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Mary Boykin Chesnut Writes Between the Lines,
by Elisabeth Showalter Muhlenfeld

      Keynote address presented, 21 Apr. 2007, at the 71st Annual Meeting

   of the University South Caroliniana Society

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The phone call from Allen Stokes inviting me to give this year’s talk to the South Caroliniana Society touched me deeply. Since my days as a graduate student in the mid-70s, I have understood the South Caroliniana to be my scholarly birthplace. It is a real honor to be here.

I came to the University of South Carolina in 1975 as a graduate student in the fledgling Southern Studies Program, then housed in Lieber College, just across The Horseshoe. I remember the Caroliniana as an open and friendly place. Les Inabinett and his staff never failed to answer a query or point out a connection, and in the process not only nurtured my research skills, but taught me what sheer fun it is to work with original materials, and what a privilege it is to be a member of a community of scholars. So I am delighted to speak today.

When I began work on Mary Boykin Chesnut as a graduate student, she was to most readers an obscure figure, although since 1905, when a severely truncated edition of her firsthand account of the Confederacy, A Diary from Dixie, was published, she had been a valuable source for historians. Novelist Ben Ames Williams read A Diary from Dixie and was so fascinated that he not only based a central character on Chesnut in his novel House Divided, but subsequently undertook to edit a second edition of her work. Williams’ edition, published in 1949, was far more readable and attracted fresh attention to Chesnut. It contained more of her manuscript material than the 1905 version, but was itself heavily edited. Despite two editions of her work and seventy years of interest by historians, no scholarly work had been done on Chesnut in 1975, apart from an entry by Margaretta P. Childs in Notable American Women and a chapter in Bell Irvin Wiley’s Confederate Women, when in that year C. Vann Woodward undertook a new and complete edition of the Chesnut diaries.

Much has happened to Mary Chesnut since then. Her monumental work was finally published in a full scholarly edition entitled Mary Chesnut’s Civil War, and the original journals on which the larger work was based were published three years later as The Private Mary Chesnut: The Original Civil War Journals. A biography appeared in 1981, and two manuscript novels were published in 2002. In 1982, ninety-six years after her death, Chesnut won a Pulitzer Prize. (Well, officially, C. Vann Woodward won the Pulitzer, but it was Mary’s book.) One measure of the growth in her reputation: in 1975, no anthologies of American writers included Mary Chesnut; today it is hard to find one that does not include her.

When in the mid-1980s the National Portrait Gallery devoted a gallery to the Civil War, Mary Boykin Chesnut held center stage - the only woman in the room - surrounded by Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee. Looking her best (in fact, in a very flattering portrait by Samuel Osgood, looking better than her best) - the very paradigm of the Southern lady - Chesnut stood alone among all those powerful men: just the sort of situation she thoroughly enjoyed in life and recorded so happily in her journal. Ken Burns’ award-winning documentary The Civil War featured Chesnut (in the voice of Julie Harris). The U.S. Post Office honored her with a stamp in their Civil War series, along with only two other women, nurses Clara Barton and Phoebe Pember, and an official limited edition Mary Boykin Chesnut doll - very expensive - was produced. In 2001, CSPAN’s American Writers Series included four writers to represent the Civil War era: Abraham Lincoln, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Frederick Douglass and Mary Chesnut.

When Woodward’s edition and my biography appeared in 1981, there were relatively few published resources available on the lives and thoughts of women of the period, so Chesnut’s work proved to be an early and rich tool for exploring the social history of the Confederacy, women’s roles, and the nexus of private lives with public crisis. In the 25 years since, ground-breaking studies concerned with nineteenth-century women by such scholars as Anne Firor Scott, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Katherine Seidel and Anne G. Rose, all of whom refer frequently to Chesnut, have dramatically increased our understanding of women’s lives. Since my own dissertation on her, five more have been completed, and at least one book-length study is currently under contract.

With all the attention Mary Chesnut has garnered in the last twenty-five years, however, most scholars continue to see her primarily as an historical resource. Since I have only a little time today, I thought I might focus instead on the importance of Mary Chesnut as a writer of great significance and power. Thirty years ago, I spent many hours arguing with Vann Woodward that the revised diary is a literary work and should be edited as such. Since then, I have edited not only the original diaries with Woodward but also her two manuscript novels, and I have become increasingly convinced that Chesnut must be read not as one of dozens of women diarists and letter writers of the Civil War era, not even as the best woman diarist, but as one of the best of our nineteenth-century writers, period.

