Mary Chestnut

Mary Chestnut

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Mary Boykin Miller Chesnut, (1823-1886) was the author of A Diary from Dixie, an insightful view of Southern life and leadership during the American Civil War. In 1840 she married James Chesnut, Jr., who later served as a U.S. senator from South Carolina until he resigned to take an important role in the secession movement and the Confederacy.

Mary Miller was the daughter of a prominent South Carolina politician and grew up in an atmosphere of public service. She attended private schools in Camden and Charleston. Her husband was a staff officer, an aide to General P.G.T. Beauregard, and commanding general of the South Carolina reserves.

Chesnut accompanied him on his military missions during the Civil War and began recording her views and observations on February 15, 1861, and closed her diary on August 2, 1865. After the war she reworked her manuscript many times in anticipation of publication. But A Diary from Dixie was not published until 1905, long after her death. Although not a day-by-day account, A Diary is regarded highly by historians for its perceptive views of Confederate military and political leaders and for its insight into Southern society during the Civil War. An annotated edition with a biographical essay, Mary Chesnut’s Civil War, ed. by C. Vann Woodward (1981), was awarded the 1982 Pulitzer Prize in U.S. history.

Mulberry Plantation (Kershaw County, South Carolina)

Mulberry Plantation, also known as the James and Mary Boykin Chesnut House is a historic plantation at 559 Sumter Highway (United States Route 521) south of Camden, South Carolina. Declared a National Historic Landmark in 2000, it is significant as the home of American Civil War chronicler Mary Boykin Chesnut, who produced some of the most important written accounts of the war from a Confederate perspective. The main house, built about 1820, is a fine example of Federal period architecture. [2] [3]

A Plantation Mistress Decries a "Monstrous System"

Mary Boykin Chestnut was the wife of a wealthy South Carolina planter who kept a diary during the Civil War. Published long after the war, the diary included many insightful and pointed criticisms of slavery, such as this passage, in which she calls the institution "a monstrous system. a wrong and an inequity." Like Harriet Jacobs, Chestnut takes particular offense at the sexual dynamic produced by slavery, in which slave women must endure a system of forced prostitution, and the wives of slaveowners live in a state of denial about the patriarchy of the "mulatto children [who] . she seems to think, drop from the clouds."

Under slavery, we live surrounded by prostitutes, yet an abandoned woman is sent out of any decent house. Who thinks any worse of a Negro or mulatto woman for being a thing we can&rsquot name? God, forgive us, but ours is a monstrous system, a wrong and an inequity! Like the patriarchs of old, our men live all in one house with their wives and their concubines and the mulattos ones sees in every family partly resemble the white children. Any lady is ready to tell you who is the father of all mulatto children in everybody&rsquos household but her own. Those, she seems to think, drop from the clouds. My disgust sometimes is boiling over. Thank God for my country women, but alas for the men! They are probably no worse than man everywhere, but the lower the mistresses, the more degraded they must be.

A Woman and History: Camden’s Mary Boykin Chesnut

She was barely 17 when when married James Chesnut, Jr., left her home in Charleston and came to live in Camden, herself.

Her father was a U.S. Senator and S.C. governor. Her husband was a U.S. Senator, too.

Today, neither is as well known as she is. Her Diary from Dixie is an acclaimed, first person history that was used extensively in Ken Burns’s series about the Civil War. A version of her book published in 1981 as Mary Chesnut’s Civil War won the Pulitzer Prize for history.

Writing and Revising Diary from Dixie

Scholar Elisabeth Showalter Muhlenfeld spoke of her research on the life and work of Mary Boykin Chesnut in a lecture full of fascinating details.

She examines how the well-educated young woman developed as a writer, comparing one of her initial diary entries to the final version Chesnut edited for publication.

Here’s an excerpt from the transcript of Muhlenfeld's remarks:

To give you a sense of how diary became book, let us look at comparable passages in the original diary and Mary Chesnut’s Civil War. On April 12, 1861, Chesnut records her distress with great immediacy:

“Mr. Chesnut sent off again to Anderson. The live long night I toss about - at half past four we hear the booming of the cannon. I start up - dress & rush to my sisters in misery. We go on the house top & see the shells bursting. They say our men are wasting ammunition.”

More than 20 years later, the incident develops as a deliberate narrative, beginning with a clear description of the situation:

I do not pretend to go to sleep. How can I? If Anderson does not accept terms - at four - the orders are - he shall be fired upon.”

Like any good writer, Chesnut works to build tension:

I count four - St. Michael chimes. I begin to hope. At half-past four, the heavy booming of a cannon.

I sprang out of bed. And on my knees – prostrate - I prayed as I never prayed before.

