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Mary Boykin Chesnut

A Biography

foreword by C. Vann Woodward

Southern Biography

304 pages / 6.00 x 9.00 inches / 44 halftones

ebook available

Civil War

  Paperback / 9780807118047 / September 1992

“In her admirable biography of Mary Chesnut, Elisabeth Muhlenfeld has American literature as well as American history in her debt.” —C. Vann Woodward

Mary Boykin Miller Chesnut (1823–1886) is known today for her excellent firsthand account of life in the Confederate States of America. A Diary from Dixie (republished in 1981 as Mary Chesnut’s Civil War)is far more than a simple diary, however, for Mrs. Chesnut’s drawing room was a social center for many of the most prominent political and military figures in the Confederacy. Elisabeth Muhlenfeld’s expert biography utilizes Mrs. Chesnut’s autobiographical writings, her papers, and those of her family, as well as published sources. It traces her life in South Carolina from her childhood, as the daughter of a governor and United States senator, through her schooling and her marriage to James Chesnut, Jr., the son of a wealthy South Carolina planter. During the war her husband served as an aide to P. G. T. Beauregard and to Jefferson Davis, achieving the rank of general.

Muhlenfeld emphasizes Mary Chesnut’s last twenty years, when she helped her family through the intricacies of repaying immense debts incurred during the Civil War, rebuilding wrecked homes, and reestablishing some measure of order and security. These were also the years of her serious writing. She experimented with fiction, writing three novels and translating others from the French; and in 1881 she began the last revisions of her Civil War journal. In the descriptive passages, characterizations, thematic patterns, and overall structure of the revised journal, Chesnut employed the techniques she had learned by writing fiction.

Besides adding to our knowledge of this unusual nineteenth-century southern woman, Mary Boykin Chesnut: A Biography enhances our knowledge of the history of women in general as it delineates the transformation of a wartime diary into the chronicle that remains a major document in southern history. 

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C. Vann Woodward (1908-1999) was Sterling Professor of History Emeritus at Yale University, where he taught from 1961 until 1977. One of the leading historians of the century, Woodward wrote several books about the American South, his main field of interest. He edited Mary Chesnut's Civil War, for which he received the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for history. His other major works include Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel; American Counterpoint; The Strange Career of Jim Crow; Reunion and Reaction; Thinking Back: The Perils of Writing History; and Origins of the New South, 1877-1913, for which he received the Bancroft Prize. He served as president of the Southern Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, and the American Historical Association, and was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

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