James Chesnut, Jr.

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James Chesnut, Jr.
Hon. James Chestnut Jr., S.C - NARA - 528456.jpg
Deputy from South Carolina to the Provisional Confederate States Congress
In office
February 4, 1861 – February 17, 1862
Preceded by Position created
Succeeded by Position abolished
United States Senator from South Carolina
In office
December 3, 1858 – November 10, 1860
Preceded by Arthur P. Hayne
Succeeded by Thomas J. Robertson (1868)
President of the South Carolina Senate
In office
December 10, 1856 – December 3, 1858
Governor Robert F.W. Allston
Preceded by Robert F.W. Allston
Succeeded by William Dennison Porter
Member of the South Carolina Senate from Kershaw District
In office
November 22, 1852 – December 3, 1858
Member of the South Carolina House of Representatives from Kershaw District
In office
November 23, 1840 – December 15, 1845
In office
November 25, 1850 – December 16, 1851
Personal details
Born (1815-01-18)January 18, 1815
Camden, South Carolina
Died February 1, 1885(1885-02-01) (aged 70)
Camden, South Carolina
Political party Democrat, Conservative Party of South Carolina
Military service
Allegiance United States of America
Confederate States of America
Service/branch Confederate States Army
Years of service 1861 - 1865
Rank Brigadier General
Battles/wars Battle of Fort Sumter
First Battle of Manassas

James Chesnut, Jr. (January 18, 1815 – February 1, 1885) was a signatory of the Constitution of the Confederate States of America, and a Confederate States Army general.

A lawyer, prominent in South Carolina state politics, he served as a Democratic senator in 1858-60, where he proved moderate on the slavery question. But on Lincoln’s election in 1860, Chesnut resigned and took part in the South Carolina secession convention, later helping to draft the Confederate Constitution. As aide to General P.G.T. Beauregard, he ordered the firing on Fort Sumter, and served at First Manassas. Later he was aide to Jefferson Davis, and promoted Brigadier-General, returning to law practice after the war.

His wife was Mary Boykin Chesnut, whose published diaries reflect their busy social life and prominent friends such as John Bell Hood, Louis T. Wigfall and Wade Hampton III, as well as Jefferson Davis.

Early life and education[edit]

Chesnut was born the youngest of fourteen children and the only (surviving) son of James Chesnut, Sr. (1775–1866) and his wife, Mary Cox (1777–1864) on Mulberry Plantation near Camden, South Carolina. Chesnut, Sr. was one of the wealthiest planters in the South, who owned 448 slaves and many large plantations totaling nearly five square miles before the outbreak of the Civil War. Chesnut Jr. 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.

Antebellum career[edit]

Admitted to the bar in 1837, Chesnut, Jr. commenced practice that year in Camden. He was later elected as 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 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 not as staunch a 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 its 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 was the first Southern senator to withdraw from the Senate, on November 10, 1860. (He was expelled in absentia from the Senate the next year.)

Civil War[edit]

as a general during the 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 and formed the Conservative Party of South Carolina.

Marriage, family and death[edit]

Although James Chesnut, Jr. was the only son, his father had given him little of his extensive property. Because his father lived to the age of 90 and gave his son but a small allowance, the son 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 more than the extensive debts that encumbered the Mulberry and Sandy Hill plantations.[3]

Chesnut married seventeen-year-old Mary Boykin Miller (1823–86), on April 23, 1840. She later became well known for her book on life during the Civil War, published as a diary but revised extensively from 1881 to 1886. The daughter of U.S. Senator Stephen Decatur Miller (1788–1838) and Mary Boykin (1804–85), she was well-educated and intelligent and took 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). Their companionship was mostly warm and affectionate but they had no children.[4] The couple resided at Chesnut Cottage in Columbia during the Civil War period.[5]

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]",[6] who performed his duties with ability and dignity both in political and military life. He died at home in Camden in 1885; interment was in Knights Hill Cemetery, near Camden.

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  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. ^ "Chesnut Cottage, Richland County (1718 Hampton St., Columbia)". National Register Properties in South Carolina. South Carolina Department of Archives and History. Retrieved 2014-01-07. 
  6. ^ Hammond, Secret And Sacred, p. 214.

References[edit]

  • 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[edit]

United States Senate
Preceded by
Arthur P. Hayne
U.S. Senator (Class 3) from South Carolina
1858–1860
Served alongside: James H. Hammond
Succeeded by
vacant
Confederate States House of Representatives
Preceded by
none
Representative to the Provisional Confederate Congress from South Carolina
1861–1862
Succeeded by
none