As many of you know, Mary Boykin Miller Chesnut was born in 1823. Before she was ten, her father, Stephen Decatur Miller, who had already served a term in Congress, would serve as governor of South Carolina and United States senator. Thus, throughout her childhood, politics was in the very air she breathed. At twelve Mary was enrolled in a Charleston boarding school run by an indomitable Frenchwoman, Ann Marson Talvande, where she spoke only French or German during school hours.

Madame Talvande, who possessed what Mary later described as “the fiercest eye I have ever seen in a mortal head,” was a strict taskmaster and kept a close watch on her young charges, but thirteen-year-old Mary managed to be seen walking on the Charleston Battery in the moonlight with James Chesnut, Jr., newly graduated from Princeton, and Governor Miller decided to remove his daughter from gossip. He took her for several months to his cotton plantation in rural Mississippi, a state just emerging from frontier status. She returned briefly to Madame Talvande’s school, but her formal schooling was ended abruptly by the death of her father in 1838. Three weeks after her seventeenth birthday in 1840, she married and went to live with James at Mulberry, his family’s plantation near Camden.

The new Mrs. Chesnut came to Mulberry expecting, in due course, to assume her prescribed role as wife, mother, and mistress of the household—a position for which she had been carefully trained. Fate had other plans. Her in-laws, James Chesnut, Sr., and Mary Cox Chesnut, both in their sixties at the time of her marriage, retained control of lands and household for twenty-five more years. More devastating: James and Mary were childless. Thus, the first twenty years of her marriage were difficult, and her relationships with her in-laws and even her husband were often tense. Hers was a restless, gregarious personality, so she found life at Mulberry stultifying. In later years, she would say of it: “A pleasant, empty, easy going life. If one’s heart is at ease. But people are not like pigs; they cannot be put up and fattened. So here I pine and fret.”

James Chesnut, Jr., spent the years before 1860 in public service. In 1858 he was sent to the United States Senate. In Washington, finally, his wife was in her element. Of necessity, hers was a social role, and yet she was a far more astute politician than her husband. She possessed intelligence, wit, a reputation as a “literary” lady, a facility for languages, a marked skill as a conversationalist, and charm. Women were occasionally uneasy in her presence, but men -some of the most powerful men of her time - were drawn to her.

As hostility between North and South grew in the fall of 1860, James Chesnut, Jr., resigned his Senate seat and returned to South Carolina to help draft an ordinance of secession. His wife, who loved to pun, was succinct: “I am not at all resigned.” Nevertheless, she cast her lot with her state and became an ardent supporter of Jefferson Davis, whose wife, Varina, had become a friend.

As war became a certainty, Mary Boykin Chesnut began to keep a journal. At first she wrote in an elegant, red, leather-bound diary with gilt edges and a brass lock, but as the privations of wartime cut off supplies she continued her journal in anything she could find, at last recording the bleak aftermath of civil war in the blank pages of an old recipe book. The journal was a private one, kept under lock and key. Portions of it that survive today contain notes hurriedly jotted down, designed to remind her later of people, events, opinions, conversations, and impressions of the moment. Many of her entries are almost cryptic: all are utterly candid. After meeting South Carolina’s Governor Francis Pickens, she would write, “old Pick was there with a better wig—and his silly and affected wife.” After dining at someone else’s house, “I can give a better dinner than that!”

As I have said elsewhere, Mary Chesnut was in an excellent position to “cover” the war. She was in Charleston when Major Robert Anderson moved into Fort Sumter, in Montgomery for the inauguration of Jeff Davis, and in Charleston during the firing on Fort Sumter, where James served as aide to Gen. Pierre G.T. Beauregard. In all these settings, Mary’s hotel quarters served as salon in which the men engaged in forming the new government and their wives congregated. She spent most of the next several months in Richmond and recorded a city pulsing with excitement. She waited with Varina Davis for news of the battle at Manassas and visited the first sick and wounded of the war. Always, she wrote in her journal, sometimes expressing there her fears for her country and her outrage over the antics of the men in positions of authority: “This war began a War of Secession,” she wrote as early as March 1861. “It will end a War for the Succession of Places.” By August, when her husband seemed unable to decide whether to go into the army or stand for reelection to the Confederate Senate, she exploded in her journal, “Jeff Davis ill & shut up - & none but noodles have the world in charge.”

