Fireworks Over the Civil War

By Catherine Clinton


Historians have argued long and hard about the causes of the Civil War. The battle over the war’s origins began even before Confederate surrender at Appomattox in April 1865, as Americans continue to explore and re-fight this fascinating chapter of our nation’s history. A June 2011 poll published in Vanity Fair, conducted 150 years after the firing on Ft. Sumter and President Lincoln’s call to arms, indicates that the majority of Americans today believe the origins of the war were rooted in states’ rights – white Southerners’ belief that their institutions and systems (which included slavery) should brook no interference from the federal government. How and why white Southerners decided to bombard federal forts, raise an army and secede from the Unites States continues a source of fascination, even for those with no sympathy for the Confederate project.

In the 1850s novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne would write to his publisher complaining about the “damned mob of scribbling women” who sold more books than his serious literary fraternity. By the 1860s fiction writers would be overtaken by the drama of men and women, caught up in the rising tide of clashing patriotisms, recording their own experiences, with the nation poised to be rent asunder. Memoirists left descendants poignant descriptions of war’s unforgettable images – chronicling hundreds of military encounters – from major battles to minor skirmishes, as the death toll of 700,000 soldiers rose season by season, year by year until war’s bloody conclusion. Women on the homefront have provided generations of novelists with fertile ground, from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women to Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain. None has been a more renewable resource than Mary Boykin Chesnut, the wife of a powerful advisor within the Confederate inner circle. An eyewitness to the Richmond palace politics during wartime, a “sechesh” champion challenged by eventual defeat, Chesnut’s diary provided an eager audience with food for thought. Her writing illuminates the inner workings of Confederate consciousness, most particularly her whitewashed and self-serving analysis of race relations. From her opening pages witnessing the shelling of Ft. Sumter from the rooftops of Charleston, through battle scars and body counts, to the last, lingering effects of defeat, Mary Chesnut’s diary offers readers a ringside seat, re-imagining the fireworks of the American Civil War.

About the author: Catherine Clinton holds a chair in U.S. history at Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland. She is the author and editor of over twenty books, most recently Mary Chesnut’s Diary, issued as a Penguin Classic in 2011.

Mary Chesnut's Diary

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  1. says

    It’s a shame, after all the struggles of breaking away from Europe that America fought such a bloody war with each other.

  2. says

    Oh wow, I’d love to read this! Assuming I *don’t* win, I’m going to have to lobby our library for a copy when we cover this in our home school History class.

  3. Lisa Ramey says

    I’ve only read excerpts of her writing — would love a fuller story.
    Ahh…the power of narrative!

  4. Kyle says

    This looks very interesting! I’d love to add it to my classroom library or offer it to the history department! Great example of a narrative.

  5. Mona Everett says

    This sounds wonderful. I will be going to Harper’s Ferry next month, too. I also have a g-g-grandfather who was a Union officer and g-g-g-in-law who was fighting for the Confederacy (they lived 5 miles apart in TN). The Civil War fascinates me and I would love to read this.

  6. Sally Burnell says

    I’ve been studying Civil War history since the late 1980’s and I find the first person accounts of it to be far more compelling than a historian’s interpretation of a specific event, campaign or individual. Reading diaries, letters, newspaper accounts and such puts you RIGHT THERE, watching events unfold through their eyes. I’ve learned more about the Civil War from diving into these primary sources than from any history book I’ve ever read or any class I have ever taken. Mary Chestnut’s diary would make a fine addition to my growing library of Civil War books. I remember hearing some of her diary read on Ken Burns’ “The Civil War” and found it perfectly compelling to hear her voice and descriptions of what was going on in Charleston, SC. I have a long family history in that town as well, so that would connect with some of my genealogy on my mom’s side. Looks like a FASCINATING read! Nothing like seeing the Civil War through the eyes of those who were there as witnesses, whether soldiers or civilians. I consider it to be the best way to learn about this time period, to get inside someone’s mind and watch events unfold through their eyes.

  7. Sally Burnell says

    I’ve been studying the Civil War since the late 1980’s and it’s been my experience that you learn more about this conflict by watching it unfold through the eyes of those who were there, soldiers, civilians, politicians and others. Sure, it’s good to read a historian’s interpretation of events from time to time, but better still to hear the voices of those who were there and saw it firsthand. I’ve made a point of trying to locate diaries, letters and newspaper accounts from those who were there and could describe events like no historian ever could. To get inside their minds, to hear their voices, is the closest thing to actually going back in time and being there yourself. This book would make a fine addition to my growing library of Civil War books, as a student of this conflict.

  8. says

    Last summer we toured Fort Fisher on the North Carolina coast. The tour guide gave a fascinating narrative concerning the cause of the war and the machinations that occurred during the war. In a nutshell, “Follow the money.”

  9. Sue says

    Oh, please enter my name for this book. It is on my reading list…I continue to dig around this time period, and earlier, looking for personal records of women, in particular. One of these days I’ll actually write the piece I am still researching……

  10. Carol Wong says

    Love reading about the Civil War. I have been researching my family roots and found one of my g g g father left to fight for the Union with two of his sons and another left to fight for the Confederacy. Also, another g g g father was a Union prisoner guard. He sat outside at night on top of a railroad car full of prisoners. He never fully recovered from several bouts of pneumonia. Another ancestor fought for the Confederacy and was in a Northern prisoner of war prison. Have lots more to search by I encourage everyone to plunge into their family roots and see what they can find. I would love to read this diary of Mary Chesnut.


  11. Kitty says

    Please enter my name for the giveaway. Thanks for letting us know about this interesting and timely book.

  12. Ted says

    Hi. Just stumbled upon this blog after hearing about it on CSPAN Book TV.
    I wrote my college thesis on the economics of cotton during the Civil War.
    I am fascinated by Civil War History and would love to read Mrs. Chesnut’s diary.
    Since the Ken Burns documentary I’ve been curious to more about her.

  13. says

    I am a novice when it comes to historical research and stumbled upon this amazing website after seeing your C-Span interview. But I fervently believe that for me to understand events today, I must understand the history behind it. I would love read more of Mary Chestnut’s diary. Since I normally don’t win these contests, I lurk in bookstores with lists of books I lust after.:) Mary Chestnut’s diary ranks right up there. Personally, I am of the opinion that the Civil War is still going on. My family fought on both sides of the Civil War, the northern part giving ten sons to die for the cause and the southern part giving an equal number. So while the sounds of gunfire may have died down on those famous battlefields, I believe the fight for individual freedoms and expressions and the simmering underbelly of resentments still exist. In Virginia alone, there are distinct separations from federal and state highway names. For instance, Route 50 coming west from DC, is variously named. First it is Route 50 until the 495. After Chantilly, it becomes Lee Jackson Highway. Nomenclature means everything in some of this local research. Manassas, for instance, has a street named Reb Yank that I drive by every day. We walk on history and hopefully learn from it. Thank you for this offer. I will check my bookstore for her diary.

  14. says

    First person accounts made during the Civil War often differ widely from memoirs made later. The difference seems to be most pronounced from the Southern point of view. Studying the history of the history of the war can be more interesting than the study of the war itself!

  15. Lianne says

    I’ve heard the excerpts from her diary in The Civil War documentary by Ken Burns, and I’d love to read more!

  16. Carol Wong says

    I would love to read more about the Civil War.  I have all the historical novels in that time period that I can get my hands on and this is one that I haven’t seen before. Please enter me in this giveaway.


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