A Day in the Life

Historians hold Mary Chesnut's account of the Civil War as essential to understanding our past. Here's why.
Publish date:

June 3, 1862:
"For the first time in my life no books can interest me. Life is so real, so utterly earnest, that fiction is flat. Nothing but what is going on in this distracted world of our can arrest my attention for ten minutes at a time." — Excerpts from A Diary from Dixie, by Mary Chesnut

The prospect of journaling every day can be daunting. After all, what could possibly be happening that would be worth writing down for yourself or posterity to read in five, ten, 20 years or even longer?

Ordinary people often are thrust into extraordinary circumstances, be it a tragedy like a school shooting; a pleasant surprise, like winning the lottery; or a situation of major historical significance.

Whenever something happened in the South during the Civil War, Mary Boykin Miller Chesnut knew about it. And thanks to her 48 volumes of journals, so do we.

In the Center of the South
Chesnut was a doyenne of Southern society; her father and husband both served in the US Senate, and her husband was an aide to both Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard and Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Practically anyone who was anyone in the South came through her homes in South Carolina and Virginia during the war.

"I have always kept a journal after a fashion of my own, with dates and a line of poetry or prose, mere quotations, which I understood and no one else, and I have kept letters and extracts from the papers," she wrote on Nov. 8, 1860. "From today forward I will tell the story in my own way."

"She seems to have had enough knowledge of world history and US history to recognize something was going on," says Elisabeth Muhlenfeld, a Chesnut biographer and president of Sweet Briar College in Sweet Briar, V a. "Her living room was always a salon."

Nonetheless, Chesnut couldn't have predicted that more than 130 years later, her journals still would be in print in a variety of forms, including a Pulitzer Prize-winning edition, and that her words would be an important part of the Ken Burns' "Civil War" TV miniseries.

Chesnut's descriptions and thoughts of luminaries from Davis to Gen. John B. Hood and Gen. Robert E. Lee make her journals of interest. But of at least equal value are her descriptions of Southern home life. "We are devouring our clothes," she says, when old finery is sold to help make up for the Confederate dollar's declining value. She shares the despair of her circle of young friends on the topic of marriage: "Buck said: 'Sally is going to marry a man who has lost an arm, and she is proud of it. The cause glorifies such wounds.' Annie said meekly, 'I fear it will be my fate to marry one who has lost his head.'... The bitterness of this kind of talk is appalling."

About one-third of the journals' 150,000 words were published in 1905 as A Diary From Dixie, with Isabella D. Martin, one of the young women in Chesnut's circle, serving as one of the editors. In 1981, C. Vann Woodward oversaw publication of the complete journals as Chesnut had revised them under the title Mary Chesnut's Civil War. The effort won him the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for history. Muhlenfeld's biography also was published in 1981 and in 1985, she and Woodward teamed up to edit the journals in their entirety as The Private Mary Chesnut: The Unpublished Civil War Diaries.

This last edition includes entries before Chesnut edited herself in the 1880s after a flirtation with writing fiction. Her first novel, The Captain and the Colonel, "was not very good," Muhlenfeld says. "It takes place from before the war to the end and covers a mother and her three daughters."

The fiction was a stand-in for the diary, and proved enormously useful to Chesnut, according to Muhlenfeld. "She learned how to write dialogue and characters, but never quite learned about [putting a story] in context... She was a very astute observer; she picked up ironies and themes, and used what she'd learned from fiction to clean up the diary."

Letting Real Life Come Through
While Chesnut's own polishing was valuable, many unedited journals have an irresistible raw power of their own. For example, Alice Williamson, a 16-year-old girl from Gallatin, Tenn., kept a 36-page diary from February to September 1864, while the area was occupied by Union troops. "You really get a sense of her as a 16-year-old girl, her observations and sometimes her impertinence," says Cristina Favretto, women's studies archivist and bibliographer for Duke University's Special Collections Library where Williamson's diary is housed. "That can't come across in a scholarly article."

