American Portraits

The Diarist’s Identity: Mary Chesnut and her Civil War Diary

In this lesson, students will learn about how Mary Chesnut’s identity drove her to write a diary during the Civil War. They will also learn about how to use their own identity to achieve success in their lives.

Founding Principles

Individual Responsibility image

Individual Responsibility

Individuals must take care of themselves and their families and be vigilant to preserve their liberty.


South Carolina’s social circles revolved around slaveholding landowners in Charleston and Columbia. As a young girl, Mary Miller attended Madame Talvande’s French School for Young Ladies in Charleston to prepare for life as a member of this society. While there, Miller studied literature, rhetoric, sciences, and history….

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

How can understanding your identity help you to promote freedom?

Virtue Defined

Identity answers the question, “Who am I?”

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will learn about how Mary Chesnut’s identity drove her to write a diary during the Civil War. They will also learn about how to use their own identity to achieve success in their lives.


  • Students will analyze the identity of Mary Chesnut.
  • Students will understand the significance of their own identity.
  • Students will apply their knowledge of their identity to help them promote freedom.


Mary Miller Chesnut was born to an elite South Carolina family in 1823. Her father served as a U.S. representative, senator, and governor. At the age of 17, she married James Chesnut Jr., and the couple lived on his parents’ plantation. James served as a U.S. senator before becoming chief of the Department of the Military of South Carolina and brigadier general in the Confederate Army during the Civil War.

Mary Chesnut experienced Southern culture and society during a critical time in U.S. history, and she understood the importance of the secession crisis, slavery, and war. She decided to record her experiences and thoughts in a diary that focused on the political and social issues surrounding the war. She didn’t shy away from contentious matters such as class, slavery, and the power of white men.

Chesnut began to edit and revise her entries and notes to ready the diary for publication after the war; when she died in 1886, a friend worked to have the work published. An abridged version was released in 1905, with more extensive editions released in 1949 and 1982. The 1982 edition, compiled by historian C. Vann Woodward, won the Pulitzer Prize in history.


  • Plantation
  • Confederate
  • Secession
  • Contentious
  • Abridged
  • Extensive
  • Pulitzer Prize
  • Revolved
  • Rhetoric
  • Elite
  • Secede
  • Enslavement

Introduce Text

Have students read the background and narrative, keeping the Compelling Question in mind as they read. Then have them answer the remaining questions below.

For more robust lesson treatment, check out our partners at the Character Formation Project

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Walk-In-The-Shoes Questions
As you read, imagine you are the protagonist.

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What fears or concerns might you have?
  • What may prevent you from acting in the way you ought?

Observation Questions

  • Who was Mary Chesnut?
  • What was Mary’s purpose?
  • What actions did Mary take during her life that were significant?
  • Imagine you are Mary Chesnut. What might drive you to write a diary about your experiences?

Discussion Questions
Discuss the following questions with your students.

  • What is the historical context of the narrative?
  • What historical circumstances presented a challenge to the protagonist?
  • How and why did the individual exhibit a moral and/or civic virtue in facing and overcoming the challenge?
  • How did the exercise of the virtue benefit civil society?
  • How might exercise of the virtue benefit the protagonist?
  • What might the exercise of the virtue cost the protagonist?
  • Would you react the same under similar circumstances? Why or why not?
  • How can you act similarly in your own life? What obstacles must you overcome in order to do so?

Additional Resources

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