Scarlett returns to Tara for Gerald’s funeral. Will Benteen tells her that Suellen, desperate for more money, tried to trick Gerald into taking the oath of loyalty to the Union. Men who swear loyalty to the Union receive compensation for property lost during the war. Will says that Suellen got Gerald drunk and got him to agree to sign anything. Although drunk, Gerald realized what was about to happen and ripped up the oath. He mounted his horse and rode away. When he tried to jump a fence, his horse pitched him off, killing him upon impact. Will shocks Scarlett by telling her that he plans to marry Suellen so that he can stay at Tara forever.
When she sees Tara, Scarlett’s heart surges with love. Ashley performs the funeral service and Will asks to say a few words. To keep any of the mourners from criticizing Suellen, Will announces their engagement and asks that no one else speak after him. Old Miss Fontaine tells Scarlett that the secret to success lies in changing with the changing times, rising up after misfortune, and using people and then discarding them. Scarlett finds the speech confusing and dull.
After the funeral, Scarlett gives Gerald’s gold watch to Pork as a reward for his faithful service. Upon learning that Ashley intends to move to New York with Melanie, Scarlett appeals to him to take a half-interest in the mill and live in Atlanta. Ashley refuses, ashamed to live on her charity and tormented by his love for Scarlett. When Scarlett begins to cry, Melanie rushes into the room. She learns of Scarlett’s offer and urges Ashley to accept it in order to repay Scarlett’s kindness and let Beau grow up in Atlanta rather than in the hostile North. Ashley accepts the offer at the expense of his honor.
After Suellen and Will’s wedding, Carreen enters a convent, and Ashley, Melanie, and Beau move into a little house in Atlanta adjacent to Aunt Pittypat’s house. Melanie’s optimism, generosity, and adherence to old Southern values make her house the social nucleus for proud Southern families. Ashley proves incompetent at wringing profits from the labor of the freed slaves, so Scarlett announces her intention to lease convicts to work in her mills.
Scarlett gives birth to an ugly baby girl and names her Ella Lorena. Scarlett is desperate to get back to the mill, but Frank forbids her to return. Atlanta has become dangerous, and Frank worries for Scarlett’s safety. The Yankees, he says, are trying to root out the Ku Klux Klan, and anger has begun to brew among the freed slaves in areas like Shantytown. A one-legged, one-eyed mountain man named Archie begins to work as Scarlett’s escort into town. Rude and intimidating, Archie quickly becomes an Atlanta institution, chaperoning women around town. When Archie hears about Scarlett’s plan to lease convicts to work in the mills, he threatens to stop assisting her. He tells her he was a convict for forty years after murdering his adulterous wife, and says that convict leasing is worse than slave ownership.
Scarlett learns that the Georgia legislature has refused to ratify a Constitutional amendment granting blacks citizenship. Though many Southerners take pride in the legislature’s resolve, Scarlett realizes it will make the Yankees even harder on Atlanta. She leases ten convicts to work in her mills, hiring a Yankee Irishman named Johnnie Gallegher as their foreman. Atlanta is appalled at Scarlett’s actions, and Archie quits as promised, but Gallegher gets an astonishing amount of work out of his men. To Scarlett’s dismay, Gallegher fares far better than Ashley as a manager.
Despite the Northerners’ efforts to crush Southern society through Reconstruction, the South slowly rebuilds itself. Many characters marry, often in matches that would have been unthinkable in the days before the war. Suellen’s marriage to the poor white man Will Benteen is such a match. In prewar times, a poor man like Will would not have dreamed of wooing a landed, high-class woman like Suellen. Atlanta’s aristocracy begins to reestablish its social network, using Melanie’s house as a meeting place. The physical rebuilding of Atlanta proceeds rapidly, as Scarlett’s success with the lumber mill illustrates. Postwar life is difficult, but it goes on—even matriarchs take on small business projects, and Confederate army veterans who were listless and despondent after the war begin working feverishly to rebuild their fortunes. Southerners remain almost defiant. Gerald’s death strikes a note of Southern pride and resolve, for he goes to his death hating the Yankees and defying them. The spirit of his defiance seems to echo throughout Georgia and the South during Reconstruction, as the Georgia legislature’s stubborn refusal to ratify the amendment granting citizenship to blacks demonstrates.
Will Benteen emerges as the only poor white character whom Mitchell develops fully. He is a real person, not simply a sketch or a symbol. Other non-aristocratic characters, such as Emmie Slattery, the “white trash” character, and Jonas Wilkerson, the evil Yankee, never develop into anything more than stereotypes. Will, however, becomes a part of the O’Hara family and Scarlett’s trusted advisor. As a “cracker” (a lower-class white), Will has only a few slaves and little property before the war, a serious handicap to one’s status in a society that measures worth and class by the amount of land and slaves a man possesses. Before the war, the O’Haras would never have dreamed of socializing with Will, let alone allowing him to marry into their family. But with Tara in ruins, the O’Haras welcome Will’s help. He arrives at just the right moment to earn their respect and favor. Once Will gets his foot in the door, his good Southern manners win over the entire family and he successfully jumps class boundaries. With so many men killed in the war, the South must make class boundaries more permeable in order to survive. Still, class boundaries do not collapse completely: though Will advances in the Atlanta social scene, he does so not by his own merits but by marrying into an aristocratic family. Additionally, both Scarlett and the narrator exhibit a contemptuous attitude toward Emmie. Emmie’s family has next to nothing, and the South rejects her. Desirous of moving up in the world, Emmie must leave the South and join Northern society in order to improve her social lot.
Scarlett’s decision to lease convicts illustrates the extent to which she has changed into a cutthroat businesswoman. Before the war, Scarlett would have been horrified, or at least would have feigned horror, at the mere mention of convicts. Now she hires them as workers. Everyone, even Archie, a convicted murderer, considers Scarlett’s decision inhumane. Convicts are not protected as free workers are, and they are treated badly by the people who lease them, sometimes dying from the abusive working conditions. Scarlett has never cared much about the consequences of her actions, thinking almost exclusively about how great a profit will result from them. She proceeds with the plan to hire convicts over the chorus of objections. Her ruthlessness reaches new heights during this difficult economic time, which suggests not only Scarlett’s inhumanity but also the general cruelty practiced by both Northerners and Southerners after the Civil War. Scarlett is predisposed to ruthlessness, but she is also a product of ruthless times.