Where Went the Wind?

Honestly, I’ve always been considerably conflicted about Gone With the Wind – both the book and the movie. Yes, best-seller, and loved extravagantly by more readers and movie-goers than partisans of the antebellum South, a gripping tale of a time, a place and a people, in a war that stripped away every shred of that noble and deluded gentility and Southern cavalier-worshipping delusion… shades of Vanity Fair, with a spineless, guileless and gentle supposed-heroine whom we are supposed to sympathize with in the main, contrasted with a conniving, spiteful and yet … entrancing stubborn, gutsy and conniving anti-heroine. I was reminded of all this once again, on reading this recent essay – by another woman and writer, similarly conflicted.

On initial reading of GWTW I thought that Scarlett was an amoral, heartless, and manipulative bitch, (I based a supporting character in my own series on Scarlett – as experienced by people who didn’t like her at all. Yes, she annoyed me that much.) Melanie was a deluded simpleton, Ashley ought to have been knocked on the head and put out of his conflicted sexual misery, and Rhett Butler given a good round of treatment by a competent therapist and sent off on a long ocean voyage to someplace else … anywhere else. Maybe British India. China. Anyplace.

I also wanted to wall the book every time Margaret Mitchell made some spiteful comment about abolitionists, Yankees, and Union soldiers. Look, my Smedley great-great-maybe another-great grandfather was a fire-eating and diehard abolitionist. Family legend has that the Smedley family farm was an alternate safe house on a branch of the Underground Railway which ran through Lionville, Pennsylvania. GGG-Grandfather Smedley was also unceremoniously (or perhaps ceremoniously although Quakers normally didn’t seem to go for ceremonies as a rule) read out of his local Quaker meeting for his unseemly enthusiasm for Mr. Lincoln’s war. In response, he took his religious custom to the Lutheran congregation, where we remained ever since, although I confess to flirting with Episcopal tradition, based mostly on a literary fondness for the language in the Common Book of Prayer.

But I kept on reading – because it was that kind of book, the kind that a reader just can’t put down. Early on, I thought that it must have been because some particularly vivid episodes and scenes must have been drawn from the memories of survivors and veterans of the South’s civil war. They had the ring of authentic experience, at one remove. Margaret Mitchell was of an age and era where she would have known and talked to people who vividly recalled such wrenching sequences as the gathering at the newspaper office, as the lists of the Gettysburg casualties were posted … and Scarlett realizes that just about every man she has flirted with, danced with, grown up knowing, the sons of her families’ neighbors … is dead in a battle in Pennsylvania.

On rereading GWTW a couple of years ago, I realized something else – that practically every character outside of the central quartet of Scarlett, Rhett Butler, Ashley Wilkes and Melanie – had particularly vivid stories of their own. Some were hinted at in the narrative. Other backstories like the tragedy and courtship of Scarlett’s parents, Gerald and Ellen were gone into a little …but they all were there. The elderly neighbor who hustled Scarlett away from hearing clods of dirt hitting a coffin, and told of how she was the sole survivor of a massacre of her family, the crippled soldier, Will Benteen, who took refuge at Tara after the war and married one of her sisters. (About the only male around who sussed out Scarlett’s character almost immediately.) The slaves – Mammy, Pork, Dilcey – they all had stories too, just barely hinted at. The other survivors of the war who pick themselves up, carry on, make a new kind of life for themselves, after the wind has blown away their previous existences. It’s those vividly-drawn secondary characters who engaged my interest and sympathy when I read GWTW all again. If it hadn’t been the fashion of the time to jumble it all into a single book Margaret Mitchell could very well have drawn out a whole rambling, loosely connected series of novels with a cast of hundreds, dealing with their lives, loves, extravaganzas, war, hardship, fighting up from poverty again and again.

Mention of poverty, though – brings to mind Danusha Goska’s observation regarding how nastily judgmental Margaret Mitchell and her planter upper-class and upper-class-adjacent characters were, when it came to the O’Haras’ relatively impoverished poor white neighbors. She and they sneered at the non-gentry as shiftless, disease-raddled, deplorable poor white trash. It appears that nothing much has changed since the time that she wrote or the time she wrote about, when it came to the elite Democrat party view of Southern working-class or poor whites. They’re only wanted and useful in elections, or to fill out the ranks of enlisted soldiers, when there’s a war to be fought. Comment as you wish.

24 thoughts on “Where Went the Wind?”

  1. The Democrat party view of Southern whites is precisely the view held by the abolitionists — that they were worthless trash who should be collectively punished for the “sin” of not abolishing slavery. Your ancestor was a jerk.

