Note: This is a term paper I wrote for the winter quarter of the 1999-2000 school year. I have fixed a few typos and computer glitches. I also appear to have lost a page of bibliography. Other than that, the essay is unchanged. There are a few arguments I could have made more clear. There are a few points I no longer entirely agree with myself. There are perspectives on historical figures and characters that I have changed my mind on. However, I found it, and several people have expressed interest in reading it. So here it is, in its entirety except that missing page.
“What most people know about Sherman’s Atlanta campaign was acquired at some point between ‘Tara’s Theme’ and ‘Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn!'”
—War So Terrible, James Lee McDonough and James Pickett Jones
“It combined historical fact and myth, powerful characters, and a compelling story of the South from antebellum splendor to crushing defeat to determined efforts to recover.”
—The American South: A History, William J. Cooper, Jr., and Thomas E. Terrill
“Unfortunately, it seems that a great many Americans owe their understanding of the central event in our history to a sixty-year-old piece of fiction.”
—Don’t Know Much About the Civil War, Kenneth C. Davis
That Scarlett O’Hara never existed is without question. She was the brainchild of Margaret Mitchell, who was born in 1900—thirty-five years after the Civil War ended, and long after even the most die-hard Southerner claims Reconstruction was over. According to Mitchell herself, she didn’t realize until she was ten that the South had lost. (LHJ) She took the stories of her childhood and historical research and created an image of the South that has endured for over sixty years.
But how much historical research is apparent in her work? Mitchell claimed once to be able to provide four historical sources for every line of nonfiction in the book, yet many historians downplay the accuracy of Gone With the Wind. Despite this, it has become nearly impossible in this country to discuss the Civil War without a mention of Mitchell’s epic. Therefore, it is important to examine the book’s Civil War passages and analyze its accuracy. Is the pooh-poohing of the critics merely snobbery? Or, rather, did Mitchell, an avid Civil War researcher, ignore and alter those facts that did not suit her story? This paper will attempt to make a judgement.
While Gone With the Wind also covers Reconstruction, this paper will not. For one thing, the Battle of Atlanta is a bulky enough topic on its own, and for another, Mitchell’s writing was biased by the historians of the time, most of whom used the facts their own way. One cannot expect a book written by a Southerner, published in 1936, to be an entirely accurate portrayal of Reconstruction, an event twisted by Southern historians almost as soon as it was over. The Civil War will do nicely, and Reconstruction will be left for another time.
Chapters I-VII–“Gentlemen always fight better than rabble!”
Obviously, Margaret Mitchell did not cover the seventy years of the nation’s history leading up to the Civil War. Her heroine was intended to be young—sixteen at the war’s beginning—and unconcerned with history. Besides, it was not a history she was writing. Gone With the Wind is historical fiction, and the fiction is usually more important than the history. The main reason for Mitchell’s research was so that she would not have “real” historians and Civil War veterans—more than a few of whom were still alive at the time of the book’s writing—coming after her for inaccuracies. “I didn’t want to get caught out in anything that any Confederate Vet could nail me on, or any historian either.” (WST, 336)
Gone With the Wind starts on a bright April afternoon in 1861. Scarlett is on the porch of Tara, her upcountry Georgia home, talking to the Tarleton twins, recently expelled from the University of Georgia. The boys are talking about the possibility of war, which, tellingly, bores Scarlett to pieces. She is far more interested in the barbecue to be held at Twelve Oaks the next day.
The University of Georgia was established in 1785. The twins have also been “asked to leave” the universities of Virginia (est. 1819), South Carolina (1801), and Alabama (1831). Scarlett attended the apparently nonfictional “Fayetteville Female Academy,” (scarlett.org), on which more information seems unavailable. However, one fictional school, and that a minor one, out of five, four major, seems fair enough.
Mitchell described her upcountry Georgians as having “the vigor and alertness of country people who have spent all their lives in the open and troubled their heads very little with dull things in books.” They are considered by the more elite portions of the South to be “a little crude.” In Chapter III, it is established that the O’Haras are slightly looked down upon even by their neighbors, as Gerald was born in Ireland and won Tara by gambling. His brothers are (gasp) shopkeepers in Savannah. Ellen Robillard O’Hara was the daughter of a rich Savannah family; it is she and Mammy who brought any hint of class to Tara. Northern Georgia was still very much a frontier in 1835, when Gerald first moved to his new plantation.
The boys’ talk of war sets the date of the opening of the novel very firmly. “General Beauregard shelled them out of Fort Sumter day before yesterday,” Stuart assured Scarlett. This means that the fine April afternoon is the fifteenth. The next day, at the barbecue, word comes that Lincoln has called for volunteers, and all the boys at the barbecue run off to enlist.
Herein lies our first test. On what day did Lincoln call for volunteers? On 15 April, 1861. (DKMACW, 179-180) Gone With the Wind passes—as does its brief mention of Georgia succession: “I’m mighty glad Georgia waited till after Christmas before it seceded or it would have ruined the Christmas parties, too.” As is obvious from the passage, Georgia seceded in January.
At the barbecue, the “menfolk” gathered to talk war. In their midst is Rhett Butler, who was expelled from West Point. He “isn’t received” in Charleston, but he knows more about the realities of war than any man there except old Mr. McRae, who “went out in the Seminole War and was a big enough fool to go to the Mexican War, too.” Mr. McRae tells the “young bucks” the horrible truth about war—that it is more sickness than glory. His mention of dysentery, which hardly a man there will escape, has his daughter send one of her daughters to silence the old man, who is discussing things not fit for polite company.
