Alright, having established the novel and movie’s takes on the reports of Gettysburg, let’s talk in more depth about how Gone With The Wind deals with these scenes and how there’s an influence of and influence on pop-culture.
First, let’s clarify a few historical points. Atlanta did not know about Gettysburg while it was happening. Yes, the deep south knew that the Army of Northern Virginia had invaded the north, but it took much longer for news to travel than is implied Gone With The Wind. According to LeRoy Gresham, a Georgia civilian who kept careful tabs on war reports in the newspapers, the rumors about the Battle of Gettysburg didn’t start appearing until July 7, 1863—four days after the fight ended. And the rumors in the papers reported a Confederate victory for several following days.
The speed that casualty reports arrive in Atlanta according to the story is historically inaccurate. For a casualty list, the units have to report first, then get that news to a newspaper. Or maybe someone in the unit compiles a list and sends it to the hometown. Book and film imply the arrival of those lists swiftly and by telegraph. Yes, telegraph was still operative in the parts of the South, but keep in mind that Gettysburg had no telegraph since the lines had been disrupted and the telegraph equipment removed. No direct communication with that battlefield for the South.
The story does capture the periods of anxious waiting endured by the homefront. And it picked up elements of determination seen in both North and South with the younger generation anxious to get into the armies to revenge brothers’ deaths.
Delving deeper now…
Gettysburg is explicitly given great importance, including precedence over Vicksburg. According to one well-read teen reporting in real-time, Vicksburg occupied Georgians’ minds more in 1863 and seems to have been better reported in their papers. Gettysburg as the ultimately Civil War moment is an idea that comes after the battle is fought and—in some ways—after the war ends. Yes, some of the soldiers at Gettysburg recognized the immediate significance of their fight, but the heightened value on that three-day battle grew through the later decades as memory and memorialization entered the saga. By the 1930’s, Margaret Mitchell’s era, Robert E. Lee had been elevated in memory and focus shifted to his victories and losses. Gettysburg had become THE MOMENT when the Confederacy bid everything. “High Watermark of the Confederacy.”
Historians have addressed this view, bringing perspective on Gettysburg and setting it in the larger scale of the war…and, of course, recognizing the importance of the happenings at Vicksburg. I’m not writing this to reshare those facts and views, but rather to look at how Gettysburg was given this elevated importance early 20th Century pop-culture as THE TURNING POINT. Watching Gone With The Wind, we could almost leave with the impression that Gettysburg alone was the battle that single-handedly decided the war and the only fight (outside Atlanta) that produced massive casualty lists. Gettysburg still holds a pinnacle place in many minds and has had further pop-culture boosts in the decades after Gone With The Wind.
Another aspect that stood out to me, particularly in the movie, is the wave of response to the casualty news. One couple receives the news that their son has fallen. The father tells his wife to go home and then he leads the band to play Dixie. The camera then centers on a young teen weeping while trying to play the marching song. A few moments later, characters Dr. and Mrs. Meade discover that their son has been killed and their youngest boy immediately declares that he will go, fight, and kill Yankees until Melanie Wilkes calms him and tells him that will not help the situation.
I see these moments as pop-culture reflections of the idea that the Civil War South was defeated but unbroken. Certainly an idea that was alive during the conflict and grew exponentially after the war, becoming a hallmark of the Lost Cause. Margaret Mitchell grew up hearing stories from the lips of Civil War veterans and then read extensively about the conflict from a southern perspective. She wrote what she knew and that included information influenced by an embittered region after Sherman’s march and the Reconstruction had swept the city and community.
This micro-study on a chapter and scene from Gone With The Wind illustrates the positive and challenging qualities of history and pop-culture. I see it as a cycle where both mix, appear, are believed, are separated, then mixed again into a new form. Margaret Mitchell took specific views that were part of her culture—views that had sprung from history but with certain spins on those facts and events—and crafted that regional and cultural view of history into her fiction story creating a solid example of pop-culture history.
Gone With The Wind, book and movie, experienced such widespread success that it pushed views in the public mind. In this case, the idea that Gettysburg was THE TURNING POINT of the war and the most costly battle. The importance of Gettysburg (according to Gone With The Wind) is underpinned with the unflinching determination of the South—again an example of a partial historical fact but interpreted in a particular way.
I suspect most people do not see Gone With The Wind as a documentary or a historical fact. We know and recognize that it is a story with a historical angle and setting. And yet, in a powerful way, the tale captured and in someways still holds minds and views of the Civil War. Pop culture is powerful, and I argue that it must be studied and understood to gain a deeper understanding of how people are thinking about and approaching history. With this deeper knowledge, historians have a better opportunity to find ways to connect with a public history audience and share real history in meaningful ways.