Mary Chesnut’s Civil War
Southern women of all classes, probably more than women anywhere else, have for generations been valued for their physical beauty to the exclusion of any other quality. The ethos of the plantation, with its stress on male dominance, allowed, generally speaking, very little room for the development of women’s intellectual capacities, except in a closeted way and then only with vast condescension on the part of the men. Generation after generation of this form of acculturation produced droves of famously beautiful women, but also—in combination with a diminished emphasis on education—a kind of endemic regional dumbness too well known and too persistently remarked upon to be dismissed.
That there are many exceptions to this state of things, especially nowadays, is another sign of the South’s splendid resurgence as it joins the twentieth century; beauty and brains are not necessarily antipathetic in the same person. But until recent years the trials of a bright but plain woman in the South were more difficult than those of her sisters elsewhere who, though certainly fettered in many ways too, suffered less from the stigma of possessing actual intelligence. Difficult, perhaps, but in some ways more interesting. For even as recently as the 1940s, when I was growing up in the South, one could perceive the difference between the often stunning coed beauties who, like their counterparts in the past, fluttered effortlessly into poses of decorative blossoms, and those who were less favored physically but who were far more attractive because of their wit and charm. They created their own seductiveness.
Mary Boykin Chesnut was doubtless one of these: a not really good-looking woman (self-admittedly) whose very lack of beauty helped prevent her from becoming the stereotype of a plantation mistress—frail, dependent, vacuous—and whose compensating drive toward self-expression led her to writing one of the great chronicles of the Civil War. The likeness of Mary Chesnut that regards us from the dust jacket of the new edition of her book is rather plain—the nose too long, the jaw too broad, the eyes too large and dominating—but very winning nonetheless. The picture suggests intelligence and the whisper of mischief—clearly a woman one would have liked to know. That one does get to know her is the result both of her honesty and of the meticulous way in which she records her impressions of daily life in the South between the winter of 1861 and the summer of 1865.
Yet this is not really a “personal” narrative, and despite her candor and the piercing, almost ruthless way in which she dissects her own emotions, Mary Chesnut’s journal has its greatest value for the modern reader in the extraordinary panorama it presents of a culture being rent asunder. Not for its autobiography, not for its “fortuitous self-revelations,” says Professor Woodward in his introduction to Mary Chesnut’s Civil War, will the Chesnut chronicle be remembered, but “for the vivid picture she left of a society in the throes of its life-and-death struggle, its moment of high drama in world history.”
Mrs. Chesnut was blissfully fortunate in having been near the center of the political affairs of the Confederacy throughout the Civil War. Born and reared in South Carolina and married to an ardent secessionist—a one-time United States senator who, after Fort Sumter, became an aide to Jefferson Davis—Mrs. Chesnut traveled forth from her native state to the early capital in Montgomery and thence to Richmond, where she abundantly records her impressions of the great and the near-great. A well-educated woman, fluent in French and an avowed Francophile, she seems in certain rudimentary ways a Southern Madame de Staël. Although by no means a philosophical or literary innovator like de Staël, she had nonetheless the same kind of intellectual energy and, like de Staël, possessed both a ferocious interest in powerful people and the magnetism to attract such people. Thus her observations of such figures as Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Wade Hampton, and General Joseph Johnston are as fascinating in their intimacy as they are invaluable.
Here is a sketch of Jefferson Davis in June 1861:
In Mrs. Davis’s drawing room last night, the president took a seat beside me on the sofa where I sat. He talked for nearly an hour. He laughed at our faith in our own powers. We are like the British. We think every Southerner equal to three Yankees at least. We will have to be equivalent to a dozen now…. There was a sad refrain running through it all. For one thing, either way, he thinks it will be a long war. That floored me at once. It has been too long for me already. Then said: before the end came, we would have many a bitter experience. He said only fools doubted the courage of the Yankees or their willingness to fight when they saw fit. And now we have stung their pride—we have roused them till they will fight like devils.