There was a sound of stir all over the house - pattering of feet in the corridor - all seemed hurrying one way. I put on my double gown and a shawl and went, too. It was to the housetop.

The shells were bursting. In the dark I heard a man say “waste of ammunition.”

"Brutal men with unlimited power are the same all over the world."

&ndash Mary Boykin Chesnut

Beyond Dixie: A writer with her own views

Along with writing and re-writing the Diary, Chesnut wrote three novels, and a translation of French poetry and essays.

In her writing about the South, she’s noted for her frank accounts of the abuses of slavery and her opposition to it, her views on the unfair treatment of women, and the power exercised by white men.

The Camden Homes of Mary Boykin Chesnut

Chesnut’s insights into Southern life and the Civil War are tied to the many years she spent in Camden. She first lived with her in-laws at Mulberry, their plantation three miles south of Camden. That house is now on the National Historic Register.

Chesnut and her husband built two houses in Camden in the 1840s and 50s--Frogvale, built in 1846, then Kamschatka, a house later owned by the Buckley family.

Bloomsbury--now a bed and breakfast popular with students in town for The Buckley School's Executive Seminar--was visited frequently by Mary Boykin Chesnut. It was built for her sister-in-law Sally Chesnut.

During the Civil War, Mary Boykin Chesnut moved to a number of places including Charleston, Columbia, and Richmond, while her husband served as a leader in the Confederate army. After the war, she returned to Camden and a much changed Mulberry Plantation. In 1873, the Chesnuts left Mulberry and built Sarsfield, a two story brick house you'll find at 136 Chesnut Street.

It was at Sarsfield where Mary Boykin Chesnut did much of her work to revise the Diary. She died at Sarsfield in 1886 and is buried at Knights Hill Cemetery.

Here’s a blog post from 2016 describing one woman’s attempts to find where Mary Chesnut Boykin lived in Camden.

CSpan’s American Writers series dives into Mary Chesnut’s life story, with a Chesnut researcher who portrays her. The program was broadcast from Mulberry Plantation.

Below, some of the 200 Civil War-era photos from Chesnut's albums at the South Caroliniana Library, plus an interview with Marty Daniels, the great great granddaughter of Mary Chesnut's sister who lives at Mulberry Plantation today:

Birth of Mary Chesnut

Author Mary Boykin Chesnut was born on March 31, 1823, near Stateburg, South Carolina. She kept a detailed diary of the Civil War from her perspective, and the resulting book had been labeled a masterpiece and a work of art.

Mary was the oldest of four children born to Stephen Decatur Miller. As the daughter of a South Carolina governor and US senator, she was immersed in politics from childhood. She attended a French school for young ladies and her family spent some time on a farm in Mississippi.

US #2343 – Mary’s father and husband were prevalent in South Carolina politics, giving her a front row seat to major events in the state.

At age 17, Mary married James Chestnut Jr. The only surviving son of one of the largest landowners in the state, he was elected to the US Senate in 1858 – a position he resigned from when Abraham Lincoln was elected president. He then returned south as a delegate to the Confederate Provisional Congress, and later served as personal aide to Jefferson Davis.

US #2975f – Chesnut’s husband was a personal aid to Jefferson Davis.

With her husband working as an aide to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Mary played a role in her husband’s career. They hosted regular events, which were important to build political connections. Mary was a popular hostess, and her hotel quarters in Montgomery soon became a fashionable salon where the elite of the new Confederacy came to socialize and exchange information.

Aware of the magnitude of the events unfolding around her, Mary began keeping a diary on February 18, 1861. She stated at the start, “The journal is intended to be entirely objective. My subjective days are over.” She was present at several historic moments from the meeting of the Provisional Congress of the Confederate States of America to witnessing the first shots of the war.

US #1178 – Chesnut’s diary includes a detailed account of the battle of Fort Sumter.

Everything Mary saw and heard she candidly recorded, from political rumors and firsthand reports of battles, to wartime romances, parties, and funerals. Her writing explored the conditions of the different social classes in the South during the war, covering slavery, the treatment of women, and more. After the war she converted her diary into a novel, though she didn’t finish it in her lifetime. She also wrote three other full novels that she never published. Mary died on November 22, 1886.

US #998 – Mary’s book is considered one of the most important works from the Confederacy during the war.

Excerpts from her journals appeared in The Saturday Evening Post under the title “A Diary from Dixie,” and later several heavily revised editions were also published. Finally in 1981, with the publication of Mary Chestnut’s Civil War, her journals appeared as she had originally written them, giving us one of the finest firsthand accounts of the Confederacy. This 1981 edition earned a Pulitzer Prize. The popular Ken Burns television series, The Civil War, included several readings from her diary.

