The Antebellum Era in the American South lasted roughly seventy-five years, beginning in the late eighteenth century and ending with the outbreak of the Civil War. During this time, Southern society was deeply divided by wealth. Only 0.1 percent of whites owned more than 100 slaves, while 76.1 percent owned none at all. Even so, Southern whites were unified by a deep belief in white supremacy. The poor saw slavery (and racism) as their only source of prestige. They were not ready to let it go (Corbett, et al).
By the mid-nineteenth century, the nation had become polarized over slavery. White Southerners ardently supported its preservation and expansion West. Conversely, every state north of the Mason-Dixon line had abolished it by 1804 (The Antebellum South). Abraham Lincoln’s election to the presidency in 1860 made it clear that the schism between the North and South was irreparable. Over the next year, seven Southern states seceded from the Union and established the Confederate States of America. On April 12, 1861, Southerners fired the first shot of the Civil War at the government-controlled Fort Sumter in South Carolina. Four more states joined the Confederacy (Civil War).
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Lincoln, desperate to preserve the Union, was initially hesitant to act against slavery. But in 1862, it was evident that black enlistment in the Yankee army was necessary (Fowler) and, the following year, Lincoln passed the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation to free over three million slaves in the South (Civil War; Reconstruction). This ultimately proved to be a successful military tactic: public opinion shifted to favor the North, the Confederacy lost much of its labor force and 186,000 black soldiers flocked to Union lines. On April 9, 1865, the Confederates surrendered to the Yankees. Seven days later, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated (Civil War).
Throughout the Civil War, Georgia was a significant aid to the South. The state seceded on January 19, 1861 and, by that time, 25,000 soldiers had already enlisted to fight in the Confederate army. In 1864, General William T. Sherman tore through Georgia on his famous March to the Sea. He disconnected the last railroad supplying Atlanta, leaving the Confederates with no choice but to abandon the city. This Union triumph secured Lincoln’s victory in the Presidential election that year (Fowler).
The Civil War was the bloodiest war fought on American soil in history: 620,000 soldiers lost their lives. So much bloodshed and devastation made it difficult to repair the schism that divided the North and South (Civil War). In May 1865, Vice President Andrew Johnson assumed the Presidency and announced his plans for Presidential Reconstruction. Johnson was a firm believer in the Union and states’ rights. He allowed the South to take restoration into its own hands as long as it respected the Thirteenth Amendment, which had abolished slavery throughout America that December. With such leniency, the South was able to restrict the freedom of former slaves through a set of laws known as the black codes. Outraged, many Northerners renounced their support for Presidential Reconstruction and instead endorsed a more progressive approach, termed Radical Reconstruction. This movement gave African-American men a voice in politics for the first time in the nation’s history and, if somewhat temporarily, made great strides toward improving race relations (Reconstruction).
Part II – The Film
The film Gone with the Wind (1939) begins in 1861. The sun is setting on the cherished land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields, and everywhere, white men eagerly anticipate the war that will silence their Northern adversaries.
Scarlett O’Hara, the film’s protagonist, is a classic Southern belle. She is raised among the planter elite, tended to by the hundreds of slaves that work on her family’s plantation. Her charm attracts many suitors, but Scarlett has set her sights on the dreamyand engagedAshley Wilkes. When she cannot convince him to leave his bride-to-be, Melanie Hamilton, Scarlett accepts a marriage proposal from Melanie’s brother. Both he and Ashley leave to fight in the Confederate army shortly thereafter.
Scarlett is widowed as swiftly as she is wed: her husband dies of pneumonia soon after his departure. Ready for a change in scene, she goes to live with Melanie and her Aunt Pittypat in Atlanta. Thus begins her acquaintance with Captain Rhett Butler, a rich blockade runner with a deplorable reputation. He had previously witnessed Scarlett’s love confession to Ashley and, observing her character, fallen in love with her.
Meanwhile, Union General Sherman blazes through Georgia, leaving the state in ruins. He lays siege on Atlanta, scattering the townsfolk and the forcing the Confederate army to desert. Rhett Butler helps Scarlett and a recently mothered Melanie escape. When the women return home, they find Ashley’s plantation abandoned and burned to the ground. Tara, the O’Hara’s plantation, is deserted: only two slaves and Scarlett’s sickly family remain. There is no food to eat, nor money to spend. But Scarlett does not lose hope and sets everyone to work to recover what was lost.
The Confederacy surrenders. Thousands of soldiers trudge home through the broken South. Among them are the unwelcome Carpetbaggers and Yankees, intent on disrupting the long-standing social order of Georgia. The taxes on Tara skyrocket and a formerly destitute couple offers to buy it from Scarlett. Infuriated, Scarlett’s father mounts a horse and chases after their carriage, jumping a fence and falling to his death. Still unable to pay the taxes, Scarlett convinces her sister’s lover, Frank Kennedy, that her sister has forgotten him. They marry, and Frank pays the debts on Tara.
One day, Scarlett is attacked while driving her carriage. Frank goes after her assailants and is shot in the head. Rhett Butler seizes this opportunity to propose to Scarlett. She accepts, they move to Atlanta, and soon after, Scarlett gives birth to a baby girl named Bonnie.
Scarlett and Rhett have a rocky marriage. It is clear to both parties that Scarlett has not forgotten Ashley, and jealousy consumes her husband. When Scarlett and Ashley are discovered embracing, Rhett suggests divorce. He leaves for London with Bonnie, returning only when she begs for her mother. When they arrive, Scarlett tells Rhett that she is pregnant. During a heated argument, she hurls herself at him, falling down the steps and losing the baby.
