Mary Chesnut: The Firing on Ft. Sumter
Reading Comprehension Activity

Author: Mary Boykin Chesnut

Mary Chesnut (1823-1886) was an upper class South Carolina woman. Her diary of the Civil War places the reader in the middle of the important people and events of that tragic conflict. Her diary is considered an important work, and a modern edition of her diary won the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for History. In this passage, Mary Chesnut writes about the firing on Ft. Sumter. Students will read the entry and answer questions on the language and the characters.

Topic(s): History. Skill(s): Summary, Character Traits, Context Clues. Genre(s): Journal / Diary

Click for the passage & questions on one printable PDF.


Mary Boykin Miller Chesnut (1823-1886) was a prominent woman from South Carolina. Her husband, James Chesnut, was a U.S. Senator before the Civil War. Well-educated, intelligent, and well-connected, Mary understood, as the Civil War began, she had a front row seat to a historic moment in history. She began recording the events in her life in February 1861.

After South Carolina seceded from the Union in December 1860, much attention was directed at Ft. Sumter, a U.S. sea fort on an island in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. The Confederate troops built batteries, or positions for large guns and cannons, along the shore facing Ft. Sumter. In April of 1861, James Chesnut, now a colonel in the Confederate army, met with the Ft. Sumter commander, Major Robert Anderson, to demand the surrender of Ft. Sumter to the Confederacy. Anderson declined. The resulting events would start the Civil War.

This passage from Mary’s diary on April 12, 1861 covers the events of the firing of Ft. Sumter by the Confederate troops from her vantage point in Charleston. President Davis is Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. Beauregard is General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding officer of the Charleston troops.


April 12th. –Anderson will not capitulate. Yesterday’s was the merriest, maddest dinner we have had yet. Men were audaciously wise and witty. We had an unspoken foreboding that it was to be our last pleasant meeting. Mr. Miles dined with us to-day. Mrs. Henry King rushed in saying, “The news, I come for the latest news. All the men of the King family are on the Island,” of which fact she seemed proud.

While she was here our peace negotiator, or envoy, came in–that is, Mr. Chesnut returned. His interview with Colonel Anderson had been deeply interesting, but Mr. Chesnut was not inclined to be communicative. He wanted his dinner. He felt for Anderson and had telegraphed to President Davis for instructions–what answer to give Anderson, etc. He has now gone back to Fort Sumter with additional instructions. When they were about to leave the wharf A. H. Boykin sprang into the boat in great excitement. He thought himself ill-used, with a likelihood of fighting and he to be left behind!

I do not pretend to go to sleep. How can I? If Anderson does not accept terms at four, the orders are, he shall be fired upon. I count four St. Michael’s bells chime out and I begin to hope. At half-past four the heavy booming of a cannon. I sprang out of bed, and on my knees prostrate I prayed as I never prayed before.

There was a sound of stir all over the house, pattering of feet in the corridors. All seemed hurrying one way. I put on my double-gown and a shawl and went, too. It was to the housetop. The shells were bursting. In the dark I heard a man say, “Waste of ammunition.” I knew my husband was rowing about in a boat somewhere in that dark bay, and that the shells were roofing it over, bursting toward the fort. If Anderson was obstinate, Colonel Chesnut was to order the fort on one side to open fire. Certainly fire had begun. The regular roar of the cannon, there it was. And who could tell what each volley accomplished of death and destruction?

The women were wild there on the housetop. Prayers came from the women and imprecations from the men. And then a shell would light up the scene. To-night they say the forces are to attempt to land. We watched up there, and everybody wondered that Fort Sumter did not fire a shot.

To-day Miles and Manning, colonels now, aides to Beauregard, dined with us. The latter hoped I would keep the peace. I gave him only good words, for he was to be under fire all day and night, down in the bay carrying orders, etc.

Last night, or this morning truly, up on the housetop I was so weak and weary I sat down on something that looked like a black stool. “Get up, you foolish woman. Your dress is on fire,” cried a man. And he put me out. I was on a chimney and the sparks had caught my clothes. Susan Preston and Mr. Venable then came up. But my fire had been extinguished before it burst out into a regular blaze.

Do you know, after all that noise and our tears and prayers, nobody has been hurt; sound and fury signifying nothing — a delusion and a snare.

Comprehension Questions

Get the passage & questions on one printable PDF.

Interactive Banner 2

Enter description text here.