US #2975o – Fleetwood First Day Cover

One modern review of her book stated that “The very rhythm of her opening pages at once puts us under the spell of a writer who is not merely jotting down her days but establishing, as a novelist does, an atmosphere, an emotional tone… Starting out with situations or relationships of which she cannot know the outcome, she takes advantage of the actual turn of events to develop them and round them out as if she were molding a novel.”

Mary Chesnut detailed the Civil War in the South, flaws and all

Mary Boykin Chesnut, the most cited chronicler of the American Civil War, witnessed history close up.

She was on hand as her husband, former U.S. Sen. James Chesnut, signed South Carolina’s Ordinance of Secession.

She was in Montgomery for the inauguration of Jefferson Davis as president of the newly formed Confederacy. She stood on a Charleston rooftop watching the bombardment of Fort Sumter and circulated among the highest political and military figures in Richmond, Va., where she also lived.

“There was a way I had of always to stumble in on the real show,” she wrote.

She also knew the significance of the events happening around her. Keeping a daily diary throughout the conflict on scraps of paper here and there, she spent the years after the war laboriously transcribing her writings into 50 notebooks, filled with more than a million words.

Chesnut didn’t live to see her work published.

When she died in 1886, she left the manuscripts in the hands of a friend, Isabella D. Martin, who created an expurgated version in 1905, deleting material to avoid insulting those who were still living and downplaying Chesnut’s distaste for slavery.

In 1949, editor Ben Ames Williams restored much of the deleted material, which he judged to be “its most interesting passages.”

Historian C. Vann Woodward produced an even longer annotated version of the journal in 1981, called “Mary Chesnut’s Civil War,” which won the Pulitzer Prize. The Washington Post Book World called that edition “perhaps one of the half-dozen or so most important diaries in all literature.”

Chesnut was a keen observer and a trenchant wordsmith, not to mention a well-connected socialite. Wrote Williams, “She knew most, if not all the leaders of the Confederate Government, and of the Confederate Army.”

She also reported on the other layers of society. She was not fooled by the hype and nonsense of the day, particularly in matters of concern to women. She was repulsed by the sexual enslavement of black women.

“God forgive us but ours is a monstrous system,” she wrote. “Like the patriarchs of old, our men live all in one house with their wives and their concubines, and the mulattoes one sees in every family exactly resemble the white children. … All the time they seem to think themselves patterns, models of husbands and fathers.”

Elisabeth Muhlenfeld, author of “Mary Boykin Chesnut: A Biography,” said Chesnut’s anti-slavery views and her feminist instincts were unusual at the time. “You get a very strong feminist sense from her statements,” she said in a CSPAN documentary. “She’s become more and more interesting to women readers and historians.”

Keith Bohannon, professor of history at the University of West Georgia, said Chesnut could not truly be called an abolitionist, since she profited from the slave labor of dozens of servants in her home. But she recognized the moral crime in the practice.

Chesnut, who suffered from depression and treated blinding headaches with morphine, was an excellent caricaturist of the personalities she encountered in Richmond, including the tragic figure of Confederate Gen. John Bell Hood, who lost his right leg in the Battle of Chickamauga.

She noted the disabled Hood’s abortive courtship of the high-born Sally “Buck” Preston, and documented that sad campaign, a portrait of a moment in time that Bohannon prizes.

Mary Chestnut - HISTORY

It is important to consider Mary Chesnut and her work in context. Chesnut is well known for her criticism of slavery and patriarchy. Yet she is also very much a member of the wealthy planter class in her views on race. In addition, this is a massive work--close to 900 pages. It is, therefore, difficult to find "representative" sections that capture the breadth and sweep of the work as a whole.

In teaching Chesnut consider these strategies:

1. Provide historical context with attention to the intersections of race, class, and gender in southern culture. Consider especially the relative positions of white women and African American women in a patriarchal slave society. Students also need to understand the rise and fall of the Confederacy.

2. Require students to read and report on diverse sections of the work.

Students often ask questions related to Chesnut's "feminism" and her attitude toward race. For example, why does she blame African-American women for being sexual victims of white men? How implicated is she in the patriarchal order?

Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues

1. This is an important social history of the Civil War era in the South.

2. At the same time, it is interesting both as a woman's autobiography--a personal history of struggle and hardship--and as a remarkable story of the trauma experienced by both white and black women in the Civil War South.

Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions

This autobiography is a combination of a journal written on the spot and reminiscences of the Civil War period. (See The Private Mary Chesnut for the former.) There is, therefore, a fascinating combination of the personal and the public in Woodward's edition.

