1861 in Gone With The Wind

Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara, Gone with the Wind, 1939

On the 82nd anniversary of Gone With The Wind’s movie premiere in Atlanta (December 15, 1939), I thought it might be interesting to look at the book and movie’s treatment of the first year of the Civil War. For better or worse, Gone With The Wind has shaped the way Americans and the world view the Civil War and I think this holds true for perspectives on 1861.

In Margaret Mitchell’s novel, Part 1 covers 1861 with most of the text focusing on April and early May. The last pages of Part 1 slide into 1862 as Scarlett deals with the repercussions and depression caused by her early, hasty decisions and then wrap up as she departs for Atlanta.

(There are significant spoilers ahead for book and movie.)

As I re-read and re-watched the 1861 sections a few things stood out:

  • The impression that the war came suddenly
  • The idea of defeat mixed into the beginning of the war
  • The concept of “romantic war”
  • How Mitchell chose to portray some war realities and Hollywood spun a different story

How do these ideas play out in the text and on the screen, and then how have they possibly shaped perceptions of the Civil War?

In a nutshell, the novel’s version of 1861 features a distracted Scarlett O’Hara thrown into emotional turmoil when she finds out that her crush, Ashley Wilkes, is going to marry Melanie Hamilton. She decides on a strategy to flirt with every man at the Twelve Oaks Barbeque to get Ashley’s attention and persuade him to marry her. In differing and indirect ways, her parents and enslaved Mammy advise her against this. The barbeque does not go as planned, Ashley rejects Scarlett’s declaration of love, and her reaction is witnessed by Rhett Butler, a rogue with a reputation from Charleston, South Carolina. Shamed and embarrassed, Scarlett is momentarily distracted by the announcement of Lincoln’s call for volunteers to put down the Southern secession forces the “local Troop” to prepare for war against the Yankee invaders. In an attempt to make Ashley regretful and to save her own reputation, Scarlett agrees to marry Charles Hamilton (Melanie’s brother). Charles goes to war and dies of illness. Scarlett goes into mourning, then finds out that she’s pregnant with Charles’s baby and delivers her first child at the beginning of 1862. She does not like the baby (named Wade Hampton Hamilton) and is severely depressed until the invitation arrives in May 1862 to journey to Atlanta.

The movie version follows the book’s outline with condensed scenes and dialogue. However, the screenwriters decided to skip the part about the baby.

Getting ready for 1861? (GWTW, IMDB)

Told from Scarlett’s perspective, the novel and certainly the movie give the impression that the war came suddenly. For a sixteen-year-old girl who didn’t pay attention to current events and rolled her eyes every time her father and the other men talked about politics, the war news exploded her self-focused world. Within the first ten pages of the novel, Scarlett declares, “You know there isn’t going to be any way… It’s all just talk. Why, Ashley Wilkes and his father told Pa just last week that our commissioners in Washington would come to—to—an—amicable agreement with Mr. Lincoln about the Confederacy. And anyway, the Yankees are too scared of us to fight. There won’t be any war and I’m tired of hearing about it.” The discussions that are portrayed about the reasons for the war put the causes heavily on the unreasonableness of the North toward the South, particularly in the movie.

At the end of Chapter 4 after hearing the confirmation that Ashley is engaged and plotting her strategy, Scarlett “lay in the silvery shadows with courage rising and made the plans that a sixteen-year-old makes when life has been so pleasant that defeat is an impossibility and a pretty dress and a clear complexion are weapons to vanquish fate.” Here, a theme begins to rise in Mitchell’s novel: defeat. It’s a wonderful ending hook for the chapter, and the reader may feel some empathy for Scarlett or pick up on the foreshadowing that she is not going to convince Ashley to break up with Melanie. The poor thing is setting herself up for defeat, one might think. The theme becomes more vivid at the barbeque after Scarlett boldly declares her love, Ashley rejects her, and the news of going to war follows immediately. The romantic defeat pairs and contrasts with the “unconquerable” themes that the young men express about the South and the war.

Spring of 1861 had all the “glories of war” and most participants thought their side could win with few shots fired. There would be just enough deaths to have a few martyrs and then independence would be won or Union restored, depending on the regional perspective. Gone With The Wind picks up on this, especially with some of the imagery in the movie. It also adds the romantic relationship element with two rushed war-weddings: Scarlett and Charles, then Ashley and Melanie. In reality, neither is very “romantic.” Scarlett is marrying without love and actually thinks “It’s a nightmare” as she walks down the aisle. Though the Wilkes’ wedding is seen through Scarlett’s jealous eyes, the word choice implies that there is love between that couple and then quickly jumps to Ashley leaving for war before they really have a chance to enjoy their new life together. While there were early war weddings and and the “spirit of 61” in real history, Gone With The Wind’s portrayal—especially on screen—helped to make the early Civil War a romance in popular culture for decades.

