Mary Boykin Chesnut was born on her grandparents' estate at Mount Pleasant, South Carolina on March 31, 1823. She learned early about the workings of a plantation by observing her grandmother. Grandmother Miller rose early to assign the cleaning and cooking duties for her servants. Besides keeping the mansion clean and prepared for the frequent guests, Mary's grandmother also took charge of making and mending clothing for the slaves on the plantation. She spent whole days cutting out clothing for the children and assigning sewing to her nine seamstresses. Her grandmother worked with the servants and sewing crew so easily and effectively that Mary was nearly nine years old before she became aware that her grandmother's coworkers were slaves. Having learned to respect these workers, she thought of them as near equals.
Mary learned to read at an early age, probably from her grandmother also. Soon she was using this new-found ability to teach a favorite servant to read. It was illegal in South Carolina to teach a slave to read or write, but Mary was a favored grandchild and her grandmother was proud of her ability. In 1831, however, her grandmother died. Mary was twelve years old when the entire family moved to Mississippi, where they owned some other plantations. Most of the family fell ill, however, and within a year the family had returned to the South Carolina plantation to resume their lives there. Shortly after their return, the family was visited by Mr. Chesnut, owner of a nearby plantation, and his son James. James was twenty-one and had just graduated from Princeton. James and Mary began a courtship that ended with James proposing to Mary when she was fifteen years old. Her mother and father d...
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...asy to tell whether she really hated slavery or if she later changed her diary to make it seem so. In all, it appears that Chesnut had long felt the sentiment she had expressed in a question in 1861: "I wonder if it be a sin to think slavery a curse to any land[?] Men and women are punished when their masters and mistresses are brutes, not when they do wrong.... God forgive us, but ours is a monstrous system, a wrong and an iniquity" (Chesnut, p. 21). The diary of Chesnut, an interesting account of the Civil War from the viewpoint of an active southern woman, slave holder, and plantation owner, was published in 1905 under the title A Diary from Dixie.
Muhlenfeld, Elisabeth. Mary Boykin Chestnut: A Biography. Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State UP, 1981.
Woodward, C. Vann, ed. Mary Chesnut's Civil War. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1981.
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