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Long before the Chesnuts moved to their nation’s capital, the city held a rather mythological position in her mind’s eye. Richmond was the aristocratic hub of Colonial America, and after the Virginia House of Burgesses passed the Warehouse Act in 1730 — from whence the tobacco industry boomed — English nobility as well as the stateside upper class used the revenue to build a shimmering city, flanked by shimmering neighborhoods like Church Hill. And all those years later, Mary, like the rest of her friends and acquaintances, reveled in belonging to historic Southern high society. Status meant everything.
When she did finally arrive, her contemporaries immediately accepted her. “Always pleasant people,” she opined. “Indeed, I have had a good time everywhere — always clever people and people I liked. And everybody is so good to me.”
Yes, there were galas and balls — grand balls, perhaps the grandest in all the land — that she would attend when her husband’s busy political schedule permitted. Yet Mary derived the greatest delight from what would seem to be the most ho-hum activities. “The Virginia breakfast,” she wrote, “is a thing comme il y en peu in the world.”
But then, almost as abruptly as it began, her time in Richmond transformed from fairy tale to nightmare. The winds of change were blowing — politically, economically and socially — and the city at the falls of the James River now became the most coveted of prizes for people Mary simply referred to as “the Yankees.” Richmond was in a state of controlled chaos and virtual lockdown. When most of the men in town enlisted in the army, those that did remain were penniless and without the means to support themselves and their families. Food production decreased, tobacco harvests were not properly tended to, and theft became the means du jour of putting supper on the table. Mary’s president declared martial law in the city and also suspended civil jurisdiction and the writ of habeas corpus as a way to tamp the turmoil, but these actions did not console Mary. If anything, they made her feel as if her city … they made her feel as if her country was becoming too much like that of the Yankees. After four years of civil war, what was unthinkable just five years earlier had now become a reality for Mary.
“Richmond has fallen,” she recorded in her diary, “and I have no heart to write about it. … They are too many for us. Everything is lost in Richmond, even our archives. Blue-black is our horizon. … General Hood said, ‘You will all be obliged to go west, Texas, I mean. Your own country will be overrun.”
—Mary Chesnut; April 7, 1865; Richmond, Va.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the first shots fired in the Civil War. To commemorate such a momentous event in American history, American Way’s cover story (page 34) is about modern-day Richmond, once again flourishing and once again the darling of the Southeast. This issue also encourages you to visit our nation’s capital, both for Civil War observances and for an all-around enjoyable summertime experience (page 24). For the conspiracy theorists among you, columnist Carlton Stowers offers a unique yarn about the fate of John Wilkes Booth after he assassinated President Abraham Lincoln (page 90).
Mary Chesnut’s diary was published in 1905, and it remains one of the most important documentations of life in war-torn Dixie. Although the Richmond she knew seemed destroyed beyond recognition in 1865, the Richmond of today — complete with flourishing businesses and Segway tours — has indeed returned to splendor.