On a May morning in 1862, Scarlett, Prissy, and Wade arrive in Atlanta to visit Melanie and Aunt Pittypat. Atlanta, a railroad hub, has sprouted army departments, hospitals, and foundries during the war. At the Hamilton house on Peachtree Street, Pittypat and Melanie are thrilled to see Scarlett. Uncle Henry, Pittypat’s brother, talks to Scarlett about Charles’s fortune, which is now Scarlett’s. The hustle and energy revive Scarlett. Her only complaint is that she must do volunteer nursing work in the soldiers’ hospitals, which are full of sweaty, wounded men that stink of gangrene.
The hospital holds a fundraising bazaar, but as a widow in mourning Scarlett cannot attend without breaching decorum. Unlike the other widows, she thinks it unfair that she works like a “field hand” to prepare for the bazaar but cannot attend. At the last moment, Scarlett and Melanie are called in to work at a booth. At the bazaar, Scarlett is shocked by her own lack of patriotism during the speeches about the glorious Confederate cause. She longs to dance. Rhett Butler, now a famous blockade-runner for the South, appears and teases her about her marriage to Charles. Dr. Meade, Atlanta’s foremost citizen, sends around a collection basket to encourage women to donate their jewelry. Scarlett donates her hated wedding ring. Melanie mistakes Scarlett’s action for courage and throws her own wedding ring into the basket.
Dr. Meade scandalously proposes that gentlemen must bid to dance with the lady of their choice in order to raise money for the hospital. As a widow, Scarlett is strictly forbidden to dance, but Rhett bids a hundred and fifty dollars in gold on her. To the shock of the crowd, Scarlett accepts and hurries to the dance floor. Rhett tells Scarlett that he admires her beauty and spirit and that he knows the Cause bores her as it bores him. Scarlett pretends to be angry, but she knows that what he says is true.
The next morning, Atlanta buzzes with gossip about Scarlett’s shocking behavior. Pittypat says that Rhett is a terrible man, but forgives him when he sends a gift: Melanie’s wedding ring, which he bought back. Gerald arrives to confront Rhett and take Scarlett back to Tara in disgrace. He leaves to talk to Rhett and returns in the middle of the night, drunk and penniless from playing poker. In the morning, Scarlett promises to keep his behavior a secret as long as he allows her to stay in Atlanta. He agrees.
The following week, Scarlett sneaks into Melanie’s room to read a letter Melanie recently received from Ashley. In it Ashley discusses his doubts about the war, but Scarlett pays little attention to his soul-searching questions. She is simply relieved that Ashley has not written Melanie a love letter. Scarlett puts away the letter, convinced that Ashley still loves her.
Mitchell divides Gone with the Wind into sixty-three chapters, dividing those chapters into five parts. Each new part begins with a shift in Scarlett’s life and in the life of the South. Chapter VIII, the first chapter of Part Two, marks the end of Scarlett’s comfortable and privileged life at Tara and the beginning of her consciousness of the Civil War. Though the war actually starts in Chapter VII, Scarlett does not move to Atlanta until Chapter VIII, and it is only in Atlanta that she begins to feel the reality of the war. Part Two also marks the beginning of Scarlett’s life as a seventeen-year-old widow. Earlier, back at Tara, gala parties and masses of admirers surround her. In Atlanta her social life changes entirely. Although Scarlett knows some people in Atlanta, she now spends her time with Melanie, Pittypat, and older married or widowed women.
The Civil War relaxes the stringent rules governing women’s behavior, however. Because men must go off to war, courtship and marriage must happen with new speed. The hospitals need volunteers so badly that even widows like Scarlett find themselves attending to wounded and sick men and seeing sights previously thought too vulgar for a woman’s eyes. Even guidelines for widows change slightly. According to the customs of the Old South, widows must wear black for years after the death of their husbands, and for them it is unthinkable to enjoy the company of an unmarried man, much less dance with one. However, the topsy-turvy atmosphere of war makes such rules mutable, and thus Scarlett can dance with Rhett in Chapter XII and afterward still show her face in Atlanta society. In a time of few resources and overwhelming motivation to support the war effort, people realign their priorities to give primacy to the war rather than to custom.
Just as Mitchell uses Ashley and Rhett to represent the Old South and the New South, respectively, she equates Tara with the Old South and Atlanta with the changing, New South. Tara stands for a slavery-driven plantation world of leisure and luxury for the wealthy owners. Atlanta, Gerald tells Scarlett, was born the same year she was, and like Scarlett it lives through newness and change. Scarlett’s old way of life cannot survive in this new world. No longer idle and pampered as she is back at Tara, she spends much of her time nursing wounded soldiers and rolling bandages for the war. She even notes that she feels like a slave. In Scarlett’s eyes, at least, social codes have been turned on their heads when a Southern belle like herself must work as hard as a field hand. At Tara, Scarlett tries to adhere to old Southern values. In Atlanta, however, she begins to defy the rules that society has impressed upon her since birth. Scarlett has always felt rebellious, but in Atlanta she acts on her rebelliousness, boldly dancing despite her widowhood. Scarlett remains nervous about stepping out of line, but Atlanta’s wartime culture grants her room to express her strong will and follow her selfish desires—until Atlanta itself changes in Part Three.