Following the American Civil War Sesquicentennial with day by day writings of the time, currently 1863.

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A Diary From Dixie

September 7, 2013

A Diary From Dixie by Mary Boykin Miller Chesnut.

September 7th.—Major Edward Johnston did not get into the Confederacy until after the first battle of Manassas. For some cause, before he could evade that potentate, Seward rang his little bell and sent him to a prison in the harbor of New York. I forget whether he was exchanged or escaped of his own motion. The next thing I heard of my antebellum friend he had defeated Milroy in Western Virginia. There were so many Johnstons that for this victory they named him Alleghany Johnston.

He had an odd habit of falling into a state of incessant winking as soon as he became the least startled or agitated. In such times he seemed persistently to be winking one eye at you. He meant nothing by it, and in point of fact did not know himself that he was doing it. In Mexico he had been wounded in the eye, and the nerve vibrates independently of his will. During the winter of 1862 and 1863 he was on crutches. After a while he hobbled down Franklin Street with us, we proud to accommodate your pace to that of the wounded general. His ankle continued stiff; so when he sat down another chair had to be put before him. On this he stretched out his stiff leg, straight as a ramrod. At that time he was our only wounded knight, and the girls waited on him and made life pleasant for him.

One night I listened to two love-tales at once, in a distracted state of mind between the two. William Porcher Miles, in a perfectly modulated voice, in cadenced accents and low tones, was narrating the happy end of his affair. He had been engaged to sweet little Bettie Bierne, and I gave him my congratulations with all my heart. It was a capital match, suitable in every way, good for her, and good for him. I was deeply interested in Mr. Miles’s story, but there was din and discord on the other hand; old Edward, our pet general, sat diagonally across the room with one leg straight out like a poker, wrapped in red carpet leggings, as red as a turkey-cock in the face. His head is strangely shaped, like a cone or an old-fashioned beehive; or, as Buck said, there are three tiers of it; it is like a pope’s tiara.

There he sat, with a loud voice and a thousand winks, making love to Mary P. I make no excuse for listening. It was impossible not to hear him. I tried not to lose a word of Mr. Miles’s idyl as the despair of the veteran was thundered into my other ear. I lent an ear to each conversationalist. Mary can not altogether control her voice, and her shrill screams of negation, “No, no, never,” etc., utterly failed to suppress her wounded lover’s obstreperous asseverations of his undying affection for her.

Buck said afterward: ”We heard every word of it on our side of the room, even when Mamie shrieked to him that he was talking too loud. Now, Mamie,” said we afterward, “do you think it was kind to tell him he was forty if he was a day?”

Strange to say, the pet general, Edward, rehabilitated his love in a day; at least two days after he was heard to say that he was “paying attentions now to his cousin, John Preston’s second daughter; her name, Sally, but they called her Buck—Sally Buchanan Campbell Preston, a lovely girl.” And with her he now drove, rode, and hobbled on his crutches, sent her his photograph, and in due time cannonaded her, from the same spot where he had courted Mary, with proposals to marry him.

Buck was never so decided in her “Nos” as Mary. (“Not so loud, at least “—thus, in amendment, says Buck, who always reads what I have written, and makes comments of assent or dissent.) So again he began to thunder in a woman’s ears his tender passion. As they rode down Franklin Street, Buck says she knows the people on the sidewalk heard snatches of the conversation, though she rode as rapidly as she could, and she begged him not to talk so loud. Finally, they dashed up to our door as if they had been running a race. Unfortunate in love, but fortunate in war, our general is now winning new laurels with Ewell in the Valley or with the Army of the Potomac.

I think I have told how Miles, still “so gently o’er me leaning,” told of his successful love while General Edward Johnston roared unto anguish and disappointment over his failures. Mr. Miles spoke of sweet little Bettie Bierne as if she had been a French girl, just from a convent, kept far from the haunts of men wholly for him. One would think to hear him that Bettie had never cast those innocent blue eyes of hers on a man until he came along.

Now, since I first knew Miss Bierne in 1857, when Pat Calhoun was to the fore, she has been followed by a tale of men as long as a Highland chief’s. Every summer at the Springs, their father appeared in the ballroom a little before twelve and chased the three beautiful Biernes home before him in spite of all entreaties, and he was said to frown away their too numerous admirers at all hours of the day.

