Mary Chesnut, wife of U.S. Sen. James Chesnut Jr. of South Carolina on the eve of the Civil War — a man who played a pivotal role in the war's first shot at Fort Sumter and later served as an aide to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, wrote an extensive diary widely praised as one of that era's greatest works of literature.
But she also collected a few hundred photographs, primarily of the people who were her subjects. These photos likely jogged her memory as she continued to rework her diary up throughout Reconstruction and until her death in 1886.
Since then, the photographs and her written words were split up.
Her diary, first published in 1905, would become famous. Her photographs, however, disappeared — at least from the scholars and family members
most involved in keeping Chesnut's legacy alive.
Today, her words and pictures soon will be back together at the University of South Carolina. A new two-volume set published this month, which includes 'Mary Chesnut's Diary from Dixie,' and 'Mary Chesnut's Civil War Photograph Album,' gives the broader understanding of Chesnut's work and of what's been missing all these years.
The story of their reunification is an epic one in itself, with drama, angst and ultimately a happy ending.
Tracking them down
Chesnut had no children, but her sister's descendants, now scattered across the country, have continued to find out all they can about her life and work. Along with Chesnut scholars, such as C. Vann Woodward, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his 1981 expanded edition of her diary, the family tried to find out what happened to the photo albums.
All they knew was the albums vanished from an ancestor's home in Baltimore in 1931. Since then, the family and Woodward would get occasional tips about their whereabouts, but the trail always went cold.
Until November 2007.
That's when their owner, John O'Brien of West Virginia, put them up for auction in Nashville. Historians in Charleston spotted the auction and contacted The Post and Courier, which did a short story about their concerns that this important historical record would end up in private hands or, even worse, bought by someone who would sell the photos off individually.
The story was seen by Margot Rose of Charleston, a cousin of the Daniels family in Camden, which lived in Mulberry Plantation, one of Chesnut's homes, said Marty Daniels. Daniels' mother, Martha Williams Daniels, had spent much of her life doing historical research on her famous ancestor.
The family, about 50 members of which had gathered for Thanksgiving at Mulberry, had about three days to figure out how to find the money, knowing the winning bid could surpass $200,000.
The extended family prepared for the auction by sending emails to clarify how much each family member could pledge toward their purchase. Martha Daniels, 84 at the time, took the lead. Some elementary school-age children in the family pledged $100 from their savings accounts.
The family also called other South Carolina libraries and historical groups whose interest might be keen to ask them not to compete and bid up the price beyond the family's means.
They also contacted Austin Sheheen, a family friend, a collector of early South Carolina currency and uncle of recent gubernatorial candidate Vincent Sheheen, to phone in to the auction and represent the family.
'We figured we had to take a chance and try,' Marty Daniels said.
The auction featured all sorts of Civil War memorabilia, and while the family felt comfortable that it could compete, there was a price beyond which it couldn't go.
Moments before the album was auctioned off, autographed photos from the war were going for bids of $10,000. Chesnut's album contained about 200.
'We watched in horror as we watched the computer,' Marty Daniels said. 'We were really anxious.'
The anxiety peaked when just about three minutes before the lot of Chesnut's photos came up for auction, Sheheen's phone line went dead.
He called back. The bidding began at $60,000, as the extended family monitored the auction online. Sheheen eventually placed the winning bid for $77,675.
'We knew we got it because it was within our budget,' Marty Daniels said. 'We got it on a very good day, and we did get a great kindness from other institutions in South Carolina.'
The next step
The family wanted to own the photos because it had so much documentation from Chesnut's life that it felt well-positioned to research them.
Also, publishing them would give the family a chance to raise money for its ongoing work with the Mulberry Plantation archives.
The collection arrived at Mulberry before Christmas 2007. It included Confederate generals, European heads of state, abolitionists, slaves, women and children, a full range of all those who played a part in and were affected by the war.
Some of the photographs are referred to in Chesnut's diary, such as the image of General Robert E. Lee. 'That day Mrs. Lee gave me a likeness of the General, a photograph taken soon after the Mexican War,' Chesnut wrote. 'She likes it so much better than the later ones. He was certainly a handsome man then — handsomer than even now. I shall prize it for Mrs. Lee's sake, too.'
Photography was emerging in the 1860s, and people of means often posed at studios for cartes de visite, French for visiting cards.
Many were taken by the nation's most famous wartime photographers, including Matthew Brady and Charleston's Quinby and Co. They're among the earliest photographs even taken in the state, since studio portraits were just becoming popular as the new technology emerged.
During the past four years, Daniels and archivist Barbara E. McCarthy researched the photos and were able to identify all but six.
'Our take on it is she was consciously creating the two to go together,' Daniels said of the diary and photos.
While the auction house said there were 211 pictures, it turned out about 25 were missing.
The seller, John O'Brien bought them just in time to keep the albums from being dismantled by a collector. O'Brien later helped the family track down more than a dozen missing photos apparently removed by the previous owner.
With their book project done, the family is poised to hand them over to the South Caroliniana Library, which also holds Chesnut's diaries. There, others can continue to research them.
Henry Fulmer, the library's curator of manuscripts, said the two belong together.
'They definitely are of national significance,' he said. 'We see this as probably the last known, until recently unknown, part of her personal archives. We're thrilled that now, for the first time since Mrs. Chesnut's death, they are literally side by side in the same building and available for scholars and for those who want a glimpse of history.'
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.
If you go
Mary Boykin Chesnut's photographs and writings will be the part of the Charleston Library Society's speaker series, 7-9 p.m. Oct. 26. For more information, call 723-9912.
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