of it as remunerative an investment.” In a discussion of why men who opposed slavery fought, a friend of Mary’s stated, “Southern rights…they do not want to be understrappers forever for those nasty Yankees.” After the war, Dr. Edward M. Boykin, a cousin who had fought alongside his departed son, told her, “We had a right to strike for our independence—and we did strike a bitter blow…I dare look any man in the face. There is no humiliation in our position after such a struggle as we made for our freedom from the Yankees.”

Mary not only supported the Confederacy in words, but also in deeds. Mary worked as a nurse at a hospital, tending Southern and Northern soldiers alike. Although she was haunted by nightmares of “suffering, loathsome wounds, distortion, stumps of limbs,” Mary was adamant that “there must be no dodging duty.” Mary gladly sacrificed for the cause, selling her valuables to invest in Confederate war bonds and even donating her clothes. Mary was a stalwart supporter of President Jefferson Davis, and a fierce foe of factious infighting for power. “We mean to stand by our president and to stop all faultfinding with the powers that be,” Mary and a friend promised each other. Worried that the constant criticism of the Davis Administration would demoralize the Southern people and deprive them of their greatest advantage over the North— “the red-hot Southern martial spirit”—Mary confronted critics wherever she met them, be they journalists, generals, or friends. “We believe we can do it —and so we can—but if they persuade us that everybody in office is a fool, knave, or traitor, how can we?” After hearing General Joseph E. Johnston denounce Davis at a parade in Columbia, Mary stood up and gave an impromptu speech urging Southerners to unite against their true enemies in the North rather than bicker amongst themselves. “We thought this was a struggle for independence—Southern states against odds— in the U.S.A. Now it seems it is only a fight between Joe Johnston and Jeff Davis.” Mary did everything she could for the Confederacy, but she wished she could do more. “If I had been a man in this great revolution, I should have been killed at once or made a name and done some good for my country. Lord Nelson’s motto would be mine—Victory or Westminster Abbey!”

Confederate soldiers held the highest honor in Mary’s heart. “Our men are heroes all…bravest of the brave,” she wrote admiringly. “We are a brave and dauntless people. If our money was as palpable a fact as our soldierly qualities, no mortal could doubt the issue of this conflict.” In a conversation with President Davis, both were confident in the superior strength and spirit of the Southern soldier. “We think every Southerner equal to three Yankees at least.” Mary respected the courage and conviction of Confederate soldiers, “unfortunates who are lying in snow and mud, risking life and limb, deserting home, wife, children, worldly goods, periling all— maybe even their very souls—for what they believe their own country and no Yankee land.” Mary also marveled at their cheerful and cavalier spirit. “As a rule, our boys are inconsequent. They look to no future; they fight whenever the time to fight comes and in the meantime whistle as they go about, ‘When This Cruel War is Over.’” Mary and her friends personally provided relief to the poor families of Confederate soldiers, and even hosted wounded soldiers in her home. “A man must wear the Confederate uniform, and must have done his due share of fighting, to find favor with this bevy of high-spirited beauties.” One such recovering soldier with whom she grew acquainted was Maj. Gen John B. Hood, veteran of the Army of Northern Virginia and future commander of the Army of Tennessee.

