Noted Civil War diarist’s photos reunited with journals

Portrait of Mary Boykin Chestnut. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Portrait of Mary Boykin Chestnut. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) – Nearly 200 photographs that famed Civil War diarist Mary Boykin Chestnut collected to illustrate her epic account of that conflict have been reunited with her original journals, 125 years after her death.

Chestnut’s descendants have given the photos to the University of South Carolina, where several dozen will be on public display through Jan. 31 in the school’s South Caroliniana Library. Chestnut’s seven original journals and dozens of her later edits have been at the university since the early 1960s.

Chestnut’s daily accounts, which she expanded in later edits to create an autobiographical tone, have long been a historical source as one of the better depictions of the South in the Civil War. The best edited and well-known version, published in 1981, is widely considered the finest literary work of the Confederacy.

“The albums are basically the eyes, the faces, the hands of those who figure in the diary,” Henry Fulmer, the library’s curator of manuscripts, said Thursday.

The images—small photographs on card stock called “cartes de visite” swapped in that era—include images of President Abraham Lincoln, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, newspaper editor Horace Greeley, and European leaders from whom Southern leaders sought support, including Pope Pius IX. They also put a face to lesser-known family and friends mentioned in her diary.

“They absolutely confirm and illustrate her panoramic view of the Civil War as a great epic tragedy,” said her great-great grand-niece Marty Daniels, 67, who is among 12 in her generation responsible for the upkeep of the family’s historic Mulberry Plantation near Camden.

“She was writing not just of the Confederates but the whole world stage,” Daniels noted.

The family donated Chestnut’s three albums to the university in September, nearly four years after winning at auction those albums once considered lost to history. Family members and scholars knew they existed. But the albums that Chestnut referenced in her journals disappeared in 1931, after the niece who inherited them died.

They resurfaced in November 2007 on eBay.

“Of course, where else would they be in this day and age?” Daniels asked, laughing.

She credits a Civil War collector who recognized their worth for saving the albums from an owner who had begun taking them apart and selling the photos separately. Alerted to the eBay notice about a live auction in Nashville, the family pooled their resources. Daniels said even her elementary school grandchildren wanted to contribute, and the family urged libraries and museums across South Carolina not to bid against them.

“We were very afraid we wouldn’t be able to afford them,” Daniels said. In making the request, the family promised “we’d do the right thing and get them to the people of South Carolina and reunite them with her diaries, but we also dearly wanted to see the photographs of our ancestors.”

Purchased for “less than six figures,” the albums were delivered to Daniels’ mother at Mulberry Plantation just before Christmas 2007. Martha Williams Daniels, the great-granddaughter of Chestnut’s sister, has since died.

The family has spent the past several years putting together an illustrated edition of Chestnut’s diary, published last month as a two-volume set titled Mary Chesnut’s Illustrated Diary: Mulberry Edition.

It may look very much as Chestnut intended for the daily diary she began keeping in February 1861, two months before the first shots of the Civil War were fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor.

An opponent of slavery, who lamented women’s subordinate roles, Chestnut had a front-row view on history. The daughter of a former South Carolina governor and U.S. senator, she accompanied her husband to Washington in 1858 when he became a U.S. senator. They returned to South Carolina after Lincoln’s election, and James Chestnut—who helped negotiate the surrender of Fort Sumter—became an aide to Confederate President Jefferson Davis and one of his top generals, P.G.T. Beauregard.

“Scholars can now fully grasp that she intended this to be an epic work of words and pictures,” Fulmer said.

Fulmer noted that Chestnut meticulously labeled each photo in the albums. Of the 200 or so originally in the albums, 186 were still intact. The library is trying to replace the missing photos, based on the captions that identify them.

Chestnut, who had no children, began editing her diaries in the 1870s and 1880s with obvious literary intent, Fulmer said. While she inquired about publishing the diary in her lifetime, it was deemed too soon after the Civil War. After she died in 1886 at age 63, a Columbia schoolteacher, at her request, began compiling the manuscript, which appeared in segments in the Saturday Evening Post before being published for the first time in 1905, though still not in its entirety, as A Diary From Dixie, he said.

“By the time 20 more years had elapsed, it was an immediate hit,” he said.

A fictionalized version of her diary came out in 1949.

Decades later, the best-known edition of her diary, edited by the late Yale scholar of Southern history C. Vann Woodward, the 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning Mary Chestnut’s Civil War catapulted Chestnut’s fame and earned her respect as a great literary writer of her time. Excerpts from the diary were used prominently in Ken Burns’ documentary film The Civil War.

Chestnut’s biography, Mary Boykin Chestnut: A Biography, was also published in 1981. It was written by Elisabeth Muhlenfeld, who assisted Woodward in his research as a University of South Carolina graduate student and later became president of Sweet Briar College in Virginia.

Chestnut’s original journals, before her own edits, were published as The Private Mary Chesnut: The Unpublished Civil War Diaries, in 1985. And two of Chestnut’s manuscript novels were published in 2002 for the first time.

Daniels implores all families to salvage and preserve their history.

“There are attics and trunks of letters all over South Carolina, parts and pieces of our collective story,” she said. “We’re just the custodians of a few threads. It’s our challenge to pass it on.”

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