Mary Boykin Chesnut

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In every regard, Mary Boykin Chesnut was a remarkable woman. She penned the best known diary that detailed the Civil War from a southerner’s point of view. Despite her being a staunch defender of the Confederate cause, Mary also spoke openly about her opposition to slavery. She was raised in a family that depended on slavery for their very existence, but she still felt deeply that somehow it was morally wrong. Mary Boykin Miller was born on March 31, 1823. She was born on her grandparents’ plantation near Statesburg, South Carolina. She was the eldest child of Mary Boykin and Stephen Decatur Miller. (Chesnut - #4, pg xviii) Her father was elected governor of South Carolina when Mary was only five years old. After his term was over he was elected to the U.S. Senate. Mary’s childhood revolved around politics because of her father and as she grew up she was greatly influenced by him, even though he died when she was only fifteen. (Chesnut - #4, pg xix) Mary Boykin Chesnut was born on her grandparents' estate at Mount Pleasant, South Carolina on March 31, 1823. She learned early about the workings of a plantation by observing her grandmother. Her grandmother worked with the servants and sewing crew so easily and effectively that Mary was nearly nine years old before she became aware that her grandmother's coworkers were slaves. Having learned to respect these workers, she thought of them as near equals. Mary learned to read at an early age, probably from her grandmother also. Soon she was using this new-found ability to teach a favorite servant to read. It was illegal in South Carolina to teach a slave to read or write, but Mary was a favored grandchild and her grandmother was proud of her ability. In 1831, however, her grandmother died. Mary was twelve years old when the entire family moved to Mississippi, where they owned some other plantations. James and Mary began a courtship that ended with James proposing to Mary when she was fifteen years old. Her mother and father did not approve of such an early marriage and forced Mary to write a letter of refusal to James. At the time of the proposal and refusal, James was in Europe with his ailing brother (It was the custom of wealthy Americans to sail to Europe for the best medical care if they fell very ill.) Despite the setback, Mary and James continued their relationship. Two years later Mary's mother, now a widow, relented. Mary wed James in 1840, beginning her days as Mary Boykin Chesnut. They moved to Mulberry Mississippi, to live with James’s parents. At Mulberry, however, Colonel James Chesnut and his wife, Mary Cox Chesnut, had been in charge of the estate for twenty-two years before his son James arrived with his new wife, Mary. Every detail of the daily management of the house already had been laid out. Consequently, the new Mrs. Chesnut found herself with little to do. Mostly, however, Chesnut's life, like the lives of most plantation women, was filled with entertaining the many visitors and with gossip. Later, as the Civil War swelled around her, Chesnut began a diary in which she wrote down bits of gossip about the neighbors as well as comments on the people she met, including Jefferson Davis, the future president of the Confederacy, and his wife, Varina, as well as many local politicians and plantation owners. Chesnut's contact with the outside world was mostly through her sister and through her own husband. She supported James in his political ambitions as he became a state legislator and later a United States senator. When in 1860 James resigned following the election of President Abraham Lincoln and returned home, Chesnut joined her husband in support of Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy. By this time, Chesnut had seen much that made her question the wisdom of slavery. She had objected to an advertisement in the Camden paper selling a slave "so white as to be mistaken for a citizen”. And she...
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