Original Audience

Hundreds of war reminiscences were published in the forty to fifty years after the Civil War. Poorly edited versions, both called A Diary from Dixie , were published in 1905 and 1949. Installments of the first edition were published in The Saturday Evening Post . Readers then were more interested in the actual events of the war years so vividly portrayed by Chestnut.

Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections

I would suggest a contrast/comparison to an African-American woman's slave narrative, perhaps Harriet Ann Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl , which also decries white men's sexual misuse of female slaves--from the point of view of the victim. (Also see Uncle Tom's Cabin for similar themes.)

Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing

1. (a) Describe how Chesnut created this massive volume.

(b) Describe the life of an upper-class white woman in the Old South.

(c) Describe the editorial history of this volume.

2. (a) Compare to slave narrative, abolitionist or pro-slavery fiction, realistic or plantation fiction, or modern woman's auto- biography.

(b) Discuss Chesnut's relationships and attitudes toward: black women, her own husband and father-in-law, female friends (e.g., Varina Davis), or her own slaves.

(c) Describe how fictional techniques bring life to the diary format.


Fox-Genovese, Elizabeth. Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South . University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

Gwin, Minrose. Black and White Women of the Old South: The Peculiar Sisterhood in American Literature . University of Tennessee Press, 1985. Chapter 2.

Jones, Anne Goodwyn. "Southern Literary Women, and Chronicles of Southern Life." In Sex, Race, and the Role of Women in the South , edited by Joanne V. Hawks and Sheila L. Skemp. University Press of Mississippi, 1983.

Junker, Clara. "Writing Herstory: Mary Chesnut's Civil War." Southern Studies 26 (1987): 18-27.

Muhlenfeld, Elisabeth. Mary Boykin Chestnut: A Biography . Louisiana State University Press, 1981.

Woodward, C. Vann. Mary Chesnut's Civil War . Yale University Press, 1981. Introduction.

---- and Elisabeth Muhlenfeld. The Private Mary Chesnut . Oxford University Press, 1985. Introduction.

The Loathsome Den-- Sexual Assault on the Plantation: #MeToo

In 1868, Elizabeth Keckly published Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House. The memoir detailed the 50-year old Keckly’s three decades as a slave, how she secured freedom for herself and her son, and her friendship with the Lincolns during the Civil War. Also within the pages of her book was Keckly’s public revelation that she had been routinely raped by a white man when she was a young woman. Although revealing the abuse, Keckly chose to “spare the world his name.”

Privately coming forward as a survivor of any sexual or physical abuse is hard enough. To publicly name the abuser is often a fraught path. Legal prosecution of the offender is not certain economic and/or physical retaliation a possibility and public scrutiny, if not shame, a certainty. Nonetheless, victims then and now still come forward. Indeed, the last year has been dominated by the revelations of women (and some men) who have been sexually abused. Their whirlwind of resistance coalesced online via the #MeToo movement and Time named “Silence Breakers” as its Person of the Year. Over 150 years ago, a similar tempest arose as abolitionists tried to awaken the American conscience on slavery and sexual assault.

The particulars of a plantation and a movie studio are certainly different. Nonetheless, predatory behavior, whether in a field of cotton or at an afterhours party, retains an eerie echo across the eras. Perpetrators, then and now, have used economic coercion and physical force to subdue victims they demonstrate a brazen entitlement to the bodies of others and rely upon threats of retaliation and shame to silence victims.

Also prevalent in both the modern era and the past, has been the knowledge of bad actors being met with a lack of acknowledgement from society. What we today term “open secrets” were described by white Southerner Mary Chesnut in 1861 as “the thing we cannot name.” Chesnut continued by noting the delusion needed to ignore sexual misconduct: “[E]very lady tells you who is the father of all the Mulatto children in everybody’s household, but those in her own, she seems to think drop from the clouds or pretends so to think.”

Abolitionists worked tirelessly in the mid-19th century to bring public attention to the plight of the sexually assaulted on plantations. Prominent in the abolitionist campaign were the stories of people who had experienced slavery and were thus harmed by sexual assault, whether directly or indirectly. Frederick Douglass, born in Maryland sometime around 1818, exemplifies how the direct harm of sexual abuse quickly spreads indirect detriments. Douglass recalled in his first autobiography the uncertainty surrounding the identity of his biological father:

“My father was a white man. He was admitted to be such by all I ever heard speak of my parentage. The opinion was also whispered that my master was my father but of the correctness of this opinion, I know nothing the means of knowing was withheld from me.”

