Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Chesnut’s Civil War diary

Today, 3 June, is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America during the American Civil War. Although not a diarist himself, there is much about him in the diary of Mary Boykin Chesnut, whose husband served as the President’s aide.

Davis spent four years at the United States Military Academy, and then another seven in the army. However, in 1835, after falling in love with the daughter of his colonel, he resigned from the army, and then married the daughter. Unfortunately, she died soon after, and subsequently Davis became something of a recluse. The year 1845 saw him take an elected seat in the House of Representatives and marry a second time. The following year, though, he resigned the seat so as to fight in the Mexican-American War. In 1847, he was appointed to the senate, and served there, off and on, through the 1950s until the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 and the start of the civil war.

In 1861, Davis was elected as President of the eleven Confederate States of America, and served in that position until the Confederate government was dissolved in 1865. Thereafter, he spent two years in prison awaiting trial for treason, but the charges were eventually dropped. According to Wikipedia’s biography, Davis’s insistence on independence, even in the face of crushing defeat, prolonged the war.

Davis himself left many letters and speeches which are available through Rice University’s website The Papers of Jefferson Davis, and there are many biographies. However, Mary Boykin Chesnut gives first hand accounts of the man in A Diary from Dixie. Her husband was part of the Confederate’s provisional congress, but he was also an aide to Davis himself. During the war, Mary accompanied her husband setting up a home wherever he went, and this often served as a meeting place for the Confederate elite.

The full text of Chesnut’s diary is available online thanks to the University of North Carolina’s library which runs a website called Documenting the American South. Here are four extracts from the diary (about the President, ‘Jeff’ Davis).

25 February 1861 - ‘Everybody means to go into the army. If Sumter is attacked, then Jeff Davis’s troubles will begin. The Judge says a military despotism would be best for us - anything to prevent a triumph of the Yankees. All right, but every man objects to any despot but himself.’

29 June 1861 - ‘[We] drove in a fine open carriage to see the Champ de Mars. It was a grand tableau out there. Mr. Davis rode a beautiful gray horse, the Arab Edwin de Leon brought him from Egypt. His worst enemy will allow that he is a consummate rider, graceful and easy in the saddle, and Mr. Chesnut, who has talked horse with his father ever since he was born, owns that Mr. Davis knows more about horses than any man he has met yet.’

10 September 1863 - ‘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. . . 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 . . .’

18 January 1864 - ‘Our Congress is so demoralized, so confused, so depressed. They have asked the President, whom they have so hated, so insulted, so crossed and opposed and thwarted in every way, to speak to them, and advise them what to do.’

1 comment:

Adam said...

factual and entertaining