Scarlett’s first wedding. She looks so thrilled? (GWTW, IMDB)

Much has been written about the differences between the book and the movie. Even Mitchell herself recognized and was somewhat disturbed by some of the film choices. In the 1861 section, Mitchell highlighted the challenges for white women in the plantation system—from managing the land, overseers, and enslaved to the hypocrisy of being a dainty lady to “catch a husband.” She wanted to portray north Georgia, not the white-pillared plantations of other southern regions. Mitchell had her share of prejudices and Lost Cause influences, but Hollywood took it to new levels and helped to solidify a lot of myths even in just the open minutes of the film. Some of the iconic scenes and witty dialog happen in the 1861 period of the movie against the backdrop of plantation settings. The white pillars, “happy slaves,” dapper gentlemen, and the frilly dresses of Hollywood gave a visual “reality” to myth and created a persistent image of the antebellum south.

Why revisit Gone With The Wind year after year on the blog? This book and movie shaped so many ideas and images of the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the South for decades. Is it worth looking at how the early war was portrayed to help identify some areas of starting knowledge and points to address when doing public history? I think so. It’s trying to meet an audience and figure out what they could be familiar with and then guide the discussion to historical facts.

Taking a look at 1861 in Gone With The Wind brings to light the concept that war came suddenly while in reality it was years in the making. The ideas of “devotion to an already lost-cause” and the concepts of “romantic war” (both with relationships and war glories) offer avenues to explore historiography. Finally, the opportunity arises to ponder how written fiction or visual story affect our ideas of a past era. Whether you love, hate, or just don’t really care about Gone With The Wind, it has probably shaped the way someone you know thinks about the Civil War. The 1861 themes in the movie and Part 1 of the novel could offer some interesting connection points and ways to address fact vs. myth.

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, author, speaker, and researcher. Past and present, everyone has a story. What will we discover and discuss?
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6 Responses to 1861 in Gone With The Wind

  1. Bonnie Jean says:

    I happen to love both the book and the movie “Gone with the Wind.” The movie for me was a romance set against the backdrop of the war. The war aspects in the movie, for the most part, had little to do with the realities of the civil war. There were a few exceptions, such as the burning of Atlanta, the scene in Atlanta with the wounded and dying bodies, and the realities of war such as death when not all came home and those who did were often quite different both physically and emotionally… including Ashley Wilkes. I believe the book paints a truer picture of how things were viewed by many at the time. Slavery is never a good thing; but there were some slaves who did have better lives than others. And I don’t believe that the Irish or Italians or a variety of other people from other countries who came to America, had a very easy time of it and were often treated as if they were slaves and paid far to little to survive in the cities.
    I also believe that the war was not fought over slavery. I believe that the south and north had large differences of opinion regarding states rights (and still do); and that the north wanted the products that the south had in abundance such as cotton and tobacco… and they had the factories and the transportation to do more with it they felt. In many cases, abolition of slavery was used to garner support from many who may have opposed the war for other reasons. And it is certainly used today and has been for many years as the sole “reason” for the Civil War. I don’t believe it was. If it was, then why was it fought by so many poor white men who had no slaves ??? They fought for States Rights, and not to keep the institution of slavery. They may not have opposed it; but they had no real stake in it. At least that is how I, as a student of history… and as someone who has lived in the north and the south and witnessed real discrimination of other races and of anyone who was a “Yankee” and I don’t mean the baseball team. When I lived there I was fine, until I spoke and people realized that I was one of the evil “Yankees.”
    My closest friends in the south were people of color… not because we were both discriminated against in some similar ways… but because I grew up in an atmosphere where the color of one’s skin or where there ancestors came from was not an issue. As funny as it sounds today, for most of my childhood, I believed that my friends of color just had a better tan than I did. I being mainly of Scottish ancestry. My lily white skin burned lobster red and never tanned. So I sometimes felt jealous of my friends who were Latino or of African American lineage.
    Slavery is an aberration and a blight upon our nation. I am certainly not in favor of that. But people often write off books and movies and even historical viewpoints according to what they have been told by often ignorant (or selectively ignorant) people. Education today is basically indoctrination to a viewpoint; and not teaching people how to think for themselves by exploring all sides of a matter. Particularly a war.
    Having visited many places where the Civil War was fought and studied it both in classrooms and on my own… the deep sense of sadness I felt for both sides of the war and the thousands of lives lost was often overwhelming when visiting actual battlegrounds that were appropriately preserved as much as is possible.
    I hope that you continue to look at the book as you did the first part. There is so much in the book that is not highlighted in the movie. Vivien Leigh and Rhett Butler were a dashing couple. But that tells little about the Civil War. Her selfishness should be a lesson to everyone with regard to the love and romance aspects of both the book and the movie. Money is not all that there is to life.
    While she does what she has to do for Melanie and her baby; it is clearly only for Ashley and not for Melanie. Melanie, while often portrayed as a mousy little woman… is more of a heroine than Scarlett can ever hope to be. She loved purely and always looked at the best in everyone.
    As a teenager, I often thought I would like to be like Scarlett…. pretty and surrounded by handsome young men. But as I grew up and left home I quickly realized who I really wanted to be like. It was Melanie, for she was full of love and not full of self. She helped the wounded Yankees that came by as well as the Southerners and prayed that someone would do the same for Ashley in the North. So there are many life lessons as well as historical lessons that can be learned from both the book and the movie.

