Duplicate Mary Chesnut - Before & After the War


Sergeant Major
Aug 6, 2016

Mary Boykin Miller Chesnut
(Public Domain)

Before the War

She was the eldest daughter born to Stephen Decatur Miller (1787–1838) and his second wife Mary Whitaker Boykin (1804-1885). Born on March 32, 1823 she entered the world on the plantation of her maternal grandparents’ “Mount Pleasant” located near Stateburg, South Carolina. Named after her mother Mary, young Mary entered into a well established Southern family. Before she was born Mary’s father served in the United States House from 1817-1819. He served as the 52nd Governor of South Carolina (1828-1830) and when Mary was seven years old her father was campaigning, to serve as the Senator from South Carolina. During his campaign he famously made the following statement:

“There are three and only three ways to reform our Congressional legislation, familiarly called, the ballot box, the jury box and the cartridge box”. {1}

On March 2, 1833 he left Washington and the Senate due to ill health and moved his family to Mississippi to become a farmer. Five years later he died on March 8, 1838 leaving behind his wife and three daughters with a mountain of debt.

Mary Miller grew up in a “charmed” Southern life. When her family moved to Mississippi she stayed behind to attend Madame Talvande’s French School for Young Ladies in Charleston. The school was well-known as a place of education for the daughters of the elite families in South Carolina. The ladies received lessons in French, music and dancing as well as instructions in rhetoric and the sciences, as well as learning the proper behavior expected of young Southern ladies. For Mary it was a time of friendship and one of her closest friends was the niece of a young recent Princeton graduate James Chesnut, Jr.

The Princeton “Confederate” Connection


Cover of Harper’s December 22, 1860
Headline "The Seceding South Carolina Delegation”
James Chesnut, Jr. (middle row - left)

(Public Domain)

There were six hundred Princeton alumni that served in the Civil War with more than half of them fighting and or loyal to the Confederate States. James Chesnut, Jr class of 1835 was one of four graduates that drafted and signed the state’s Ordinance of Succession. {4}

James Jr. (1815-1885) was the son of James Chesnut (1775–1866) one of the wealthiest planters in South Carolina. His father’s plantation was spread over nearly five square miles and required 448 slaves. It was while James was studying law in Charleston that he became enamored with Mary Boykin Miller. When Mary’s father heard of this relationship he removed her from the school in the fall of 1836 and she joined the rest of her family in Mississippi. James did not give up on his young lady. He continued to send books and presents and after her father’s death in 1838 when she returned to South Carolina in March of 1839, James had convinced Mary to marry him. The wedding was delayed for one year when John Chesnut his eldest brother was sick and together they left for Europe to find a doctor they thought could help him. Unfortunately they returned home and John died on December 19, 1839 at thirty nine years of age. This left James Jr., the heir apparent to his father’s vast wealth.

On April 23, 1840 he married Mary Boykin Miller. She was just seventeen and Mary lived at the Chesnut plantation with her in-laws, Mulberry and its 12,000 acres as well as -

“a grist and lumber mills, stables, barns, forges, a wheelwright shop, cotton gin, smokehouse, dairy, ice house, and a number of other small ancillary buildings associated with a working plantation. A large, two-story, brick building, which housed the kitchen and quarters for house servants, was located to the rear of the main house.

There was also a Methodist Chapel, where both blacks and whites worshiped.”

During the years between 1840-1859 James grew and prospered his father’s plantation. Additionally he served as a representative in the South Carolina House from 1840-1845 and again in 1850-1851; was a trustee of South Carolina College 1853-1858; and on December 3, 1858 he was elected to the United States Senate. It was while he was serving in this position his views on slavery radicalized and to demonstrate this new belief in 1860 he was the first Southern senator to resign his senate seat on November 10, 1860 over the election of President Lincoln held November 6, 1860.