As a woman Mary could neither join the army nor hold office, and her frustrations frequently found their way into her journal. “Oh,” she moaned in April 1861, “if I could put some of my reckless spirit into these discreet cautious lazy men.” She hoped James would be appointed ambassador to France; failing that, she wanted him to be reelected senator, not least because she wanted to avoid having to go home to Mulberry. At one point, she wrote, “I wish Mr. Davis would send me to Paris—& so I should not need a South Carolina Legislature for anything else.” Back in Camden, her husband’s apparent indifference to the war raging in Virginia infuriated her: “Now, when if ever man was stirred to the highest for his country & for his own future,” James seemed oblivious. “If I had been a man in this great revolution - I should have either been killed at once or made a name & done some good for my country. Lord Nelson’s motto would be mine - Victory or Westminster Abbey.”

In December 1862 President Davis appointed James colonel and summoned him to Richmond as a personal aide. This appointment suited Mary Chesnut perfectly. She rented quarters close to the White House of the Confederacy; Chesnuts and Davises visited almost daily. In Richmond, as in Charleston, Montgomery, and Columbia, Chesnut’s renown as a hostess assured that she had a constant round of visitors teeming with interesting conversation, most of which found its way into her journal.

As the South fought on to what she knew was inevitable defeat, Chesnut was forced into exile. She met adversity with good humor, noting wryly that she had brought plenty of books to Lincolnton, North Carolina, while Sherman burned Columbia, but her Confederate money was worthless to buy food. “I am bodily comfortable, if somewhat dingily lodged,” she wrote, “and I daily part with my raiment for food. We find no one who will exchange eatables for Confederate money. So we are devouring our clothes.”

Two months later, as word came of Lee’s surrender, she had moved again, to three vacant rooms in Chester, South Carolina. Again she kept open house as old friends were drawn to her. “Night and day this landing and these steps are crowded with the elite of the Confederacy, going and coming. And when night comes...more beds are made on the floor of the landing place....The whole house is a bivouac.”

The Chesnuts returned to Camden. James finally inherited Mulberry in 1866, but his inheritance included not only huge debts he was never able to repay but a host of relatives and former slaves dependent upon him. The Chesnuts were by no means poor - when visitors came, Mary could and did don her antebellum Paris dresses and set her tables with fine china and crystal. But her scale of living had changed dramatically. Mary took over the responsibilities of running the cottage industries that supplied the plantations, assisted in overseeing farming affairs, and established a small butter-and-egg business that brought pin money into the household.

Perhaps to earn some money, she decided in the early 1870s to try her hand at fiction and worked on two novels more or less simultaneously. One was a largely autobiographical novel she called Two Years of My Life that deals with a schoolgirl at Madame Talvande’s French School for Young Ladies in Charleston who is taken by her father to a raw cotton plantation in Mississippi. Incidentally, this novel provides, so far as I can tell, the fullest and best description of a girl’s boarding school of the period that exists. The other was a Civil War novel, entitled The Captain and the Colonel, Mary Boykin Chesnut’s first effort to use, in palatable form, the materials of her wartime journals. By the mid 1870s, ten years had elapsed since the war, and she had had time to gain a very different perspective.

In an 1876 memoir for her nieces and nephews, she indicated that change in perspective very clearly, in a brief passage remembering abolitionist John Brown’s famous 1859 raid:

I remember... I saw in the Charleston papers, an account — of a speech from Senator Chesnut - and [one about] John Brown[’s] raid. I was so stupid - I did not read [about] the raid at all - engrossed by my own small affair - and yet John [Brown]’s Raid - meant a huge war - revolution - ruin to us all and death to millions - and the speech - well it was a good speech - and there was the end of it.

In short, the elapsed time between the war itself and 1876 had enabled Chesnut to step back from her own “small affairs” and see quite clearly the astounding scope of the national cataclysm through which she had lived. Not surprisingly, then, when Chesnut sought an epigraph for her novel of the war, she selected the following poem, probably her own:

Spider! thou need’st not run in fear about
To shun my curious eyes:
I won’t humanely crush thy bowels out,
Lest thou should eat the flies;
Nor will I toast thee with a damned delight
Thy strange instructive fortitude to see;
For there is one who might
One day roast me.

