Intermission: Mary Boykin Chesnut's Diary, Part One
Mary Boykin Chesnut was a Southern lady in the purest tradition, born into South Carolina’s political nobility and educated at one of the finest boarding schools in Charleston. Her husband was the son of a successful plantation owner and an upwardly mobile politico himself.
Following Lincoln’s election in 1860, James Chesnut helped write South Carolina’s Declaration of Secession and during the subsequent war served as an aide to General Beauregard and President Davis, eventually rising to the rank of General.
Women in such circumstances were expected to be well-educated, but not given much opportunity to use their fancy brains. In retrospect, it might have been kinder to either keep them as ignorant as possible or let them do stuff - but such were the mores of the day. So she read, she observed, and she wrote.
The diary of Mrs. Chesnut is one of the essential primary sources of the Civil War, and still readily available if you’re interested. It’s quite accessible to the casual reader - you won’t even know you’re learning history, I promise.
The best-known passages describe events in and around her household (a very active place even when wars weren’t being started nearby) as the tensions between North and South approach conflagration, thanks in large part to the stubbornness of Union Colonel Robert Anderson, in command of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor.
April 12th. - Anderson will not capitulate. Yesterday's was the merriest, maddest dinner we have had yet. Men were audaciously wise and witty. We had an unspoken foreboding that it was to be our last pleasant meeting… Mrs. Henry King rushed in saying, "The news, I come for the latest news. All the men of the King family are on the Island," of which fact she seemed proud.
While she was here our peace negotiator, or envoy, came in - that is, Mr. Chesnut returned. His interview with Colonel Anderson had been deeply interesting, but Mr. Chesnut was not inclined to be communicative. He wanted his dinner. He felt for Anderson and had telegraphed to President Davis for instructions - what answer to give Anderson, etc. He has now gone back to Fort Sumter with additional instructions.
When they were about to leave the wharf A. H. Boykin sprang into the boat in great excitement. He thought himself ill-used, with a likelihood of fighting and he to be left behind!
Never has a better case been made for teaching reading and writing, although her keen observations on human nature are perhaps harder to mandate.
Mrs. Chesnut’s observations of her husband are appropriately loving and respectful, always. Her subtle commentary on others, however, brings her writing to life. Her snapshots of Mrs. King and the young Boykin are sympathetic, certainly - but tinted with bewilderment over their enthusiasm for war.
The words themselves maintain perfectly plausible deniability, were posterity to challenge her tone - “Me? Oh, no no - I was just noting what I saw and heard… that’s all.” (*fans self with something lavishly decorative*)
“Men were audaciously wise and witty.” What a marvelous phrase. It sounds like the Mad Hatter’s tea party, but instead of pure chaos, her description is redolent of forced fearlessness and social gilding. F. Scott Fitzgerald has nothing on the wealthy belle when it comes to writing dinner parties.
I do not pretend to go to sleep. How can I? If Anderson does not accept terms at four, the orders are, he shall be fired upon. I count four, St. Michael's bells chime out and I begin to hope. At half-past four the heavy booming of a cannon. I sprang out of bed, and on my knees prostrate I prayed as I never prayed before.
There was a sound of stir all over the house, pattering of feet in the corridors. All seemed hurrying one way. I put on my double-gown and a shawl and went, too. It was to the housetop. The shells were bursting. In the dark I heard a man say, "Waste of ammunition."
I don’t know who the man in the dark may have been, but if this were a work of fiction rather than a primary source, I’d point him out as a brilliant bit of literary slight-of-hand.
While the rest of the city - and, by proxy, the South - celebrates the opening rounds of what will no doubt prove a majestic little melee, one anonymous voice just out of view notices that they’re firing land weapons at a fort designed to withstand attack by foreign navies.
Nothing tangible is being accomplished - it won’t work. There's kerfuffle enough, but no substance. There's a cost, but for what prize?
I’m no expert on Mary Boykin Chesnut, but if someone who WERE wished to persuade me she’s taken literary license with her account to say things she could not, as a wife and loyal secesh, say - well, I wouldn’t argue.
Last night, or this morning truly, up on the housetop I was so weak and weary I sat down on something that looked like a black stool. "Get up, you foolish woman. Your dress is on fire," cried a man. And he put me out. I was on a chimney and the sparks had caught my clothes. Susan Preston and Mr. Venable then came up. But my fire had been extinguished before it burst out into a regular blaze.
I realize it’s not exactly gut-splitting to read in the 21st century, but this is funny. It’s the 19th century equivalent of zany slapstick humor.
If only the helpful man had said “nyuk nyuk!” and poked her in the eyes just after.
Do you know, after all that noise and our tears and prayers, nobody has been hurt; sound and fury signifying nothing - a delusion and a snare.
This sentence could be used as an example for about 43 different things in ELA, AND it’s a pleasure to read repeatedly. It’s like literary bruschetta.
And remember that ‘plausible deniability’ from a bit ago? It’s about to get pushed to the limits of of beau monde. That Chesnut is a real card.
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