  2. I thought Scarlett had one good moment, at least in the movie: After her father’s death, when she gives his watch to the colored butler, who will treasure it.

  3. As a child, I knew Susan Myrick who was a newspaper reporter and friend of Margaret Mitchell. She also coached the actors in the movie on Southern accents. She said that Mitchell was a very good reporter for the Atlanta paper and did a great deal of research, including interviewing a lot of people, before writing the book.

  4. Forgotten (inconveniently, to my mind) is the fact that only a very small percentage of Southerners owned slaves. So the narrative that the war was all about slavery rang especially hollow for Confederate soldiers outside the officer class. They did not (in the main) own slaves, couldn’t afford to own any, did not benefit (in the main) for whatever economic benefits slavery proffered. I therefore find it unpersuasive to claim that they were fighting to preserve that “peculiar institution”.

  5. Little is said about how slavery discouraged skilled workmen from settling in the South. Both Washington and Jefferson paid to import various skills and used them to train slaves in things like brick making or, Washington famously, brewing and distilling. Once their indenture or other obligation had been terminated, almost all departed for the North where they wouldn’t be competing with both salves and imports form England.

    The generally poor Southern transportation infrastructure and the export dominated trade made importing goods from across the Atlantic easier than from the North. Every bale of cotton or hogshead of tobacco had an order to the planter’s English factor for what was wanted in return.

    This left the Confederate soldier well supplied with fine and noble sentiments but lacking everything from artillery to boots.

  6. Humans are both highly cooperative and fiercely competitive. So Panama Canal but also wars so frequent we number them.
    Condemnation of the “other” as in the comments, is only human. Sadly

  7. “now I don’t mind if I am chopping wood, and I don’t care if the money’s no good, just take what you need and leave the rest, but they never should have taken the very best”

    Always liked that song—“The Night they Drove old Dixie Down”—as I saw it as a critique of the Lincoln/Grant/Sherman horrific sweep thru the south———and back again. While I supported the total surrender strategy of Lincoln——there was a cost—-and the song spells it out.

    Am not a GWTW fan——although I watched the move a few times over the years——I don’t know Margaret Mitchell’s true stance——but it seems similar to “The Bands” great song.

  8. JeffH: For good or ill, one doesn’t have to directly or obviously benefit from an institution or policy in order to support it. In fact we see modern examples of people supporting things that are obviously (or seen as obviously) against their best interests. E.g. “Gays for Gaza” or the deplorables that leftists whine about when they ask “What’s the matter with Kansas?”

    Likewise, (for good or ill) one doesn’t have to be Jewish to oppose the current resurgence of antisemitism, a real-estate tycoon to oppose the legal persecution of Trump over his real-estate dealings, or a school teacher to oppose limits being placed on what public schools can teach in the name of parental rights.

    So the argument that the Civil War couldn’t really be about slavery because most southern whites didn’t own slaves is a much weaker one than you believe.

  9. MCS…”Little is said about how slavery discouraged skilled workmen from settling in the South.”

    There were some attempts to create industries in the South…most of them foundered on two problems. First, a lot of skilled workers from the North and from Europe didn’t want to settle there because of the climate (no air conditioning yet) as well as because of slavery. Second, affluent Southerners weren’t generally interested in investing in such businesses.

    One guy who did manage to create a successful cotton mill was William Gregg:


  10. @ Jeff H

    The contemporary saying about what you describe was “Rich man’s war, poor man’s fight.

    The bulk of Confederate soldier fought not for slavery or for the rich landowners who were the ruling class but because their homeland was being invaded. 4 of the 11 Confederate states did not secede until after Lincoln attempted to make them partners in his war to suppress the other 7.

    For that matter, the North wasn’t fighting about slavery either. They were fighting to preserve the Union. Lincoln’s letter to Horace Greeley makes that quite clear. The Emancipation Proclamation freed no slaves as it did not apply in the slave states that stayed in the Union nor in the areas of Confederate states controlled by the Union army. It was basically a PR stunt to keep Britain and France from intervening on behalf of the Confederacy. Lots of slaves freed themselves however which should be celebrated more.

  11. “Them Yankees are invading’ my state? Where do I sign up?”

    That had a bit to do with Southern enlistment. At least it made conscription a tad easier to swallow.

  12. Anyone wondering why the common people of the South turned out for the Cause would be well advised to read “A Disease In The Public Mind” by Thomas Fleming. You may find out that a lot of the history you’ve been taught about that time has been skewed.

