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James Chesnut, Jr.
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Personal Information
Born: January 18, 1815(1815-01-18)
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Died: February 1, 1885 (aged 70)
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Other Information
Allegiance: United States of America
Confederate States of America
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Branch: Confederate States Army
Service Years: {{{service years}}}
Rank: Brigadier General (CSA)
Service number : {{{servicenumber}}}
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James Chesnut, Jr. (January 18, 1815 – February 1, 1885) of Camden, South Carolina, was a United States Senator, a signatory of the Constitution of the Confederate States of America, and a Confederate Army general. His wife was the well known Mary Boykin Chesnut, whose diary reveals valuable observations of Southern life in the American Civil War.

Antebellum career[]

Chesnut was born on Mulberry Plantation near Camden, South Carolina. He graduated from the law department of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) in 1835, and initially rose to prominence in South Carolina state politics. Admitted to the bar in 1837, he commenced practice that year in Camden and was later a member of the South Carolina House of Representatives (1840–52) and the South Carolina Senate (1852–58, serving as its president 1856–58). He was also a delegate to the southern convention at Nashville, Tennessee, in 1850.

In 1858 Chesnut was elected by the South Carolina legislature to the U.S. Senate as a Democrat to replace Josiah J. Evans. He served there for two years alongside Senator James Henry Hammond of South Carolina. Although a defender of slavery and states' rights, Chesnut opposed the re-opening of the African slave trade and was a not a staunch secessionist as most of the South Carolinian politicians. Moderate in his political views, he believed in preserving slavery and the southern way of life within the Union. But the political atmosphere tightened towards the Presidential Election of 1860, since the Republican Party and their presidential candidate, Abraham Lincoln, opposed slavery. After the results of the election came through, Chesnut decided that he could no longer stay in his office in the Senate.[1] Shortly after Lincoln's election, he withdrew from the Senate on November 10, 1860, being the first Southern senator to withdraw. (He was expelled in absentia from the Senate the next year.)

Civil War[]

Chesnut participated in the South Carolina secession convention in December 1860 and was subsequently elected to the Provisional Congress of the Confederate States of America. He was a member of the committee which drafted the Constitution of the Confederacy.

In the spring of 1861 he served as an aide-de-camp to General P.G.T. Beauregard and was sent by the general to demand the surrender of Fort Sumter in Charleston. After the commander of the fort, Major Robert Anderson of the U.S. Army declined to surrender, Chesnut gave orders to the nearby Fort Johnson to open fire on Fort Sumter. In consequence the first shots of the Civil War were fired, on April 12, 1861.[2] In the summer of 1861 Chesnut also took part in the First Battle of Manassas as an aide-de-camp to Beauregard.

In 1862 Chesnut served as a member of the South Carolina's Executive Council and the Chief of the Department of the Military of South Carolina. Later in the war he served the Confederate Army as a colonel and an aide to Confederate President Jefferson Davis. In 1864 he was promoted to brigadier general and given command of South Carolina reserve forces until the end of the war. After the war, he returned to the practice of law in Camden.

Marriage, family and death[]

Chesnut was the youngest of fourteen children and the only (surviving) son of James Chesnut, Sr. (1775–1866) and his wife, Mary Cox (1777–1864). Chesnut, Sr. was one of the wealthiest planters in the South, who owned 448 slaves and many large plantations before the outbreak of the Civil War. Despite the fact that James Chesnut, Jr. was the only son, little of that property was in his own name. Since his father lived to the age of 90 and only gave his son a small allowance, James had to live mainly on his law practice. The Chesnut fortune declined in the course of the war and thus, after his father died in 1866, Chesnut inherited little else than extensive debts.[3]

After many years' courting, Chesnut married seventeen-year-old Mary Boykin Miller (1823–86), on April 23, 1840. She later became famous for her diary of life during the Civil War. The daughter of U.S. Senator Stephen Decatur Miller (1788–1838) and Mary Boykin (1804–85), she was well-educated and intelligent and took actively part in her husband's career. The Chesnuts' marriage was at times stormy due to difference in temperament (she was hot-tempered and passionate and came occasionally to regard her husband as cool and reserved). Nevertheless their companionship was mostly warm and affectionate. They had no children.[4]

As Mary Chesnut described in depth in her diary, the Chesnuts had a wide circle of friends and acquaintances in the society of the South and the Confederacy. Among their friends were, for example, Confederate general John Bell Hood, ex-Governor John L. Manning, Confederate general and politician John S. Preston and his wife Caroline, Confederate general and politician Wade Hampton III, Confederate politician Clement C. Clay and his wife Virginia, and Confederate general and politician Louis T. Wigfall and his wife Charlotte. The Chesnuts were intimate family friends of President Jefferson Davis and his wife Varina Howell. James Chesnut was also a first cousin of fellow Confederate general Zachariah C. Deas.

James Chesnut was "regarded as an amiable, modest gentleman of decent parts [gifts]"[5], who performed his duties with ability and dignity both in political and military life. He died in his own home in Camden in 1885; interment was in Knights Hill Cemetery, near Camden.

See also[]

References[]

  • Cauthen, Charles E., South Carolina Goes to War: 1860-1865 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press 1950).
  • Chesnut, Mary Boykin, Mary Chesnut's Civil War (New Haven: Yale University Press 1981), ed. C. Vann Woodward.
  • Hammond, James Henry, Secret And Sacred: The Diaries of James Henry Hammond, a Southern Slaveholder (New York: Oxford University Press 1988), ed. by Carol Bleser.
  • Muhlenfeld, Elisabeth, Mary Boykin Chesnut: A Biography (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press 1992).
  • Scarborough, William Kaufman, The Masters of the Big House: Elite Slaveholders of the Mid-Nineteenth-Century South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press 2003).
  • Sinha, Manisha, The Counterrevolution of Slavery: Politics and Ideology in Antebellum South Carolina (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press 2000).
  • Williams, T. Harry, Beauregard: Napoleon in Gray (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press 1955).

External links[]

Template:Start box |- ! colspan="3" style="background: #cccccc" | United States Senate Template:U.S. Senator box |- ! colspan="3" style="background: #cccccc" | Confederate States House of Representatives |- style="text-align: center;" |- style="text-align:center;" |width="30%" align="center" rowspan="1"|Preceded by
none |width="40%" style="text-align: center;" rowspan="1"|Representative to the Provisional Confederate Congress from South Carolina
1861–1862 |width="30%" align="center" rowspan="1"| Succeeded by
none |- |}

Notes[]

  1. Scarborough, Masters of the Big House, pp. 277 and 289, Cauthen, South Carolina Goes to War, pp. 49–50, Sinha, The Counterrevolution of the Slavery, pp. 134, 138, 176–7.
  2. Williams, Beauregard, pp. 57–58.
  3. Muhlenfeld, Mary Boykin Chesnut, passim.
  4. Chesnut, Mary Chesnut's Civil War, passim.
  5. Hammond, Secret And Sacred, p. 214.

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