Session 4

[Rock Island Prison]

Lecture 4
Mary Chesnut:
Mary Chesnut's Civil War (1861-65 / 1905)

Anthology texts to read:

  • Mary Chesnut (1823-1886): from Mary Chesnut's Civil War (1905 / 1981)
  • Mary Chesnut: from The Private Mary Chesnut: the Unpublished Civil War Diaries (1861-65 / 1984)
  • Shelby Foote: from The Civil War: A Narrative (1958-74)

[April 11-15th, 1861]:

Why did that green goose Anderson go into Fort Sumter? Then everything began to go wrong.

Now they have intercepted a letter from him urging them to let him surrender. He paints the horrors likely to ensue if they will not.

He ought to have thought of all that before he put his head in the hole.

April 12, 1861. Anderson will not capitulate.


Yesterday's was the merriest, maddest dinner we have had yet. Men were more 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: "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 was not inclined to be communicative, wanted his dinner. Felt for Anderson. Had telegraphed to President Davis for instructions.

What answer to give Anderson, &c&c. He has 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; thought himself ill-used. 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 chimes. 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 - he was to order the forts on our 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 from the women and imprecations from the men, and then a shell would light up the scene. Tonight, they say, the forces are to attempt to land.

The Harriet Lane had her wheelhouse smashed and put back to sea.


We watched up there - everyone wondered. 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 give him only good words, for he was to be under fire all day and night, down in the bay carrying orders, &c.


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. It was a chimney, and the sparks 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 comes 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 RR iron. Mr. Petigru calls it the boomerang because it throws the balls back the way they came - so Lou Hamilton tells us. She had no children during her first marriage. 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, irreverent woman. "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, to 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 a 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 in that iron balcony. Women - men we only see 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 leaning over, looking with tearful eyes.

"Why did he take his hat off?" said an unknown creature. Mrs. Means stood straight up.

"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 - 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 13, 1861. Nobody hurt, after all. How gay we were last night.

Reaction after the dread of all the slaughter we thought those dreadful cannon were making such a noise in doing.

Not even a battery the worse for wear.

Fort Sumter has been on fire. He 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. But 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 cry. When we are shut in, we (Mrs. Wigfall and I) ask "Why?" We are told: "Of course He hates the Yankees."

"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. Laurence sits at our door, as sleepy and as respectful and as profoundly indifferent. So are they all. They carry it too far. You could not tell that they hear even the awful roar that is going on in the bay, though it is dinning in their ears night and day. People talk before them as if they were chairs and tables. And they make no sign. Are they stolidly stupid or wiser than we are, silent and strong, biding their time?

So tea and toast come. Also came Colonel Manning, A. D. C. - red sash and sword - to announce that he has been under fire and didn't mind. He said gaily: "It is one of those things - a fellow never knows how he will come out of it 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." [Everybody laughs at John Manning's brag.] 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 were people who thought the Charleston bar "no good" to Charleston. The bar is our silent partner, sleeping partner, and yet in this fray he is doing us yeoman service.

April 15, 1861. I did not know that one could live such days of excitement.

They called: "Come out - there is a crowd coming."

A mob 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 up on 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 he saw the fire in the fort, jumped in a little boat, and with his handkerchief as a white flag, rowed over to Fort Sumter. Wigfall went in through a porthole.

When Colonel Chesnut arrived shortly after and was received by the regular entrance, Colonel Anderson told him he had need to pick his way warily, for it 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 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. [Manning, Wigfall. John Preston, &c, men without limit, beset us at night.]

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 still turned on the grim old fort.

[Saw William Gilmore Simms, and did not recognize him in his white beard. Trescot is here with his glasses on top of the house.]


Russell, the English reporter for the 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 &c&c, and news that was suitable to make an interesting article. Thackeray was stale news 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 U.S.A. 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.

There is a frightful yellow flag story. A distinguished potentate and militia power looked out upon the bloody field of battle, happening to stand always under the waving of the hospital flag. To his numerous other titles they now add Y.F.

Preston Hampton in all the flush of his youth and beauty, his six feet in stature - and after all, only in his teens - appeared in lemon-colored kid gloves to grace the scene. The camp, in a fit of horseplay, seized him and rubbed them 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.

- Mary Chesnut's Civil War, ed. C. Vann Woodward, 1981 (New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press, 1993): 45-50.

[Pedestrian Crossing]

The Pedestrian Crossing

[12th June]:

The pedestrian crossing is beside a beach, at the bottom of a steep hill. There’s a dairy on one side, a set of public toilets on the other.

“Don’t go in there,” my friend warns me. “That place is notorious all over town.”

“You mean I’ll get arrested by an undercover cop?” I ask.

She laughs; doesn’t answer.

The cars keep zooming by. Too fast, I’m thinking, for a suburban area.

“Yeah, it’s terrible. Every morning we have to wait till the way’s clear before we can let the kids cross.”

My friend holds up her hand. The small red car nearest to us stops – somewhat reluctantly, it seems. We begin to walk across.

Two cars whip through on the other side. We pause, irresolute.

A station-wagon draws up with a screech of brakes, straddling the painted lines.
My friend walks behind him, I in front. I suppose I’m glaring because he starts to shout at me. I can see him foaming and gesticulating behind the wheel, small children crouching behind him in the back seat. I can’t hear a single word.

