This year I teach some Lincoln, Douglass, and Booker T. Washington: heroes, even if flawed, because they got the big moral struggle of their time right. They are inspiring to read, but to understand how decent people could resist the power of the truth for so long (even to this day), I decided to read some of the best of Southern writings, including the belle of diarists, Mary Boykin Chesnut.

Mary Boykin Chesnut shows people are sometimes better,or at least more complicated, than their causes. Her “diary”* of her Civil War experiences is from the wrong side, yet she is lovely writer, often insightful, and captures famous characters concisely. She is interesting, the kind of person you hope would be a friend or at least a dinner companion. And yet . . . If there is a measure of injustice in any human artifact, her world was very directly based on slave labor.

As a nation we still wrestle with the same sins that were more blatant in her time, especially race hatred. Yet I find some hope in her diary, as a woman she found an voice and spoke in unexpected ways. She cannot be reduced to her bigoted background, though she has also been twisted by it. If there is hope, there is also a caution: beauty, wit, and wisdom can coexist or even be based on injustice. That’s true of the faculty club at State U, the country club, or just a dinner with friends: original sin is real. We always pray: “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner” and beg to be judged by our best and not our worst moments.

She is a portrait of what white supremacy did to a beautiful mind, recording the harm done when she meant no harm, and the good that remained. Like all of us, she was a soul created in the image of God. By all means read the stories of those enslaved in the those days they called hell, the real heroes of the age.

Mary Chesnut was not a devil in this hell, but not a victim either. She benefited by the work of devils, was often a bystander, yet never plunged fully into the mire. Instead, as humans do, Mrs. Chesnut created small corners of beauty in her life and around her person. If all of those good deeds were corrupted by slavery, few human lives, certainly not mine, are pure. We should judge Mary Chesnut as we wish to be judged with the knowledge that no system is so just that we cannot ruin it or any system so vile that real human love, goodness, and friendship does not find a place within it.

Mary Chesnut is the best a broken Southern system can offer and seeing her as she was, or at least wished to be seen, helps explain why so many white Southern folk who never owned slaves longed for the “good old days.” Some good was lost in the necessary extinction of the bad. There should be no sorrow for the end of antebellum plantation culture on the whole, but perhaps regret that some good customs and fine folkways had to be lost because they were too tangled in the evil. The lyrical sound of the Southern upper-class accent is now mostly gone:

“Mrs. Childs had the sweetest Southern voice, absolute music. But then, she has all of the high spirit of those sweet-voiced Carolina women, too.”

Perhaps some few goods, a bit off Stephen Foster or some tall tales, can be recovered or at least the good not forgotten, because no particular time is so great and good that those living  can afford to only be judgmental to those who have gone before them.

Saying this is not due to Southern sympathy, but an honest assessment of a human artifact, a diary turned literary masterpiece. I have no intellectual sympathy for the Lost Cause, those who died to rend the Union so they could own other humans. Having family who suffered in the monstrous rebel prisoner of war camps gives me a strong aversion to the Confederate cause. Yet we do an injustice to truth to turn those with wrong ideas into orcs, worthy only death and hatred.

Mary Boykin Chesnut was not an apologist for slavery. She was willing to tell the truth about the system: she noted the brutal exploitation of women who were enslaved. Chesnut calls out a prominent man who hit his wife and she reports that woman’s desire for him to go to war and die. There was another side to the society and she tells those stories too. Our Senate could take a cue:

“That man was once nominated by President Buchanan for a foreign mission, but some senator stood up and read a paper printed by this man abusive of a woman, and signed by his name in full. After that the Senate would have none of him; his chance was gone forever.”

Chesnut is better than her upbringing, with the moral sensibility that came from Christian faith. Faith was twisted to support slavery by a minority of white Christians in the United States and Chesnut grew up in that minority. One wonders if the sense of doom that pervades her diary, even during the early war years, was the sure knowledge, given by God, that slavery could not endure. She is always afraid.

The intellectual and spiritual contradiction between white supremacy and the Gospel of Jesus Christ are never worked out in her text. She dreads the War and the loss what was good about her life, but at the end when slavery is swept away she appears quietly relieved.

Read this hard book and pray for mercy.


*Though based on her actual diary writtten at the time, Chesnut edited it heavily before publication. It is one of the best examples of a literary diary available.