Chesnut was considered a moderate in South Carolina politics. He was a strong defender of slavery and states’ rights but saw secession as viable only as a last resort and with the complete cooperation of other southern states.
U.S. senator, soldier. Born on January 18, 1815, at Camden, Chesnut was the son of James Chesnut, one of South Carolina’s wealthiest planters, and Mary Cox. Chesnut attended local schools before entering the College of New Jersey (Princeton) as a sophomore in 1832. He gave the valedictory address at his graduation in 1835. Returning home, Chesnut sought a position as aide to the governor but at his father’s insistence read law at the Charleston office of James L. Petigru. He was admitted to the bar in 1837 and began to practice law in Camden. With the death of his older brother in 1839, James became the heir apparent to his father’s vast fortune. On April 23, 1840, James married Mary Boykin Miller of Stateburg. The couple had no children.
Chesnut served as representative from Kershaw District in the S.C. House of Representatives from 1840 to 1845 and from 1850 to 1851. He attended the Nashville Convention in 1850, served as a presidential elector in 1856, and was a trustee of South Carolina College between 1853 and 1858. He was elected to the S.C. Senate in 1852, serving as its president from 1856 to 1858. On December 3, 1858, he was elected to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by the death of Josiah J. Evans. Chesnut was considered a moderate in South Carolina politics. He was a strong defender of slavery and states’ rights but saw secession as viable only as a last resort and with the complete cooperation of other southern states.
Following the election of Abraham Lincoln, Chesnut resigned his seat on November 10, 1860, the first southern senator to do so. The Senate refused to accept the resignation and later expelled him with other southern senators. Chesnut returned home and became a delegate to the Secession Convention, where he served on the committee that drafted the ordinance. The convention elected Chesnut as a delegate to the Confederate Provisional Congress in January 1861, where he served on the committee writing the Confederate constitution. In the initial crisis at Fort Sumter, Chesnut served as a volunteer aide (with the rank of colonel) to General Pierre G. T. Beauregard and was part of the delegation that demanded the fort’s surrender on April 12, 1861. He also served on Beauregard’s staff in Virginia at the first Battle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861.
In November, Chesnut failed to win election to the permanent Confederate Congress due to his reluctance to promote himself for the seat. Increasing concerns over the leadership abilities of Governor Francis Pickens led the secession convention to reconvene in December and create an executive council to direct the affairs of the state. On January 7, 1862, Chesnut was elected to the council and became chief of the Military Department, a position that effectively supplanted the governor as the state’s commander in chief.
Jefferson Davis commissioned Chesnut as an aide-de-camp with the rank of colonel on April 19, 1862, and asked him to come to Richmond. But Chesnut remained in South Carolina, where through the council he implemented measures to raise troops for the war and increase the readiness of the militia. Chesnut also led the council’s efforts to furnish slave labor for building coastal defenses and the production of scarce niter for gunpowder. After the demise of the council on December 18, 1862, Chesnut traveled to Richmond to take his place on Davis’s staff. His duties involved advising the Confederate president on military matters, visiting the various departments and reporting on military conditions, and acting as a liaison with the South Carolina government. On April 23, 1864, he was appointed brigadier general and assigned to command the reserve troops in South Carolina, a position he held through the remainder of the war.
His father’s death in 1866 left Chesnut with extensive landholdings but even larger debts from which he never recovered. He remained politically active, serving as a delegate to the 1868 Democratic National Convention and participating in the 1871 and 1874 Taxpayers’ Conventions. He opposed the policies and corruption of the Reconstruction governments and strongly supported Wade Hampton’s 1876 gubernatorial race. Although he had applied for a pardon in 1865, it was not granted until 1878. He died in Camden on February 1, 1885, and was buried at the family cemetery at Knight’s Hill.
Tollison, Marjorie Spelts. “James Chesnut, Jr.” Master’s thesis, University of South Carolina, 1954.
Muhlenfeld, Elisabeth. Mary Boykin Chesnut: A Biography. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981.