American Literature Mary Boykin Chesnut
Youli Theodosiadou
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 June 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0247


Mary Boykin Chesnut (b. 1823–d. 1886) was born in Statesburg, South Carolina, and educated at a French boarding school in Charleston where she learned German and French. Her father Stephen Decatur Miller had served as a US congressman and senator and in 1826 was elected governor of South Carolina. On 23 April 1840 she married James Chesnut Jr. (b. 1815–d. 1885), who was elected to the US Senate and later served in the Provisional Congress of the Confederate States of America eventually achieving the rank of general. Because she moved within a circle of political and social privilege, she knew many of the political and military figures of the time and had the opportunity to observe every aspect of the Confederacy experience. From February 1861 to July 1865 she recorded her experiences during the Civil War in a diary which she returned to in the early 1880s with a view of revising and expanding it. She wrote and rewrote entries, compiling more than 400,000 words in the end. The diary or expanded journal was not published during her lifetime; posthumously there were two truncated and poorly edited versions, one in 1905 and another one in 1949. However, a complete, meticulously edited version was published in 1981 under the title Mary Chesnut’s Civil War and it is considered one of the finest literary works and a rich historical source of the Confederacy. With the renewed interest in women’s studies, Chesnut’s work is significant in the way it portrays the day-to-day life of a plantation mistress during the time of the Confederacy. Chesnut also wrote three novels which were not published during her lifetime: Two Years of My Life—or The Way We Lived Then, The Captain and the Colonel, and “Manassas.” The first two were published in 2002, whereas the third one is a fragment of a novel and was never published. The only work to have been published during her lifetime is “The Arrest of a Spy,” a short sketch which appeared in the Charleston Weekly News and Courier in 1883. Chesnut’s family lost everything in the war, leaving them so poor that she had to operate a small dairy farm in order to survive. Her original papers are housed in the South Caroliniana Library at the University of South Carolina.

General Overviews

The major works in this section are the two biographies, DeCredico 1998 and Muhlenfeld 1992. Both provide important information regarding Mary Chesnut’s life, the writing and revising of her diary, and her view on slavery. DeCredico’s biography focuses more on national events during Chesnut’s life, whereas Muhlenfeld’s concentrates on Chesnut’s writings and the turning points in her life. Muhlenfeld 1985 places Chesnut’s diary in the context of other diaries of that period. Weaks and Perry 1995, and Andrews, et al. 1998 include basic biographical information and excerpts from the diary. Muhlenfeld 2008 and Schultz 2002 incorporate basic biographical notes and refer to the three editions of the diary.

  • Andrews, William L., Minrose C. Gwin, Trudier Harris, and Fred Hobson, eds. “Mary Boykin Chesnut.” In The Literature of the American South: A Norton Anthology. Edited by William L. Andrews, et al., 220–234. New York: W.W. Norton, 1998.

    Includes a biographical note on Chesnut and excerpts from the 1981 edition of her journal.

  • DeCredico, Mary A. Mary Boykin Chesnut: A Confederate Woman’s Life. American Profiles Series. Madison: Madison House, 1998.

    Focuses on Chesnut as a member of the privileged class of plantation mistresses who was at the forefront of political and military action due to her family’s background and her husband’s political career. Apart from Chesnut’s life, DeCredico discusses national events. She devotes a considerable part of the book to comment on Chesnut’s view of slavery. Provides an overall view of Chesnut for scholars who wish to gain a better understanding of the Confederacy and Mary Chesnut.

  • Muhlenfeld, Elisabeth. “The Civil War and Authorship.” In The History of Southern Literature. Edited by Louis D. Rubin Jr., Blyden Jackson, Rayburn S. Moore, Lewis P. Simpson, and Thomas Daniel Young, 178–187. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985.

    Claims that because Chesnut had no ties to the literary establishment, she stayed away from the defensiveness and sentimentalizing of the writers of her generation. By the 1880s Realism had emerged. Considers her diary “a conscious recreation and expansion of journals she kept during the war” (p. 187).

  • Muhlenfeld, Elisabeth. Mary Chesnut: A Biography. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992.

    Traces Chesnut’s pampered childhood, her education at an elite girls’ school in Charleston and her subsequent marriage to James Chesnut. Muhlenfeld argues that her husband’s active role in political and military affairs of the Confederacy offered her access to the elite of that government and considers her fictional endeavors as good practice exercises in preparation for the revising of her journals between 1881 and 1884. The biographer also states that she hated the institution of slavery, while at the same time she enjoyed her comforts as a slaveowner.

  • Muhlenfeld, Elisabeth. “Mary Boykin Chesnut.” In The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. Vol. 9. Edited by M. Thomas Inge, 220–221. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008.

    Provides general biographical information on Chesnut and refers to the Civil War diary as “the finest literary work of the Confederacy” (p. 220). Also recognizes the diary as an accurate portrait of the South during the Civil War and a rich historical source. Mentions the three editions of the diary.

  • Schultz, Jane E. “Civil War Diaries.” In The Companion to Southern Literature. Edited by Joseph M. Flora and Lucinda H. MacKethan, 208–209. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2002.

    Focuses on Chesnut’s diary as her life’s work and describes the publication adventures of the magnum opus.

  • Weaks, Mary Louise, and Carolyn Perry. “Mary Boykin Chesnut.” In Southern Women’s Writing: From Colonial to Contemporary. Edited by Mary Louise Weaks and Carolyn Perry, 98–114. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1995.

    Contains a biographical note on Mary Boykin Chesnut and excerpts from the C. Vann Woodward edition. The editors have provided detailed endnotes which shed light on the different people mentioned in the excerpts.

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