Rhett, too, speaks from a practical perspective, but a slightly different one. He has no first-hand experience of war, unlike Mr. McRae, but he has seen more of the North than any man present. He speaks plainly—to those listening, it seems insultingly—about the South’s practical chances. He asks the men about cannon factories, iron foundries, woolen mills, and any number of other industries that Southerners were too “dignified” to bother themselves about. “All we have,” he concludes, “is cotton and slaves and arrogance. They’d like us in a month.” (GWTW, 113)
History, of course, has proven Rhett right, though it took longer than he expected. (Probably McClellan’s fault.) Was he the only one to have such thoughts? Hardly. In fact, it would have been far more surprising had he. There were thirty-four states in the Union before secession. The North had nearly as many men of combat age as the South had whites, total. (For million to 5.5 million.) Lowell, Massachusetts, produced more thread in 1860 than the entire Confederacy. The North had five times the factories; more than twice the railroads and 96% of the railroad equipment; far, far more coal mines and canals; 81% of the US bank deposits, and nearly twice as much gold as the South. (DKMACW, 476-477) The situation was most accurately summed up by Baron Rothschild, who said the North would win because it had “the larger purse.” (DKMACW, 196)
Scarlett married Charles Hamilton two weeks after Lincoln’s call for volunteers. Statistics on such weddings are hard to come by, given the record-keeping of the time, but it is reasonable to assume that she and Melanie were far from the only war-brides of the Civil War, far from the only women married scant days before their husbands left for Virginia. Nor is it unreasonable to assume that Scarlett is just one of many women left widowed only a few months after their weddings.
Charles can best be summed up by the fact that he didn’t even have the decency to be shot. He, like thousands of other men on both sides of the war, died of disease. In Charles’ case, it was pneumonia following on measles. Scarlett was left a pregnant widow. She gave birth and experienced what was referred to as “a broken heart” by those around her. Most likely, it was a cross between the definite end—with a thud—of her childhood and postpartum depression. Scarlett simply wasn’t cut out for motherhood. And so she went to visit relatives in Atlanta.
Chapters VII-XIII–“. . . Sacrificing everything for the Cause–“
Gone With the Wind‘s part Two starts with a historical description of Atlanta, the setting for the next fifteen or so chpaters of the book, as well as much of the Reconstruction section. It is this section which gives us the year of Scarlett’s birth. Scarlett and Atlanta were christened in the same year: 1845. This would therefore make Scarlett sixteen, as Mitchell informs us. Atlatna was incorporated as a city two years later. Scarlett supposedly loved it for its youth. The rest of the brief history is similarly accurate, but, as Mitchell lived in Atlanta her whole life, it is rather improbable that she would get it phenomenally wrong.
Atlanta rapidly became the industrial heart of the Confederacy, for the same reason that it was built: railroads. From Atlanta, one of the railroad hubs of the train-poor South, goods could be shipped wherever rails ran—and rails were running more places as the South realized the need for them.
Another industry of Atlanta was not so helpful for the Confederate cause. The same railroads that shipped supplies to the front brought back a grim cargo. Hospitals sprang up in Atlanta, becoming social centers. All the proper ladies in the city, of course, worked in the hospitals, and Scarlett—though hardly a proper lady—was no exception. She and Melanie rolled bandages with the best of them.
Parties ruled the Atlanta night, some proper—balls and the like—others at the brothels that sprang up “where soldiers seemed likely to be stationed for a while.” (TCW, 190) It is in one of these brothels that another of the famous characters in the work appears. Belle Watling is the most infamous madame in Mitchell’s Atlanta.
Because of all this, Scarlett’s widowhood begins to be a sore point. This, too, is a difficult topic to research—women’s customs are hardly given the attention of the battles, and there is really no arguing the point—but Mitchell is very clear about what is considered proper for a young widow like “Mrs. Hamilton.” (At this point, it is worth mentioning that, while Scarlett is always thought of as “O’Hara,” she is not Scarlett O’Hara after page 131. From that point on, she is Scarlett Hamilton. On page 602, she becomes Scarlett Kennedy, and of course Scarlett Butler on 837. To give her her full due, though, we would have to call her Katherine Scarlett O’Hara Hamilton Kennedy Butler. However, she gets a Liz Taylor exemption—there are simply too many names, and so we stick with the familiar one.)
This brings us to one of the first truly famous scenes in the book or movie. (More on the movie later.) Dallas McLure is wounded in the shoulder, and his sisters go North to take him home. So early in the war, it is an entirely probable occurrence. This is, after all, only 1832, and the South has not felt the full press of war yet. Scarlett and Melanie, though in mourning, must take over the McLure girls’ booth at the bazaar.
It is difficult to say if the bazaar took place, and if it did, if the “slave auction” did as well. Once again, it is improbable that records would be kept on the subject. It is likely, however, that the South would try to halt its slide into abject poverty by any means necessary.
Still, Mitchell’s description is very clear. She tells of the blockaded goods worn by girls—this much can be verified. Otherwise patriotic Confederates would spend large amounts of money on luxuries, and therefore, the blockade runners would bring more luxuries than the medical and military supplies that the Confederacy so desperately needed. Blockade running, by its dashing nature, made up for any number of faults incurred before the war.
As the war progressed, women began getting married with even more haste than even Scarlett and Melanie. Once again, likely but not provable.
