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University Libraries - News, Events & Exhibits

"...worthy to be transmitted to future generations" Mary Boykin Chesnut's Civil War Diary and Photograph Albums

South Caroliniana Library (Lumpkin Foyer)
Nov 1, 2011 - Jan 28, 2012

An exhibition celebrating the reunification of Mary Boykin Chesnut's Civil War Diary and Photograph Albums.

In the spring of 1861, the Southern Confederacy literally held its breath, poised, as it were, on the very brink of cataclysm. From Charleston, celebrated Civil War diarist Mary Boykin Chesnut (1823-1886), wife of Confederate Brigadier General James Chesnut Jr. (1815-1885), wrote, “Our hearts are in doleful dumps. And we are as gay, as madly jolly, as the sailors who break into the strong room when the ship is going down.” Amid that giddy mix of anticipation and dread, some still sought opportunities to be immortalized by photographic artists. “To be photographed is the rage just now,” Mary Chesnut observed. And in recognition of this appeal of the photographer’s art, former South Carolina governor John Hugh Means presented her “a photo book in which I am to pillory all celebrities.”

 Mary Chesnut’s collection of carte de visite photographs, amassed between 1861 and the early 1870s, has been reunited with the manuscript of her fabled diary for the first time since her death. Together they provide compelling evidence of her ambitious intent to record the war. Represented in her albums are Confederate government officials, military leaders and their wives and family members, prominent figures from North and South, newspaper editors and correspondents, authors, clergy, world leaders, and members of her own extended family.

 Her written narrative was edited and published posthumously in 1905 as A Diary from Dixie and again, in near entirety, in 1980 as Mary Chesnut’s Civil War, for which editor C. Vann Woodward won the Pulitzer Prize. The photograph albums, which provide the faces of some 200 people about whom she wrote, were passed down through the Chesnut family until they disappeared in the 1930s. They remained lost until 2007, when they came up for public auction and a new generation of Mary Chesnut’s family succeeded in acquiring them. They have now returned to South Carolina, and the Daniels family of Mulberry Plantation in Camden has graciously placed them with the University of South Carolina’s South Caroliniana Library. “They belong together,” donor Martha M. Daniels has written of the diary and the albums. “They belong to the people of South Carolina and to all who are Carolinians at heart.”

 With the publication in 2011 of Mary Chesnut’s Illustrated Diary Mulberry Edition Boxed Set (volume 1: Mary Chesnut’s Diary from Dixie; volume 2: Martha M. Daniels and Barbara E. McCarthy, Mary Chesnut’s Civil War Photograph Album), issued by Pelican Publishing Company, Chesnut scholars and general readers have an opportunity to look inside her personal picture albums for the first time.

 The South Caroliniana Library is located on the Historic Horseshoe of the University of South Carolina. The Library is open Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., and Saturday 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.