Mary Chesnut’s diary of the Civil War years in South Carolina is one of our best glimpses into life on the homefront in the Confederacy. This excerpt is from the earliest days of the Civil War.
Diary of Mary Chesnut
Crisis at Fort Sumter
April 12th. – Anderson [the commanding officer of Fort Sumter] will not capitulate. Yesterday’s was the merriest, maddest dinner we have had yet. Men were audaciously wise and witty. We had an unspoken foreboding that it was to be our last pleasant meeting. Mr. Miles dined with us to-day. Mrs. Henry King rushed in saying, “The news, I come for the latest news. All the men of the King family are on the Island,” of which fact she seemed proud.
While she was here our peace negotiator, or envoy, came in – that is, Mr. Chesnut returned. His interview with Colonel Anderson had been deeply interesting, but Mr. Chesnut was not inclined to be communicative. He wanted his dinner. He felt for Anderson and had telegraphed to President Davis for instructions – what answer to give Anderson, etc. He has now gone back to Fort Sumter with additional instructions. When they were about to leave the wharf A. H. Boykin sprang into the boat in great excitement. He thought himself ill-used, with a likelihood of fighting and he to be left behind!
I do not pretend to go to sleep. How can I? If Anderson does not accept terms at four, the orders are, he shall be fired upon. I count four, St. Michael’s bells chime out and I begin to hope. At half-past four the heavy booming of a cannon. I sprang out of bed, and on my knees prostrate I prayed as I never prayed before.
There was a sound of stir all over the house, pattering of feet in the corridors. All seemed hurrying one way. I put on my double-gown and a shawl and went, too. It was to the housetop. The shells were bursting. In the dark I heard a man say, “Waste of ammunition.” I knew my husband was rowing about in a boat somewhere in that dark bay, and that the shells were roofing it over, bursting toward the fort. If Anderson was obstinate, Colonel Chesnut was to order the fort on one side to open fire. Certainly fire had begun. The regular roar of the cannon, there it was. And who could tell what each volley accomplished of death and destruction?
The women were wild there on the housetop. Prayers came from the women and imprecations from the men. And then a shell would light up the scene. To-night they say the forces are to attempt to land. We watched up there, and everybody wondered that Fort Sumter did not fire a shot.
To-day Miles and Manning, colonels now, aides to Beauregard, dined with us. The latter hoped I would keep the peace. I gave him only good words, for he was to be under fire all day and night, down in the bay carrying orders, etc.
Last night, or this morning truly, up on the housetop I was so weak and weary I sat down on something that looked like a black stool. “Get up, you foolish woman. Your dress is on fire,” cried a man. And he put me out. I was on a chimney and the sparks had caught my clothes. Susan Preston and Mr. Venable then came up. But my fire had been extinguished before it burst out into a regular blaze.
Do you know, after all that noise and our tears and prayers, nobody has been hurt; sound and fury signifying nothing – a delusion and a snare.
Louisa Hamilton came here now. This is a sort of news center. Jack Hamilton, her handsome young husband, has all the credit of a famous battery, which is made of railroad iron. Mr. Petigru calls it the boomerang, because it throws the balls back the way they came; so Lou Hamilton tells us. During her first marriage, she had no children; hence the value of this lately achieved baby. To divert Louisa from the glories of “the Battery,” of which she raves, we asked if the baby could talk yet. “No, not exactly, but he imitates the big gun when he hears that. He claps his hands and cries ‘Boom, boom.’ ” Her mind is distinctly occupied by three things: Lieutenant Hamilton, whom she calls “Randolph,” the baby, and the big gun, and it refuses to hold more.
Pryor, of Virginia, spoke from the piazza of the Charleston hotel. I asked what he said. An irreverent woman replied: “Oh, they all say the same thing, but he made great play with that long hair of his, which he is always tossing aside!”
Somebody came in just now and reported Colonel Chesnut asleep on the sofa in General Beauregard’s room. After two such nights he must be so tired as to be able to sleep anywhere.
Just bade farewell to Langdon Cheves. He is forced to go home and leave this interesting place. Says he feels like the man that was not killed at Thermopylae. I think he said that unfortunate had to hang himself when he got home for very shame. Maybe he fell on his sword, which was the strictly classic way of ending matters.
I do not wonder at Louisa Hamilton’s baby; we hear nothing, can listen to nothing; boom, boom goes the cannon all the time. The nervous strain is awful, alone in this darkened room. “Richmond and Washington ablaze,” say the papers – blazing with excitement. Why not? To us these last days’ events seem frightfully great. We were all women on that iron balcony. Men are only seen at a distance now. Stark Means, marching under the piazza at the head of his regiment, held his cap in his hand all the time he was in sight. Mrs. Means was leaning over and looking with tearful eyes, when an unknown creature asked, “Why did he take his hat off?” Mrs. Means stood straight up and said: “He did that in honor of his mother; he saw me.” She is a proud mother, and at the same time most unhappy. Her lovely daughter Emma is dying in there, before her eyes, of consumption. At that moment I am sure Mrs. Means had a spasm of the heart; at least, she looked as I feel sometimes. She took my arm and we came in.
