Mary Chesnut & The Royals, Part 1

Mary Chesnut, 1860’s

Mary Chesnut—the famous Southern diarist—loved to keep up with the news and that included international matters. True, she spent a lot of time following rumors and speculating if or when a European power would aid the Confederacy, but there was more to fascination with the world on the other side of the pond.

At one point in 1861, Mary bemoaned that she spent subscription money for international papers and magazines. The blockade promptly prevented these news sources from reaching her with news and gossip from the courts of Europe, the latest fashion articles, the reviews and excerpts from the literature and arts scenes in the great cities of the Old World. However, at certain times, Mary managed to hear the latest news from Europe and she recorded several interesting passages about the royal and ruling families of Britain and France.

Queen Victoria had ruled Britain and the British Empire since 1837 and was destined to reign until 1901. Officially, Britain held aloof of the Civil War, though diplomatic issues were prevalent—especially when shipyards and merchants created Confederate warships and supplied blockade runners. Personal loss plunged Victoria into lasting grief and mourning at the end of 1861, and Mary Chesnut recorded the news:

December 30, 1861.

Prince Albert is dead! Comes the selfish thought: will that affect us? No, he has had the absolute wisdom to efface himself—and by so doing he brought no trouble upon his devoted wife. As kings and queens go, what a happy couple. Curiously happy, if it had been love in a cottage. Princess Charlotte’s cry: “I have been the happiest wife in England.”

That was a rare tribute to a princely husband. Queen Victoria, too, seems to have had a husband good and true. Because my democratic husband loves to tell you the gay young girl graciously returned his bows in the park the year before she was married. And maybe because I was married, too—in the spring of 1840. I have watched her with interest—her domestic life and all that looked on from afar.

Queen Victoria, 1860

Prince Albert died on December 14, 1861, after twenty-one years of marriage to Queen Victoria. Doctors of that era diagnosed the fatal disease: typhoid fever. The queen wore mourning for the rest of her life.

Clearly, Mary Chesnut kept up with the British royal history. She references Princess Charlotte who happily married Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld in 1816. Charlotte would have taken the British throne after her grandfather and father’s deaths, but tragically Charlotte died first during childbirth at age twenty-one.

About three years later, she wrote less favorably about the British and referenced Queen Victoria again. This time aware that slavery had been part of the reason England had stayed out of the war, and Mary Chesnut blamed the Yankees.

January 1864

The Examiner indulges in a horse laugh. “Is that your idea? England come to the help of a slave power?” Turkey! Why not, O Daniel come to judgment? and India?

But slavery was the sore spot on this continent, and England touched up the Yankees that they so hated on the raw when they were shouting hurrah for liberty, hurrah for General Jackson, whom the British had turned their backs on, but who did not turn his back on the exconquerors of Waterloo! English writers knew where to flick. They set the Yankees on us by incessant nagging, jeering at the inconsistency. Now the Yankees have the bit in their teeth. After a while they will ascend higher and higher in virtue…

“Little Vick” is going to do the best for her country. The land of our forefathers is not squeamish but looks out for No. 1″ said the irreverent Wigfall….

(General Jackson mentioned in this excerpt is Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815.)

When looking at Civil War history, it’s sometimes easy to forgot the bigger picture and how the conflict on American shores created diplomatic dilemmas. Mary Chesnut’s references to Queen Victoria offer a small reminder of the British love story and tragedy that occurred in 1861 and how the presses and politics created an international scene and discussion about that civil conflict across the Atlantic from Europe.

To be continued with France…

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