  2. John B. Sinclair says:

    Thank you, Sarah, for this insightful article.

    I still recall reading circa the summer of 1973 on our family back porch the 1937 hardback printing of Gone with the Wind that my mother gave me as a boy (I still have it). I have seen the movie a number of times. The book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The movie won the Academy Award for Best Picture. I thoroughly enjoyed and still respect both works. I suspect either would be the subject of mass demonstrations today if released for the first time.

    I think John Mosby, the intrepid and famous Confederate partisan ranger, got it right in his June 4, 1907 letter to Samuel Chapman. First, he said, “People must be judged by the standard of their own age.” Second, he observed, “The South went to war on account of slavery.”

    Right on both accounts.

  3. Douglas Pauly says:

    “GWTW” is a novel presented by Hollywood wrapped within an actual historical event (the Civil War) and era. That happens all the time. Think “From Here To Eternity” for example. While it might have shaped some folks views of “how things were”, it no doubt influenced and inspired others to actually read up on the War itself and the events that led to it. And that’s a good thing.

    Scarlett is a devious, conniving, spoiled brat who none the less is forced to grow up way too quickly because of the War’s realities. The main women characters especially show great strength and resiliency in the face of hardship, none more so (to me) than the slave Mammy. I think that’s a very underrated aspect of the movie. The film centers on Scarlett and the circle of people in her life. Ultimately, Scarlett proves to be a true survivor, and capable of landing on her feet despite tremendous tragedies, and also despite her often dubious character. But the movie does hold up quite well thanks to the fantastic cinematography presented, and other attributes, like great acting performances, a realistic plot, etc. .

    Here’s another aspect of the movie that, I think anyways, contributed to its vast appeal, and why it still holds up so well today. It was filmed in color, not a common occurrence for late 1930’s movie-making. The producers of the movie obviously wanted to “make one for the ages”, and they succeeded. Riveting scenes like many of those shown in “GWTW”, in color no less, will no doubt resonate much more than the written word depicting the very same scenes.

    Oh, full disclosure here, I started reading the book many, MANY moons ago but never finished it. I was reading it for a school assignment and then the same teacher who assigned it showed us the movie in class over the course of a week or so. So that was that!

    Great job here Sarah!

    • I think your comments about the great strength of some of the women characters, needs to be put front-and-center, in bold italic print It is what saves the novel and the movie from dying of “Lost Cause-ism.”

  4. I did not read the novel until long after I married my wife (which means I read it in the 1990s), who has never seen the movie all the way through (the deviations from the novel make her angry). I’m no expert, but one thing missing from the movie is the yeoman farmer element in the culture surrounding Tara and Twelve Oaks.

    The movie, IMO, while a great piece of cinema, descends more into Lost Cause bunkum than the novel does. I do remember comments from a pair of dear friends from my high school days in New England. This was ~1967, and the movie had just been shown, perhaps for the first time, on network television. So our high school English teacher asked us what we thought of it, and one friend said that Scarlet was a strong woman, dealing with difficult stuff, while my other friend said she was a b—– who cared about no one but herself and deserved what she got in the end. What really gob-smacked me at the time was that the two were dating!

  5. Inspired by one of your posts, Sarah, I read the book. I had read portions of it decades ago, but never the whole thing. This time, I was struck by the history within the book. I think when Mitchell recounts events like the bombing of Atlanta and the Army of Tennessee passing through Atlanta, Mitchel was very likely relying on folk memory. As such, her novel assumes some value as a historical source. I was also struck this time how the novel is fundamentally anti-Lost Cause. Mitchell really does poke fun at the “Glorious Cause” and the like. But, as a veteran myself, I really appreciate her appreciation of veterans and the travails they endured. There is much to admire about the book.

    The portions where she idealizes slavery is a concern. I agree with the post above that there were indeed slaves who were treated well. As well as a parson can be who has zero freedom of choice. But, the book really lacks an accurate treatment of slaves. They were always either whipped or sold. Neither punishment appears in the book. But, I suppose the book is lengthy as it is and she could not address everything.
    Tom

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