Mary was not happy living at Mulberry. Her in-laws were domineering and childless Mary suffered from bouts of depression and ill health. She saw first hand how slave masters took liberties with their female slaves in the own actions of her father-in-law. In 1848 they moved into their own home in Camden but it wasn’t until her husband’s move to Washington did she begin to enjoy her life and position in society. Her early education was an asset as she mingled with the political elite and the couple were close friends to Jefferson and Varina Davis.

Due to the service of James Jr. during the civil war in the Confederacy their plantation was a target during Sherman’s march through South Carolina as it was ravaged forcing Mary, her husband was serving as a Brigade General in the Confederate Army, to find refuge first in North Carolina and then in Chester, South Carolina.

After the War

It's Spring of 1865 and the James and Mary are broke. On their journey back to their home, they had no money to pay the fee for the ferryman at Chesnut’s Ferry. When they saw Mulberry they discovered the plantation was still standing but the house had been ransacked and badly damaged by the Union Army - the interior was left in shambles. James Chesnut Sr. had invested in worthless Confederate bonds and lost his entire fortune.

James Chesnut Sr. died in February 17, 1866 at which time James Jr. inherited his father’s property. Unfortunately for the Chesnut’s they also inherited huge debts. They grew closer as a couple but had trouble forging forward financially. James tried to get the plantation profitable but it was not an easy task. For a time Mary ran a butter-and-egg business and managed to bring in an annual income of $140, certainly not nearly enough compared to their pre-war income. During this period Mary would once again fall in periods of depression and physical illness. She grew close to Varina Davis and shared many correspondence with her.

James applied for a pardon in 1865 but it was not given until 1878. In the meantime he eventually went back to the profession he had studied initially, law and by 1872 the Chesnut’s began building a new home. Building materials were expensive and hard to find so James had buildings on the plantation that were salvageable reused in their new home. The bricks from the separate kitchen building were used in their new home they named “Sarsfield”. Their home featured a library designed by Mary that featured a bay window overlooking the grounds. It was the room that Mary did her writing. In the 1870 after moving to her new home, Mary experimented in writing fiction. Between the years 1872 and 1876 she wrote two novels one titled “Two Years of My Life” detailing her life in Mississippi and her second novel “The Captain and the Colonel”. She smartly decided that her diary and experience during the war years was a much more interesting story so she abandoned her writing and worked on her diary.

On February 1, 1885 James died and left the plantation to his nephew David R Williams II, the son of his sister Esther Chesnut Williams. David had spent much of his youth at Mulberry and during the war he served in the Confederate Army using his skill in drawing in the topographical department. On December 22, 1846 he married a young lady by the name of Katherine Boykin Miller who was Mary’s sister. Therefore David Williams inherited the family lands his six children carried both Chesnut and Miller blood.

James and Mary’s relationship was strained at times but had grown over the years into one of deep mutual love and understanding. Mary fell into a deep depression after her husband’s death and fell ill. On November 22, 1886 she suffered a massive heart attack and died. She was sixty-three at the time of her death some twenty years after the civil war. Her legacy is the diary she kept when she had a “front row seat” in the Confederacy watching the worst struggle in American history.


(Public Domain)

“We are scattered, stunned;
the remnant of heart left alive
is filled with brotherly hate.

Whose fault?
Everybody blamed somebody else.
Only the dead heroes left stiff
and stark on the battlefield escape.”

Mary Chesnut

1. https://www.geni.com/people/Governor-Stephen-Miller/6000000006822096247
2. https://www.scencyclopedia.org/sce/entries/miller-stephen-decatur/
3. https://www.scencyclopedia.org/sce/...me-rose-and-madame-ann-marsan-mason-talvande/
. http://www.nationalregister.sc.gov/kershaw/S10817728009/S10817728009.pdf
6. https://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2018/08/06/sarcastic-civil-war-diarist-chronicled-confederacys-fall/ideas/essay/
7. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/8574/mary-boykin-chesnut