This new engagement was confided to me as a profound secret. Of course, I did not mention it, even to my own household. Next day little Alston, Morgan’s adjutant, and George Deas called. As Colonel Deas removed his gloves, he said: “Oh! the Miles and Bierne sensation—have you heard of it?” “No, what is the row about?” “They are engaged to be married; that’s all.” “Who told you?” “Miles himself, as we walked down Franklin Street, this afternoon.” “And did he not beg you not to mention it, as Bettie did not wish it spoken of?” “God bless my soul, so he did. And I forgot that part entirely.”

Colonel Alston begged the stout Carolinian not to take his inadvertent breach of faith too much to heart. Miss Bettie’s engagement had caused him a dreadful night. A young man, who was his intimate friend, came to his room in the depths of despair and handed him a letter from Miss Bierne, which was the cause of all his woe. Not knowing that she was already betrothed to Miles, he had proposed to her in an eloquent letter. In her reply, she positively stated that she was engaged to Mr. Miles, and instead of thanking her for putting him at once out of his misery, he considered the reason she gave as trebly aggravating the agony of the love-letter and the refusal. “Too late!” he yelled, “by Jingo!” So much for a secret.

Miss Bierne and I became fast friends. Our friendship was based on a mutual admiration for the honorable member from South Carolina. Colonel and Mrs. Myers and Colonel and Mrs. Chesnut were the only friends of Mr. Miles who were invited to the wedding. At the church door the sexton demanded our credentials. No one but those whose names he held in his hand were allowed to enter. Not twenty people were present—a mere handful grouped about the altar in that large church.

We were among the first to arrive. Then came a faint flutter and Mrs. Parkman (the bride’s sister, swathed in weeds for her young husband, who had been killed within a year of her marriage) came rapidly up the aisle alone. She dropped upon her knees in the front pew, and there remained, motionless, during the whole ceremony, a mass of black crape, and a dead weight on my heart. She has had experience of war. A cannonade around Richmond interrupted her marriage service—a sinister omen—and in a year thereafter her bridegroom was stiff and stark—dead upon the field of battle.

While the wedding-march turned our thoughts from her and thrilled us with sympathy, the bride advanced in white satin and point d’Alençon. Mrs. Myers whispered that it was Mrs. Parkman’s wedding-dress that the bride had on. She remembered the exquisite lace, and she shuddered with superstitious forebodings.

All had been going on delightfully in-doors, but a sharp shower cleared the church porch of the curious; and, as the water splashed, we wondered how we were to assemble ourselves at Mrs. McFarland’s. All the horses in Richmond had been impressed for some sudden cavalry necessity a few days before. I ran between Mr. McFarland and Senator Semmes with my pretty Paris rose-colored silk turned over my head to save it, and when we arrived at the hospitable mansion of the McFarlands, Mr. McFarland took me straight into the drawing-room, man-like, forgetting that my ruffled plumes needed a good smoothing and preening.

Mrs. Lee sent for me. She was staying at Mrs. Caskie’s. I was taken directly to her room, where she was lying on the bed. She said, before I had taken my seat: “You know there is a fight going on now at Brandy Station?”[1] “Yes, we are anxious. John Chesnut’s company is there, too.” She spoke sadly, but quietly. “My son, Roony, is wounded; his brother has gone for him. They will soon be here and we shall know all about it unless Roony’s wife takes him to her grandfather. Poor lame mother, I am useless to my children.” Mrs. Caskie said: “You need not be alarmed. The General said in his telegram that it was not a severe wound. You know even Yankees believe General Lee.”

That day, Mrs. Lee gave me a likeness of the General in a photograph taken soon after the Mexican War. She likes it so much better than the later ones. He certainly was a handsome man then, handsomer even than now. I shall prize it for Mrs. Lee’s sake, too. She said old Mrs. Chesnut and her aunt, Nellie Custis (Mrs. Lewis) were very intimate during Washington’s Administration in Philadelphia. I told her Mrs. Chesnut, senior, was the historical member of our family; she had so much to tell of Revolutionary times. She was one of the “white-robed choir ” of little maidens who scattered flowers before Washington at Trenton Bridge, which everybody who writes a life of Washington asks her to give an account of.

Mrs. Ould and Mrs. Davis came home with me. Lawrence had a basket of delicious cherries. “If there were only some ice,” said I. Respectfully Lawrence answered, and also firmly: “Give me money and you shall have ice.” By the underground telegraph he had heard of an ice-house over the river, though its fame was suppressed by certain Sybarites, as they wanted it all. In a wonderfully short time we had mint-juleps and sherry-cobblers.