The “whispers” of Douglass’s white father echo the “open secrets” of our own time. More importantly, though, is the power dynamic that his mother faced. Much like believing an underage person could consent to sexual relations with an adult, the notion that an enslaved person could consent to any sexual relation with a master is perilously fraught. The plantation system dismantled any notion of consent by the enslaved. Indeed, if there is a central tenet of slavery it is depriving agency from one human and placing it in the craven hands of another. The enslaved who resisted that central tenet risked harsh punishment.

To that point, there is the saga of Celia. She was a black teenager in Missouri who killed her master, Robert Newsom, in self-defense. Newsom purchased 14-year old Celia in 1850 and routinely raped Celia over the next five years. Despite the attacks, which resulted in Celia bearing one of Newsom’s children, the teenager had no legal defense or recourse toward the man. Taking matters into her own hands, Celia killed Newsom in 1855. However, that defense of her body proved illegal. The State of Missouri executed Celia for the crime. In so doing, they sent a clear and powerful message: no matter how brutal the sexual or physical abuse, an enslaved woman had no legal right to defy her master.

Solomon Northup witnessed similar absurdity during his twelve years as a slave. The plight of Patsey is a central part of his memoir. Edwin Epps, master of Northup and Patsey in Louisiana, routinely assaulted Patsey sexually, physically, and emotionally. Master Epps’s abuse of Patsey brewed an intense jealousy on the part of Mistress Epps, who was effectively powerless to stop her husband’s behavior. She futilely begged him to end the rapes. Reaching that dead end, Mistress Epps herself began to physically abuse Patsey as the only retaliatory recourse against her husband. As Northup summarized, “The enslaved victim of lust and hate, Patsey had no comfort” as she endured the status of abused pawn in the Epps’s marriage. [1]

(It should be noted here that our modern conception of “mistress” is not suited for the plantation. In slavery times, “the mistress” was the wife of the plantation master. A black woman being sexually assaulted by the master was therefore no “mistress.” [2] )

Harriet Jacobs in her memoir, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, also recalled the uncaring attitude of the white mistress toward raped black women. Jacobs’s mistress, suspicious of her husband’s behavior, ordered Jacobs to confess the rapacious actions of the master. Initially, Jacobs and the mistress seemed to share common pain in the ordeal. However, Jacobs realized her pain and that of the mistress were entirely different:

“….I was soon convinced that her emotions arose from anger and wounded pride. She felt that her marriage vows were desecrated, her dignity insulted but she had no compassion for the poor victim of her husband’s perfidy. She pitied herself as a martyr but she was incapable of feeling for the condition of shame and misery in which her unfortunate, helpless slave was placed.” [3]

Jacobs would lament that it was “criminal” for “a favorite slave…. to wish to be virtuous.” [4] Harkening back to Celia’s plight, Jacobs reminds us that for an enslaved woman to control herself and refuse any sexual advance was essentially illegal. Jacobs’s anecdotal observation has also caught the attention of historians like Walter Johnson, who have researched slave auctions. Johnson identified that “favorite” or “fancy” female slaves sought for sexual exploitation could make handsome profits for slave dealers. A trafficker named Phillip Thomas in Richmond, Virginia, described one such purchase: “13 years old Girl, Bright Color, nearly a fancy for $1135.” [5]

Cover of Harriet Jacobs’ memoir “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” first published in 1861

Elizabeth Keckly experienced this “fancy” perversion as well. Living in North Carolina during the 1830s, Keckly described “savage efforts to subdue my pride” by a white man:

“I was regarded as fair-looking for one of my race, and for four years a white man – I spare the world his name – had base designs upon me. I do not care to dwell upon this subject, for it is one that is fraught with pain. Suffice it to say, that he persecuted me for four years, and I – I – became a mother. The child of which he was the father was the only child that I ever brought into the world.”

Keckly indicted society for its complicity allowing the rampant violation of black women’s rights: “If my poor boy ever suffered any humiliating pangs on account of birth…. he must blame the edicts of that society which deemed it no crime to undermine the virtue of girls in my then position.” [6]


Having witnessed these horrors firsthand, Keckly was not wrong in her indictment. As her son was the product of sexual assault, so was she. Keckly’s mother, Agnes, was an enslaved woman assaulted by Armistead Burwell, her master. The sexual exploitation was generational and resulted time after time in white men owning their children in bondage just as Chesnut described.

