Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Mary Chesnut Blogged The Civil War

Mrs. Mary Boykin Miller Chesnut, 1823-1886, chronicler of the Civil War in the South, was a blogger.  

She was just about a century too soon.

And, her work encountered a few delays before it found a place on the internet, like starting out in 1905 as a book with actual paper pages and ink words.  However, her words are now available on the internet, giving her the status of blogger. 

And writer.  And author.  And literati.

And she never got paid, unless you count the astonishing satisfaction of writing because she wanted to and could.  She could not allow the vast panorama of life in her times, both large earth shaking events and small homely episodes, to go unrecorded.

No electronic keyboard, spell check, or formatting tools, she did it old school. The glow on her face as she wrote was undoubtedly from a candle flame. And the flame in her heart lit the rest of the way.

She’d crack open a blank page of “confederate paper” leather bound in a quarto sized notebook, dip her quill, and almost daily, pending illness or danger, scratch out in cursive an account of her very social life in wartime South Carolina.

Mary Chesnut’s diaries, all 45 volumes of them, sometimes spent time deep in a hole buried with the family silver to avoid confiscation by Yankee soldiers come to reap the spoils of war.

Of keeping her journal, she wrote:

"Why do you write in your diary at all," someone said to me, "if, as you say, you have to contradict every day what you wrote yesterday?" "Because I tell the tale as it is told to me. I write current rumor. I do not vouch for anything."

That sounds like we 21st century bloggers explaining ourselves.

Hers was not an academic or legalistic depiction of the politics or social conventions of the day. She wrote with a “delightful unconscious frankness” * similar to the raw and unselfconscious tone found in many modern day blogs. She wrote in her own voice, unpretentious and honest.

Of Manassas she wrote:

August 8th. - To-day I saw a sword captured at Manassas. The man who brought the sword, in the early part of the fray, was taken prisoner by the Yankees. They stripped him, possessed themselves of his sleeve-buttons, and were in the act of depriving him of his boots when the rout began and the play was reversed; proceedings then took the opposite tack.

Of Abraham Lincoln she wrote:

In the hotel parlor we had a scene. Mrs. Scott was describing Lincoln, who is of the cleverest Yankee type. She said: "Awfully ugly, even grotesque in appearance, the kind who are always at the corner stores, sitting on boxes, whittling sticks, and telling stories as funny as they are vulgar." Here I interposed:

"But Stephen A. Douglas said one day to Mr. Chesnut, 'Lincoln is the hardest fellow to handle I have ever encountered yet.' " Mr. Scott is from California, and said Lincoln is "an utter American specimen, coarse, rouge, and strong; a good-natured, kind creature; as pleasant-tempered as he is clever, and if this country can be joked and laughed out of its rights he is the kind-hearted fellow to do it. Now if there is a war and it pinches the Yankee pocket instead of filling it - "

Of her elderly husband and the African man who stayed, she wrote:

African Scipio walks at Colonel Chesnut's side. He is six feet two, a black Hercules, and as gentle as a dove in all his dealings with the blind old master, who boldly strides forward, striking with his stick to feel where he is going. The Yankees left Scipio unmolested. He told them he was absolutely essential to his old master, and they said, "If you want to stay so bad, he must have been good to you always." Scip says he was silent, for it "made them mad if you praised your master."

Of Southern gentility, she wrote:

Sometimes this old man will stop himself, just as he is going off in a fury, because they try to prevent his attempting some feat impossible in his condition of lost faculties. He will ask gently, "I hope that I never say or do anything unseemly! Sometimes I think I am subject to mental aberrations." At every footfall he calls out, "Who goes there?" If a lady's name is given he uncovers and stands, with hat off, until she passes. He still has the old-world art of bowing low and gracefully.

Of witnessing an auction, she wrote:

I have seen a negro woman sold on the block at auction. She overtopped the crowd. I was walking and felt faint, seasick. The creature looked so like my good little Nancy, a bright mulatto with a pleasant face. She was magnificently gotten up in silks and satins. She seemed delighted with it all, sometimes ogling the bidders, sometimes looking quiet, coy, and modest, but her mouth never relaxed from its expanded grin of excitement. I dare say the poor thing knew who would buy her. I sat down on a stool in a shop and disciplined my wild thoughts... You know how women sell themselves and are sold in marriage from queens downward, eh? You know what the Bible says about slavery and marriage; poor women! poor slaves! 

Of changing households in hard times and her relationships with her servants, she wrote:

Wednesday. - I have been mobbed by my own house servants. Some of them are at the plantation, some hired out at the Camden hotel, some are at Mulberry. They agreed to come in a body and beg me to stay at home to keep my own house once more, "as I ought not to have them scattered and distributed every which way." ...I asked my cook if she lacked anything on the plantation at the Hermitage. "Lack anything?" she said, "I lack everything. What are corn-meal, bacon, milk, and molasses? Would that be all you wanted? Ain't I been living and eating exactly as you does all these years? When I cook for you, didn't I have some of all? Dere, now!" Then she doubled herself up laughing. They all shouted, "Missis, we is crazy for you to stay home."

Her voice sounds so familar.  We hear her speaking as though she is sitting in the same room. She wrote what she knew and she did so to be heard.

Having had no children, she bequeathed her beloved words to close friend Isabella D. Martin to be published.  And they were.

Entitled A Diary from Dixie as written by Mary Boykin Chesnut the parts of her journals that weren't too personal were published post-humously in 1905.

Her journals became testament to a time of brutal homicidal war, the privations of a proud citizenry, and perhaps the only real truth about slavery and its nature in the South.  Harriett Beecher Stowe wrote fiction and had no first hand experience on the issue.   Mary Chesnut did.

And her journals became literature.

Perhaps our humble blogs, however flawed and quaint, will someday leave such a legacy.

*Isabella D. Martin, Introduction, A Diary from Dixie


If Mary's voice speaks to you as it does to me, don't miss the series:

The Civil War
A Ken Burns documentary for PBS. 

Mary's words glue the whole film together with elegance, wit  and eye-witness truth.


  1. Wow... I would love to have a copy of that journal... I will have to look for it.

    As always, you have the most wonderful stories to tell.

    I hope all is well with you...


  2. I knew Google Blogger was getting old, but, DAMN !!!


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