And an insight into the domestic life of Robert E. (“Cousin Robert”) Lee:
General Lee told us what a good son Custis was. Last night their house was so crowded Custis gave up his own bed to General Lee and slept upon the floor. Otherwise General Lee would have had to sleep in Mrs. Lee’s room. She is a martyr to rheumatism and rolls about in a chair. She can’t walk.
Constance Cary says, if it would please God to take poor Cousin Mary Lee—she suffers so—wouldn’t these Richmond women campaign for Cousin Robert? In the meantime Cousin Robert holds all admiring females at arm’s length.
A glimpse of Lee and Davis on the same day:
Sunday Mars Kit walked to church with me. Coming out, General Lee was slowly making his way down the aisle, bowing royally right and left. I pointed this out to Christopher Hampton. When General Lee happened to look our way, he bowed low, giving me a charming smile of recognition. I was ashamed of being so pleased. I blushed like a schoolgirl.
We went to the White House. They gave us tea. The president said he had been on the way to our house, coming with all the Davis family to see me. But the children became so troublesome they turned back.
Just then little Joe rushed in and insisted on saying his prayer at his father’s knee…. He was in his nightclothes.
But if Chesnut’s journals were merely high-level gossip restricted to a circle of the celebrated men and women of the period, the book would have very limited appeal. The work is really an epic in which the accumulation of quotidian detail—the weather, parties, receptions, rumors, duels, love affairs, murders, promotions and demotions, intrigues, illnesses, celebrations—provides a sense of the rhythms of ordinary life during those chaotic four years in a way that no other book has done. We often tend to think of the Civil War in terms of its battles, all of which have been chronicled in such detail—in history and in fiction—that the savagery, say, of Chickamauga or the desperate anxiety of the ordinary soldier represented in The Red Badge of Courage becomes emblematic of the entire conflict. The romanticism of Gone With the Wind prevents that novel from furnishing us with a reliable picture of life away from the arenas of combat.
What gives Mrs. Chesnut’s account such stunning verisimilitude is the way in which the war, despite its distance from the diarist and her friends in places like Richmond and Columbia, impinges on every facet of daily existence; scarcely a page of this extremely long journal does not have its allusion to the progress of the various campaigns, to the slow attrition being suffered by the Confederacy, to the hospital horrors, to privations, to lost battles and battles won, and—incessantly—to the dead, the mutilated, and men who have come home to die. Yet despite the appalling grimness of those years there is little of the morbid or despairing in Mary Chesnut’s description of events. Underlying even the darkest passages is a cheerfulness of spirit, almost a buoyancy, that in effect aerates the narrative and provides much of its charm and readability.
The following passages, only a few pages apart, provide a characteristic juxtaposition of the somber and the lighthearted:
Yesterday we went to the capitol grounds to see our returned prisoners…. We walked slowly up and down until Jeff Davis was called upon to speak to the prisoners. Then I stood almost touching the bayonets, where he left me. Poor fellows! They cheered with all their might—and I wept for sympathy, enthusiasm, and all that moved me deeply. Oh! these men were so forlorn, so dried up, shrunken, such a strange look in some of their eyes. Others so restless and wild looking—others again, placidly vacant, as if they had been dead to this world for years. A poor woman was too much for me. She was hunting her son. He had been expected back with this batch of prisoners. She said he was taken prisoner at Gettysburg. She kept going in and out among them, with a basket of provisions she had brought for him to eat. It was too pitiful. She was utterly unconscious of the crowd. The anxious dread—expectation—hurry and hope which led her on showed in her face…
* * *
The church windows were closed that it might be a candlelight wedding. A woman in the gallery had a cataleptic fit, and they were forced to open a window. Mixed daylight and gas was ghastly and greatly marred the effect below. The poor woman made a bleating noise like a goat. Buckets of water were handed over the heads of the people, as if it was a fire to be put out, and they dashed water over her as fast as the buckets came in reach. We watched the poor woman from below in agony, fearing she might die before our eyes. But no—far from it. The water cure answered. She came to herself, shook her dress, straightened up her wet feathers, and put her bonnet on quite composedly. Then watched the wedding with unabashed interest—and I watched her…. For one thing, the poor woman could not have been gotten out of that jam, that crowd, unless, like the buckets of water, she had been handed out over the heads of the public.