In Chapter XI, we begin to learn Ashley’s true feelings on the subject of the Glorious Cause. He, like Rhett, knows that it is a doomed cause, but, rather more like Robert E. Lee, fights with a love of his country that all the foresight in the world cannot hold aside. “. . . None of these,” he writes Melanie, “is the reason why I am fighting. Instead, I see Twelve Oaks and remember how the moonlight slants across the white columns, and the unearthly way the magnolias look, opening under the moon, and how the climbing roses make the side porch shady even at the hottest noon. And I see Mother, sewing there, as she did when I was a little boy. And I hear the darkies coming home across the field at dusk, tired and singing and ready for supper, and the sound of the windlass as the bucket goes down into the cool well. And there’s the long view of the cotton fields, and the mist rising from the bottom lands in the twilight. And that is why I’m here who have no love of death or misery or glory and no hatred for anyone. Perhaps that is what is called patriotism, love of home and country. But Melanie, it goes deeper than that. For, Melanie, these things I have named are but the symbols of the thing for which I risk my life, symbols of the kind of life I love. For I am fighting for the old days, the old ways I love so much but which, I fear, are now gone forever, no matter how the die may fall. For, win or lose, we lose just the same.” (209-210)
Compare this with Robert E. Lee, shortly after accepting command of the Army of Virginia. “I cannot raise my hand against my birthplace, my home, my children. I should like, above all things, that our difficulties might be peaceably arranged . . . . Whatever may be the result of the contest I foresee that the country will have to pass through a terrible ordeal, a ncessary expiation for our national sins. May God direct all for our good, and shield and preserve you and yours.” (TCW, 52)
Presumably, many men expressed similar sentiment, and even had they not, it is almost certain that many felt it without telling anyone. War, as Mr. McRae and Sherman both agree, is far from a pleasant business.
During these chapters, the war rates only a few lines. However, it must be remembered that the story is from Scarlett’s point of view for the most part, and Scarlett cares little if anything about the war except as it directly affects her. Second Bull Run—Manassas, in the Southern phrasing—is far from Scarlett’s insular world of hospitals, balls, and picnics. Scarlett is a nurse because every woman must be, and that is the extent of her connection to the war.
Rhett is, at this point, beginning to be looked down upon for his blockading, as it is growing obvious that a blockader can, and does, set his own price. Once again, he courts public scorn by declaring that, were government contracts so lucrative, he would turn to them instead. This, of course, is phrased in a way calculated to insult–“he would certainly abandon the hazards of blockading and take to selling shoddy cloth, sanded sugar, spoiled flour, and rotten leather to the Confederacy.” (226) Most of the people to whom he said this, of course, had a friend or relative in government contracting. But time would once again prove Rhett right.
As the war progressed, the South felt the pinch of blockaders and speculators, and once more, Rhett was not received. The South was bowed by inflation. One Richmond paper documented the rise in prices. To feed a “small family” in 1860 took $6.55 a week. By 1863, it took $68.25. (DKMACW, 284) In April, 1863, Richmond women rioted, crying for bread. A man Rhett’s age, not in the military, well-clothed and well-fed, would receive the scorn of many.
Chapters XIV-XVI–“And the end is not yet”
The war Scarlett so blithely ignored begins to affect her in Chapter XIV. Prior to that, it was a mere inconvenience, making food and luxuries hard to attain—but not that hard, what with Rhett a blockade runner and all. “Christmas of 1862 had been a happy one for Atlanta,” Mitchell tells us, “for the whole South.” Once more, the Confederacy seems convinced that it will take just “one more victory.” The comes Chancellorsville–“The South roared with elation.” (GWTW, 249)
Close to home, a Colonel Abel Streight made a daring cavalry raid into Georgia from the Union’s base in Chattanooga. To the elation of Mitchell’s Georgians, General Nathan Bedford Forrest fought and defeated the Union Cavalry at Rome, Georgia, capturing 1700 men trying to cut the rail lines. Indeed, the history of the war in the West seems to be one of cutting the rail lines or defending them. However, Forrest’s battle was just one of many, and whether or not Scarlett realized it, the war would—even for her—get much, much worse before it got better. (WST, 84)
Nor was Chancellorsville an unalloyed victory. It was there that the South was dealt a harsh blow. To the shock of even those attending his bedside, General Thomas J. Jackson was killed. It was such a surprise that newspaper accounts claimed “Stonewall Jackson Lost His Left Arm But Still Doing Well.” (TCW, 210) The South was outmanned, outgunned, and outgeneraled; the Confederacy urgently needed good commanders to counteract the desperate odds under which it was struggling. Mitchell calls the loss of Stonewall Jackson “sickening.” (GWTW, 250) Still, the South was riding high again. Just “one more victory.”
As lee’s army marched north, the South cried out for vengeance. The Union army in the West had ravaged Missouri, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Two years of constant fighting had torn up Virginia. Now, the South believed, they would have revenge. “These refugees cried out to see Pennsylvania one solid sheet of flame, and even the gentlest of old ladies wore expressions of grim pleasure.” (GWTW, 250)
To the astonishment of Mitchell’s Atlanta, Lee orders all supplies paid for. To be sure, this was mostly in promises of Confederate money when the war was won, but a bewildered Darcy Meade writes home that he had no interest in getting shot over the pleasure of burning a Yankee home. Looting, too, was punishable by death.
