Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Mary Chesnut kept her journal from early in 1861, just before the Civil War began, to shortly after the end of the war, in 1865. Her commentary on the conversations and events of her day reveals a keen awareness of the oppression to which women—black or white, slave or free—were subjected during that period. While she would not consider herself a feminist, her diary reveals sensibilities and concerns that place her far ahead of her time and led to problems in the publication of her work after her death.

Chesnut’s diary is also important as a historical document. Since she and her husband were socially prominent and he was a major figure in the war itself, everyone who was important in the war was dramatized in her pages. Because of the Chesnuts’ position, they were always at the scene of major events—in Montgomery, Alabama, for the formation of the Confederacy and later in Richmond, Virginia, its second capital; in Charleston, South Carolina, for the firing on Fort Sumter, which began the hostilities of the war; in various towns and cities near the path of Union General William Tecumseh Sherman’s march to the sea, often just escaping capture; and after the end of the war, back at their plantation near Camden, South Carolina. After the South’s defeat, the Chesnuts experienced the terrors and privations of the war’s aftermath: poverty, raids, destruction, and at times near starvation.

Yet it would be misleading to think that one can learn from the diary only about major events of the war. Mary Chesnut was interested in and cared about everything. She wrote about the slaves on the plantation with the same attention to the individual that she gave to major social, political, and military figures, so that the reader learns much about slavery and...

(The entire section is 728 words.)