In this little poem, the perspective begins with the speaker watching a spider dashing around in instinctive terror (lest the giant human speaker in the poem “crush” it or roast it over a fire just to watch it burn). But the perspective changes dramatically, to a far larger, more powerful force, who might by analogy “roast” the speaker. The image is reminiscent of the famous passage by Jonathan Edwards in his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” in which he envisions the sinner as dangling over the fires of hell like a spider suspended by a silken thread - awaiting the inevitable. This movement in perspective, from the small affairs of the individual to imminent destruction by a crushing and inexplicable power is a dominant theme in the novel itself (and would become essential to the revised journal of the 1880s).

The Captain and the Colonel is the story of the Effingham family of South Carolina, a mother and three daughters, Margaret, Susan, and Emily, all of whom live a life of beauty, ease, graciousness, and regularity. In its early chapters the novel follows a classic pattern of novels of manners: the three daughters are all of marriageable age. The plantation next door is owned by eligible bachelor and close family friend Charles Johannis (modeled on Mary Chesnut’s nephew, John Chesnut, the Cool Captain of Mary Chesnut’s Civil War). Johannis has a friend, Collingwood, visiting. Johannis has secretly loved Emily since she was a child. Both Margaret and Emily fall in love with Collingwood, Collingwood falls in love with Emily and confesses to his best friend Johannis. Susan tattles and creates complications. Margaret seethes with jealousy. Into all this comes the Civil War, which Chesnut talks about and alludes to rather awkwardly, primarily by drawing on a few settings and anecdotes from her own experiences. In the novel, the central figure is a woman with some of the characteristics of the author herself. Even as a young woman, Joanna Hardhead is described as “Queen Joanna” or “Regina.” Her family acknowledges her right to rule, primarily because she is more intelligent and more decisive than they, and she is often depicted as a military tactician. At one point, for example, as she tries to quash a romance under her roof, military metaphors abound:

When the smoke of the battle field had blown away, Mrs. Effingham felt she had used her great guns in vain. Victory had not perched upon her banners. The foe was in motion all along the line....“To think a child of mine could be so insolent....But I will conquer her yet.”

As the war drags on, Joanna’s pride in her power and her control erodes. She runs a large war hospital in Richmond, but her tireless work and her efforts to rebuild, repair, and regroup at war’s end become a mind-numbing way of life. Chesnut’s protagonist comes to be painfully aware of her impotence. She goes from being a force of nature to the helpless victim of natural forces over which she has no control. At one point near the end of the novel, the story is told of a neighbor who has selfishly hidden away a hundred bales of cotton - insuring himself a personal fortune in the face of his neighbors’ poverty. But as he brags of his foresight, the cotton is struck by lightening and goes up in flames. “For a hundred yards round, it was hot as hell!” cries the teller of the tale in wild excitement. “Not a lock of that cotton is left.” Here the planter is like the spider in the novel’s epigraph; some power far beyond his understanding is roasting him.

Chesnut makes very clear in the novel the patterns and connections between the personal and the global. The revolt of Joanna’s younger daughter, Emily, against her mother’s absolute power is juxtaposed against “the grand revolt of the southern lands - and disaster after disaster.” Toward the end of the novel, Susan tells of the death in childbirth of her best friend only hours after the woman had learned of her husband’s death on a battlefield:

“I sat up all night trying to keep that poor little baby warm - with hot flannels - and as near as we could get to the stove. It was of no use. It died before day. And so they were all buried together-. These chairs are very hard and uncomfortable,” cried Susan. “How I miss my rocking chair! And the room is so close.”

As she speaks, Susan walks to a window “where every pane was broken”: here is personal grief within the context of universal desolation.

Although at the end of the novel, all three sisters find husbands and marry, only Emily, the youngest, has made a love match; the other two, like their mother before them, have simply secured support. Marriage, family, the traditional “happy endings” of Victorian novels, offer no solace. Indeed, Chesnut sees that in some regards, little has changed for women. Even the newly freed slave women remain in bondage.

Chesnut’s efforts at fiction are interesting for two reasons. First, they deal with themes that Mary Boykin Chesnut later was to develop effectively in her revised Civil War journal, including women’s roles, the relationships of blacks and whites, and the impact of history - public and private - on the individual life. Second, these manuscript novels show the care and deliberation with which Chesnut, now in her mid-fifties, was teaching herself to write, to handle dialogue and description, to use imagery, to parallel characters and events, and to speak with a clearly defined narrative voice.

