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 10, 2013

A Diary From Dixie by Mary Boykin Miller Chesnut.

Camden, S. C, September 10, 1863— It is a comfort to turn from small political jealousies to our grand battles—to Lee and Kirby Smith after Council and Convention squabbles. Lee has proved to be all that my husband prophesied of him when he was so unpopular and when Joe Johnston was the great god of war. The very sound of the word convention or council is wearisome. Not that I am quite ready for Richmond yet. We must look after home and plantation affairs, which we have sadly neglected. Heaven help my husband through the deep waters.

The wedding of Miss Aiken, daughter of Governor Aiken, the largest slave-owner in South Carolina; Julia Rutledge, one of the bridesmaids; the place Flat Rock. We could not for a while imagine what Julia would do for a dress. My sister Kate remembered some muslin she had in the house for curtains, bought before the war, and laid aside as not needed now. The stuff was white and thin, a little coarse, but then we covered it with no end of beautiful lace. It made a charming dress, and how altogether lovely Julia looked in it! The night of the wedding it stormed as if the world were coming to an end—wind, rain, thunder, and lightning in an unlimited supply around the mountain cottage.

The bride had a duchesse dressing-table, muslin and lace; not one of the shifts of honest, war-driven poverty, but a millionaire’s attempt at appearing economical, in the idea that that style was in better taste as placing the family more on the same plane with their less comfortable compatriots. A candle was left too near this light drapery and it took fire. Outside was lightning enough to fire the world; inside, the bridal chamber was ablaze, and there was wind enough to blow the house down the mountainside.

The English maid behaved heroically, and, with the aid of Mrs. Aiken’s and Mrs. Mat Singleton’s servants, put the fire out without disturbing the marriage ceremony, then being performed below. Everything in the bridal chamber was burned up except the bed, and that was a mass of cinders, soot, and flakes of charred and blackened wood.

At Kingsville I caught a glimpse of our army. Longstreet’s corps was going West. God bless the gallant fellows! Not one man was intoxicated; not one rude word did I hear. It was a strange sight—one part of it. There were miles, apparently, of platform cars, soldiers rolled in their blankets, lying in rows, heads all covered, fast asleep. In their gray blankets, packed in regular order, they looked like swathed mummies. One man near where I sat was writing on his knee. He used his cap for a desk and he was seated on a rail. I watched him, wondering to whom that letter was to go—home, no doubt. Sore hearts for him there.

A feeling of awful depression laid hold of me. All these fine fellows were going to kill or be killed. Why? And a phrase got to beating about my head like an old song,”The Unreturning Brave.” When a knot of boyish, laughing, young creatures passed me, a queer thrill of sympathy shook me. Ah, I know how your home-folks feel, poor children! Once, last winter, persons came to us in Camden with such strange stories of Captain ——, Morgan’s man; stories of his father, too; turf tales and murder, or, at least, how he killed people. He had been a tremendous favorite with my husband, who brought him in once, leading him by the hand. Afterward he said to me, “With these girls in the house we must be more cautious.” I agreed to be coldly polite to ——. “After all,” I said, “I barely know him.”

When he called afterward in Richmond I was very glad to see him, utterly forgetting that he was under a ban. We had a long, confidential talk. He told me of his wife and children; of his army career, and told Morgan stories. He grew more and more cordial and so did I. He thanked me for the kind reception given him in that house; told me I was a true friend of his, and related to me a scrape he was in which, if divulged, would ruin him, although he was innocent; but time would clear all things. He begged me not to repeat anything he had told me of his affairs, not even to Colonel Chesnut; which I promised promptly, and then he went away. I sat poking the fire thinking what a curiously interesting creature he was, this famous Captain ——, when the folding-doors slowly opened and Colonel Chesnut appeared. He had come home two hours ago from the War Office with a headache, and had been lying on the sofa behind that folding-door listening for mortal hours.

“So, this is your style of being ‘coldly polite,'” he said. Fancy my feelings. “Indeed, I had forgotten all about what they had said of him. The lies they told of him never once crossed my mind. He is a great deal cleverer, and, I dare say, just as good as those who malign him.”