A whirlwind of tragedy ensues. Scarlett recovers, but only just before Bonnie falls to her death in a horse jump and breaks the last bond between her and Rhett. Melanie Hamilton also dies in childbirth. It is then that Scarlett realizes how much she loves Rhett, but she is too late. He leaves her, saying frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.
Part III – Comparison & Evaluation
The 1939 film Gone With the Wind is a rose-colored idealization of the Old South. It speaks more to the sentiments of 1930s Southerners than it does to actual events; the film can be regarded as no more than a glimpse into the Southern white’s perspective.
Gone with the Wind is rife with inaccuracies, but the portrayal of African-Americans is perhaps the most distorted. 1930s cameras transformed systematic degradation into a mutually beneficial exchange between master and slave. The enslaved peoples are depicted as happy in their lifelong servitude; they have no desire to leave their masters–even after they are legally freed by the Union–and the runaways are portrayed as foolish victims of Yankees propaganda. Incompetent and unintelligent, slaves repeatedly turn to their astute masters for guidance (Portrayal of Race Relations: Gone with the Wind). Mitchell respins the Civil War to ennoble the Confederates, painting the Union as a brutish intruder out to dismantle Southern society. Mitchell’s decidedly racist take on slavery was likely influenced by the political realities of her day. Slavery was dissolved in the mid-nineteenth century, but racism continued to plague the Nation long after abolition. The 1930s was marked by lynchings, segregation and stark prejudice against black people that bled into literature and cinema. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People boycotted the film after its release in 1939 (A History of Racial Injustice).
Scarlett O’Hara, the brilliant and beautiful protagonist, bears little resemblance to the traditional Southern wife–indeed, she weds three times, lusts after a married man and murders a Yankee soldier. But most importantly, Scarlett seizes control of her own finances to ensure the economic stability of her family, often at the expense of weaker men. Scarlett is a personification of the changing gender roles in the 1930s, when the Great Depression forced women into the workplace. This phenomenon, in conjunction with flappers and bold actresses, popularized a more modern view of women that influenced many literary and cinematic works of the era (Ebert).
Gone with the Wind, although decidedly flawed, had some historical factualisms. The high morale expressed by Southern gentlemen in the beginning of the film was documented repeatedly in history. The Confederates were fighting to preserve a way of life, not the abstraction of the Union, and therefore approached the war more passionately than did the North (Civil War). Atlanta was also accurately portrayed. Scarlett goes to the bustling city to live with Melanie and her Aunt Pittypat. There, she and Melanie nurse fallen soldiers in churches and other makeshift hospitals. As the Union General William T. Sherman approaches Atlanta, thousands flee the city. Scarlett and Melanie manage to escape only as it is going up in flames. Truly, the population of Atlanta did skyrocket during the war. Sherman’s famous March to Sea caused an influx of refugees to pour in from demolished cities in Georgia; the Atlantan population reached almost 22,000 in 1864. As the population grew, so did its productivity: it became a hub for the manufacturing of weapons and clothing. There was not enough room in the hospitals for the wounded, so soldiers received care in municipal buildings (Davis). But the same daily cannon fire described in the film reduced the city to rubble in August, 1864. That month, Sherman cut the last rail line to Atlanta, forcing Confederate troops to abandon the city (Fowler).
Gone with the Wind (1939) is inherently flawed. It idealizes the Antebellum South, dehumanizes African-Americans and vilifies the Union. The film cannot be used to understand the true history of the time period. However, it provides insight into the emotions felt by the Confederacy. It is likely that they saw society the way it is depicted in the movie, and one cannot truly appreciate history without understanding all perspectives, no matter how warped. To this end, it could be used to educate students on viewpoints that are discussed less frequently in history class. It has other redeeming qualities, as well. Scarlett is, frankly, a more progressive female lead than those of modern-day Hollywood. The film is quite faithful to the book by Margaret Mitchell. And from an artistic standpoint, the cinematography is unmatched. The colors and backdrops were groundbreaking in the 1940s and are still dazzling by today’s standards. It is difficult to overlook the blatant racism of Gone with the Wind, but it is undeniably a cinematic masterpiece.
A History of Racial Injustice. A History of Racial Injustice – Equal Justice Initiative, Equal Justice Initiative, racialinjustice.eji.org/timeline/1930s/.
Civil War. History.com, A&E Television Networks, 2009, www.history.com/topics/american-civil-war/american-civil-war-history.
Corbett, Scott P., et al. Wealth and Culture in the South. Lumen Learning, Open SUNY Textbooks, courses.lumenlearning.com/ushistory1os2xmaster/chapter/wealth-and-culture-in-the-south/.
Davis, Stephen. Civil War: Atlanta Home Front. New Georgia Encyclopedia, University of Georgia Press, www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/civil-war-atlanta-home-front.
Ebert, Roger. Gone With the Wind Movie Review (1939) | Roger Ebert. RogerEbert.com, Ebert Digital LLC, 21 June 1998, www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-gone-with-the-wind-1939.
Fowler, John D. Civil War in Georgia: Overview. New Georgia Encyclopedia, Georgia Humanities and the University of Georgia Press, www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/civil-war-georgia-overview.
Gone with the Wind Awards. IMDb, IMDb.com, Inc., www.imdb.com/title/tt0031381/awards.
Portrayal of Race Relations: Gone with the Wind. SparkNotes, SparkNotes, www.sparknotes.com/film/gonewiththewind/section4/.
Reconstruction. History.com, A&E Television Networks, 2009, www.history.com/topics/american-civil-war/reconstruction.
The Antebellum South. Lumen Learning, Open SUNY Textbooks, courses.lumenlearning.com/boundless-ushistory/chapter/the-antebellum-south/.
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