Women of the Civil War: Mary Boykin Chestnut

The election of Abraham Lincoln as president of the United States in November 1860 motivated normally reserved Southern women to become more engaged in political activities. The wife of U.S. Sen. James Chestnut from South Carolina, who resigned from the Senate following Lincoln’s election, changed her opposition to secession from the Union despite fear of the turbulence that was to follow.

During the four long years of civil conflict, Mary Boykin Chestnut kept a diary that chronicled the activities of Confederate officials. Published 40 years after the Civil War, “A Diary from Dixie,” edited by Isabella D. Martin and Myrta Lockett Avary, is a treasure trove of insight, as well as gossip.

After her husband became an army general and aide to newly-appointed Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Mary Chestnut had access to the rich and powerful. She learned, for example, female spies brought information through the lines to the South from observation points in Washington, D.C.

Author Mary Elizabeth Massey noted in “Women in the Civil War” that Mary Chestnut was “shocked” by the apparent intimacy of female government workers with well-known members of the Confederate legislature. A Congressman’s proposal on the floor of the House to convey female workers to and from the legislature by vehicle prompted knowing giggles and laughter from the members and the galleries.

Mary came to the defense of Jefferson Davis, the headstrong president and frequent target of critics. She feared the political battering he received would destroy any hope of success for the Confederate cause.

Despite wartime shortages of food and other necessities, the affluent society in Richmond continued to plan parties and socials as in normal times. Mary noted these women ignored criticism in the local newspapers, and continued to act as if “peace and plenty blessed the land.”

The reading habits of Southerners changed once the first shot of the Civil War took place at Fort Sumter, S.C., in April 1861. Mary lamented her money spent subscribing to Harper’s and the Atlantic magazines published in the North was wasted, because hostile conditions prevented delivery to the South.

The war impacted the lives of young women who married and stayed behind as their men left to join the conflict. Mary noted that soldiers sometimes broke the hearts of their betrothed at home, when they married “strangers” met while on military assignment elsewhere.

As the war progressed, many slaves fled Southern plantations, seeking freedom in the North, especially after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 — yet some remained loyal to their masters. Mary was thankful that Ellen, one of her slaves, returned her diamonds several weeks after she had entrusted them to her.

With regard to Confederate officers, Mary recorded Gen. James Archer’s comparison of the troublesome Gen. Joseph Johnston and the impetuous Gen. John Bell Hood. Although Johnston was “a man of culture and literary attainments,” Hood had “youth and energy … and a simple-minded directness of purpose always.”

As the war was grinding to a halt in early 1865, Mary attributed a statement to Gen. Robert E. Lee: “This is the people’s war; when they tire, I stop.” Shortly thereafter, the war essentially “stopped” with Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House, Va.

When Mary Chestnut learned about President Lincoln’s assassination on April 15, 1865, she was unsympathetic and labeled it “a warning to tyrants.” With considerable prescience she added, “He will not be the last President put to death in the capital, though he is the first.”

Several months after the Civil War, Mary remained defiant. She noted in her diary, “Never let me hear that the blood of the brave has been shed in vain! No; it sends a cry down through all time.”

Fearing some of her candid comments would offend old friends, Mary considered destroying her diary. Although she preserved it, she decided not to publish it, but several versions of her diary appeared in print after her death.

In addition to the abridged “A Diary from Dixie,” C. Vann Woodward edited and published the diary in its entirety, titled “Mary Chestnut’s Civil War,” which won a Pulitzer Prize. It serves as a valuable primary source about the four traumatic years, 1861 to 1865.

Tom Ryan is the author of the award-winning “Lee is Trapped, and Must Be Taken: Eleven Fateful Days after Gettysburg, July 4-14, 1863,” and “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign: How the Critical Role of Intelligence Impacted the Outcome of Lee’s Invasion of the North, June-July 1863,” available at Bethany Beach Books, Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach and Cardsmart in Milford, and on Amazon.com. Contact him at  pennmardel@mchsi.com or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.


By Tom Ryan

Special to the Coastal Point