"There are attics and trunks of letters all over South Carolina, parts and pieces of our collective story," she said. "We're just the custodians of a few threads. It's our challenge to pass it on," said Marty Daniels.
The efforts of Daniels and 11 of her relatives to preserve a piece of their family’s history and “pass it on,” recently reported by the Associated Press, produced quite a detective story. The story concluded when the family announced that it had obtained nearly 200 photographs that Daniels’ great-great grand aunt, Civil War diarist Mary Boykin Chesnut had collected to illustrate her journals of that war years.
Chesnut was the daughter of an antebellum U.S. Senator and South Carolina Governor and married a man who became a U.S. Senator from South Carolina, then resigned to become an aide to Jefferson Davis and later a brigadier general in the Confederate Army. Her diaries and journals captured an insider’s view of the upper echelons of Southern social and political life.
When published in 1982 as, Mary Chesnut’s Civil War, edited by historian C. Vann Woodward, her writings won a Pulitzer Prize in History
Reid Beddow of the Washington Post Book World called the book, "Perhaps one of the half dozen or so most important diaries in all literature; if you will, a Southern 'War and Peace'."
But when Chesnut’s journals appeared, they were not accompanied by her photographs which disappeared in the early 1930s and didn’t reappear until 2007 when they showed up on eBay. AP described what happened then:
"Of course, where else would they be in this day and age?" Daniels asked, laughing.
She credits a Civil War collector who recognized their worth for saving the albums from an owner who had begun taking them apart and selling the photos separately. Alerted to the eBay notice about a live auction in Nashville, the family pooled their resources. Daniels said even her elementary school grandchildren wanted to contribute, and the family urged libraries and museums across South Carolina not to bid against them.
"We were very afraid we wouldn't be able to afford them," Daniels said. In making the request, the family promised "we'd do the right thing and get them to the people of South Carolina and reunite them with her diaries, but we also dearly wanted to see the photographs of our ancestors."
Purchased for "less than six figures," the albums were delivered to Daniels' mother at Mulberry Plantation just before Christmas 2007.
The family has completed an illustrated version of Chesnut’s diary and has now donated the photo collection to the University of South Carolina.