The diary is now available online and Duke sponsors staged readings of Williamson's and other diaries from time to time. Favretto auditions students and staff as readers. "The diaries or correspondence really come to life that way. You've got someone actually holding the manuscript and reading from it," she says. "It comes through that someone really wrote this, sharing their emotion at that particular moment They didn't take a lot of time for rewriting, it's the way they felt at that immediate moment, it's emotive."

Favretto says women's diaries are of special significance: "They can provide startling glimpses into how difficult it can be to live day by day. Men are too conditioned to having the work done for them. With women, it's 'I have no oil, how do I cook?' They worry about how to keep looking good, obtaining cloth, getting dresses made."

While Muhlenfeld is an acknowledged expert on one of the country's best-known diarists and Favretto works with diaries all day, neither journals on a regular basis. Nor, says Muhlenfeld, did Chesnut, her statements to the contrary.

"As best I can tell, Chesnut never kept a journal except during the Civil War. She always kept a day book ? with resolutions, quotations, sermons, things to get her back on the Christian path... I could not find another journal."

The Timelessness Is in the Details
What can today's journal writers learn from Chesnut? Aim for the details of everyday life, and draw analogies and parallels. "My sense is that it's almost more important to reflect what's going on in your circle" than record global events, Muhlenfeld says. Favretto agrees. "Look at it from the standpoint of what's happening in today's life," she says. Journals and diaries with the greatest historical value have information "on the day-to-day details of running households, the things men tend not to write about ? difficulties in finding food, sanitary napkins, other personal things."

Journals sometimes are more telling than the writers realize. Favretto notes that The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls, by Joan Jacobs Brumberg (Vintage) used 19th and 20th century diaries to show how the importance of physical appearance changed for girls. "If we read diaries of Civil War girls, they didn't say, 'I am fat, that's why nobody likes me,"' she says. "It didn't enter their minds."

Melanie Rigney is the editor of Writer's Digest magazine.


Your Story #112

Write the opening line to a story based on the photo prompt below. (One sentence only.) You can be poignant, funny, witty, etc.; it is, after all, your story.

Self-Published Ebook Awards

Announcing the 8th Annual Self-Published E-book Awards Winners

Congratulations to the winners of the 8th Annual Self-Published E-book Awards! Discover the titles that placed in the categories of contemporary fiction, fantasy, memoir, mystery, and more.

Greg Russo: On Writing a Film Based on a Video Game

Greg Russo: On Writing a Screenplay Based on a Video Game

Professional screenwriter Greg Russo discusses the joy and challenge of converting a popular video games series into a screenplay and the balance of enticing a new audience while honoring a franchise's fans.

April PAD Challenge

2021 April PAD Challenge: Day 16

Write a poem every day of April with the 2021 April Poem-A-Day Challenge. For today's prompt, write a city poem.

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Under the Influence

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Under the Influence

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, let a character fall under the influence of something or someone.


Suspended: Writer's Digest Personal Essay Awards Winner

Congratulations to J.E. Stamper, grand prize winner of the Writer's Digest Personal Essay Awards. Here's his winning essay, "Suspended."

Planting Clues: Red Herrings That Fool but Don't Frustrate Your Readers

Planting Clues: Red Herrings That Fool but Don't Frustrate Your Readers

Want to know how to keep your readers engaged and entertained with your mystery novel? Let these six tips from thriller author Kris Calvin guide you!

April PAD Challenge

2021 April PAD Challenge: Day 15

Write a poem every day of April with the 2021 April Poem-A-Day Challenge. For today's prompt, write a blank story poem.

Kristin Beck: On Writing Quickly and Publishing Slowly

Kristin Beck: On Writing Quickly and Publishing Slowly

Debut novelist Kristin Beck shares what it was like to write her historical fiction novel Courage, My Love and why she was so thankful for a slow publishing process.