This, of course, was sound military policy on Lee’s part. One look at the reactions of his own countrymen confirms it. The reason the South cried out for victory was that their land had been invaded and devastated. Their homes had been burned and their belongings taken. To see this avenged, they would in many cases have gladly given their lives. Lee knew that Southerners would not be the only ones to feel that way. If he burned Pennsylvania, the North would turn their full force on wiping out the Confederacy. Lee probably knew that they had not yet given all their might toward it. To prevent it, he tried to keep his men on a short leash.
The next great stage of the war, the next tragedy in Scarlett’s young life—perhaps the first tragedy she really felt—was a battle fought hundreds of miles from her, in a town she’d never heard of and a state she’d never visited. Mitchell begins the description simply. “On the third of July, a sudden silence fell on the wires from the north, a silence that lasted till midday of the fourth when fragmentary and garbled reports began to trickle into headquarters in Atlanta. There had been fighting in Pennsylvania, near a little town named Gettysburg, a great battle with all Lee’s army massed. The news was uncertain, slow in coming, for the battle had been fought in the enemy’s territory and the reports came first thorugh Maryland, were relayed to Richmond and then to Atlanta.” (GWTW, 251-252)
Hardly an American today cannot picture the scene that follows this start. All of Atlanta is gathered in the streets in front of the newspaper office, whence the reports will be distributed. Melly, Aunt Pitty, and Scarlett all sit in their carriage, waiting. All the finest families in Atlanta wait. All the poor families wait. The city waits, until the door opens. Immediately, the throng presses toward the doors, wrenching the sheets from the newspapermen. The sheets are still wet, and they smear. All along the street, people read the names and weep.
“‘Take it,’ whispered Melly, and Scarlett snatched it from her. The Ws. Where were the Ws? Oh, there they were at the bottom and all smeared up. ‘White,’ she read and her voice shook, ‘Wilkens . . . Winn . . . Zebulon . . . Oh, Melly, he’s not on it!'” Ashley is alive, but the toll of others Scarlett knows is horrible. Darcy Meade, who had just written his parents for new boots, if they could get them. Dallas McLure, the only brother of a pair of spinsters. And from the County, from Scarlett’s childhood, the toll is heavy. Raif Calvert. Joe Fontaine. Lafe Munroe. Brent, Stuart, and Thomas Tarleton. Men Scarlett had known her whole life, the first men with whom she had flirted. (255-257)
The toll at Gettysburg was indeed a horrible one. Most estimates hold that at least one third of Lee’s army was slaughtered. Figures run as high as 28,000 casualties—wounded, missing, and dead—and even more conservative estimates are over 20,000. 2600 to 4500 men were killed in the three days of fighting, just on the Confederate side. Over 5000 were missing. (militaryhistoryonline.com) A great irony was a sign near the gate of the graveyard that gave Cemetary Hill its name: “All persons found using firearms in these grounds will be prosecuted with the utmost rigor of the law.” (TCW, 216)
Some criticize Mitchell for ignoring the fall of Vicksburg, another Confederate defeat that same week. However, the men of Georgia, both the Troop of Clayton County and the men of Atlanta, went to Lee in Pennsylvania. It is there that the story lies, not on the Mississippi far to the west of Atlanta. She does mention it, however briefly, calling the fall “evil tidings.” Mitchell agrees that, at any other time of the war, proper consideration and grieving could be given to the news. However, the thoughts of the women are with their men, North not West.
Another perspective is that the heart of the war was really its Eastern fronts, at least until the invasion of Georgia by Sherman. Washington, DC, and Richmond, the two capitols, were both eastern cities. It was in capturing cities that more glory could be seen by those at home. While a fifty-mile stretch of river might hold great strategic importance, it did not hold the mind as much as the capture of one city. The West simply had fewer cities, and those there had, for the most part, little symbolism attached. A battle in Virginia had the feel of the Revolutionary War. A battle in Tennessee did not.
For Christmas 1863, those men of the County remaining returned home on a furlough. Furloughs were granted by the armies in winter months, when there was little or no fighting, for several reasons. For one, the Confederate Army could ill-afford to feed its soldiers throughout the winter, and sending them home put the responsibility on the families. In addition, a concern for both sides was desertion. Give a man a vacation, and he is that much less likely to desert. He can go home for a few weeks, see that his family is well, and help them as best he can. Finally, Christmas furloughs improve morale of both soldiers and their families at home.
Chapter XVI starts with yet another description of battles. It is these passages in which Mitchell’s merit as a historian show. In fact, Eugene Talmadge once asked Mitchell to write a history of Georgia for use as a textbook. She refused, however, stating, “I am a novelist and a newspaper reporter not a scholar or a historian, and I do not consider myself qualified to write a history.” Little did she know that her book would become, for some, one of the only texts on the Civil War that they would ever read.
In the early summer months of 1864, Tennessee was held almost entirely by Union forces. The end of summer 1863 had seen an attempt to take Chickamauga, Georgia. The Southerners repulsed it, but following the Confederate victory is one of the only major historical errors of the Civil War period of the book. Mitchell claims “the South had needed the cheering news from Chickamauga to strengthen its morale through the winter.” (GWTW, 275) However, the Battle of Chickamauga took place in September, and in November, General Braxton Bragg was defeated by Sherman at Missionary Ridge. It was this news, not Chickamauga, that Atlantans digested along with their Christmas dinners. (WST, 341)
Once again, inflation soared in Atlanta. Morale fell. And then came the reports of Ashley’s capture. He was in prison camp at Rock Island.
