Under Ohio Chautauqua’s Red-And-White-Striped Tent, We Met Mary Boykin Chesnut

To start our holiday weekend, last evening we sat under a red-and-white-striped tent with Mary Boykin Chesnut, the Confederate Civil War diarist.

Mrs. Chesnut was part of Ohio Chautauqua’s five-day stop in Westerville. The event combines living history, music, education and theater in a series of programs focused on a theme. This year, it’s the Civil War.

After Dr. Tony’s Ragtime Band gave a great concert that included some of my favorite Scott Joplin rags, living history performer Dianne Moran gave a dramatic monologue.  As we cooled ourselves with the fans that Chautauqua organizers thoughtfully gave everyone (I also used my “Moral Compass” fan, of course), we learned about Mrs. Chesnut’s importance to American history and culture. Then, the audience had an opportunity to ask her questions, both in and out of character. 

I first heard about Mrs. Chesnut from Betsy Muhlenfeld, former president of Sweet Briar. During a meeting of the Sweet Briar Alumnae Board several years ago, I was one of the lucky board members who got to stay at Sweet Briar House, the lovely former plantation home that is now where the college’s president lives. As we sat on the second-floor verandah one afternoon, drinking lemonade, snacking on Rosa Franklins and petting her greyhounds, Betsy told me about researching and writing her 1981 biography of this fascinating lady.

According to the essay Ms. Moran wrote that was part of the publication distributed to Chautauqua attendees, Mary Boykin Miller was born on March 31, 1823 in Statesburg, South Carolina.  She married James Chesnut, Jr. on April 23, 1840; he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1852. When war broke out, Mrs. Chesnut had the foresight to realize the importance of chronicling the war. She began her diary on February 18, 1861; by the time she finished it on June 26, 1865, she had filled 48 journals containing more than 2,500 pages, writing the last entry in the back of an old recipe book. During the early 1880s, Mrs. Chesnut edited her diaries and wrote new drafts for publication. When she died on November 22, 1886, she bequeathed her diaries to a close friend, Isabella Martin, who kept them hidden under her bed because they spoke so frankly about certain people and issues. Later, Martin mentioned the diaries to a publisher who realized their historical value. In 1905, A Diary from Dixie was published, although much was omitted from Mrs. Chesnut’s original writings. In 1981, C. Vann Woodward published Mary Chesnut’s Civil War, which presented much more of her original work. It won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1982.

Accompanied by Abraham Lincoln, Harriet Tubman, Mary Edwards Walker, and Major Martin Delany, Mrs. Chesnut travels next to Lima (July 6-10), Chester (July 12-16) and Coshocton (July 19-23).

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