Mary Boykin Chesnut’s published diary of her Civil War experiences, crafted from her wartime journals and her memories, is one of the most critically acclaimed literary works to emerge from the Civil War era. Edmund Wilson, the celebrated twentieth-century American literary critic, declared the diary “an extraordinary document—in its informal department, a masterpiece. ” Wilson also observed that the diary is “much more imaginative and revealing than most of the fiction inspired by the [Civil] war” (Wilson 1962, ix, 279).
First published in 1905, nearly 19 years after her death, Boykin Chesnut’s diary has proven invaluable to historians because it is one of the most comprehensive, perceptive records portraying the people and the events that dominated the leadership of the Confederacy and the world of the South’s ruling class from 1861 to 1865. As historian C. Vann Woodward explains in the introduction to his Pulitzer Prize-winning edition of the diary, Mary Chesnut’s Civil War, the significance of Boykin Chesnut’s achievement transcends its usefulness to historians. Woodward states that “the enduring value of the work…lies in the life and reality with which it endows people and events and with which it evokes the chaos and complexity of a society at war…. She brings to life the historic crisis of her age” (Chesnut 1981, xxvii).
The published versions of Boykin Chesnut’s diary are not the same document as the journals that she produced during the Civil War, prompting some critics to doubt the published diary’s accuracy and authenticity. She revised and restructured her Civil War journals from 1881 to 1884, 20 years after she wrote them. In the years immediately following the war, she was determined to re-create her war experiences and observations in a literary format, and she experimented with writing in several genres. By 1881, she had focused on the literary form that enabled her to convey the immediacy and impact of her experiences while allowing her to sustain a role as both witness and commentator. Woodward, who is also co-editor of the published volume of her war journals, asserts that she thoroughly maintained the integrity of the original war journals when she produced the diary.
Mary Boykin Miller was born in Statesburg, South Carolina, the daughter of Mary Boykin, a member of South Carolina’s planter aristocracy, and Stephen Decatur Miller, a