Relief and horror would battle over such news. Relief—my loved one is not dead! Horror—but to be alive in such a place! The Civil War was before the Geneva Convention—th first Geneva Convention, in 1864, provided merely for treatment of the wounded. It was not until 1929, the Third Geneva Convention, that any provisions were made for the treatment of prisoners of war. Either way, the United States was not one of the attendees of the Geneva Convention, being a little preoccupied at the time. The Third Geneva Convention would have imrpoved prisons both north and South.
But of course, Ashley was not covered by it. Lincoln had made a painful decision. The South could not afford to feed Union prisoners. Both Lincoln and Grant agreed that to burden the South with prisoners might help bring an end to the war, and therefore they brought an end to prisoner exchanges. When reports began coming in that the Northerners in Southern prisons were ill-fed and worse clothed, the decision was made to stop feeding and clothing the Southern prisoners as well as the Northern army, and instead to feed them and clothe them as well as the Northern prisoners. Camp Morton, Indianapolis, is generally considered the best-run camp of the war. Despite that, more than 1700 Confederate prisoners died there due to illness, malnutrition, and wounds received prior to capture. Some deaths might even have been attributable to the shock of going North from warmer Southern climes. (TCW, 337)
In fact, some Northern prisoners may have been almost worse off than even those in the dreaded Andersonville prison. The War-Time Journal of a Georgia Girl, 1864-1865, by Eliza Andrews, was one of Margaret Mitchell’s own reference materials. (WST, 334) On page 30, Andrews describes a discussion with a Confederate officer who refers to “losing” prisoners. (It is always italicized.) Mostly, he informs his horrified listeners, they will take them to grape arbors and spook their horses. The horses will then plunge headlong down the arbor, and the riders will usually be caught and hanged in the grape vines.
Andrews hastens to explain in a footnote on pages 31 and 32 that the prisoners in question were thieves, horse stealers, and “foragers,” not regular prisoners. She points out that, had they been captured and given a proper trial, their punishment probably would have been hanging.
Chapters XVII-XXIII–“They outnumber us by the thousands”
May, 1864. There was fighting in Georgia once more, near Dalton and not far from the battlefield of Chickamauga. The South held its breath, knowing how important Georgia was. Georgia produced food, but more importantly, most of the new industries of the Confederacy were within her borders. Atlanta rested safe in the knowledge that Georgia must not fall. General Joseph Johnston would not let it fall.
Sherman, of course, was not convinced. William Tecumseh Sherman of Ohio, one of the many West Pointers in the Civil War, knew as well as any Georgian that that state was the key to defeating the Confederacy. Georgians must be made to see that no effort of theirs would be enough to keep the Union from defeating them.
Here Mitchell inserts a speech about deserters into the mouth of Rhett Butler, the only man in her book who would say such things. For Southerners, many of whom were poor, the fight took them away from homes and farms. Mitchell refers to the so-called “plow furloughs,” men who went home to plow their fields and plant their crops before returning to their units to fight again. While hardly the same as men who deserted to get away from the army entirely, they weakened the Confederate forces severely.
Once again, it is Rhett who speaks the truth, Cassandra-like. No one believes him, though he has seen more than anyone present except a young captain with a crippled arm who has transferred to join Johnston in “the mountain fastness.” Rhett agrees—at least, he claims to—with Dr. Meade that the Confederate soldiers can fight against the odds, but points out that they are hungry and barefoot. In fact, more than one Southern general ended the war short a limb or an eye.
Then began the long and painful flanking maneuvers. Johnston does hold fast in the mountains. Therefore, Sherman flanked him. Mitchell did misstate the case somewhat in claiming that it was Johnston’s defenses that forced Sherman to flank; Sherman had planned it from the outset. (WST, 342) In fact, Johnston could not have been surprised. He had fortified the town of Resaca before his retreat, knowing that Sherman could and would force him there. (TDBW, 394) In addition, Mitchell underestimated Johnston’s army by 30,000 men. However, most historians writing at about the same time did as well, so this is one error in which Mitchell herself can probably not be faulted. (WST, 342)
Again and again, the Confederacy fell back. Mitchell mentions several little towns in which there was fighting. From Resaca to Calhoun. At Calhoun, Mitchell refers to the Confederates “beating back” the Union Army. In reality, there was a small skirmish between retreating Southerners and a small unit of advancing Northerners. From Calhoun, they retreat to Adairsvills, then to Cassville, then to New Hope Church. “They could and did lick the Yankees every time the Yankees would stand and fight,” Mitchell claims. (GWTW, 292) But in fact, the Confederates never pressed the issue. By continual flanking, Johnston was forced out of the mountains of northern Georgia and to the banks of the Chattahoochee, practically within sight of Atlanta (C&T, 356-357)
This error might be attributable to some of Mitchell’s sources. After all, she interviewed veterans of the campaign, some of whom might have claimed that things were other than they were. It is quite possible that one of her primary sources fudged things to make himself and his fellows sound more forceful than they really were—to make them sound brave and the Yankees sound like cowards. It is also possible that this is one area where Mitchell’s research slipped. Either way, her dramatic telling is not quite the truth.
Nor is her description of Big Shanty entirely accurate. According to Mitchell, “they turned and fought the Yankees like demons.” (294) Big Shanty, too, was little more than a skirmish. (WST, 343)
At Kennesaw Mountain, the fighting was once again fierce and casualties poured into Atlanta, twenty-two miles away. It is during Kennesaw Mountain that Scarlett becomes too sick of nursing to continue, and she runs away from the hospital. Here again, Rhett plays seer and commentator, telling Scarlett, “But he did stand up to the Yankees, you ignorant child. And if he’d kept on standing there, Sherman would have flanked him and crushed him between the two wings of his army. And he’d have lost the railroad and the railroad is what Johnston is fighting for.” (298) Rhett knows the importance of the battle being waged, just as he knows that Johnston’s army is doomed. As usual, no one listens to Rhett.