In the elite circles which she and her husband traveled, Mary met many of the Confederacy’s great statesmen and soldiers. One of her closest friends was President Davis, whom she believed was “a gentleman and a patriot,” and “deeply interesting.” Mary remained loyal to Davis in spite of his detractors. “Sometimes I think I am the only friend he has in the world.” Before he was appointed an ambassador to Russia, Lucius Q.C. Lamar—“the cleverest man I know”— and Mary shared their support for secession, opposition to slavery, and worry over war. The first time Mary met General Robert E. Lee, she found him “distinguished on all points,” and “cold and quiet and grand.” When Lee recognized and bowed at her, Mary “blushed like a schoolgirl.” Despite winning nearly every battle, Lee was still losing the war, struggling to overcome the North’s superiority in manpower, munitions, and money. “Lee…has worse odds than anyone else, for when Grant has ten thousand slain, he has only to order up another ten thousand,” Mary fumed. “Losses in battle nothing to them,” Mary said of the Yankees, “resources in men and materials of war inexhaustible.” General Albert S. Johnston, commander of the Army of Tennessee, was widely derided for losing Fort Donelson, but his tragic death as he led his army at Shiloh restored his honor in the eyes of his compatriots. “We begin to see what we have lost,” conceded Mary. “We were pushing them in the river when General Johnston was wounded,” and the delays from the change in command “lost us all the advantage gained by our dead hero.” Although Mary never described meeting Lt. General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, he loomed large in her thoughts, as in the thoughts of all Southerners. To Mary, the “heaven-sent” Jackson was “winning his way wherever he goes.” After Jackson was slain in his finest hour at Chancellorsville, Mary felt “pain and fear” viewing his body lying in state at Richmond. Mary longed for the departed Jackson and A.S. Johnston to return and save the South. “For a day of Albert Sidney Johnston out West! And Stonewall Jackson, could he come back to us here!” Maj. General J.E.B. Stuart, Lee’s dashing cavalry commander, “gilt-edged and with stars,” was somewhat notorious among the ladies for stealing kisses from young girls. When Stuart rode into Richmond, his female admirers “bedecked” his horse with garlands. Maj. General Wade Hampton III, commander of a celebrated cavalry legion, was a favorite of Mary’s. Several members of Mary’s family, including her husband, fought in Hampton’s Legion. In a discussion with Mary on military strategy, Hampton explained that the South would not win if she fought the war as it were a game of chess; the North held too many advantages for conventional strategy to apply. To Mary, the South was rich in queens, bishops, castles, and knights, but was swarmed by a horde of Northern pawns.

Death cast a grim shadow over Mary’s life throughout the war, and she lived in constant terror of hearing the worst about her friends and family. “A telegram comes to you, and you leave it on your lap. You are pale with fright. You dread to touch it as you would a rattlesnake—worse, worse. A snake would only strike you. How many this scrap of paper may tell you have gone to their death.” Whenever her husband went away with the army, Mary agonized over his safety, hoping and praying for a letter to let her know that he was still alive. Mary mourned “the best and brightest of one generation…swept away” in a “tide of blood.” When Mary learned that a good friend of hers, Frank Hampton, had been killed, she reminisced with another of a time when they spent a week in the country with the newlywed Hamptons. “And now, it is only a few years, but nearly all that pleasant company are dead—and our world, the only world we cared for, literally kicked to pieces.” At times, the sheer enormity of the loss of life was too terrible for Mary to bear. “When I remember the truehearted, the lighthearted, the gay and gallant boys who have come laughing, singing, dancing in my way in the three years past, I have looked into their brave young eyes and helped them as I could every way and then seen them no more forever. They lie stark and cold, dead upon the battlefield or moldering away in hospitals or prisons. I think if I consider the long array of those bright youths and loyal men who have gone to their deaths almost before my very eyes, my heart might break.” Indeed, Mary was grief-stricken at the very thought of the men who had laid down their lives for liberty. “Oh, my Confederate heroes fallen in the fight! You are not to be matched in song or story.” The Confederate dead often haunted her. “What a cohort would rise to view if thoughts took shape.” To cope with the bereavement, Mary described how many became benumbed to bloodshed. “Day after day we read the death roll. Someone holds up her hands. ‘Oh, here is another of our friends killed. He was such a good fellow.’” As the war worsened, Mary began calling herself “Cassandra” (after the foreseer of doom from Greek mythology), wrapping herself in a black shawl and sobbing in solitude. With every casualty report, a part of Mary’s spirit died with the soldiers. “I know how it feels to die,” Mary moaned. “I have felt it again and again.”

