Back For The Future

23 marker Chesnut and CatherineLinda Burton posting from Columbia, South Carolina – Mary Chesnut and Catherine Bruce. I want you to remember those two names. Though born in different centuries, these women have several things in common. First of all, they both lived a part of their lives on Hampton Street in Columbia, South Carolina. Catherine still does; she owns and resides in the Visanska-Starks house at 2214. And Mary lived for a time during the Civil War in what is now a B&B called “The Chesnut Cottage” at 1718. Neither place is open to the public as a house museum, but both sites are identified by Historic Markers strategically placed near their front sidewalk. It was near one of those markers that I met Catherine Bruce; I was in front of the Chesnut Cottage marveling 23 marker Chesnut Cottagethat I was there and snapping pictures, of course. A woman passed by, bundled against the blustery afternoon wind. She commented about my camera; I commented about her headscarf; then she spotted my car and our conversation began. Catherine, it turns out, is a doctoral student at USC; she was headed for the library. She asked about my Journey and I asked about her studies but it was much too cold to stand and talk; we agreed to meet for lunch later in the week. And that’s when I discovered what else Mary Chesnut and Catherine Bruce have in common.

23 mary chesnutLet’s talk about Mary first. The historical details reveal a woman of privileged wealth and education. Mary Boykin Miller Chesnut (1823-1886) was born on her grandparent’s plantation in South Carolina, near the High Hills of Santee. Her father was in politics; Stephen Decatur Miller served as a US Representative, Governor of South Carolina, and a US Senator; Mary grew up surrounded by the idea of public service. She was 12 when they sent her to Mme Talvande’s French School for Young Ladies in Charleston where she learned more than how to flutter a fan; she became fluent in French and German and received a strong education. She was thirteen when she met James Chesnut Jr (1815-1885); they were married four years later. James, a lawyer, was elected US Senator in 1858, but once the Civil War began, he resigned and became an aide to President Jefferson Davis; he was soon commissioned in the Confederate Army.

23 ken burnsOn February 15, 1861, Mary began keeping a diary. You may have read it, if you’re interested in Civil War history, or history in general. It is highly regarded by historians for what it reveals of Southern society and Confederate military leaders; it has been called both a “work of art” and the “most important work by a Confederate author.” Mary made the last entry on August 2, 1865, but after the war she reworked much of it, shaping a manuscript; A Diary From Dixie was published in 1905, long after her death. C Vann Woodward edited the book in later years; his annotated version 23 bookMary Chesnut’s Civil War was awarded the 1982 Pulitzer Prize in US History. Ken Burns used extensive readings from Mary’s diary in his documentary television series, The Civil War; actress Julie Harris read these sections.

I read the book three years ago, following Mary from the euphoria of the early war to the despair at the end, when she and her one remaining servant and companion slept in a borrowed room, depending on donations of food as they might be given. I followed her from Charleston to Montgomery to Richmond to Columbia; I read of the parties and carriage rides; I read of her grief as she consoled friends and strangers over heartwrenching losses; sons and husbands killed; possessions gone. She lived among the names you know from history books: Jefferson and Varina Davis; John Bell Hood, Wade Hampton III; she lived in the reality of war.

But thousands of people witnessed war, you might say. While that is true, the difference is this: Mary Chesnut wrote it down, and to this day, we may step into that time and place, and see that war through Mary’s eyes and heart.

23 catherine ch cCatherine Fleming Bruce was born in the 1960’s; her father was military so she lived in many places and has traveled almost everywhere, “with miles to go,” she laughs, listing other parts of the world she wants to experience. Always interested in politics, she was in Washington, DC last month for President Obama’s inauguration; she was there in 2009 as well. Her resume reads like a study in international affairs; she is a member of the International Association of Media and Communications Research, and the International Coalition of Historic Sites of Conscience. She participated in the World Summit for the Information Society, a global summit sponsored by the International Telecommunications Union and the United Nations; she presented at the Conference on International Norms for the 21st Century in France. Closer to home, she worked with the Walker Institute “Study with the United States” program with the University of South Carolina. And that’s where this doctoral student is busiest at the moment; completing that doctoral dissertation.

23 Catherine carriage houseResearch, analysis, and grant writing take her time now, but wait; somehow in the midst of this she has pulled together the history of the Visanska-Starks House, where she now resides, and has put it out there for all to see, including that Historic Marker out front. She took me around to the back yard to show off the carriage house; she has partnered with the Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation to begin its restoration. It’s in “falling-down” condition at the moment; modern-day concrete blocks were added at some point in time; two kinds of brick are visible; junk is piled inside – who knows where it came from, or when? But leave it to Catherine; she will find the answers; she is sure there is a story there, just as with the house. Already her research on 23 catherine signthis landmark site has uncovered the history of Antebellum whites, immigrant Jews during the turn of the century, and African-Americans on the cusp of World War II. Each discovery turned up yet another fascinating link, such as the one to international composers and musicians, providing the property with global connections. She succeeded in having the Historical marker from the South Carolina Department of Archives and History erected in April 2007.

So what else do Mary Chesnut and Catherine Bruce have in common? I’d say it is their keen observational powers, their ability and willingness to take the time to record what they see, and their urge to share it with the world. That’s a gift – for future generations, and for all of us today.

Hopefully I have something in common with both of them.

The historical significance of the Visanska-Starks House: it was built sometime after 1900; Barrett Visanska bought it in 1913. He was a native of Poland, a leader in Columbia’s Jewish community, and a founder of the Tree of Life Congregation. In 1938 Dr. John J. Starks, the first black president of Benedict College, bought the house and lived there till he died in 1944. After WWII the house served as the nurses’ home for Good Samaritan Waverly Hospital. The international musical connection? Visanska’s children Daniel and Bertha studied under Czech composer Antonin Dvorak, and became renowned performers in Europe. As for Dr Starks, he facilitated the first state meeting of the South Carolina Conference of NAACP, held at Benedict College in 1939; Benedict was the seedbed for numerous individuals who participated in the Civil Rights movement, and in social change. The Nurses Home? The House served in this capacity until 1952, when the Good Samaritan building opened as a licensed medical facility that was purpose-built for blacks.

The historical significance of the Chesnut Cottage: it was the temporary wartime home of General James and Mary Chesnut; Jefferson Davis visited there on October 5, 1864, and spoke to the citizens of Columbia from the front steps. Four months later Columbia was in ashes, with fires destroying houses less than a block away from the cottage.

Visanska-Shanks House Marker, 2214 Hampton Street, Columbia

The Chesnut Cottage Marker, 1718 Hampton Street, Columbia

The Chesnut Cottage B & B, 1718 Hampton Street, Columbia

Read the full description of the houses (and other historic markers in South Carolina, and everywhere) at the Historic Marker Database