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THE CIVIL WAR: MARY CHESNUT 'STUMBLED IN ON THE REAL SHOW'

THE CIVIL WAR: MARY CHESNUT 'STUMBLED IN ON THE REAL SHOW'

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The American Civil War finally ended last night for millions who had watched PBS's five-night epic of America's bloodiest and most senseless war. The needless carnage was depicted in hundreds of photographs of mangled bodies on blood-soaked battlefields. The human anguish was described by voices of major and minor players in the North-South struggle.Mary Boykin Chesnut's, lilting and Southern, was among those haunting voices. Her life is worth a closer look, both because she was a woman far ahead of her time and because there would have been no Civil War if the firebrand South had listened to the prophetic Mary Chesnut.

Chesnut was the preeminent diarist of the Civil War, an on-the-scene spectator who explained her luck as follows: ``It was a way I had, always, to stumble in on the real show.' And what a horrendous show she witnessed between 1860 and 1865.

Chesnut was the wife of a U.S. senator from South Carolina who departed Washington after Lincoln's election to help establish the Confederacy in Montgomery; she was a spectator at the attack on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor; she was an intimate friend of President Jefferson Davis and his wife in Richmond; she was a refugee from Sherman's army as it scorched a path to the sea.

Yet Chesnut was more than a chronicler of what she called ``the real show.' She was a figure of heresy and paradox - a high-born Southerner who was also an outspoken abolitionist and feminist.

From the start Chesnut had grave misgivings about the war and predicted that slavery would collapse, regardless of which side won. When slavery was dissolved at war's end, she was exultant - even though her former life of wealth and comfort lay in broken ruins.

``God forgive us but ours is a monstrous system...,' she wrote of slavery in 1861.

Such heresy was not reserved for the intimacy of her diary. An intellectual and independent-minded woman, Chesnut expressed her disgust openly to her patrician, slave-holding friends.

Her Southern lineage and her marriage into one of South Carolina's most notable, land-holding families never curbed her tongue.

Chesnut also claimed in her diary that most white Southern women were, privately at least, abolitionists. The point is still hotly debated by historians. Yet James Team, an overseer at the Chesnut family plantation, agreed that Southern white women were ``abolitionists in their hearts, and hot ones too. Mrs. Chesnut is the worst. They have known that on her here for years.'

Feminism was another of Chesnut's passions. She often equated the bondage of blacks to the enslavement of women. Southern women were not permitted to own property or direct their affairs without their husbands' permission. The well-educated Chesnut, fluent in French and German and a voracious reader, bridled at this patriarchal system.

``There is no slave after all like a wife,' she wrote in 1861. ``All married women, all children and girls who live in their father's houses are slaves.'

The double standard of Southern men provoked her most intense anger. On the one hand they passed themselves off as ``models of husbands and fathers;' on the other hand they fathered children by helpless slave women. Her wealthy father-in-law, who had produced a brood of colored offspring, was a special target of her wrath.

It has often been asked how Mary Chesnut became a proponent of abolition and a defender of oppressed women. The details of her life, after all, were remarkably similar to those of other Southern women of the patrician class. Biographical facts are only partially revealing.

Born in 1823 into a wealthy South Carolina family, she was educated at a girl's school in Charleston and later moved to the frontier state of Mississippi where her father owned several plantations and hundreds of slaves. The journey to the frontier took four weeks and passed through Indian country. Once there, and with nothing else to do, she read books, including a chemistry textbook, ``over and over again.'

Upon her return to Charleston, she met and married the Princeton-educated James Chesnut, Jr., heir to Mulberry, near Camden, S.C., one of the wealthiest estates in the region. She loathed the place.

Mary always preferred the life and animation of Charleston, Washington, Richmond, Montgomery. As C. Vann Woodward notes in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Mary Chesnut's Civil War, the onset of illness or depression (she used opium for relief) often coincided with times spent at Mulberry.

Depressed by her inability to have children, Mary simply borrowed nieces and nephews who intermittently lived with the Chesnuts. Households in Richmond (where James was a high-ranking aide to Jefferson Davis), in Charleston and at Mulberry were always abustle with the comings and goings of family and visitors.

Still, the question remains: How did a woman who by today's standards was relatively isolated develop such radical ideas about the war, slavery and oppressed women. ``She overcame the provinciality by her reading,' explains Woodward. History, literature, political tracts - nothing escaped her unquenchable intellectual curiosity. As she fled Sherman's approaching army, she packed in her baggage the works of Shakespeare and Moliere, The Arabian Nights (in French) and the letters of Pascal.

Mary Chesnut did not live to see her famous Diary published - a diary that 20th century critic Edmund Wilson would call ``a work of art.' Indeed, she did not begin actually writing the published diary until the 1880s, nearly 20 years after the war when Mary was well over 50 years old. She had kept a diary during the war and, in the 1880s, edited and polished it for posterity.

The diary is a testament to a women who understood the Civil War era better than the Confederate generals and statesmen who waged it, who observed ``monstrous' slavery more closely than the Northern abolitionists who railed against it, who promoted the status of women long before 20th century feminists took up the cause.

As they say in French, her favorite foreign language, Chesnut was extraordinaire.

Rosemary Yardley is a News & Record editorial columnist.

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