After Kennesaw Mountain, Johnston is replaced with John Bell hood. Here, another of Mitchell’s errors is easily attributable to the scholars of her time. She claims that the army cried out for “Old Joe,” but in reality, equal numbers trusted Hood as a commander. However, many works of “real” historians claimed the same thing in the 1920s, the time during which Mitchell was researching her book. (It is also probable that Johnston never said, “I can hold Atlanta forever!” as Mitchell has him saying twice.) (WST, 343)
In direct agreement with Mitchell’s stance is that taken by an early Civil War historian, William Swinton, who in 1867, just three years after the events of the Battle of Atlanta, published The Twelve Decisive Battles of the War: a history of the Eastern and Western campaigns, in relation to the actions that decided their issue. In it, he writes one of the most poetic condemnations of Hood possible. “One such mysterious blow to the Confederacy was that by which Johnston was removed from its Western army at the moment when he was most needful for its salvation, kept from command till an intervening general had ruined and disintegrated it and then gravely restored to the leadership of its pitiful fragments.” (405)
Now, with Georgia being sliced apart by Sherman’s invading army, rumours begin to fly about the Home Guard, Georgia’s state militia, being called out to aid the failing army of Hood. In fact, it is possible that Hood relied on this hope, the hope of “Joe Brown’s Pets.” The Home Guard was made up of men too old and boys too young to fight, as well as those just cowardly enough to want an excuse to avoid active duty but just patriotic enough to want a uniform. It was a well-established fact that Brown had all but promised his militia that it would never fight.
And now, Scarlett encounters the impressed slaves being brought to build entrenchments. Scarlett laughs with the captain at their phrasing–“us is to dig de ditches fer de wit gempmums to hid in w’en de Yankees come”–but it is rather unlikely that, before the war, Scarlett’s understanding would have been much better. She had had and squandered an education. It is unjust of Mitchell to have Scarlett mocking those who had not even the opportunity.
“For the first time since the war began,” Chapter XVIII begins, “Atlanta could hear the sound of battle.” (This is not exactly true; the battle at New Hope Church was also audible from the city.) (WST, 343) She is once again describing the lengthy fighting at Kennesaw Mountain. Here, Mitchell’s talent for dramatic shading is seen. Sherman’s army is poised to break over Atlanta like a storm. Mitchell describes the state of near-panic leading up to the time when finally, finally the Georgia Home Guard is called out. And yet it is no good. The army falls back, and falls back, until they reach Peachtree Creek, five miles from Atlanta.
Here, Mitchell gives Atlanta more military significance that it is due—and understandable mistake, given that Mitchell was at Atlanta resident. “Richmond knew that if Atlanta was lost, the war was lost,” she claims. While this might have been true, the War, to the minds of the Confederacy, would be won or lost on the fields of Virginia.
Decatur fell, and then Hood fought at Peachtree Creek. Once more, the wounded overflow Atlanta. On their weary retreat, one of the first houses they pass is Aunt Pitty’s, on Peachtree Street. This is another scene in which Mitchell’s sheer artistic merit shines through. Her characters live with madness, yet do not succumb. They watch the retreat of the wounded, some of whom they know, and they hold fast. It is the women that Mitchell created that stand out in the minds of Americans as Southerners.
There had been much fighting that hot summer. Swinton estimates that on 22 July, 1864, Sherman’s army lost 3722 men, and, in Sherman’s words, the South lost “fully 8000.” On 28 July, the United States army lost 600 men and the Confederate States Army lost about 5000. (TDBW, 410-411.) Sherman bombed Atlanta all through August, and by August 30, 1864, Atlanta was caught in a trap. Three of the four railroads leading out of Atlanta had been captured. There was one left; the railroad that ran through Jonesboro, GA, a scant five miles from Tara. (GWTW, 318)
Jonesboro, like most of the places mentioned by Mitchell, was a real town. The railroad did, indeed, run through there, and it was, indeed, fought over, though Mitchell failed to give a date. Many of the women remaining in Atlanta “refugeed South” along that last railway before it fell. Eliza Andrews’ diary starts in Macon, the city that several soldiers encourage Scarlett and Melly to flee to, the city to which Aunt Pitty and Ashley’s sisters go. Scarlett and Melly, however, cannot go, as Melly is heavily pregnant. Here, Scarlett is torn, as she finds that her sisters and her mother—most importantly, her mother—are ill.
Now, once again, Mitchell gives us a date. It is the first of September, 1864. Melanie Wilkes is going into labor. Scarlett, going for Doctor Meade to help with the birth, comes across one of the most moving sights in the history of film. She goes down to the depot; long since had they stopped bringing soldiers to the hospital. They get no further than the depot, where hundreds, even thousands of men lie in the hot sun, waiting—often in vain—for the doctor to see them. Dr. Meade tries to press Scarlett into service as a nurse, but she goes back to Melly.
The army is evacuating Atlanta. The commissary has been opened rather than let the food fall into the hands of the Yankees. Scarlett must do for herself, as women had done for centuries before her, as there is no one left to do for her. Dr. Meade cannot leave the wounded. Those women who were left in Atlanta were all serving as nurses. And Prissy . . . there is no need to quote Prissy here.