Readability is perhaps an imprecise word to explain the fascination that this book exerts once one has become captured by its force and sweep, but it is there in a powerful way, and is quite simply a factor of the inherent literary nature of the work. Mrs. Chesnut clearly had the gifts of a novelist (she had written a couple of undistinguished though not unpromising works of fiction), and the novelistic talent is everywhere evident—in her dialogue, sharp observations, the felicitous use of language, the deft modulations in tone which are the novelist’s stock in trade. In an essay on Mrs. Chesnut published in Patriotic Gore in 1962, Edmund Wilson remarked on her literary qualities: “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.”
Wilson had been profoundly impressed by the journal, which he had read in an abridged form unfortunately entitled A Diary from Dixie. (Mrs. Chesnut herself disliked the word Dixie, but the book was named by its editors who brought out the work in 1905, nineteen years after her death.) He had also read and, with some reservations, admired a more recent and more extensive version of the diary put together by the novelist Ben Ames Williams. In the first version the editors had suppressed such matters as the gross injustice of slavery (thereby obscuring an extremely important aspect of Mrs. Chesnut, who was a vigorous opponent of the slave system), and Wilson’s admiration for the Williams edition was due both to this enlargement of perspective and to the fact that it read like a good novel—something that appealed to the literary side of Wilson’s critical sensibilities.
What Wilson could not have known was that considerably more of the novelistic imagination went into the making of Mrs. Chesnut’s diary than one might think. For although she did keep an extensive journal during several of the Civil War years, it was not until 1881—sixteen years after the war ended—that she sat down and began completely to rework her chronicle, fleshing out her story through a complex series of expansions and elaborations, adding new episodes and new material, condensing here, omitting there, shifting dates, telescoping entries, until the new version was no longer the actual record of the wartime days but what might be termed a reconstruction through memory. The liberties she took in this reworking of her own material were plainly great, but the final product was not the creation of one who has distorted or falsified history but of one who, through the prism of memory and in the calm of reflection, has perhaps cast a brighter and more revealing light upon past events than might have been shed in an actual journal, with its frequent myopia.
Confessing that he began the editing of this new, complete edition with a spirit of skepticism, Professor Woodward writes that “a growing respect for the author and the integrity of her work began to replace the original misgivings. Given the kind of liberties she took…Mary Chesnut can be said to have shown an unusual sense of responsibility toward the history she records and a reassuring faithfulness to perceptions of her experience of the period as revealed in her original journal.”
Having read with considerable admiration Capote’s In Cold Blood and Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song—and having been able to compare the two versions of Mrs. Chesnut’s chronicle—I would say that Mrs. Chesnut played far less fast and loose with the facts and with “truth” than either of these writers, whose works we value precisely because of their fluid, interpretative nature, their refusal to be hamstrung by adhering to a mechanical account of events. (It may be that the most interesting aspect of the controversy that surrounds these books is not the blur they create between fact and fiction but the no man’s land of terminology; as powerfully impressed as I was by The Executioner’s Song, some stubborn intuition still tells me it is not a novel.)
In any case, we should not fault Mrs. Chesnut for her inconsistencies; she herself did not attempt to hide the fact that much of her final version was reworked and rewritten. Partly because of this, Professor Woodward has removed the word “diary” from the title, so that Mary Chesnut’s Civil War really ends up being not a literal record but a history book sui generis, a new mixture of memoir and journalism to which only the most rigorously literal-minded reader could object on the grounds that it does not hew to the minutiae of chronology and fact.
