MARY CHESTNUT's famous diary of the American Civil War was first published in 1905 under the flashy title of A Diary from Dixie, an editorial flourish that the author who died in 1886, would have disliked. She consciously avoided the geographical expression "Dixie" and wrote that the song "never moved me a jot." This fierce patriot's South was mystical, not sentimental, and in any case was "a world knocked to pieces." Forget about the Confederacy, forget about the Blue and the Gray. What Chesnut chronicled was a ruling class at the supreme climax of its power and at the exact moment of its collapse.

In truth A Diary from Dixie is not a proper diary at all, despite daily entries for the years 1861 to 1865. It actually was composed between 1881 and 1884 when Chestnut, once the mistress of a plantation that stretched for five miles along the Wateree River near Camden, South Carolina, desperately needed money. With an eye toward publication she wrote and rewrote the journal she in fact had kept during the war. Twenty years later a Yankee journalist in collaboration with Chestnut's literary executor quarried a diary out of these revisions, suppressing much material, especially about race, that did not accord with the current version of the Lost Cause; for instance, the murder of Chestnut's cousin, Elizabeth Witherspoon, by her slaves.

In 1949 novelist Ben Ames Williams (A House Divided) came across the surviving fragments of Chestnut's journal and drafts of four revisions in the South Caroliniana Library in Columbia. Excited by the find, he published a new, expanded edition of A Diary from Dixie. Unhappily, Williams was keen on readability but not on accuracy and extensively altered, omitted and deleted substantial portions of Chestnut's text.

So far this has been one of those matters dear to the hearts of true scholars, a manuscript mystery. Most readers remained blissfully ignorant of the diary's corrupt text and imprecise dating. Specialists acclaimed it, though General Lee's biographer, Douglas Southall Freeman, complained that "the reader hears champagne corks pop while boys are dying in the mud." In 1962, however, critic Edmund Wilson published his study of the literature of the Civil War, Patriotic Gore. Never one to effuse when a reputation could be butchered, Wilson surprised even the experts when he flatly declared Chestnut's diary "an extraordinary document -- in its informal department, a masterpiece . . . . The very rhythm of her opening pages at once puts us under the spell of a writer who is not merely jotting but establishing, as a novelist does, an atmosphere, an emotional tone." Asserting that the diary was "so much more revealing than most of the fiction inspired by the war," Wilson wondered aloud why a full edition of this "work of art" was not undertaken.

One of the experts who sat up and took notice at Wilson's words was C. Vann Woodward, Yale's distinguished historian of the postbellum South. Thanks to him, we have the first authoritative text of this great work, now revealed as the masterpiece it is; the finest work of literature to come out of the Civil War, perhaps one of the half dozen or so most important diaries in all literature; if you will, a Southern War and Peace.

There is no justice in the business of literary reputations. In her lifetime Chesnut published only one story, a brief memoir in a Charleston newspaper about Richmond in the awful winter of 1865. How pleased, how delighted she would have been to hear our modern tributes. We can accept on faith that she would have been gracious about the alma mater of her father's colleague in the United States Senate, John C. Calhoun.

The daughter and wife of United States senators, Mary Boykin Miller Chesnut belonged by birth and marriage to what she called "high Carolina," the "FFs." Born in 1823, at age 17 she married James Chesnut Jr., Princeton graduate, lawyer and heir to Mulberry, the seat of blind old Colonel James Chesnut Sr., who, in his nineties, an unrepentant Unionist, croaks at the young fools that secession means "Bad times, worse coming . . . We could not have kept slavery here a day, but the powerful government of the U.S.A. protected if for us."

Young James, writes Chesnut, could bow "grandly, like a prince of the blood" -- she is clearly a member of a romantic geneation that knew its Walter Scott and Thackeray. The Chesnuts had no children, source of much grief, for Mulberry was entailed to male heirs; all her life she was to spoil and flutter over the children of friends and relatives. "Mars Jeems" Chesnut was elected to the Senate in 1858 and was the first Southern senator to resign his seat on Lincoln's election. He was a delegate to the convention in Montgomery that founded the Confederacy and delivered Beauregard's formal demand for Fort Sumter's surrender in April 1861. During the war he was in charge of military liaison between the Richmond and South Carolina governments.