Mattie Reedy (I knew her as a handsome girl in Washington several years ago) got tired of hearing Federals abusing John Morgan. One day they were worse than ever in their abuse and she grew restive. By way of putting a mark against the name of so rude a girl, the Yankee officer said, “What is your name?” “Write ‘ Mattie Reedy’ now, but by the grace of God one day I hope to call myself the wife of John Morgan.” She did not know Morgan, but Morgan eventually heard the story; a good joke it was said to be. But he made it a point to find her out; and, as she was as pretty as she was patriotic, by the grace of God, she is now Mrs. Morgan! These timid Southern women under the guns can be brave enough.

Aunt Charlotte has told a story of my dear mother. They were up at Shelby, Ala., a white man’s country, where negroes are not wanted. The ladies had with them several negroes belonging to my uncle at whose house they were staying in the owner’s absence. One negro man who had married and dwelt in a cabin was for some cause particularly obnoxious to the neighborhood. My aunt and my mother, old-fashioned ladies, shrinking from everything outside their own door, knew nothing of all this. They occupied rooms on opposite sides of an open passage-way. Underneath, the house was open and unfinished. Suddenly, one night, my aunt heard a terrible noise—apparently as of a man running for his life, pursued by men and dogs, shouting, hallooing, barking. She had only time to lock herself in. Utterly cut off from her sister, she sat down, dumb with terror, when there began loud knocking at the door, with men swearing, dogs tearing round, sniffing, racing in and out of the passage and barking underneath the house like mad. Aunt Charlotte was sure she heard the panting of a negro as he ran into the house a few minutes before. What could have become of him? Where could he have hidden? The men shook the doors and windows, loudly threatening vengeance. My aunt pitied her feeble sister, cut off in the room across the passage. This fright might kill her!

The cursing and shouting continued unabated. A man’s voice, in harshest accents, made itself heard above all: “Leave my house, you rascals!” said the voice, “If you are not gone in two seconds, I’ll shoot!” There was a dead silence except for the noise of the dogs. Quickly the men slipped away. Once out of gunshot, they began to call their dogs. After it was all over my aunt crept across the passage. “Sister, what man was, it scared them away?” My mother laughed aloud in her triumph. “I am the man,” she said.

“But where is John?” Out crept John from a corner of the room, where my mother had thrown some rubbish over him. “Lawd bless you, Miss Mary opened de do’ for me and dey was right behind runnin’ me—” Aunt says mother was awfully proud of her prowess. And she showed some moral courage, too!

At the President’s in Richmond once, General Lee was there, and Constance and Hetty Cary came in; also Miss Sanders and others. Constance Cary[1] was telling some war anecdotes, among them one of an attempt to get up a supper the night before at some high and mighty F. F. V.’s house, and of how several gentlefolks went into the kitchen to prepare something to eat by the light of one forlorn candle. One of the men in the party, not being of a useful temperament, turned up a tub and sat down upon it. Custis Lee, wishing also to rest, found nothing upon which to sit but a gridiron.

One remembrance I kept of the evening at the President’s: General Lee bowing over the beautiful Miss Cary’s hands in the passage outside. Miss rose to have her part in the picture, and asked Mr. Davis to walk with her into the adjoining drawing-room. He seemed surprised, but rose stiffly, and, with a scowling brow, was led off. As they passed where Mrs. Davis sat, Miss , with all sail set, looked back and said: “Don’t be jealous, Mrs. Davis; I have an important communication to make to the President.” Mrs. Davis’s amusement resulted in a significant “Now! Did you ever?”

During Stoneman’s raid, on a Sunday I was in Mrs. Randolph’s pew. The battle of Chancellorsville was also raging. The rattling of ammunition wagons, the tramp of soldiers, the everlasting slamming of those iron gates of the Capitol Square just opposite the church, made it hard to attend to the service.

Then began a scene calculated to make the stoutest heart quail. The sexton would walk quietly up the aisle to deliver messages to worshipers whose relatives had been brought in wounded, dying, or dead. Pale-faced people would then follow him out. Finally, the Rev. Mr. Minnegerode bent across the chancel-rail to the sexton for a few minutes, whispered with the sexton, and then disappeared. The assistant clergyman resumed the communion which Mr. Minnegerode had been administering. At the church door stood Mrs. Minnegerode, as tragically wretched and as wild-looking as ever Mrs. Siddons was. She managed to say to her husband, “Your son is at the station, dead!” When these agonized parents reached the station, however, it proved to be some one else’s son who was dead—but a son all the same. Pale and wan came Mr. Minnegerode back to his place within the altar rails. After the sacred communion was over, some one asked him what it all meant, and he said: “Oh, it was not my son who was killed, but it came so near it aches me yet!”

