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Faces of the past

Reclaimed photographs add new dimension to Civil War diarist's life, times

Posted: October 6, 2011 5:42 p.m.
Updated: October 7, 2011 5:00 a.m.
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Marty Daniels (left) and Barbara McCarthy worked together to combine Mary Chesnut’s diary with her Civil War photo albums. The original pictures and albums, displayed behind the women, were donated to the Caroliniana Library at the University of South Carolina, where Chesnut’s diary is housed.

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Mary Chesnut, author of the famous diary detailing the Civil War from a woman’s perspective, has long been a vital part of Camden’s history. It is not until now, however, that the public will get to actually see the people mentioned in her historic diary.

While the diary makes mention of photographs -- or carte de visites -- to go along with it, Marty Daniels didn’t know the pictures still existed until friend and author Jim Kibler provided the first clue. Daniels is a member of the eighth generation to own Mulberry Plantation, where Chesnut and her husband, James Chesnut Jr., once lived.

Sometime in 2003, Daniels remembers, Kibler asked, “Have you had any luck tracking down Mary Chesnut’s albums?”

“We had forgotten she had them,” Daniels said.

Records show the albums were not with Chesnut’s diary when she died in 1886, Daniels said. Rather, she had sent them to her niece, Mary Williams Ames, who was living in Baltimore.

“The albums were with (Ames) until around 1930. Nobody really knows where they went after that,” Daniels said.

She speculates they were probably stolen.

“From there, they disappeared into the underworld of Civil War collectors.”

Kibler’s clue was the name of a man in Baltimore who was rumored to have the collection of pictures. Daniels followed up with a phone call to the man to inquire about the albums.

“It was very strange,” Daniels said of the phone conversation with the man’s wife, “but nothing came of it and the mystery continued.”

While the clue Kibler provided didn’t immediately prove useful, it encouraged Daniels and her family to continue the search for the missing albums.

“Jim knew the albums existed, and reminded us of that when we forgot,” Daniels said.

It wasn’t until December of 2007 that the photos surfaced -- as items up for bid on eBay.

“My cousin from Charleston called me and said ‘You won’t believe what I just found on eBay,’” Daniels said.

“If it had not been for … Margot Rose, who was browsing on eBay one day and discovered Mary’s albums were up for auction, we might have missed the boat,” Daniels wrote in the acknowledgements of the album’s publication.

Because of the price tag, Daniels said, the family was initially hesitant to make the purchase.

However, after thinking about it, Daniels’ mother, Martha Daniels, decided the photos needed to be purchased by the family.

“She agreed on a price she would pay, and the rest of the family agreed to chip in if we needed to -- if the price went above what she wanted to pay,” Daniels said; ultimately, their pledges were not needed.

The family got in touch with Austin Sheheen and asked him to be the designated bidder for the albums.

“Being a collector himself, he knew just what to do,” Daniels said. “We were all watching on the computer as the pictures were flashing across the screen.”

Sheheen came back with the winning bid, and the pictures were sent to Daniels and her family.

“The pictures were delivered to Mother just a few days before Christmas,” Daniels said. “It was truly a magic moment for her.”

As Daniels notes in the published album, “102 years after the publication of A Diary from Dixie, Mary Chesnut’s photograph albums came home to Mulberry Plantation.”

Then the family, along with the help of others, began to identify everyone. The auctioned albums included 186 pictures. The family has also purchased 12 other photos separately that were a part of Chesnut’s original collection.

“This album had so many people,” Daniels said. “Abraham Lincoln, abolitionists, wives, children, slaves, soldiers, foreign war correspondents and other world figures.”

Chesnut was not an average woman of the Victorian era, she was “clear-eyed,” said Daniels. “She was not just a lost cause Confederate. She saw the world from an important perspective.”

Her diary was “fantastic for history,” Daniels said, “and now, she is considered one of the great literary writers of the 1900s.”

In fact, Mulberry Plantation is recognized as a National Historic Landmark based on Chesnut’s literary work.

Returning to Mulberry was “not the last stop on the albums’ journey,” Daniels wrote.

The family agreed to donate the albums to the Caroliniana Library at the University of South Carolina, the home of Chesnut’s diary.

“They belong together. They belong to the people of South Carolina,” Daniels said.

She is forever thankful, she said, to Dr. John O’Brien of West Virginia.

He saved the albums from being “dismantled … before too much damage was done.”

O’Brien purchased the albums in 1985 and, as a historian, knew the significance the collection had. In keeping the majority of the pictures together, it was his foresight that allowed them to eventually be reunited with Chesnut’s family.

When Daniels’ mother passed away in 2009, the family formed the Martha W. Daniels Foundation, which was established to fund the Mulberry Archives and the transcription, preservation and conservation of all the historic documents.

The foundation also provided the funding for the publication of Chesnut’s diary along with a Civil War Photograph Album as a companion set.

“For the first time in history, (Chesnut’s) diary will be seen the way she meant for it to be seen,” Daniels said.

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