A Diary From Dixie, by Mary Chesnut
This is an interesting diary. Like many Civil War diaries, it was revised during the postwar period, and there is a moment towards the end of the diary when the author thinks about how her insights about famous men like Johnson and Davis and Lee are mocked at and accused of being foolish and that she had to be convinced not to burn it all in shame. That, to me, is the most notable aspect of this book and the most poignant moment in it. As a Civil War primary source, the diary is an immensely worthwhile one which has justly been celebrated for decades, and as the perspective of a relatively enlightened and elite Southerner, it provides the reader with a chance to feel sympathetic about someone one might not tend to be sympathetic towards. As a reader I found the author’s elite status a bit irksome sometimes as she tended to be somewhat narrowly focused on the squabbles among the elites of the South, but that insight as to the petty hatred and arguments that divided Southern leaders helps explain why it is that the South did so poorly when compared with a great many other movements. The author herself wonders why the generation of 1860 could not achieve freedom for the South.
This book is about 400 pages long and it is divided into twenty-one chapters that extend from November 1860-August 1865. The book begins with a discussion of Charleston as it votes to secede from the Union (1), moves on to the debates over the leadership of the Confederacy in Montgomery (2), then back to Charleston in time for the struggle over Ft. Sumter (3). After that the author spends a bit of time in Camden (4) before returning to Montgomery on her husband’s political business (5) and then waiting for battle news from back in Charleston (6). The author spends some time in Richmond (7) as well as Fauquier White Sulphur Springs (8) before returning to Richmond (9) and then Camden (10). There is a bit of a break in the diary before she writes from Columbia in early 1862 (11), Flat Rock from summer vacation (12), after which there is a long break for almost a year in the diary. When the diary picks up in mid-1863, the author is in Alabama (13), Richmond (14), and then Camden again (15). The author spends more time in Richmond at the beginning of 1864 (16), then back to Camden (17) after the death of Davis’ son, and then faces the horrors of Sherman’s invasion while in Columbia (18) and then in Lincolnton (19) before facing life without money in Chester (20) and back home after the defeat of the Confederacy (21).
One of the privileges of elite status in any age is the fact that unlike a great many people who write about their experiences, the author had some idea of what was going on and was able to get to know people and chat with them as they were chosen for various offices or promoted in rank or given thankless and impossible tasks. The author is obviously well-educated and it is only towards the end of the book when her family’s wealth is decreasing and the Confederate dollar becomes worthless and she herself becomes old and somewhat threadbare that she becomes a subject of pity. In many ways the contemporary reader may find her to be a subject of sympathy but also a subject of contempt, seeing as for all of her claims that she and her husband were enlightened slaveowners, they were still part of a corrupt slaveowning class whose tyrannical rule over the United States and over their own human property ended up in a predictable if lamentable disaster. At no point in this book does one get the feeling that anyone in power in the South was willing to free their slaves and rejoin the Union voluntarily, which is what would have been required for peace apart from the disaster that ended up taking place.