“I Was Made to Do an Awfully Rude Thing”

Senator and Mrs. James Chesnut Jr.
General and Mrs. James Chesnut Jr.

It was a sad confession by prominent South Carolina socialite Mary Chesnut. The person who “made” her be rude was her husband, General James Chesnut Jr., confidant of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and a powerful influence in Southern circles. He was highly respected by men and women alike, the son of a wealthy South Carolina planter.

Yet, the famous diarist wrote of her humiliation at his hands:

“I was made to do an awfully rude thing. (William Henry) Trescot wanted to see Mr. C (Chesnut) on particular business. I left him on the stairs, telling him to wait for me there, I would be back in an instant.

“Mr. C. listened until I had finished my story — then locked the door and put the key in his pocket. Said I should not be running up and down stairs on Trescot’s errands. Today saw Trescot. He waited on the stairs an hour, he said. He was very angry, you may be sure.”

The Chesnuts were staying in a room of the Spotswood Hotel in Richmond, Virginia, where the world seemed to congregate to hear the latest news from the front. Mrs. Chestnut encountered Trescot, apparently downstairs, and went upstairs to carry his message to her husband in their one-room apartment.

Imagine Mary’s chagrin when her husband locked her in the room! There was nothing she could do about it, short of overpowering him and wresting the key away. And he knew it.

William Henry Trescot

There’s no way to know for sure why James Chesnut locked her inside their hotel room. Was it that he didn’t want his wife acting the part of a servant? Was he angry with Trescot? Was he just in a bad mood that day? Or was he “disciplining” her because he disapproved of her actions, as he said?

It was not a defense of her or a protection for her. He knew Mary’s character would suffer if she did not return as she had promised Trescot. He knew she would feel the brunt of Trescot’s anger, not him. He was perfectly willing for that to happen.

Why did Chesnut feel the need to lock Mary inside and pocket the key? Was it the demonstration of power over her that it appears to be?

Knowing her, it is certain Mary Chesnut told him she didn’t like being locked in. How far did she take her objections? She doesn’t say, but we know the couple argued at other times. And it is certain that Mary Chesnut did not get out of that room for at least an hour. She was the one who appeared rude and it made her ashamed.

There is ample evidence James and Mary Chesnut had affection for each other, despite her frustration with the inequity of her rights compared to his. As the Confederacy was facing its last days and hopes were virtually non-existent, James came to see Mary. It well could have been for the last time, as Federal armies were closing in.

“J.C. gave me his last cent,” Mary says.

Yet, a few paragraphs later she writes tellingly about how the end of slavery and the “great slave-owners” will affect her and the other women in the South:

“They will have no negroes now to lord it over. They can swell and peacock about and tyrannize now over only a small parcel of women and children — those only who are their very own family.”

It is sad to hear how this man, who gave so much in the cause of States Rights, used his greater physical strength and legal position to hold his wife in that room against her will. And that is what he did.