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Mary Boykin Chesnut

A Biography

Elisabeth S.Muhlenfeld, C. VannWoodward

Publication Year: 1992

“In her admirable biography of Mary Chesnut, Elisabeth Muhlenfeld has American literature as well as American history in her debt.” —C. Vann Woodward Mary Boykin Miller Chesnut (1823–1886) is known today for her excellent firsthand account of life in the Confederate States of America. A Diary from Dixie (republished in 1981 as Mary Chesnut’s Civil War)is far more than a simple diary, however, for Mrs. Chesnut’s drawing room was a social center for many of the most prominent political and military figures in the Confederacy. Elisabeth Muhlenfeld’s expert biography utilizes Mrs. Chesnut’s autobiographical writings, her papers, and those of her family, as well as published sources. It traces her life in South Carolina from her childhood, as the daughter of a governor and United States senator, through her schooling and her marriage to James Chesnut, Jr., the son of a wealthy South Carolina planter. During the war her husband served as an aide to P. G. T. Beauregard and to Jefferson Davis, achieving the rank of general. Muhlenfeld emphasizes Mary Chesnut’s last twenty years, when she helped her family through the intricacies of repaying immense debts incurred during the Civil War, rebuilding wrecked homes, and reestablishing some measure of order and security. These were also the years of her serious writing. She experimented with fiction, writing three novels and translating others from the French; and in 1881 she began the last revisions of her Civil War journal. In the descriptive passages, characterizations, thematic patterns, and overall structure of the revised journal, Chesnut employed the techniques she had learned by writing fiction. Besides adding to our knowledge of this unusual nineteenth-century southern woman, Mary Boykin Chesnut: A Biography enhances our knowledge of the history of women in general as it delineates the transformation of a wartime diary into the chronicle that remains a major document in southern history.

Published by: Louisiana State University Press

Title Page, Copyright

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Contents

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pp. ix-

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Foreword

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pp. xi-xii

MARY CHESNUT is remembered only for one incomparable book she wrote on her experience of the Civil War. "But one cannot read more than a page or two," as her biographer says, "without wishing to know more about the author herself." That alone would be enough...

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Acknowledgments

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pp. xiii-xv

IN 1975 WHEN I ARRIVED in Columbia, South Carolina, my friend Noel Polk placed a book in my hand before I had even set foot on the university campus. "Read this," he said. "Mrs. Chesnut is a remarkable lady." The book was the Ben Ames Williams edition...

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ONE: Perspective and Retrospective

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pp. 3-11

LATE IN THE EVENING of May l8, l86l , Mary Boykin Chesnut was in a hotel room in Montgomery, Alabama. The day had been a warm one, particularly for a woman dressed in the heavy hooped and frilled fashions of the period, so she was glad to sit by lamplight and...

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TWO: 1823–1836

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pp. 12-24

STATESBURG, SOUTH CAROLINA, in 1823, the year Mary Boykin Miller was born, was a small community already proud of its role in the history of a nation little more than forty years old. The town was situated in the middle of the state, and its earliest settlers were in the area...

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THREE: 1836–1840

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pp. 25-42

MADAME TALVANDE'S FRENCH School for Young Ladies was one of the most respected schools for girls in the Southeast. Located in a fashionable section of Old Charleston, the school occupied two large townhouses connected by a walkway and gardens. Both have been carefully preserved, and look today much as they did when Mary...

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FOUR: 1840–1860

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pp. 43-95

THE HOME TO WHICH James took Mary was in many respects a self-contained community headed by two strong figures: Mary Cox Chesnut who was sixty-five in 1840, and James Chesnut, Sr., sixty-seven. Two of James's unmarried sisters, Emma, twenty-eight, and Sarah or Sally, twenty-seven, also lived at Mulberry, so seventeen...

Illustrations

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FIVE: 1861–1865

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pp. 96-130

WHILE MARY BOYKIN CHESNUT Was en route back to South Carolina, James Chesnut, Jr., resigned his seat in the United States Senate on November 10, 1860, in response to Lincoln's election. Mary spent only one night in Charleston, sleepless, listening to loud oratory in the room below hers, then proceeded to Camden. At Kingsville...

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SIX: 1865–1876

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pp. 131-168

NATURE WAS BOUNTIFUL in the late spring and early summer of 1865; vegetable gardens overflowed with produce in Camden, and most people were no longer actually hungry.1 As the year wore on, Mary Boykin Chesnut's depression began to lift. It was characteristic of her to grieve deeply, intensely, for a time; but it was also...

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SEVEN: 1877–1881

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pp. 169-190

FROM THE AUTUMN OF 1876 until her death ten years later, Mary Boykin Chesnut was never again entirely well. Her heart condition became increasingly troublesome, she may also have had a chronic lung ailment of some sort, and she seems to have been particularly susceptible to minor diseases such as colds and intestinal...

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EIGHT: 1882–1886

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pp. 191-224

IT is FOR THE WORK she did during three of the last five years of her life that Mary Boykin Chesnut is remembered at all, for between late 1881 and 1884 she substantially completed an expansion and revision of her Civil War journals— twenty years after they had been...

Notes

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pp. 225-252

List of Sources

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pp. 253-262

Index

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pp. 263- 271


E-ISBN-13: 9780807152546
Print-ISBN-13: 9780807118047

Page Count: 304
Publication Year: 1992

Series Title: Southern Biography Series