Mary Boykin Chesnut, who wrote one of the most perceptive books on Confederate life during the Civil War, was the eldest daughter of Stephen D. Miller and Mary Boykin Miller. Her mother belonged to a respected plantation-owning piedmont family, whereas her father came from a farmer’s family. After graduating from South Carolina College, Stephen Miller had become a lawyer, and he later served in the state senate where he was an advocate of state’s rights. In 1828, he was elected governor and served in the U.S. Senate from 1830 to 1833.
Between 1833 and the spring of 1835, Mary attended Stella Phelps’s school for young ladies in Camden and then was enrolled in a French boarding school in Charleston conducted by Madame Ann Marsan Talvande. There she became fluent in French. In 1836, Mary joined her family at her father’s plantation in Mississippi and for a short time experienced life on what was then still the frontier. Four years later, she married James Chesnut, the twenty-five-year-old son of a prominent planter.
During the next twenty years, Mary Boykin Chesnut, now the wife of the heir of a wealthy Southern planter, led a comfortable life based on a slave economy. Her husband’s political career developed during this time, and after his election to the U.S. Senate in 1858, Mary accompanied him to Washington, D.C., where she was enthralled by the social and political activities.
Chesnut was traveling in the Deep South when Abraham Lincoln was elected president. Her husband was the first Southern senator to resign his seat. The Chesnuts thereupon went to Montgomery, Alabama, where they witnessed the birth of the Confederacy. Realizing the importance of what was happening, Chesnut decided to keep a journal to record her daily activities (she ultimately...
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