If Professor Woodward had not, in the passage just quoted and elsewhere in his remarkably sensitive and careful introduction, taken such pains to explain the difference between the original diary and the later transformation, it would be somewhat easier to accept the charge made by Professor Kenneth S. Lynn, in The New York Times Book Review,* that the Chesnut journal is a “hoax,” and “one of the most audacious frauds in the history of American literature.” It is offensive enough that Professor Lynn has called the book a hoax; what seems obtuse is his further insistence that Professor Woodward has not only exposed the hoax but has refused “to bestow the label upon it.”
But if a hoax is something that is deliberately intended to trick or dupe, which I believe to be a scrupulous definition of the word, then nothing could be more wrong. As I said before, Mrs. Chesnut did nothing to hide the reworked nature of her journals. Further, even if such charges as Professor Lynn makes were true—for instance, that she cleansed the later version of her journal of antislavery sentiments to be more in tune with the mood of the postwar years—a criticism that does not hold up—it would hardly be of great significance, when one compares the haphazard and fragmentary nature of the early diary (containing, as Professor Woodward points out, “so many indiscretions, gaps, trivialities, and incoherencies”) with the reflective finished work, radiating such vitality and truth. Professor Lynn wonders whether Edmund Wilson might not have wanted to retract all his praise for Mrs. Chesnut had he known the real nature of her achievement. I doubt that he would have wanted to do any such thing, any more than he would have preferred Proust’s notebooks to Swann’s Way.
Mary Chesnut’s Civil War is important because, whatever one calls it—journal, memoir, chronicle, or an amalgam of these—the book remains a great epic drama of our greatest national tragedy. Even so, when the last page is finished and the panorama begins to fade, one is still haunted by the personality of the book’s extraordinary author. How thoroughly—by force of her vivacity, her compassion, and her wisdom—she helps rearrange in our consciousness certain shopworn images which might linger in regard to the emptiness of Southern women of her time is a measure of her great authority as a writer.
Doubtless there were many like her, but it was she who almost alone rose with such gallantry to the challenges of her era. For one thing, she was in certain matters decades ahead of her contemporaries of either sex. To be sure, she was not entirely alone among the women of her time and place in her detestation of slavery, but the voice she raised against the institution of slavery was among the loudest and most vehement. Reading her animadversions on the slave system, one wonders which she hated more: the plight of the slaves or that of her own female sex, doomed forever, it seemed, to the tyranny of male domination. Mary Chesnut was a passionate and outraged feminist, and one of the most fascinating aspects of her personality, and the tensions that energized her, was her constant awareness of the way in which the oppression of black slaves and the oppression of women were similar, indeed intertwined.
Have made the acquaintance of a clever woman, too—Mrs. McLean, née Sumner, daughter of the general…. They say he avoids matrimony.
“Slavery the sum of all evil,” he says. So he will not reduce a woman to slavery. There is no slave, after all, like a wife.
* * *
So I have seen a negro woman sold—up on the block—at auction. The woman on the block overtopped the crowd. I felt faint—seasick. She was 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 quite coy and modest, but her mouth never relaxed from its expanded grin of excitement. I daresay the poor thing knew who would buy her.
I sat down on a stool in a shop. I 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….
Certainly one feels that she had earned the right to such awareness and to the consequent indignation; after all, these were the twin curses of the environment out of which she had sprung. Unlike Harriet Beecher Stowe—for whom she had considerable contempt—Mary Chesnut had been reared in a world where the horrors of slavery were a daily reality; just as real and just as grinding was the peculiarly Southern form of patriarchal domination—a nearly total exploitation of women by men. Her treatment of these themes, foreshadowing so much of that which has come to an upheaval in our own period, is in itself a splendid manifestation of moral courage, as well as prescience. It is such honest turmoil within the mind and heart of this questing woman that helps to bestow upon both the work and its creator an unshakable excellence.
Kenneth Lynn, "The Masterpiece That Became a Hoax," The New York Times Book Review, April 26. 1981.↩
Mrs. Chesnut’s Affair October 8, 1981
Kenneth Lynn, “The Masterpiece That Became a Hoax,” The New York Times Book Review, April 26. 1981.↩