As attrition took its toll on the weakening Confederate armies, Mary hoped for men like Francis Marion and Thomas Sumter, guerrilla leaders of the American Revolution who drove the British out of South Carolina, to arise and organize a resistance. After the fall of Atlanta, Mary believed that the cause was lost, but she was determined to face defeat with bravery. “No hope. We will try to have no fear.” After hearing of “the horrors to be endured by those subjected to fire and sword and rapine and plunder” under the total war waged by William T. Sherman—a “ghoul,” “vandal,” and “hyena”—Mary fled Columbia for North Carolina, “where the foot of the Yankee invader was unknown.” Days later, “Sherman’s march of death and destruction” reached Columbia, which was looted and burned. Mary felt bittersweet as she watched Confederate soldiers rally to resist Sherman’s onslaught. “There they go, the gay and gallant few—doomed, the last gathering of the flower of Southern youth, to be killed—to death or worse. Prison.” When Richmond fell, Mary lacked the heart to write about it. In hiding, Mary heard terrible tales of Yankee atrocities against the Southern people. “We are going to be wiped off the face of the earth,” Mary feared. In one especially gruesome incident, a gang of seven Yankees— “the men who are to be our masters,” one of Mary’s friends remarked ruefully—forced a mother to watch as they raped and murdered her daughter. Confederates hunted down the guilty Yankees, cut their throats, and marked them with a warning—“These were the seven”—but for those seven slain, there were 70,000 more perpetrating the same evil deeds. “One can never exaggerate the horrors of war on one’s own soil. You understand the agony, strive as you will to speak, the agony of heart—mind—body.” When Mary’s band of refugees learned of General Lee’s surrender, the men choked back tears while the ladies wailed. “This was a free fight,” Mary protested. “We had as much right to fight to get out as they had a right to fight to keep us in.”

As Mary and her husband traveled across the ravaged countryside — “a howling wilderness, land laid waste, dust and ashes”—to return home, she swore that even though the North had conquered all, she would never surrender her dignity. “If we are a crushed people, crushed by aught, I have vowed never to be a whimpering, pining slave.” When Mary and her husband arrived home, they discovered that their house had been looted and their mills and gins burned. “Nothing is left now but the bare lands and debts,” lamented Mary. The assassination of President Abraham Lincoln shocked Mary. “The death of Lincoln—I call that a warning to tyrants,” cheered a friend. Mary took no delight in Lincoln’s death, however, afraid that it would only make the North more vengeful towards the South, as well as loathing the prospect of hearing about “Saint Abe for all time, saint and martyr.” As triumphant Northerners debated hanging “rebel generals” and destroying the “wealthy classes,” the uncertainty over the South’s fate in the Union hung over her like “Damocles’ sword.” Mary was skeptical of peace between the North and the South, and suspected that the North desired to dishonor the South and drain her of her wealth. “I have read of no magnanimous conquerors of fallen states,” mourned Mary. As Mary had maintained throughout the war, “The Yankees…also expect to make the war pay. Yankees do not undertake anything that does not pay.” After hearing a reverend encourage Southerners to beat their swords into ploughshares, Mary protested, “Does he think that after four years of fighting as men never fought before, after killing more of their men than we ever had in the field, they will let us quietly slide back into the old grooves as we were before?” In Camden, Mary suffered the lawlessness of Yankee occupation. “If we had a royal Bengal tiger among us, a man-eater, we could not live in greater terror of our lives.” Face to face with the despised Yankees, Mary’s suspicion of their insincere abolitionism was confirmed. “The black man must go, as the red man has gone,” declared a genocidal Yankee occupier. “This is a white man’s country.” As Yankees ransacked the house of an acquaintance of Mary’s, they jeered, “We did not come here to fight for negroes. We hate them.” After musing about killing a white woman they saw in a carriage with a black man, she ordered them off her property. As they left, they called her an “insolent rebel hussy” and threatened to “break her mouth.” At a dinner for his surviving comrades-in-arms, Mary’s nephew, John Chesnut IV (whom she called “the cool Captain”), told her of an encounter with a Yankee captain earlier that day. “I did not fight for these. I fought for the Union,” claimed the Yankee, gesturing towards a crowd of unemployed blacks. “And I fought to be out of your Union,” replied the cool Captain.

“History reveals man’s deeds,” observed Mary, “their outward characters, but not themselves.” Mary’s diary provides us with what she knew history lacked—a portrait of its humanity. “I think this journal will be disadvantageous for me,” Mary once admitted, “for I spend the time now like a spider, spinning my own innards instead of reading, as my habit was at all spare moments.” Fortunately, Mary paid no heed to this premonition—even if she did consider burning her diary in some of her darker moods—and wrote faithfully until she was finally overtaken with despair. In one of her final entries, just after her “Black Fourth of July,” Mary said, “I do not write often now, not for want of something to say, but from a loathing of all I see and hear. Why dwell upon it?” Reflecting on the South’s sacrifices during the war, Mary quoted Sir Walter Scott, “Never let me hear that brave blood has been shed in vain. No. It sends a roaring voice down through all time.” Mary did not spill any blood for the cause, but the ink that she spilled in chronicling its rise and fall has sent her own beautiful voice roaring through time.

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