  13. You can learn more about the South and the Civil War from Sam Watkins’s “Co. Aytch” and Col. Fremantle’s diary than from any novel, with the possible exception of Mary Johnston’s “The Long Roll”.

  14. In recent years, I read – was it Bookworm Room- a take on GWTW with focused on the post-Civil War time, and the different attitudes of Northern and Southern whites towards blacks. Dick Gregory described the difference as South: get as close as you can’t but don’t rise, and North: rise as high as you want but don’t get close. A guy from Massachusetts who married into the family, and who worked in the South in the textile business, made a description similar to what Dick Gregory said.

    I have never read GWTW. Maybe it is time to do so. (But I have been saying so for YEARS. All I know is that I will die with thousands of books unread…Maybe I should start writing one :) )

    My family tree embraces both sides of the Civil War. Of my mother’s four grandparents, three came from families that owned slaves. Also marrying mixed-race Indians/Native Americans. A great-great uncle of mine was a Confederate Colonel, killed in the war. Enlisted men on both sides. My father’s side was Union, but as my grandfather’s family had moved from the Shenandoah Valley to Illinois in the 1850s, some had ambivalent feelings about the Civil War. A cousin of a great-great grandmother was killed at Harper’s Ferry, fighting on John Brown’s side.
    There is a story in the family history of a Union soldier relative whose life was saved in the war by a black fellow soldier. He took the lifesaving black soldier home with him to Illinois, where he employed him as a farm hand. When the black soldier died, the town refused to bury him in the local cemetery. He got buried right outside the cemetery. When the cemetery expanded over the years, the black man’s grave got incorporated into the cemetery. That story was written in the family history in 1952, before the big push of the Civil Rights movement.

    Because I had family on both sides, the Civil War remains a topic of great interest for me. Contrary to the Woke of today, I know that future generations will judge me for having shortcomings. Because of that, I am not as judgmental of my ancestors as some might have been. What would I have done? Would I have done better than they? I doubt it.

  15. The motivations of the non-slaveholding Confederate soldiers is worthy of speculation. What was it- a third perhaps- of Southern white males from 18-45 got killed in the Civil War. That bespeaks great motivation to fight. On the other hand, desertions had a lot to do with Lee’s surrender. Letters from back home about the destruction of Sherman’s army had something to do with the desertions.

    At the same time, the South was divided. Four of the 15 slave-owning states did not secede. General George Thomas, the Rock of Chickamauga for the Union army, was from Virginia. (The Confederate general who surrendered Vicksburg was from the North. ) One obvious division: 100,000 -200,000 blacks that became Union soldiers. But there were a large number – offhand there were maybe 100,000- of whites from Confederate states who fought on the Union side. Had those white Southerners been fighting on the Confederate side, the Confederate army could have replaced many of those lost from battlefield casualties, disease, and desertions.
    Here is a book on white Southerners fighting for the Union. You may remember Howell Raines as a scoundrel for the work he did for the New York Times. But not a complete scoundrel.Silent Cavalry: How Union Soldiers from Alabama Helped Sherman Burn Atlanta–and Then Got Written Out of History

    A Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist reveals the little-known story of the Union soldiers from Alabama who played a decisive role in the Civil War, and how they were scrubbed from the history books.

    “It is my sincere hope that this compelling and submerged history is integrated into our understanding of our nation, and allows us to embrace new heroes of the past.”—Imani Perry, professor, Harvard University, and National Book Award–winning author of South to America

    We all know how the Civil War was won: Courageous Yankees triumphed over the South. But is there more to the story?
    As Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Howell Raines shows, it was not only soldiers from northern states who helped General William Tecumseh Sherman burn Atlanta to the ground but also an unsung regiment of 2,066 Alabamian yeoman farmers—including at least one member of Raines’s own family.

  16. Another book to consider about the Civil War.
    Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War

    The Confederate army went to war to defend a nation of slaveholding states, and although men rushed to recruiting stations for many reasons, they understood that the fundamental political issue at stake in the conflict was the future of slavery. Most Confederate soldiers were not slaveholders themselves, but they were products of the largest and most prosperous slaveholding civilization the world had ever seen, and they sought to maintain clear divisions between black and white, master and servant, free and slave.
    In Marching Masters Colin Woodward explores not only the importance of slavery in the minds of Confederate soldiers but also its effects on military policy and decision making. Beyond showing how essential the defense of slavery was in motivating Confederate troops to fight, Woodward examines the Rebels’ persistent belief in the need to defend slavery and deploy it militarily as the war raged on. Slavery proved essential to the Confederate war machine, and Rebels strove to protect it just as they did Southern cities, towns, and railroads. Slaves served by the tens of thousands in the Southern armies―never as soldiers, but as menial laborers who cooked meals, washed horses, and dug ditches. By following Rebel troops’ continued adherence to notions of white supremacy into the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras, the book carries the story beyond the Confederacy’s surrender.

