James Chesnut Jr was born January 18th 1815 at the family home Mulberry Plantation in Camden, South Carolina, the son of James and Mary (Cox) Chesnut. He was the youngest of fourteen children and the only surviving son. The family was among the wealthiest of southern planters. Chesnut graduated from the College of New Jersey in 1835 and opened a practice in Camden in 1837. He married Mary Boykin Miller April 23rd 1840 [she is well known for the diary she kept during the War]. He quickly became a rising star in southern politics, becoming a member of the South Carolina House of Representatives in 1840, the South Carolina State Senate in 1852 and serving as its president 1856-58.In 1858 the South Carolina Legislature voted to send Chesnut to Washington to replace United States Senator Josiah J Evans. Although he defended states’ rights and slavery, Chesnut opposed restarting the slave trade and was not strongly in favor of secession. Following the election of Abraham Lincoln, Chesnut felt he could no longer serve in his office as Senator. He became the first of the Southern senators to resign their seats on November 10th 1860.
Chesnut was at the South Carolina secession convention in December 1860 and would be elected to the Provisional Congress of the Confederate States of America, a part of the committee who drafted the Confederate Constitution. Chesnut gave the orders to open fire on Fort Sumter on April 12th 1861; he was serving as the aide-de-camp to Confederate P G T Beauregard. In 1864 he was promoted to Brigadier General and commanded a South Carolina reserve unit until the end of the war.Following the Civil War Chesnut returned to practicing law in Camden, South Carolina. He died at his home in Camden, South Carolina February 1st 1885 and is buried in the Knights Hill Cemetery there.