The infrastructure supporting unpunished and pervasive sexual assault on plantations started in America’s colonial era. Beginning in the 17th century, Virginia codified sexual relations between black men and white women as criminal, even when the two parties consented and desired marriage. In 1691, Virginia ordered that any white woman who bore a mixed-race child would be fined fifteen pounds. If the fine was not paid, imprisonment or indentured servitude up to five years would be imposed. Furthermore, any white person who married a nonwhite person would be banished forever from Virginia within three months. [7]

While that particular crackdown on intermarriage was occurring, Virginia’s laws simultaneously incentivized white men to abuse black women. Since a child’s freedom was tied to status of the mother, if an enslaved mother gave birth, the child would also be enslaved – regardless of the father’s status. Thus, sexual abuse by the master might be followed nine months later by more chattel property added to the estate. Though Virginia’s assembly could have legislated some protections for enslaved black women, historian Edmund Morgan details they did no such thing, thus lending sanction to a master’s predatory whims:

“The laws said nothing about black women who had illegitimate children by white fathers, perhaps because few black women were free and the children of slave women were neither legitimate nor illegitimate, no matter who the father was. Given the power of white masters over women slaves, it is altogether likely that many black women bore mulatto children. But since the mother was a slave, the child, in spite of intermediate color, would be a slave. Such mulattoes would therefore not constitute an intermediate class. They must be seen as black. And the [Virginia] assembly took pains in all its laws to identify them with blacks and to deny them any benefit from a free paternity.” [8]

Thus, this basic formulation of the slave code in the United States allowed for, even encouraged, the abuse of black women by white men, while making black men and white women engaging in consensual relationships both taboo and a criminal act.

Thus for nearly two centuries, the cries for help and justice by the enslaved were not acted upon sufficiently. When emancipation finally arrived, there was some reason for hope with the legislative victories of Reconstruction. However, that era was later sundered by the imposition of Jim Crow laws, which resulted in a system nearly as unjust as what was there before. Thus, black women over the next century continued facing brazen assault at the hands of white men who were not held accountable by the legal system and existing power structures.

In 1944, NAACP secretary Rosa Parks, a decade before she instigated the Montgomery Bus Boycott, investigated the gang rape of Recy Taylor by six white men. Despite acquiring copious evidence of the perpetrators’ guilt, a grand jury in Alabama refused to indict the men. Recy Taylor is still alive at age 97 and lives with the knowledge that the men who assaulted her were never tried, much less convicted, for the crime.

Despite the injustice for Taylor, another Southern black woman, Betty Jean Owens, was vindicated in 1959 when four white men in Florida were convicted of raping her. The conviction was startling enough, but the four men were also sentenced to life in prison. According to historian Danielle McGuire, this proved a watershed moment in the civil rights movement. By 1965 Jim Crow faced its overdue legal demise.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence then that the stories we’ve observed from the slavery era publicly came to light during the 1850s and 1860s. This was a time when the “peculiar institution” of slavery was criticized as never before and finally demolished via presidential proclamation and constitutional amendment that finally gave legal sanction to the resistance the enslaved had always mounted.

Serving as guiding lights and clarions, the silence-breakers of the 19th century awakened the rest of society from an unjustified comfort gained by accepting the idea of “open secrets” and “things we cannot name.” Lydia Maria Child, friend of Harriet Jacobs, testified to this point in 1861. In her plea, Child swept aside the false comforts of ignoring abuse:

“I am well aware that many will accuse me of indecorum for presenting these pages to the public…. I willingly take the responsibility of presenting them with the veil withdrawn. I do this for the sake of my sisters in bondage, who are suffering wrongs so foul, that our ears are too delicate to listen to them…. I do it with the hope that every man who reads this narrative will swear solemnly before God that, so far as he has power to prevent it, no fugitive from Slavery shall ever be sent back to suffer in that loathsome den of corruption and cruelty.” [9]

That loathsome den yet remains. Over the last year, men accused of inappropriate behavior ranging from lewd comments to unwanted advances to groping and to rape include Louis C. K., John Conyers, Al Franken, Mark Halperin, Matt Lauer, Roy Moore, Bill O’Reilly, Charlie Rose, Bryan Singer, Kevin Spacey, Donald Trump, and Harvey Weinstein.

Delivering justice for enslaved victims of sexual assault was partial at best. The survivors of assault, then and now, deserve more than a mere modicum or nominal display of justice. Rejecting silence and embracing truth ensures the perpetrators receive the cultural, political, and judicial reprimands that they so well deserve. Otherwise, we re-send a miserable signal that a quick false comfort, which abuses and silences far too many, is somehow preferable to a hard-earned culture that protects and hears all.

Curtis Harris is a Museum Program Associate at President Lincoln’s Cottage, and a PhD History student at American University.


Edward Baptist. The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.

Daina Ramey Berry. The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation.

Sharon Block. Rape & Sexual Power in Early America.

Catherine Clinton. The Plantation Mistress: Woman’s World in the Old South.

Harriet Ann Jacobs. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

Walter Johnson. Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market.

Elizabeth Keckly. Behind the Scenes in the Lincoln White House: Memoirs of an African-American Seamstress.