I shout back: “I’m taking down your number. I’m going to report you.”

He rants on. I don’t know what about. The accident we’d almost caused by daring to cross the road, I suppose.

Later, when I’m driving back down that road myself, I’ll realise that he might have been blinded by the afternoon sun in his eyes.

Reason enough, I suppose, to drive at full speed through a pedestrian crossing with a cargo of kids in your car.


As we continue up the hill towards my friend’s place, she gestures towards the first few houses on her left. The ones she’s singling out are built out of brick and tile, on straggling, brushy sections.

“Those are the Housing Corp tenants. They’re selling them off, but not all of them have gone yet. Some of our friends were quite shocked when they heard we were moving in here.”


It seems a prosperous, leafy kind of suburb, in a good part of town. The homes get larger and more luxurious as we mount the twining road.

“Notorious for crims and dole-bludgers. We told them we felt quite safe, though. Nobody’s going to rob a house in a cul-de-sac, especially not in their own street. They only go for places with easy escape routes.”

A few of the tenants are leaning across their fences, staring at us.

We keep on walking. I don’t wave because my friend doesn’t. Further up the hill it’s a different story – cheery nods and hellos to each new dog-walker or jogger.


“I heard about a guy who was suffering from low self-esteem …”

Is she trying to reassure me?

“At any rate that’s what they told him was wrong.”

Maybe not.

“He was the father of a friend of mine. Anyway, he went to therapy, and did all sort of confidence-building exercises – told himself that he didn’t care what other people thought of him, stopped tailoring all his comments to what he thought people wanted to hear.

And it was successful! After years and years of groups and one-on-one sessions, he was cured! He didn’t give a stuff what people thought of him.

He was a nudist. They all were. Spent every summer vacation at a Naturist’s retreat …”

I can see the backs of the little family group ahead of us on the path stiffen a little. At the use of the word “nude,” I suppose. They don’t want their children overhearing any such filth. The kids – a little boy and a girl – prance on, undisturbed.

“So one day he was out swimming. It must have been early in the season, because the water was quite cold. He came out of the water and looked down, and – voilĂ , significant … what do you call it?”


“Shrinkage! Yeah, that’s right. And that was that! All those years wasted. He found out that he cared desperately what all the people on the beach thought of him – wanted to reassure them that it really wasn’t …”

“Especially the girls.”

“I guess. The men, too – in case they wrote him off because of it.”

The family in front pick up their pace. It’s too late now, the high, carrying voice of my companion has already conveyed the fatal information. All they can hope is that their children are still too young to make sense of all that rigmarole. Why would they pay attention to another set of adults babbling away? They never have before. Hard enough to make them listen to the simplest instructions from their elders and betters.

As we overtake them I feel a sudden impulse to turn and apologise. For what? My companion? My own shortcomings as a man? Theirs, as insufficiently vigilant parents?


“It’s like before the war,” I say.

“What is?”

“In the 1930s, that kind of time. When everyone can see that something’s coming, but nobody knows quite what. They know it’s going got be bad, though.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“All this – these people, their lives. The things we do and talk about.”

“What things?”

“The way the street’s cut in two – them down there, you up here.”

“Are you calling me a snob? Saying I think I’m better than them?”

“Well, you do, don’t you?”

“We’ve worked for what we have, worked really hard. I don’t think you could understand just how hard we’ve worked.”

“I’m not denying that – it’s not about you. I’m not trying to accuse you …”

“It sounds like you are. You’ve been weird all day. Is there something on your mind, something else, I mean?”

“Nothing in particular, I don’t think. It’s not about us, if that’s what you mean.”

“What ‘us’? You know it’s not a good time …”

“Yeah, yeah. I know you don’t want to upset the applecart, how important your family are to you – we’ve talked about that before. No, it’s something else, something bigger.”

“Bigger than you, you mean.”

She starts to snigger at her own joke.

But yes, bigger than me …


On the way home the other cars seem relentless in their desire to cut you off. They barge into queues like wild dogs, ignoring all your attempts to keep a safe two-second distance clear in front of you.

You can see their hungry faces behind the wheel, tongues lolling, mouths slack.

Eager for blood, you think, eager for prey.

When the ice-cream truck draws up in front of you, there’s hardly time to brake.

“What does he want?” you think, as the men and boys boil out of the back.

“Are they trying to sell me something?” as the bats and crowbars start to rise and fall.

[Find a Grave]

Workshop 4
A Diary from Dixie

gizzera fifty or twenny fer fuggsay
mister a tellya
savvy dis noosepaper see?
sonly bed we gotter nigh

– Peter Reading, Perduta Gente (1989)

After a brief discussion of the prescribed texts, followed by any seminars which have been scheduled for this week, we'll move onto your responses to the writing exercise below:

Exercise 4:
Content vs. Form

In Peter Reading’s book Perduta Gente [= Lost People], some of the poems echo the sound as well as the content of what his characters are saying.

  • Imagine someone you know making an angry / drunken / tearful speech.
  • Try to write it down as exactly as possible – sound, slurring, EMPHASIS.
  • The emotion of the words should come across in the way they’re written down.

Next week:

Exercise 5: Family Gatherings and Seminars on The Diary of Alice James due.

[Susan Sontag: Alice in Bed]

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