The last able-bodied man in town able to help Scarlett, it seems, is Rhett Butler. Rhett’s horse and carriage have been taken by the army as an ambulance. It is almost certain that such a thing would happen. Rhett steals an army horse from the corral, as well as a wagon, and hurries to Scarlett. As they flee Atlanta, they see the last of the Confederate army in full retreat. They see the burning of the cars of ammunition. “‘Have a good look at them,’ came Rhett’s gibing voice, ‘so you can tell your grandchildren you saw the rear guard of the Glorious Cause in retreat.'” (GWTW, 378)
Though it seems, when in glorious Technicolor, to be dreamed up by a Hollywood scriptwriter, or even Margaret Mitchell, for drama, this, too, is real. Photographs exist of the crater and wreckage left by the explosion and fire. Just as “Sherman’s Sentinels,” chimneys left where the great houses of the South had burned, sparked the imagination, so, too, might these pictures have impressed themselves firmly upon Mitchell. Other parts of the sequence in the movie were dreamed up by that Hollywood writer, but the Burning of Atlanta is a documentable historical event.
Rhett leaving Scarlett on the road, however, is sheer drama.
Chapters XXIV-XXX–“‘Just a few more days for to tote the weary load'”
For the most part, the war is over for Scarlett upon reaching Tara. She sees most of the County burned out in a scene beyond her imagining just four years earlier—even three—but somehow, her faith that she will find Tara never wavers. In fact, it is one of the few houses spared in the whole County. Tara was spared because Ellen, Suellen, and Careen had typhoid.
Unlikely though it may seem, at least one plantation house in the South was spared for just such a reason, and a Yankee doctor did nurse at least one group of Southern women through typhoid. More houses were spared for the other purpose given Tara—they were used as temporary headquarters by Sherman’s army. Though Scarlett is horrified at the concept of Yankees in Tara, it was far better for her that they were. Otherwise, Tara would join Twelve Oaks and the rest of teh County as more of Sherman’s Sentinels.
The story of the Yankees taking everything the could, carrying off what they cannot eat, is an accurate one. Sherman had none of Lee’s qualms about looting. He looked at it from the opposite perspective. Lee saw looting as creating more enemies. Sherman had decided that the South already held nothing but enemies for him, and therefore, he would show them how terrible war could truly be. He would bring it home.
Most of the slaves at Tara ran off. When Scarlett returns, the only slaves remaining are Mammy, who has been with the family since Ellen was a girl; Pork, Gerald’s bodyservant, who had been given special privileges; Dilcey, Pork’s wife from Twelve Oaks, bought by Gerald at the beginning of the book, who stays out of gratitude; and Prissy, Dilcey’s daughter and the reason for her gratitude. Gerald bought Prissy to make Dilcey happy. With the exception of Prissy, all of the slaves were granted special treatment by the O’Haras. Prissy most likely stayed on the plantation because her mother did. This, too, is undocumentable, but most likely accurate.
Because the slaves have all left, Scarlett and those few remaining on Tara must do the manual labor. It is unthinkable to her sisters that they, who had been spoiled ladies a few years before, must now split kindling and plow fields. Scarlett, however, continues to do what she must as women all over the South did, working as hard as she can to keep her land.
The last battle of the war for Scarlett is fought with a Yankee deserter in the front hall at Tara. Desertion was a problem on both sides of the war, many of those deserters becoming outlaws. There was little left at Tara to take, but Scarlett shot him before he could get any of it. It is an interesting question to think on: how many deserters ended their days to be buried in unmarked graves by their intended victims?
After the Yankee is killed, Scarlett uses his horse to see what is left of her world. Mimosa, the Fontaine plantation, is left unburned because of its seclusion. The Tarletons are spared for the same reason. Shockingly to Scarlett and her friends, the Calvert house is spared because the “second Mrs. Calvert” and the overseer claim that the whole lot of them are Union sympathizers, despite losing Mr. Calvert and one of his sons in the war; the other son is “in Virginia with the army.” (GWTW, 442)
The Yankees returned as Sherman started his March to the Sea. This time, Tara is saved from burning only by the hard work of Scarlett and the others. Very few other places were as lucky. Sherman taught his lesson to the South well. The Tarletons did not come unscathed through this burning, and only the fact that the main house at Mimosa was stucco saved it. A strip sixty miles wide was bruned and looted by the advancing army.
Frank Kennedy’s commissary spent Christmas, 1864, at Tara. The commissary could “requisition” any food they found for the army; Scarlett kept the few piglets she had remaining well hidden. Frank, having traveled the state for the army, could tell the ladies at Tara about the condition of things. He had seen Sherman burn what of Atlanta had survived the torching of the ammunition cars and the warehouses. He did not, however, tell the women about the atrocities committed in the search for treasure. Indeed, no one else seems to talk about this, either; while it is possible that it happened, none of the texts used herein seem to contain the information.
Sherman actually comes off fairly mild compared to how he could have been used, but the description of the occupation of Atlanta is at best inaccurate and at worst slanderous. While it is true that Sherman did “requisition” the whole city for the army’s use, he tried to coordinate matters with Hood to provide transportation for noncombatants out of the area. Hood refused to negotiate. (WST, 315)
With spring, the war is over. With it, so was the world known by the County for less than a century. Those men who returned at all, returned to work as they had never worked before. The cotton-producing South had spent the 1800s creating a lifestyle based on slavery. Slavery was gone, taking with it the lifestyle. Many of the men were dead. Many of the women were either widowed or forced into unwanted marriages of convenience, and most of those remaining were never to marry. This is the post-war South that Margaret Mitchell grew up learning about.