Of the turbulent war years Mary Chestnut keeps scrupulous documentation. We hear the snippets of conversation, the political gossip, the merriment in the face of encircling disaster. After the initial flush of excitment -- from Camden to Richmond the troop trains moved through a sea of waving handkerchiefs -- the realization gradually spreads among the members of the Confederacy's inner circle that the cause is doomed. The angel of death is abroad in the land; the killing and incessant grief are numbering. At one dinner party in Richmond, Mary Chesnut is offended by an officer's imitation of the grotesque expressions the faces of slain soldiers assume. She scans the impassive faces of her slaves for signs of disloyalty. In the midst of death, there is a romance between Sally Buchanan Preston ("Buck" to family and friends) and the dashing Colonel John Bell Hood of the renowned Texas infantry who ardently woos the young belle. But their engagement, a metaphor for the hopes of the confederacy, collapses in the face of mounting military defeat.

At war's end, the Chesnuts flee Sherman's advancing army and hear that Mulberry has been burned and plundered. There will be no forgiveness of the Yankees: "Forgiveness is indifference. Forgiveness is impossible while love lasts . . . . The weight that hangs upon our eyelids -- is of lead."

We have of course heard elements of the story Chesnut tells many times before -- in all those novels whose splendors and limitations are epitomized by that seductive opening sentence: "Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charms as the Tarleton twins were"; in the grand battle canvases of Douglas Southall Freeman, Bruce Catton and Shelby FOOTE; IN THE LETTERS OF THE jones family of Georgia so carefully assembled by Robert Mansonly of Myes in The Children of Pride; in Michael Shaara's intensely moving novel about Gettysburg The Killer Angels and recently in two fine novels, Thomas Keneally's Confederates and Richard Slotkin's The Crater . t

All these works, which we read so compulsively, are modern accounts of the great rebellion; indeed many use Chesnut as a primary source. But chesnut writes as a contemporary awash in the detail of living; her account is accordingly more passionate and personal -- in fine, more real -- and for that reason is transmitted and elevated into great art. Excerpts do not easily convey her richness; her themes build up symphonically.

One theme is race relations. Until middle age, Chesnut was waited on hand and foot by house servants who anticipated every need. Mulberry alone had 70; Colonel Chesnut's butler, Eben, "would be miserable and feel himself a ridiculous failure were I ever forced to ask him for anything." When the Yankees come, Eben decides to go away, a free man. He meets Sherman's troops at the gate, "with his watch and chain, like the cordage of a ship, with a handful of gaudy seals." The Yankees steal his watch, the gift of the old colonel; and Eben returns a wiser man, declaring "'I thought maybe better stay with ole Master that give me the watch and not go with them that stole it.'

"The watch was the pride of his life. The iron had entered his soul."

The vignettes of the serants are affecting and often humorous, but Chesnut treats black people like objects, even the maid who hides her diamonds from the invaders. This despite her vehement detestation of slavery; "Men and women are punished when their masters and their mistresses are brutes and not when they do wrong -- and then we live surrounded by prostitutes . . . . God forgive us, but ours is a monstrous system and wrong and iniquity. Perhaps the rest of the world is as bad -- this only I see. Like the patriarchs of old our men live in one house with their wives and their concubines, and the mulattoes one sees in every family exactly resemble the white children -- and every lady tell you who is the father of all the mualtto children in everybody's household, but those in her own she seems to think drop from the clouds."

Elisabeth Muhlenfeld's biography -- available next month -- happily complements the Woodward volume. At the University of South Carolina, the author supervised the collation and transcription of the Chesnut manuscripts for the Yale project. Her biography, especially strong on Chesnut's attempts to write fiction, rounds out the picture of this strong-minded woman and her family. At its end, we have a poignant vision of the widowed and impoverished Mary Chesnut. The Pettigrew in-laws of her niece (that's the North Carolina Pettigrews, not the South Carolina Pettigrus) look her up in Camden. They find and old lady in funny clothes digging in her kitchen garden. She invites them to dinner; the accept, even though dismayed, because "she was who she was." At 8 they arrive and are astonished to be met in the entrance hall by a lady real in antebellum velvet and fan who serves them a faultless dinner enlivened by sparklng reminiscences of Richmond society nearly 20 years before. The Pettigrew ladies emerge "terribly in awe of Mrs. Chesnut."