Pick #5 In the Top Ten: Mary Chesnut’s Civil War/Diary from Dixie, edited by C. Vann Woodward/ Isabella D. Martin and Myrta Lockett Avary.

Mary Chesnut's Illustrated Diary--Mulberry Edition Boxed Set
Mary Chesnut’s Illustrated Diary–Mulberry Edition Boxed Set

Part of a Series: Books Every Civil War Buff Ought to Own

There is absolutely no doubt that this book, whichever version you choose, should be on every Civil War bookshelf. It is Gone With the Wind writ true, and its cast of “characters” includes just about everybody who was anybody in the Confederacy.

Mary Boykin Chesnut’s husband, James Chesnut, attended the meeting in Montgomery, Alabama in February 1861, which was the laying-in of the birth of the Confederacy. As soon as he got back to their hotel, Chesnut began telling his wife about the men involved, their issues, and the pressure of needing to build both a country and an army at the same time, and quickly! Mary Chesnut began to write.

For the next twenty years, through war and its aftermath in the American South, she

Mary Chesnut
Mary Chesnut

wrote the history of her people, white and black, rich and poor, living and dying. Apparently she also collected images and CDVs of wartime generals, politicians, leading figures of both the North and South, and of their families, writing many letters to men such as Robert E. Lee and Simon Buckner, requesting both photographs and updates.

C. Vann Woodward
C. Vann Woodward

Any reader may google up information about this book–in any of its various incarnations. My first copy was the Pulitzer Prize-winning one by C. Vann Woodward. I purchased it before Christmas in 1982. I spent my entire holiday reading it from cover to cover, causing great concern among my family regarding my lack of social graces. I am afraid Mary herself would have tut-tutted.

Wherever I moved, I took my tattered copy with me. It has survived many book purges and, late last year, was joined by a brand new version of my old favorite. In 2011, Isabella Martin and Myrta Avary released a two-volume set of this classic. The first volume is a new text of the diary itself, with beautiful introductory pieces by Martha M. Daniels,

Mulberry Plantation
Mulberry Plantation

archivist of the Chesnut plantation, Mulberry, and the authors themselves.

The second volume is a photograph album. Apparently all Ms. Chesnut’s pictures were stashed in the attic of the house at Mulberry Plantation, and were only found by great work and enterprise–on eBay! The story of the reacquisition of the collection is a saga in itself, and perhaps the topic of another post, but suffice it to say that we now know what Johnny and Charley looked like, and just how compelling “Buck” Preston was (p. 248). Better than the Kardashians!

There are a number of other women’s diaries that reflect the same time period and the

“Buck” Preston, at sixteen

same geographic area, and I own several. Most are narrow in scope, and–well, frankly my dear–bitchy. Their authors were much younger than Mary Chesnut, who was forty at the time she began writing, and this becomes painfully obvious as complaint after complaint is registered. Mary Chesnut never whines. She gives a mature and thoughtful attempt to place the fate of her new country and the people she knows and loves so well into a larger framework. There is very little laying of blame, to either side.

Whether you choose the 1905 version of A Diary from Dixie, Van Woodward’s Pulitzer tome, or the new version, complete with “illustrations,” you need to include one of them, or your bookshelf will forever have an empty place.

Check amazon used books. I found some for less than $2.00.  The boxed set, for which I paid $75.00 (and got it pre-ordered!) is available used for $25.00. For under $50, you can amass quite a collection of versions of Mary Boykin Chestnut’s diary.

So . . . what are you waiting for?

8 Responses to Pick #5 In the Top Ten: Mary Chesnut’s Civil War/Diary from Dixie, edited by C. Vann Woodward/ Isabella D. Martin and Myrta Lockett Avary.

    1. I hereby declare that I in no way represent nor am I getting any financial reward from amazon.com or any used book dealers or yard sellers. I just like books.

  1. I had no idea they discovered her picture album. What a great find! I’ll have to track that down. Thanks!

  2. Chestnut’s diaries often get overlooked by Civil War buffs because they’re so often quoted that they seem too pedestrian. It’s as though overexposure has worked against her. It’s really interesting stuff, though–definitely worth a read.

  3. For a long time, Chesnut’s diary was all there was. Historiography hadn’t seen fit to include average soldier diaries, unit histories, etc. as part of the ACW ouvre. I find it interesting to see how we have cycled from Great White Men to politics, to common soldiers to civilians, to women & slaves, and back again. Analyzing troop movements just barely scratches the surface! Isn’t that why this war is so fascinating to us all? It seems we will never “finish” it! Thank goodness, as I think it defines us as a nation.

  4. Meg Thompson, thank you for all the perceptive and wonderful words you’ve written about MBC !
    And, I’m delighted that you enjoyed our two volume ” Mulberry Edition” of her Diary and her photograph album. Here are just a few brief pieces of information: the long lost photograph albums were not found in our Mulberry attic. Auntie Chesnut had given them to her niece, Mary Williams Ames who lived in Baltimore – and it when Mary Ames died that the albums went missing and were lost ( perhaps stolen) between 1930 and 2007. They were sold to collectors several times – one of the three albums was separated from the other two, and just before they were taken apart and sold separately, a very fine historian named John O’Brien bought them. He didn’t know about Mulberry and we didn’t know that he had them – but at last in 2007 he placed them at auction and we bought them, used them to create the two volume set, and then donated then to the Caroliniana Library to be reunited with her original diaries. Myrta Lockett Avery and Isabella Martin were to co-editors of the 1905 edition of MBC’s diary – so they have long been “gathered”.
    We used their version for our two volume set for several reasons: this was the well edited version of MBC’s fourth and final revision of her work, and by far the most readable and lyrical – and it was available and in the public domain. C Vann Woodward’s magnificent 1981 edition is without equal but it is also heavy going for a first introduction to MBC as it restores her diary from 400 pages to 900 + pages and EveryThing is footnoted – a marvelous resource – but for a first read of MBC we will always love the 1905 version.

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