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
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.
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,
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
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?