After at least two false starts in the 1860s and ’70s, Chesnut bought a supply of notebooks in 1881 and began revision of her Civil War journals in earnest - a task still incomplete at her death in 1886. The work was exhaustive, for in the twenty years since she had begun the journal she had had time to sort out the significant from the trivial and to find in trivialities emblems of the whole. Though she preserved the diary format and took care never to alter fact or to admit an anachronism into her book, the diary had become a carefully structured and dramatic literary work.

To give you a sense of how diary became book, let us look at comparable passages in the original diary and Mary Chesnut’s Civil War. On April 12, 1861, Chesnut records her distress with great immediacy:

“Mr. Chesnut sent off again to Anderson. The live long night I toss about - at half past four we hear the booming of the cannon. I start up - dress & rush to my sisters in misery. We go on the house top & see the shells bursting. They say our men are wasting ammunition.”

More than 20 years later, the incident develops as a deliberate narrative, beginning with a clear description of the situation: “I do not pretend to go to sleep. How can I? If Anderson does not accept terms - at four - the orders are - he shall be fired upon.” Like any good writer, Chesnut works to build tension:

I count four - St. Michael chimes. I begin to hope. At half-past four, the heavy booming of a cannon.

I sprang out of bed. And on my knees – prostrate - I prayed as I never prayed before.

There was a sound of stir all over the house - pattering of feet in the corridor - all seemed hurrying one way. I put on my double gown and a shawl and went, too. It was to the housetop.

The shells were bursting. In the dark I heard a man say “waste of ammunition.”

Here, even the little comment about wasting ammunition - now placed in the mouth of an anonymous man, serves as an ironic contrast to the high patriotism and drama of the moment.

In 1861, Chesnut ends her account, “Good news. Nobody hurt on our side.” By the time she revised her work in the 1880s, she wrote, “Do you know, after all that noise and our tears and prayers, nobody has been hurt. Sound and fury, signifying nothing. A delusion and a snare.” Here her allusion to Macbeth suggests the theatrical quality of Fort Sumter; her comment foreshadows the real war to come, suggesting by “a delusion and a snare” that the high expectations with which Sumter imbued the South were themselves a trap. And Chesnut includes one more passage of importance here, one that would initiate a theme not mentioned in the original diary in 1861, but woven throughout the great work of the 1880s - the inscrutability of the slave population.

Not by one word or look can we detect any change in the demeanor of these negro servants. Laurence [James’s manservant] sits at our door, as sleepy and as respectful and as profoundly indifferent. So are they all. They carry it too far. You could not tell that they hear even the awful row that is going on in the bay, though it is dinning in their ears night and day. And people talk before them as if they were chairs and tables. And they make no sign. Are they stolidly stupid or wiser than we are, silent and strong, biding their time?

Another example: in an entry of 1861 just after Sumter, the original diary is almost cryptic:

Monday 15th - 16th - 17th - 18th - & 19th - 20th, 21st - 22nd - 23rd. During this time - the excitement, &c, was so great I had never a moment to write.

I drove every evening on the battery. Manning, Wigfall, John Preston, &c, men without limit beset us at night. Mrs. Cheves came & her sweet little girls. Mrs. Frank Hampton as perfectly charming as ever. Barnwell Heyward - Mary Kirkland - every body, every thing happened. Mr. C, Manning & Miles carried Russell to the Forts - & Wigfall, drunk, insulted him. Poor Mrs. W. James Simons sat under the yellow flag for safety. They call him hospital Jimmy.

What we have in 1861 is a list of people she saw, as well as a dig at Louis Wigfall and a little nasty gossip that James Simons had proved himself to be a coward. In her revised journal, however, Chesnut uses this moment to develop a wonderfully ironic picture of society, high to low, moving from the social to the serious:

Home again. In those last days of my stay in Charleston I did not find time to write a line.

And so we took Fort Sumter. Nous autres. We-Mrs. Frank Hampton &c, in the passageway of the Mills House between the reception room and the drawing room. There we held a sofa against all comers. And indeed, all the agreeable people South seemed to have flocked to Charleston at the first gun. That was after we found out that bombarding did not kill anybody. Before that we wept and prayed-and took our tea in groups, in our rooms, away from the haunts of men.

Captain Ingraham and his kind took it (Fort Sumter) from the battery with field glasses and figures made with three sticks in the sand to show what ought to be done.

Wigfall, Chesnut, Miles, Manning &c took it, rowing about in the harbor in small boats, from fort to fort, under the enemies’ guns, bombs bursting in air, &c &c.