At home I found L. Q. Washington, who stayed to dinner. I saw that he and my husband were intently preoccupied by some event which they did not see fit to communicate to me. Immediately after dinner my husband lent Mr. Washington one of his horses and they rode off together. I betook myself to my kind neighbors, the Pattons, for information. There I found Colonel Patton had gone, too. Mrs. Patton, however, knew all about the trouble. She said there was a raiding party within forty miles of us and no troops were in Richmond! They asked me to stay to tea—those kind ladies—and in some way we might learn what was going on. After tea we went out to the Capitol Square, Lawrence and three men-servants going along to protect us. They seemed to be mustering in citizens by the thousands. Company after company was being formed; then battalions, and then regiments. It was a wonderful sight to us, peering through the iron railing, watching them fall into ranks.

Then we went to the President’s, finding the family at supper. We sat on the white marble steps, and General Elzey told me exactly how things stood and of our immediate danger. Pickets were coming in. Men were spurring to and from the door as fast as they could ride, bringing and carrying messages and orders. Calmly General Elzey discoursed upon our present weakness and our chances for aid. After a while Mrs. Davis came out and embraced me silently.

“It is dreadful,” I said. “The enemy is within forty miles of us—only forty!” “Who told you that tale?” said she. “They are within three miles of Richmond!” I went down on my knees like a stone. ”You had better be quiet,” she said. “The President is ill. Women and children must not add to the trouble.” She asked me to stay all night, which I was thankful to do.

We sat up. Officers were coming and going; and we gave them what refreshment we could from a side table, kept constantly replenished. Finally, in the excitement, the constant state of activity and change of persons, we forgot the danger. Officers told us jolly stories and seemed in fine spirits, so we gradually took heart. There was not a moment’s rest for any one. Mrs. Davis said something more amusing than ever: ”We look like frightened women and children, don’t we?”

Early next morning the President came down. He was still feeble and pale from illness. Custis Lee and my husband loaded their pistols, and the President drove off in Dr. Garnett’s carriage, my husband and Custis Lee on horseback alongside him. By eight o’clock the troops from Petersburg came in, and the danger was over. The authorities will never strip Richmond of troops again. We had a narrow squeeze for it, but we escaped. It was a terrible night, although we made the best of it.

I was walking on Franklin Street when I met my husband. “Come with me to the War Office for a few minutes,” said he, “and then I will go home with you.” What could I do but go? He took me up a dark stairway, and then down a long, dark corridor, and he left me sitting in a window, saying he “would not be gone a second “; he was obliged to go into the Secretary of War’s room. There I sat mortal hours. Men came to light the gas. From the first I put down my veil so that nobody might know me. Numbers of persons passed that I knew, but I scarcely felt respectable seated up there in that odd way, so I said not a word but looked out of the window. Judge Campbell slowly walked up and down with his hands behind his back—the saddest face I ever saw. He had jumped down in his patriotism from Judge of the Supreme Court, U. S. A., to be under-secretary of something or other—I do not know what—C. S. A. No wonder he was out of spirits that night!

Finally Judge Ould came; him I called, and he joined me at once, in no little amazement to find me there, and stayed with me until James Chesnut appeared. In point of fact, I sent him to look up that stray member of my family.

When my husband came he said: “Oh, Mr. Seddon and I got into an argument, and time slipped away! The truth is, I utterly forgot you were here.” When we were once more out in the street, he began: “Now, don’t scold me, for there is bad news. Pemberton has been fighting the Yankees by brigades, and he has been beaten every time; and now Vicksburg must go!” I suppose that was his side of the argument with Seddon.

Once again I visited the War Office. I went with Mrs. Ould to see her husband at his office. We wanted to arrange a party on the river on the flag-of-truce boat, and to visit those beautiful places, Claremont and Brandon. My husband got into one of his “too careful “fits; said there was risk in it; and so he upset all our plans. Then I was to go up to John Rutherford’s by the canal-boat. That, too, he vetoed “too risky,” as if anybody was going to trouble us!

[1] Miss Constance Cary afterward married Burton Harrison and settled in New York where she became prominent socially and achieved reputation as a novelist.

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