    For e-book bargains, you can get a number of books by Frederick Law Olmsted on his travels in the South in the 1850s for the princely sum of NINETY NINE CENTS. Such as: The Cotton Kingdom: A Traveller’s Observations On Cotton And Slavery In The American Slave States, 1853-1861,A Journey through Texas: Or a Saddle-Trip on the Southwestern Frontier, A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States. A Journey to the Back Country is priced at $4.99. Cotton Kingdom is a condensed version of his other three books.

    Olmsted is better known as the designer of NY’s Central Park and San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Definitely one of Hartford’s better contributions to the US.

  17. The interest in the Civil War is partly due to the passing of the veterans of that war during the 1920s-1930s. (We see similar interest in WWII over the past twenty years as well.) The 1920s-1930s were greatly influenced by the Great War that had occurred 1914-1918, (WWI). We see a number of very cynical artistic movements during the time GTWT was researched and written. Another contemporary event occuring during this time was the rise of the KKK and lynching. There was a frustration among millions during this time regarding how WWI veterans were permanently impacted by their overseas experiences.

    Consequently, I believe that Mitchell caught the zeitgeist while she was writing GWTW and the feelings of that post WWI/KKK era impacted the final product. The futility of war was keen after WWI, and I see that here. The gullibility of non-slave-holding whites pulling on KKK sheets and lynching Blacks also seems to have flavored Mitchell’s portrayal of the Confederates in her story.

    Please consider the time in which Mitchell wrote when considering GWTW. She cannot remove herself completely from the contemporary culture she lived in during its writing. The popularity of the novel as well as the contemporary views within the story, suggest that GWTW is as much a product of the Post WWI times, as it was as a historical researched document by a newspaper reporter.

  18. I have always been a fan of Sherman. He warned the Seccession advocates when he was president of the school that became LSU. His army left the poor mostly alone unless they fought and burned the houses of planters. His opponent in the Georgia campaign was Joe Johnson and they became life long friends. I consider him to be Grant’s superior as a general.

  19. The American Civil War was, certainly in the light of subsequent history, but also in terms of previous history an unbelievably civilized affair. Battlefield atrocities were rare. While Sherman’s “Bummers” burned property they couldn’t carry away, murders and rapes were punished promptly by hanging.

    After the war, there were no mass executions or imprisonments, no mass dispossessions or confiscations. The number of prosecutions was fewer than the number of actions pending against Trump.

  20. I didn’t realize the parallel between “Vanity Fair” and “Gone With the Wind” until now. It does fit, though not exactly. Becky is the spirited spitfire, similar to Scarlett. Her friend Amelia has a devoted admirer, Dobbin, who she barely notices, while her husband George isn’t worth much. Margaret Mitchell gave Scarlett a hopeless crush on the weak Ashley while she failes to see Rhett Butler’s true worth. Melanie, who marries Scarlett’s dream man Ashley, plays Amelia to Scarlett’s Becky. Rhett is a spunkier fellow than Dobbin. He’s similar to Scarlett and, one supposes, a good match for her.

    We can barely imagine a society that was as permeated by slavery as the Deep South States were in 1860. Free whites who didn’t have slaves wanted to have them or had relatives and neighbors who did — and everyone was terrified of what emancipation would mean. In the Upper South and the Border States things were more complicated, but one can’t dismiss the importance of slavery to the cotton economy and plantation society of the Deep South.

  21. that was partially because of andrew johnson’s role, yes the radicals like thaddeus stevens, were kept in check, and then there was the Klan, that operated much like Islamic State or Hamas, headed by General Nathan Forrest, it took Thomas Dixon, and WE Griffith, to try to make something noble about that,

    one might argue that the Fulton County oligarchy that rules from the mayorship to the DA, is
    as cruel a regime for all concerned as any we saw 150 years ago,

  22. one might think gone is a pre revolutionary epic, like tale of two cities, about an era that would not return

    our family had a small plot of land, in the small town outside of Havana, nothing like Southfork or the Sutton estate, the commissars seized it and dammed it up, flooding it, so it became worthless,

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