Danielle McGuire. At the Dark End of the Street: Sexual Violence and the Civil Rights Movement.

Edmund S. Morgan. American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia.

Solomon Northup. Twelve Years a Slave.

Anthony S. Parent, Jr. Foul Means: The Formation of a Slave Society in Virginia, 1660 – 1740.

[1] Solomon Northup, Twelve Years A Slave, (New York: Atria Books, 2013), 155.

[2] For more reading on the peculiar world of the plantation mistress, see Catherine Clinton’s The Plantation Mistress: Woman’s World in the Old South, (New York: Pantheon Books, 1982). Chapter 11 is particularly relevant to the ideas and issues discussed in this article.

[3] Harriet Ann Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, (New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2015), 32.

[5] Phillip Thomas to William Finney, July 26, 1859, as quoted in Walter Johnson, Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 113.

[6] Elizabeth Keckly, Behind the Scenes in the Lincoln White House: Memoirs of an African-American Seamstress, (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2006), 14.

[7] Anthony S. Parent, Jr., Foul Means: The Formation of a Slave Society in Virginia, 1660-1740, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003), 116-117.

[8] Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia, (New York: W.W. Norton, 1975), 336.

[9] Lydia Maria Child in Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, x.

Mary Boykin Chesnut

Mary Boykin Chesnut, born Mary Boykin Miller (March 31, 1823 – November 22, 1886), was a South Carolina author noted for a book published as her Civil War diary, a "vivid picture of a society in the throes of its life-and-death struggle." She described the war from within her upper-class circles of Southern planter society, but encompassed all classes in her book. She was married to a lawyer who served as a United States senator and Confederate officer.

Chesnut worked toward a final form of her book from 1881-1884, based on her extensive diary written during the war years. It was published after her death in 1905. New versions were published after her papers were discovered, in 1949 by the novelist Ben Ames Williams, and in 1981 by the historian C. Vann Woodward. His annotated edition of the diary, Mary Chesnut's Civil War (1981), won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1982. Literary critics have called Chesnut's diary "a work of art" and the most important work by a Confederate author.

Mary Boykin Miller Chesnut was born 31 March 1823 in Stateboro, S.C., eldest child of Mary Boykin and Stephen Decatur Miller, who had served as U.S. congressman and senator and in 1826 was elected governor of South Carolina as a proponent of nullification. Educated first at home and in Camden schools, Mary Miller was sent at 13 to a French boarding school in Charleston, where she remained for two years broken by a six-month stay on her father's cotton plantation in frontier Mississippi. In 1838 Miller died and Mary returned to Camden. On 23 April 1840 she married James Chesnut, Jr. (1815-85), only surviving son of one of South Carolina's largest landowners.

Chesnut spent most of the next 20 years in Camden and at Mulberry, her husband's family plantation. When James was elected to the Senate in 1858, his wife accompanied him to Washington where friendships were begun with many politicians who would become the leading figures of the Confederacy, among them Varina and Jefferson Davis. Following Lincoln's election, James Chesnut returned to South Carolina to participate in the drafting of an ordinance of secession and subsequently served in the Provisional Congress of the Confederate States of America. He served as aide to General P.G.T. Beauregard and President Jefferson Davis, and he achieved the rank of general. During the war, Mary accompanied her husband to Charleston, Montgomery, Columbia, and Richmond, her drawing room always serving as a salon for the Confederate elite. From February 1861 to July 1865 she recorded her experiences in a series of diaries, which became the principal source materials for her famous portrait of the Confederacy.

Following the war, the Chesnuts returned to Camden and worked unsuccessfully to extricate themselves from heavy debts. After a first abortive attempt in the 1870s to smooth the diaries into publishable form, Mary Chesnut tried her hand at fiction. She completed but never published three novels, then in the early 1880s expanded and extensively revised her diaries into the book now known as Mary Chesnut's Civil War (first published in truncated and poorly edited versions in 1905 and 1949 as A Diary From Dixie.

Although unfinished at the time of her death on 22 November 1886, Mary Chesnut's Civil War is generally acknowledged today as the finest literary work of the Confederacy. Spiced by the author's sharp intelligence, irreverent wit, and keen sense of irony and metaphorical vision, it uses a diary format to evoke a full, accurate picture of the South in civil war. Chesnut's book, valued as a rich historical source, owes much of its fascination to its juxtaposition of the loves and griefs of individuals against vast social upheaval and much of its power to the contrasts and continuities drawn between the antebellum world and a war-torn country.