And then the boys and men who worked those guns so faithfully at the forts. They took it, too-their way.

One more wonderful contrast between original diary and book of the 1880s occurs in June 1861, at Sandy Hill, the Chesnut’s summer plantation. Chesnut’s original diary records a brief incident: “I woke in the night, heard such a commotion, such loud talking of a crowd - I rushed out, thinking what could they have heard from Virginia, but found only Mrs. Chesnut had smelled a Smell-& roused the whole yard.” The incident ends with the simple note: “One of Col. Chesnut’s negroes was taken yesterday with a pistol.”

In the 1880s, Chesnut uses this incident to create a fully realized vignette of plantation life with all its ironies, teeming with able-bodied slaves racing around to do the bidding of one elderly deaf woman-all providing an ironic juxtaposition to the war raging in the background. In the process, she sketches a delicious portrait of her mother-in-law.

Last night I was awakened by loud talking and candles flashing everywhere-tramping of feet-growls dying away in the distance, loud calls from point to point in the yard.

Up I started-my heart in my mouth. Some dreadful thing had happened - a battle - a death - a horrible accident. Miss Sally Chesnut was screaming...from the top of the stairway-hoarsely, like a boatswain in a storm....

I dressed and came upon the scene of action.

“What is it? Any news?”

“No, no-only, mama smells a smell. She thinks something is burning somewhere.”

The whole yard was alive-literally swarming. There are sixty or seventy people kept here to wait upon this household - two-thirds of them too old or too young to be of any use. But families remain intact. Mr. C has a magnificent voice. I am sure it can be heard for miles. Literally he was roaring from the piazza - giving orders to the busy crowd who were hunting the smell of fire.

Mrs. C is deaf, so she did not know what a commotion she was creating. She is very sensitive on the subject of bad odors. Candles have to be taken out of the room to be snuffed. Lamps are extinguished only in the porticoes - or further afield. She finds violets oppressive. Can only tolerate a single kind of rose. Tea roses she will not have in her room.

She was totally innocent of the storm she had raised and in a mild sweet voice was suggesting places to be searched.

I was weak enough to laugh hysterically. The bombardment of Fort Sumter was nothing to this.

Like its source, this version also ends, “Yesterday some of the negro men on the plantation were found with pistols” - in truth a far more serious threat than the smoldering rags that had caused the smell. But now Chesnut again sounds the theme she weaves throughout the book: “I have never seen aught about any negro to show that they knew we had a war on hand in which they have any interest.”

The care with which Mary Boykin Chesnut structures this small vignette is reflected a hundred fold in the structure of her 1880s revision as a whole. War, of course, provides the basic scaffolding: the book begins with the prelude to conflict, moves through four long years of civil war, and ends with war’s aftermath. Chesnut herself provides the basic metaphor: family. Civil War is a painful divorce, family torn asunder. To make her themes come to life, Chesnut uses the men closest to her. Chesnut’s father-in-law, James Chesnut, Sr., monarch of all he surveys, represents the antebellum world, and scattered throughout her revised journal are passages such as the one I have just quoted, providing in rich detail a look at plantation life before the war. In 1861, James Chesnut, Sr., is a vigorous man; by 1865, we see him frail and uncomprehending. Husband James Chesnut, Jr., statesman, first senator to resign his seat, looking handsome as he dashes about Charleston in a red sash, represents the Confederacy - marked in Chesnut’s mind by high ideals marred by anachronistic beliefs and indecisions. It is Chesnut’s nephew Johnny (the model for her hero in The Captain and the Colonel) who becomes the Cool Captain in her revised journal, the cheerful young man who, following Appomatox, can put the past aside, and stride forward. There is no hint in Chesnut’s revised journal that Johnny had in fact died in 1868. Chesnut as writer has trumped Chesnut as historian.

MBC’s book, unfinished at her death and unpublished in any form for almost twenty years thereafter, is an enormous work. In the form of a diary, it weaves a broad picture of a society - of country and city life, of the motives and emotions that lay behind political, military, and domestic events, and of the views expressed in drawing rooms, across dining tables, in churches, railroad cars, and hospitals throughout the South from the beginning of a glorious war to the end of a way of life. Concluding as it does in 1865, what her book cannot reveal is the way its author carefully and patiently wrote and rewrote, created and revised and recreated the world that powers beyond her had destroyed. We are only just beginning to appreciate that artistry.