The Movie–“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a hoot”
When Gone With the Wind was published in 1936, it quickly became the most popular novel of its time, possibly ever. It was hardly a surprise that it would quickly be made into a Major Motion Picture. Casting speculation was rampant. When Mitchell was asked who she would cast as Rhett, she declared, “Groucho Marx.” (DVD)
An early draft of the screenplay was written by Sidney Howard, who, by all accounts, detested the book. Despite this less than promising start, a film adaptation of Gone With the Wind was off and rolling. Margaret Mitchell herself was called in to serve as a technical advisor, a duty she flatly denied. She did escort production staff members around Georgia and recommend other people to serve as technical advisors. (WST, 346)
An early problem was the design of Tara. Upcountry Georgia had not had the years to develop class that the coastal regions did. Selznick’s version included tall, white pillars, possibly of Greek design, to front Tara. This was far from accurate for the region and time. All the restraint used on Tara, however, was lost on Twelve Oaks. It was designed after the Southern plantation of daydream, not the working plantation in a backwoods region that it would have been.
Much of the description that makes up the accuracy of the novel is lost in the film. Due to time constraints, the looming horror of Sherman’s advancing army takes a back seat to scenes between Scarlett and insert-male-name-here. Even many scenes between her and Rhett or Ashley had to be cut to adapt the thousand-page-plus novel to a movie under four hours long. It would, in fact, have been easier to make Gone With the Wind into a mini-series, had such an option been available. Perhaps then, Mitchell’s documentation would have shone through. As it is, so much of the historical content is cut from the film, necessity or not, that it deserves its reputation.
Blacks in Gone With the Wind–“Ah doan know nuthin’ ’bout bringin’ babies”
When discussing accuracy, at least a moment must be taken to examine the roles of the slaves/servants. Hattie McDaniel, who portrayed Mammy, won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for the role—beating out Olivia De Havilland, who portrayed Melly. McDaniel was the first black person to win an Oscar. She, however, is not the most famous black role in the work.
Prissy, portrayed in the movie by Butterfly McQueen, is a simpering, foolish child, and she is not much better—indeed any better—in the book. She takes more physical abuse than any non-combatant in the book. Scarlett slaps her at least once and beats her with the branch she used to whip the horse once. Dilcey, Prissy’s mother, “wears her out” with a cotton stalk at least once. Prissy lies. Prissy is lazy. Prissy speaks in a high, childish voice.
The Mammy that appears in the movie is not sufficient balance for Prissy. In the book, Mammy has more dignity, as does Dilcey, who does not appear in the movie. Dilcey refers to Prissy at one point as taking too much after her father. Dilcey has Indian blood in her; it is a stabilizing influence. Prissy is “flighty.”
While the views of blacks in the book are stereotypical, Mitchell was a white woman living in Atlanta in the 1920s and ’30s. She was hardly spending all of her spare time with blacks. The only view of blacks that she had were stereotypical, as she would have had little or no chance to change those views. That Mammy and Dilcey are more noble than Suellen should be considered. They are better than Suellen, even though she is white.
“. . . Understanding and Pity”
Margaret Mitchell did not set out to write a history. She set out to write a novel. Her work was the story of one woman and two men, a story that could be told in any time against any backdrop. She chose to use the Civil War because it fascinated her. She never intended it to be looked at as anything more than a novel.
Despite that, Gone With the Wind is meticulously researched. Mitchell thought her audience would be more scholarly than not. The wide fan base must have startled her. She probably did not even expect the Pulitzer Prize, which was awarded to her book in 1937. Almost certainly, she did not expect to have historians mentioning her every time they wrote about the Civil War. She hoped for a footnote in history. She received a paragraph.
Gone With the Wind is not an overview of the war. Even its historical sections can only really be used to trace the course of one major battle, using all the minor battles that led up to it. Instead, it is a novel of a scope far larger than even its author could have truly foreseen. It changed from a book to an American institution. Is it accurate? More often than not, but it is still just a novel.
Bibliography (probably incomplete)
Andrews, Eliza Frances. The War-Time Journal of a Georgia Girl, 1864-1865. D. Appleton and Company. New York. 1908.
This book was of only minimal help. While it was one of Mitchell’s references, its heroine was far better off than Mitchell’s. It is, however, a first-person account of Georgian life.
Barnard, George N. Photographic Views of Sherman’s Campaign. Dover Publications, Inc. New York. 1977.
This book provided views of “Sherman’s Sentinels” and the wreckage of Atlanta.
Cooper, William J. Jr., and Terrill, Thomas E. The American South: a history. The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. New York. 1996.
This book, too, was only minimally helpful, but it provided basic background information on the war.
Davis, Kenneth C. Don’t Know Much About the Civil War. Avon Books. New York. 1996.
This book was invaluable. It provided many details unavailable in more scholarly works—and in language that is easily understandable.
McDonough, James L., and Jones, James Pickett. War So Terrible. W.W. Norton and Company. New York. 1987.
A work on the Battle of Atlanta. Especially useful for its epilogue, “Frankly, Margaret Mitchell Did Give a Damn!”
Mitchell, Margaret. Gone With the Wind. Avon Books. New York. 1936.
For this paper, all page numbers relate to this edition: Avon Books, 1973.
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