1995 Mary Chesnut stamp
US #2975o – from the 1995 Civil War issue

Author Mary Boykin Chesnut was born on March 31, 1823, near Stateburg, South Carolina.  She kept a detailed diary of the Civil War from her perspective, and the resulting book had been labeled a masterpiece and a work of art.

Mary was the oldest of four children born to Stephen Decatur Miller.  As the daughter of a South Carolina governor and US senator, she was immersed in politics from childhood.  She attended a French school for young ladies and her family spent some time on a farm in Mississippi.

1987 South Carolina Bicentennial stamp
US #2343 – Mary’s father and husband were prevalent in South Carolina politics, giving her a front row seat to major events in the state.

At age 17, Mary married James Chestnut Jr.  The only surviving son of one of the largest landowners in the state, he was elected to the US Senate in 1858 – a position he resigned from when Abraham Lincoln was elected president.  He then returned south as a delegate to the Confederate Provisional Congress, and later served as personal aide to Jefferson Davis.

US #2975f – Chesnut’s husband was a personal aid to Jefferson Davis.

With her husband working as an aide to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Mary played a role in her husband’s career.  They hosted regular events, which were important to build political connections.  Mary was a popular hostess, and her hotel quarters in Montgomery soon became a fashionable salon where the elite of the new Confederacy came to socialize and exchange information.

Aware of the magnitude of the events unfolding around her, Mary began keeping a diary on February 18, 1861.  She stated at the start, “The journal is intended to be entirely objective.  My subjective days are over.”  She was present at several historic moments from the meeting of the Provisional Congress of the Confederate States of America to witnessing the first shots of the war.

1961 Fort Sumter stamp
US #1178 – Chesnut’s diary includes a detailed account of the battle of Fort Sumter.

Everything Mary saw and heard she candidly recorded, from political rumors and firsthand reports of battles, to wartime romances, parties, and funerals.  Her writing explored the conditions of the different social classes in the South during the war, covering slavery, the treatment of women, and more.  After the war she converted her diary into a novel, though she didn’t finish it in her lifetime.  She also wrote three other full novels that she never published.  Mary died on November 22, 1886.

1951 United Confederate Veterans stamp
US #998 – Mary’s book is considered one of the most important works from the Confederacy during the war.

Excerpts from her journals appeared in The Saturday Evening Post under the title “A Diary from Dixie,” and later several heavily revised editions were also published.  Finally in 1981, with the publication of Mary Chestnut’s Civil War, her journals appeared as she had originally written them, giving us one of the finest firsthand accounts of the Confederacy.  This 1981 edition earned a Pulitzer Prize.  The popular Ken Burns television series, The Civil War, included several readings from her diary.

Chesnut Fleetwood First Day Cover
US #2975o – Fleetwood First Day Cover

One modern review of her book stated that “The very rhythm of her opening pages at once puts us under the spell of a writer who is not merely jotting down her days but establishing, as a novelist does, an atmosphere, an emotional tone…  Starting out with situations or relationships of which she cannot know the outcome, she takes advantage of the actual turn of events to develop them and round them out as if she were molding a novel.”

Read A Diary from Dixie here.

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  1. I love this blog, but I find this entry more than lacking. It is a disservice to those reading this wanting to learn more about this important bit of history to not specifically mention the fact that she and her husband (and every one else in her family) owned enslaved humans. While she may have written about loathing slavery, you cannot deny or whitewash away the fact that her wealth and privilege were built on the backs of enslaved Africans.

    1. Nobody is denying anything. Though the article doesn’t explicitly say it, one can gleen from the wording that these were wealthy southern confederates who most certainly owned slaves. The article is about Mary Chestnut. It’s not about injustice.

    2. Get over yourself and your self indulgent guilt over something that happened 150 years ago. Sane people are tired of hearing liberals whine about everything.

        1. Yep Jim, your right about these people. After a year of stamp collecting and a lifetime of coin collecting, I now know what I always suspected of these two old and dying hobbies-most of the people in it are racist and have no place in the future. You guys are killing a pair of excellent hobbies!

  2. Eye witnesses to history, especially the Civil War, are a treasure. The Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary would not have been complete without Mary Chesnut’s dairy. Thanks for sharing this narrative.

  3. I see this was last year’s but had missed it Ken Burns gave her new exposure & thank you Mystic Stamp for doing so too.

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