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.
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.
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.