Altogether it has been a pleasant day, and as I sat alone I was laughing lightly now and then at the memory of some funny story. Suddenly, a violent ring; and a regular sheaf of telegrams were handed me. I could not have drawn away in more consternation if the sheets had been a nest of rattlesnakes. First, Frank Hampton was killed at Brandy Station. Wade Hampton telegraphed Mr. Chesnut to see Robert Barnwell, and make the necessary arrangements to recover the body. Mr. Chesnut is still at Wilmington. I sent for Preston Johnston, and my neighbor, Colonel Patton, offered to see that everything proper was done. That afternoon I walked out alone. Willie Mountford had shown me where the body, all that was left of Frank Hampton, was to be laid in the Capitol. Mrs. Petticola joined me after a while, and then Mrs. Singleton.

Preston Hampton and Peter Trezevant, with myself and Mrs. Singleton, formed the sad procession which followed the coffin. There was a company of soldiers drawn up in front of the State House porch. Mrs. Singleton said we had better go in and look at him before the coffin was finally closed. How I wish I had not looked. I remember him so well in all the pride of his magnificent manhood. He died of a saber-cut across the face and head, and was utterly disfigured. Mrs. Singleton seemed convulsed with grief. In all my life I had never seen such bitter weeping. She had her own troubles, but I did not know of them. We sat for a long time on the great steps of the State House. Everybody had gone and we were alone.

We talked of it all—how we had gone to Charleston to see Rachel in Adrienne Lecouvreur, and how, as I stood waiting in the passage near the drawing-room, I had met Frank Hampton bringing his beautiful bride from the steamer. They had just landed. Afterward at Mrs. Singleton ‘s place in the country we had all spent a delightful week together. And now, only a few years have passed, but nearly all that pleasant company are dead, and our world, the only world we cared for, literally kicked to pieces. And she cried, ”We are two lone women, stranded here.” Rev. Robert Barnwell was in a desperate condition, and Mary Barnwell, her daughter, was expecting her confinement every day.

Here now, later, let me add that it was not until I got back to Carolina that I heard of Robert Barnwell’s death, with scarcely a day’s interval between it and that of Mary and her new-born baby. Husband, wife, and child were buried at the same time in the same grave in Columbia. And now, Mrs. Singleton has three orphan grandchildren. What a woful year it has been to her.

Robert Barnwell had insisted upon being sent to the hospital at Staunton. On account of his wife’s situation the doctor also had advised it. He was carried off on a mattress. His brave wife tried to prevent it, and said: “It is only fever.” And she nursed him to the last. She tried to say goodby cheerfully, and called after him: “As soon as my trouble is over I will come to you at Staunton.” At the hospital they said it was typhoid fever. He died the second day after he got there. Poor Mary fainted when she heard the ambulance drive away with him. Then she crept into a low trundle-bed kept for the children in her mother’s room.

She never left that bed again. When the message came from Staunton that fever was the matter with Robert and nothing more, Mrs. Singleton says she will never forget the expression in Mary’s eyes as she turned and looked at her. “Robert will get well,” she said, “it is all right.” Her face was radiant, blazing with light. That night the baby was born, and Mrs. Singleton got a telegram that Robert was dead. She did not tell Mary, standing, as she did, at the window while she read it. She was at the same time looking for Robert’s body, which might come any moment. As for Mary’s life being in danger, she had never thought of such a thing. She was thinking only of Robert. Then a servant touched her and said:”Look at Mrs. Barnwell.” She ran to the bedside, and the doctor, who had come in, said, “It is all over; she is dead.” Not in anger, not in wrath, came the angel of death that day. He came to set Mary free from a world grown too hard to bear.

During Stoneman’s raid[2] I burned some personal papers. Molly constantly said to me, “Missis, listen to de guns. Burn up everything. Mrs. Lyons says they are sure to come, and they’ll put in their newspapers, whatever you write here, every day.” The guns did sound very near, and when Mrs. Davis rode up and told me that if Mr. Davis left Richmond I must go with her, I confess I lost my head. So I burned a part of my journal but rewrote it afterward from memory—my implacable enemy that lets me forget none of the things I would. I am weak with dates. I do not always worry to look at the calendar and write them down. Besides I have not always a calendar at hand.

[1] The battle of Brandy Station, Va., occurred June 9, 1863.

[2] George S. Stoneman, a graduate of West Point, was now a Major-General, and Chief of Artillery in the Army of the Potomac. His raid toward Richmond in 1863 was a memorable incident of the war. After the war, he became Governor of California.

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