April 13th. – Nobody has been hurt after all. How gay we were last night. Reaction after the dread of all the slaughter we thought those dreadful cannon were making. Not even a battery the worse for wear. Fort Sumter has been on fire. Anderson has not yet silenced any of our guns. So the aides, still with swords and red sashes by way of uniform, tell us. But the sound of those guns makes regular meals impossible. None of us go to table. Tea-trays pervade the corridors going everywhere. Some of the anxious hearts lie on their beds and moan in solitary misery. Mrs. Wigfall and I solace ourselves with tea in my room. These women have all a satisfying faith. “God is on our side,” they say. When we are shut in Mrs. Wigfall and I ask “Why?” “Of course, He hates the Yankees, we are told. You’ll think that well of Him.”
Not by one word or look can we detect any change in the demeanor of these negro servants. Lawrence sits at our door, sleepy and respectful, and profoundly indifferent. So are they all, but they carry it too far. You could not tell that they even heard the awful roar going on in the bay, though it has been dinning in their ears night and day. People talk before them as if they were chairs and tables. They make no sign. Are they stolidly stupid? or wiser than we are; silent and strong, biding their time?
So tea and toast came; also came Colonel Manning, red sash and sword, to announce that he had been under fire, and didn’t mind it. He said gaily: “It is one of those things a fellow never knows how he will come out until he has been tried. Now I know I am a worthy descendant of my old Irish hero of an ancestor, who held the British officer before him as a shield in the Revolution, and backed out of danger gracefully.” We talked of St. Valentine’s eve, or the maid of Perth, and the drop of the white doe’s blood that sometimes spoiled all.
The war-steamers are still there, outside the bar. And there are people who thought the Charleston bar “no good” to Charleston. The bar is the silent partner, or sleeping partner, and in this fray it is doing us yeoman service.
April 15th. – I did not know that one could live such days of excitement. Some one called: “Come out! There is a crowd coming.” A mob it was, indeed, but it was headed by Colonels Chesnut and Manning. The crowd was shouting and showing these two as messengers of good news. They were escorted to Beauregard’s headquarters. Fort Sumter had surrendered! Those upon the housetops shouted to us “The fort is on fire.” That had been the story once or twice before.
When we had calmed down, Colonel Chesnut, who had taken it all quietly enough, if anything more unruffled than usual in his serenity, told us how the surrender came about. Wigfall was with them on Morris Island when they saw the fire in the fort; he jumped in a little boat, and with his handkerchief as a white flag, rowed over. Wigfall went in through a porthole. When Colonel Chesnut arrived shortly after, and was received at the regular entrance, Colonel Anderson told him he had need to pick his way warily, for the place was all mined. As far as I can make out the fort surrendered to Wigfall. But it is all confusion. Our flag is flying there. Fire-engines have been sent for to put out the fire. Everybody tells you half of something and then rushes off to tell something else or to hear the last news.
In the afternoon, Mrs. Preston, Mrs. Joe Heyward, and I drove around the Battery. We were in an open carriage.
What a changed scene – the very liveliest crowd I think I ever saw, everybody talking at once. All glasses were still turned on the grim old fort.
Russell,the correspondent of the London Times, was there. They took him everywhere. One man got out Thackeray to converse with him on equal terms. Poor Russell was awfully bored, they say. He only wanted to see the fort and to get news suitable to make up into an interesting article. Thackeray had become stale over the water.
Mrs. Frank Hampton and I went to see the camp of the Richland troops. South Carolina College had volunteered to a boy. Professor Venable (the mathematical), intends to raise a company from among them for the war, a permanent company. This is a grand frolic no more for the students, at least. Even the staid and severe of aspect, Clingman, is here. He says Virginia and North Carolina are arming to come to our rescue, for now the North will swoop down on us. Of that we may be sure. We have burned our ships. We are obliged to go on now. He calls us a poor, little, hot-blooded, headlong, rash, and troublesome sister State. General McQueen is in a rage because we are to send troops to Virginia.
Preston Hampton is in all the flush of his youth and beauty, six feet in stature; and after all only in his teens; he appeared in fine clothes and lemon-colored kid gloves to grace the scene. The camp in a fit of horse-play seized him and rubbed him in the mud. He fought manfully, but took it all naturally as a good joke.
Mrs. Frank Hampton knows already what civil war means. Her brother was in the New York Seventh Regiment, so roughly received in Baltimore. Frank will be in the opposite camp.
Good stories there may be and to spare for Russell, the man of the London Times, who has come over here to find out our weakness and our strength and to tell all the rest of the world about us.
Questions to consider:
- How does this diary entry illustrate the tensions of the War’s beginning?
- How does this diary entry illustrate the divisions within families as the war broke out?