Article by Elisabeth Muhlenfeld, Mary Boykin Chesnut: A Biography (1981) C. Vann Woodward, ed., Mary Chesnut's Civil War (1981), with Elisabeth Muhlenfeld, eds., The Private Mary Chesnut: The Unpublished Civil War Diaries (1985).

She wrote while she was on the sidelines of the battles, watching her husband and praying that he was not wounded or killed.

She would tend to the sick and wounded soldiers and help those around the battlefield with the mourning and the loss of their loved ones. She was a strong protestor against the Southern leaders for women suffrage rights. She was very outspoken on the things she observed from watching the war.

Mary Chesnut: The Firing on Ft. Sumter

Mary Chesnut (1823-1886) was an upper class South Carolina woman. Her diary of the Civil War places the reader in the middle of the important people and events of that tragic conflict. Her diary is considered an important work, and a modern edition of her diary won the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for History. In this passage, Mary Chesnut writes about the firing on Ft. Sumter. Students will read the entry and answer questions on the language and the characters.

Reading Comprehension Passage

Mary Chesnut: The Firing on Ft. Sumter

By Mary Boykin Chesnut from A Diary from Dixie

Mary Boykin Miller Chesnut (1823-1886) was a prominent woman from South Carolina. Her husband, James Chesnut, was a U.S. Senator before the Civil War. Well-educated, intelligent, and well-connected, Mary understood, as the Civil War began, she had a front row seat to a historic moment in history. She began recording the events in her life in February 1861.

After South Carolina seceded from the Union in December 1860, much attention was directed at Ft. Sumter, a U.S. sea fort on an island in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. The Confederate troops built batteries, or positions for large guns and cannons, along the shore facing Ft. Sumter. In April of 1861, James Chesnut, now a colonel in the Confederate army, met with the Ft. Sumter commander, Major Robert Anderson, to demand the surrender of Ft. Sumter to the Confederacy. Anderson declined. The resulting events would start the Civil War.

This passage from Mary's diary on April 12, 1861 covers the events of the firing of Ft. Sumter by the Confederate troops from her vantage point in Charleston. President Davis is Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. Beauregard is General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding officer of the Charleston troops.

April 12th. –Anderson will not capitulate. Yesterday’s was the merriest, maddest dinner we have had yet. Men were audaciously wise and witty. We had an unspoken foreboding that it was to be our last pleasant meeting. Mr. Miles dined with us to-day. Mrs. Henry King rushed in saying, “The news, I come for the latest news. All the men of the King family are on the Island,” of which fact she seemed proud.

While she was here our peace negotiator, or envoy, came in–that is, Mr. Chesnut returned. His interview with Colonel Anderson had been deeply interesting, but Mr. Chesnut was not inclined to be communicative. He wanted his dinner. He felt for Anderson and had telegraphed to President Davis for instructions–what answer to give Anderson, etc. He has now gone back to Fort Sumter with additional instructions. When they were about to leave the wharf A. H. Boykin sprang into the boat in great excitement. He thought himself ill-used, with a likelihood of fighting and he to be left behind!

I do not pretend to go to sleep. How can I? If Anderson does not accept terms at four, the orders are, he shall be fired upon. I count four St. Michael's bells chime out and I begin to hope. At half-past four the heavy booming of a cannon. I sprang out of bed, and on my knees prostrate I prayed as I never prayed before.

There was a sound of stir all over the house, pattering of feet in the corridors. All seemed hurrying one way. I put on my double-gown and a shawl and went, too. It was to the housetop. The shells were bursting. In the dark I heard a man say, “Waste of ammunition.” I knew my husband was rowing about in a boat somewhere in that dark bay, and that the shells were roofing it over, bursting toward the fort. If Anderson was obstinate, Colonel Chesnut was to order the fort on one side to open fire. Certainly fire had begun. The regular roar of the cannon, there it was. And who could tell what each volley accomplished of death and destruction?

The women were wild there on the housetop. Prayers came from the women and imprecations from the men. And then a shell would light up the scene. To-night they say the forces are to attempt to land. We watched up there, and everybody wondered that Fort Sumter did not fire a shot.

To-day Miles and Manning, colonels now, aides to Beauregard, dined with us. The latter hoped I would keep the peace. I gave him only good words, for he was to be under fire all day and night, down in the bay carrying orders, etc.

Last night, or this morning truly, up on the housetop I was so weak and weary I sat down on something that looked like a black stool. “Get up, you foolish woman. Your dress is on fire,” cried a man. And he put me out. I was on a chimney and the sparks had caught my clothes. Susan Preston and Mr. Venable then came up. But my fire had been extinguished before it burst out into a regular blaze.

Do you know, after all that noise and our tears and prayers, nobody has been hurt sound and fury signifying nothing -- a delusion and a snare.

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