Dixie diarist's tour of force; Mary Chesnut's Civil War, edited by C. Vann Woodward. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press. $29.95.

Since the publications of "A Diary From Dixie" in 1905, Mary Chesnut's "memoirs" have provided students of the Civil War with a vivid social history of those anguished times. The inherent drama of her account has also attracted the attention of men of letters. In the 1940s, the novelist Ben Ames Williams consulted the original manuscript material and tried "to do the writer justice by bringing out a new edition of her diary twice as long as the original one." And in 1962, Edmund Wilson wrote that the importance of "this extraordinary document" would suggest an edition of the whole text.

Wilson's words posed a challenge that C. Vann Woodward, Yale's Sterling Professor Emeritus of History, could not resist. Applying all the techniques of textual collation and analysis to the surviving manuscript material, he spent over five years researching and establishing a definitive edition of the diary. To be published by Yale in April, "Mary Chesnut's Civil War" is an admirable blend of scholarship and style.

Woodward's introductory essays prove that the observations recorded during the years 1861-65 were edited and revised by the author in the 1880s and propose that the significance of the "simulated" diary that Mary Chesnut intended to publish "lies not in autobiography or the information it contains." Rather, "the enduring value of the work, crude and unfinished as it is, lies in the life and reality with which it endows people and events and with which it evokes the chaos and complexity of a society at war."

The introductory essays also introduce the reader to Mary Chesnut, to her times, and to her "heresides." Daughter and wife of slave owners, she declared her hatred of slavery and was an avowed abolitionist. Flirtatious but faithful, she firmly believed in romantic love but knew that marriage was a commonsense affair: "They make believe and get on so-so " And critical of Confederate infighting, she remained to the end proud of the Confederate cause: "We fought to get rid of Yankees and Yankee rule . . . . We wanted to separate

Framed by the valuable information Woodwards provides the diary chronicles the early months of the Confederacy in Montgomery, gives a firsthand account of the attack on Fort Sumter, records events in Richmond and Columbia, S.C., during the the critical periods of the war and relates the return to the Chesnut family's plantation in Camden, S.C., after Lee's surrender at Appomattox.

Juxtaposed with the increasing criticism of Jefferson Davis's presidency, the intrigue of troop movements, and military strategy, and the disappointment over her husband's reluctance to seek his own preferment, there is an almost daily record of marriages and funerals, charades and parties, fashions and feasts. The descriptions are casual but seldom without comment: "There seems to be for the first time a resolute feeling to enjoy the brief hour and never look beyond the day." Over all there is the threat of "Beast" Butler, Sherman, and Grant, of burned fields and houses, and the fear of disloyal slaves and deserting soldiers. Mary Chesnut "knew she was watching 'our world, the only world we cared for, literally kicked to pieces' and she told her story 'with horror and amazement.'"

Whatever her motives for keeping a diary -- and there were many -- the very act of writing her day-to-day experiences proved a way of fixing her life in a time and place she could return to.

The years of her husband's service as an aide to Davis and as a brigadier general in the Confederate Army permitted Mary Chesnut to come to terms with herself and with her feelings. She formed lasting friendships, surrounded herself with newphews and nieces, and generally involved herself in the social, political, and military scenes of the Confederacy. She was hostess and benefactress, "Cassandra" and confidante. She was aware of the "Old Order" passing and was reluctant to accept the new. During the Traumatic events which followed the war, her diary permitted her to return to that world of the "cool Captain" and the beautiful Buck Preston, the world of devoted servants and all the wealth that a hundred years could accumulate.

Knowing that Mary Chesnut was revising the book for publication, Mrs. Jefferson Davis wrote often and encouraged her friend to complete the work: "I think your diaries would sell better than any Confederate history of a grave character." Her words were propphetic. Finally, almost a hundred years after Mary Chesnut's efforts, C. Vann Woodward's impressive edition guarantees that "Mary Chesnut's Civil War" will take its rightful place as "an American classic."

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