Gone With the Wind, the 1939 film of the 1936 novel by Margaret Mitchell, is often considered the most famous epic American Civil War story every written. Kenneth Turan, a reporter from the Los Angeles Times, in his article, 'A Real Steel Magnolia,' written at Gone With the Wind's re-release, wrote, "Few films have been self conscious of their epic qualities. I've seen such noticeable lack of spontaneity that watching the historical recreations feels like a stroll through Colonial Williamsburg." This statement merely illustrates the statement that Gone With the Wind is a historically accurate and realistic portrayal of the pre-Civil War period, the Civil War itself, and the Reconstruction.
The pre-Civil War period, or the antebellum period, was time of anticipation and tension between the North and the South.Gone With the Wind accurately captures the setting and mood at this time. The antebellum period in the South was agriculturally and socially centered. The South largely produced cash crops: cotton, tobacco, and sugarcane. From its workforce, black African slaves, the South flourished economically. At this time, slaves numbered almost 4 million in the southern part of the United States. Often in the slave trade, families were separated, so after a time, slaves began to "adopt" other blacks to replace lost African kin.
While agriculture was the center of the Southern economy, the real core of the South could be found in its plantation homes. Even slavery was based on life in the "big house." On a plantation, a white planter was the master, the supreme authority. His wife, called the mistress, ensured that the household ran smoothly and the family was kept in order. She not only cared for her own family, but the physical and spiritual well-being of her "slave family." White planters' children learned how to behave properly and cordially at early ages. Boys were taught how to be 'gentlemen;' they were given riding and fencing lessons, as well as education in chivalrous conduct. Girls learned to be well-bred and genteel ladies; they were taught to ride horses and were instructed in social graces. With lifestyles like these, it is no surprise that plantation owners and their families often attended social events such as balls, barbecues, and lavish parties.
Likewise, Gone With the Wind portrayed the O'Hara family, Southern cotton plantation owners, who depicted very authentically what life may have been like in the period shortly before the Civil War. Gerald O'Hara was an Irishman who owned and ran Tara, the plantation. His wife Ellen O'Hara fits perfectly the image of a plantation mistress. In the beginning of Gone With the Wind, Mrs. O'Hara, gentle and well-bred, was just returning from the bedside of a neighbor in childbirth, recapping the expectation that plantation mistresses were expected to keep order and peace to those around them. Also, later at evening rosary with her family, Ellen O'Hara made sure that all of the slaves were present, attending to their 'spiritual welfare.' (Katie) Scarlett O'Hara was the oldest daughter at Tara, having many beaus, and like many well-bred young ladies, had been educated at a formal academy. Suellen and Careen were the younger O'Hara sisters. The O'Hara family's house slaves were Mammy, Ellen's slave; Pork, Gerald O'Hara's manservant; and Prissy, "adopted" daughter of Pork, and Scarlett’s slave girl. During the course of the story, the O'Hara family attended a barbecue and ball at Twelve Oaks, a neighboring plantation owned and lived in by John Wilkes, his son Ashley, and his daughters India and Honey. This portrayal of the socialization between the Wilkes, O'Hara, and other society families, reiterates the statement that social events were important to the wealthy planters of the antebellum southern United States.
Though life seemed perfect and blissful, tensions escalated between the North and the South. The northern part of the United States was angry and the South was contemplating secession. This was partly because with the Compromise of 1850, The Fugitive Slave Law, which stated that Northerners would be forced to apprehend runaway slaves, was passed for the South in exchange for California's passing as a free state and the slave trade abolished in the District of Columbia for the North. This only quieted the people for a short time. With the emerging of the Dred Scott case and the ruling that all property, including slaves, was protected anywhere in the United States, strains between the North and the South resurfaced. This ruling made slavery legal anywhere; abolitionists and Northerners alike were outraged. In relationship, the North chose to take a course of action that would hit the South hard; they chose to ignore the Fugitive Slave Law. The South was livid. This yo-yo of emotions, stress, and dislike between the regions was the straw that broke the camel's back. The South seceded from the Union. Then on September 12, 1861, Confederates attacked Northern-held Fort Sumter. Many young men, filled with glorious and arduous images of war, rushed to enlist in the military. Many weddings took place immediately, women fearing that their sweethearts would be killed. This was the beginning of the American Civil War.
Similarly, in Gone With the Wind, while the ladies were getting some rest upstairs so at the ball that night they wouldn't tire easily, over cigars and brandy the men discussed secession. Charles Hamilton, the Wilkes' cousin, bragged that "gentlemen always beat rascals," and that after a quick victory, the South would be free to be their own country. Rhett Butler though, a future blockade runner who was expelled from West Point, realized that since the South depended on the North for the vast majority of its manufactured goods, the South was at a gross disadvantage. The North had factories and armories, he said, and all that the South had was "cotton and arrogance." At this point, it was excitedly announced that Confederates had attacked Fort Sumter in Charleston; war had begun. With wild whoops, excited young men kissed their sweethearts goodbye. Charles Hamilton asked Scarlett O'Hara to marry him, and she consented. They got married immediately, as did Ashley Wilkes and his cousin Melanie Hamilton. These marriages are an accurate representation of the hasty weddings that took place after the declaration of war.
