Essay: Mary Chesnut Her Civil War Diary

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¶ … Memoir in Humanity

The study of the Civil War typically entails a study of battles and skirmishes on the battlefield. As a result, when most of us think of this time in history, we forget that there was a civilian life that lived through the war. Mary Chestnut's diary as it was originally written between the years of 1861 and 1865, a Diary of Dixie, provides critical insight into a perspective that many students of the Civil War fail to recognize. She provides an illuminating glimpse into the struggles of an elite woman living through the Civil War, slavery, and an uncertain time in the privileged South (Chestnut). In fact, upon its republication in 1982, this remarkable piece of literature was recognized for its insight and literary contribution to our understanding of a complex time by winning the Pullitzer Prize Award. From reading of her struggles and her journey, we learn on a psychosocial level that even amongst the elite women who owned slaves, there was a sense of humanity and empathy as well as a dynamic and poignant relationship between slaves and their owners. All of this had a profound impact upon Mary Chestnut as she eloquently describes the humanity, the hypocrisy, and the character underneath the privileged exterior in which she lived.

We see the complexity of the women of privilege through their humanity and the complexities of the angst and the pain in which they too must endure. In fact, a friend of Mary's wants her husband to fight because he beats her (Chestnut 11). We see how slaves of Mrs. Chestnut consider her as a matriarch and they do not want to be dispersed to work elsewhere as they have a real connection to Mrs. Chestnut and they have come to rely upon her much as one might rely upon an extended family (22). We also see how the privileged women love and respect many of their slaves and treat them as extended family. In fact, one woman quotes the wisdom of her negro nurse to another woman in an effort to provide her with words of wisdom and solace (79). Moreover, in the poignant words of Mrs. Chestnut, we glimpse the empathy that even a woman of privilege can have toward other women in contexts starkly different than her own. Fro instance, Mrs. Chestnut must sit down when she sees the negro woman on the auction block. She likens her to "good little Nancy," and sadly alludes to the fact that her fate rests in the hands of the man who buys her (13). A Southern man appears into a room of Southern politicians and reminds them that in the North, they are human there too (19). Mrs. Chestnut listens attentively and supports Maria Whitaker, a "good colored" woman who deserved more from her husband than to be left with three children and falsely accused of adultery (45). We also see how there is empathy for the wives and children on the other side as Mrs. Chestnut soulfully describes the letters of men and women in the North: "One might shed tears over some fo the letters. Women, wives, and mothers, are the same everywhere" (90).

We see how the Bible can be used to promote maltreatment of women and the institution of slavery as Mrs. Chestnut remarks as she mimics what a promoter of slavery

(Sterne) might say, "You know what the Bible says about slavery and marriage; poor women! Poor slaves!" She then comments, "Sterne, with his starling -- what did he know? He only thought, he did not feel." (13) While we see that some certainly believe and treat both women and slaves poorly, we also see men of power whom praise other men in power for refusal to support a man politically when at home, he is known to beat his wife (17).

We also have a glimpse into how the slaves in the South reacted to the war and interacted with their slave owners throughout the war. Some men believed that the slaves would revolt. However, Mrs. Chestnut notes in the beginning of the war that her slaves begged to be kept with her and that she could not detect any change in their demeanor. Rhetorically, she penned: "People talk before them as if they were chairs and tables. They make no sign. Are they solidly stupid? Or wiser than we are; silent and strong, biding their time?" (38). During the war, she further notes that if slavery was so abhorrent to the slaves, then why shouldn't they be running to the Southern border where they would be welcomed and freed (93). As the war progressed, Mrs. Chestnut commented that it was a horrible feeling for many slave owners that some servants might be bribed to set their house on fire, and short of committing arson, these slaves would also steal from their owners for the right price (97). In the end, it would be Mrs. Chestnut's slaves that come to her aid and want to keep her safe in times of the worst strife as Molly implored Mrs. Chestnut to "go among our own black people on the plantation; they would take care of [you] better than anyone else" (344). However, as

Mrs. Chestnut set forth toward the plantation, she realized that she should sacrifice for them as they did for her. She decided not to go because she did not want to put her slaves in the position of fighting for her. Instead, if the Yankees were to come, let them come and be the slaves' saviors (345). In this, we see a beautiful relationship, which ironically was born of the most indignant of crimes -- the entrapment of a human being.

Indeed, as noted in the previous example, this diary provides more than just a chronicle of what happened day-to-day. In this diary, we see the hypocrisy and irony that existed both before and during the war. While books are banned in house rooms, Mrs. Chestnuts notes that women are not allowed to complain aobut the "bad women" who swarm the house without bother (46). If a woman does complain, then she is "frowned down" for talking about an improper subject (47). In her journal, however, Mrs. Chestnut is free to write and she notes that the farce of the day is "Cupid on Crutches" since something about the war lead men to pursue women, which is routinely consummated and overheard by Mrs. Chesnut (289). In addition to seeing the hypocrisy within the South, Mary's account also shows the hypocrisy underlying the feud between the North and the South as she remarks that the "incompatibility of temper began when it was made plain to us that we [the South] got all the opprobrium of slavery and they [the North] all the money there was in it with their tariff" (72). Indeed, Mary's insight reveals that the North did not mind receiving the profit that comes from slave labor; yet, they did not want to be part of a Union with such states. Additionally, hypocrisy reveals itself within the military as well since those in higher command oftentimes criticized those in the lower ranks, yet it was the men on the actual battlefield whom had to endure battle, sometimes without proper munitions, food, and even shoes (290). By the end of the war, almost all that was left was irony. With all the death, all the destruction, all the torn limbs and families, Mrs. Chestnut could not weep (342).

Lastly, we see how the war stripped the privilege of their status and soldiers their lives as they new it. Inflation had made it such that to buy a few spools of thread might cost $24.00 (292). It had also caused women of former privilege to live… [END OF PREVIEW]

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