The Civil War was the first 'modern' war, because of the new war technology, and also because it was the first war involving civilians. In European wars, the only ones who fought in a war were those who were soldiers by profession. However, in the American Civil War, civilians enlisted into the military, and after there was a shortage of men, a draft was issued. Also, guerrilla fighting was practiced exclusively, while in European-style wars and even occasionally during the American Revolution, the two sides lined up in rows facing each other and fired. As men dropped, the rows moved up.
The social order and way of life changed drastically during the Civil War on the home front, especially for those living in the South. During the war, people attended wartime fund-raising exhibitions and events in cities throughout the North and South. Where before they could waste money and enjoy lavish lifestyles, Northerners and Southerners alike learned to save and make do with what they had. Worse for the South, as their slaves ran away or joined the army, fighting for both sides, the Southerners' accustomed work force became virtually nonexistent. This forced Southerners to work in their fields like their slaves had done to keep their families alive. Also, as men tired of the army or got scared, some deserted. These deserters often robbed and raided houses, sometimes raping and taking advantage of defenseless women.
In Gone With the Wind, Scarlett attended a bazaar for “The Cause” in Atlanta with her sister-in-law, Melanie Wilkes, and their aunt Pittypat Hamilton. As conditions worsened in the South, once wealthy plantation owners, the O’Haras were reduced to working like field hands, picking cotton and making soap. Once during the course of the epic, a Yankee deserter came to Tara, set on robbery and rape, but Scarlett, unlike so many other women at that time, did not allow herself to become a victim: she shot the intruder.
While those at home struggled to survive, so did their fighting men in the war. The days were long and hard, with horrible food and uncomfortable conditions, as well as poor sanitation. Life was like this for both sides in the Civil War, but it kept getting worse and worse for the South. At one point in the war, the Confederate army was forced to destroy their own military stores in Richmond to prevent Northern forces from taking and using the valuable military supplies and equipment. The war raged on; as cities were shelled, people grabbed belongings and fled for their lives.
Similarly, in Gone With the Wind, the war was evident. Frightened citizens of Atlanta ran and drove out of the city with necessities such as food, and less practical items such as a harp. The Confederate soldiers burned all the ammunition in the train depot to prevent the Yankees from obtaining it. Dirty, ragged, wounded soldiers filled the roads and streets as they left Atlanta.
Even worse than the shelling, gun- and cannon fire, and the unsanitary conditions were the terrible things that resulted from them. Disease and infection ran rampant because of close living quarters and dirty conditions. Also, the men were weary and malnourished, so their immune systems weren’t as able to fend off illnesses. Medicine was in short supply, especially in the South. Gunshot wounds were often fatal. With a gunshot wound to a limb, if the arm or leg weren’t amputated immediately, gangrene would often set into the tissues, resulting in infection of the surrounding tissue and possible death. Also, because of the overcrowded spaces in which the soldiers lived, infestation of lice and other parasites was common.
Once again portraying actual happenings, Gone With the Wind showed real medical concerns from the Civil War, including an amputation case. Also, Mammy said, “All da men in da ah-me got da same problems. Crawlin’ clo’se an’ dysentery.” This statement refers to the conditions of the soldiers. Along the same lines, Dr. Meade, a physician for the Confederate army, said that he felt helpless because he knew how to help the men, but that he had nothing to “ease their pain.”
After a five-year war in which thousands of men, white and black, died, the North won the American Civil War. This brought about big changes, especially for those from the South. Where once the white plantation owners had been the top social class, now carpetbaggers and scalawags rose to the top, as well as blacks. In shame, the South retaliated. White Southern males decided to take the law into their own hands. White supremacy groups, such as the Knights of the White Camellia and the White Brotherhood, sprang up. Then rose a white supremacist group so powerful and terrifying that it is still present today: the Ku Klux Klan, also called the “KKK.” These men terrorized carpetbaggers, scalawags, and blacks. (It is necessary to note that the KKK of the Reconstruction Era was not a purely racist group as it is considered today.)
The Reconstruction was a turning point in Gone With the Wind. Carpetbaggers, scalawags, and freed blacks made their way into the O’Haras’ world. Trying to protect their women the only way that they knew how, Ashley, and Scarlett’s second husband Frank Kennedy, members of the KKK of the Reconstruction Era, went to lynch two men, one “white trash” and one freed black, that tried to molest Scarlett.
Henry Steele Commager from the New York Herald-Tribune once said about Gone With the Wind that, “…the story, told with such sincerity and passion illuminated by such understanding, woven of the stuff of history and of disciplined imagination, is endlessly interesting.” The epic Civil War story portrays the antebellum period by chronicling the lives of the O’Hara family before the Civil War and shows the way that they lived their lives. Gone With the Wind also narrates the struggles of Scarlett, Melanie, Rhett, and the others as they try to survive in a war-ridden world. Lastly, Gone With the Wind depicts the painful healing of the United States and the O’Hara family’s will to survive against the odds. Gone With the Wind is indeed historically accurate.