The war drags on. Port blockades make food, clothing, and other necessities increasingly difficult to obtain. Rhett is the most famous Confederate blockade-runner, sneaking boats through the Yankee blockade in order to sell cotton and other Southern products in exchange for necessities. He becomes the most popular man in town despite his reputation for disregarding social customs. He calls on Scarlett frequently, and she quickly abandons any pretense of mourning Charles’s death. She enjoys the informality occasioned by the war and lives an active social life. After months of polite behavior, Rhett starts publicly expressing his contempt for Confederate idealism and declares that he works for personal gain, not for the Southern cause. One night at a party, Rhett scandalizes his audience by exclaiming that the war is about money, not pride, rights, or glory. In the carriage ride home, Melanie defends Rhett, revealing that in his letters Ashley has expressed beliefs similar to Rhett’s. The revelation that her shining idol and a scoundrel have the same opinions about the war confuses Scarlett.
The entire city, with the exception of the Hamilton household, vilifies Rhett. He continues to call on Scarlett, however, and gives her a fancy hat from Paris so she will stop wearing the required black mourning veil. One day Melanie tells Scarlett that a prostitute named Belle Watling gave her a considerable sum of money for the hospital. Belle wrapped the money in a handkerchief, which Melanie now holds, and Scarlett sees that it bears Rhett’s initials. Shocked that Rhett would consort with a prostitute, Scarlett flings the handkerchief into the fire.
The people remain optimistic despite food shortages, death, illness, and poverty. The Confederacy has won important battles, and rumors begin to circulate that the war will be settled at an impending battle at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. As the battle begins, news of widespread casualties slowly trickles back to Atlanta. A large crowd of women gathers before the newspaper office to wait for casualty lists. Melanie, Scarlett, and Pittypat learn that Ashley has survived, but nearly every family in Atlanta has lost a relative in the fighting. Stuart and Brent Tarleton have died.
The Confederacy loses the battle at Gettysburg. At Christmastime, Ashley comes home on a brief leave of absence. Scarlett loves seeing him, but wishes she could speak to him alone. Just before he leaves, she gets a moment with him. Ashley asks Scarlett to look after Melanie if he is killed. Scarlett quickly agrees and then kisses him passionately. Ashley kisses her back but quickly breaks away as Scarlett proclaims her love, and he hurries to the train station looking agonized.
It is early in 1864. The Confederate army has lost ground and Atlanta suffers from cold and hunger. Atlanta openly reviles Rhett as a food speculator and a profiteer. Scarlett receives two devastating pieces of news: Ashley has been captured, and Melanie is pregnant. Rhett has learned of Ashley’s imprisonment and tells Scarlett that Ashley could have won his freedom by betraying the Confederacy. Scarlett asks why Ashley would have refused such an opportunity, and Rhett, who claims he himself would have accepted, replies contemptuously that Ashley is too much of a gentleman.
Rhett, as a symbol of the New South, forces the people around him to listen to the harsh truths about the war, pointing out the economic problems that Southern leaders refuse to acknowledge. Although he is abrasive and contemptuous, Rhett cuts through the rosy rhetoric of leaders like Dr. Meade and exposes the hypocrisies and weaknesses obscured by the South’s rampant patriotism. Rhett insists on voicing truths that the South would rather not face. He asserts that the war is more about money than people will admit and that those who make grand speeches about states’ rights care for nothing but their own wealth and privilege. Ashley also recognizes the truths that Rhett voices, but, as Scarlett realizes, Ashley nevertheless resigns himself to fighting for a lost cause. Ashley reinforces his position as symbol of the Old South, fighting desperately for a life that has already been lost to the New South that Rhett Butler represents.
Until the Civil War, the Southern economy depended largely on its cotton production, which relied on slave labor for the intensive work. The slave-driven economy brought great wealth to the plantation owners and left the South relatively untouched by the industrial revolution that swept the North. The South became dependent on the North and on England to buy its crops and to supply manufactured goods. As Rhett explains to the men at Twelve Oaks, the South has raw resources but lacks means of production. When the North blocks off Southern ports, the South finds its markets cut off. It can neither export its crops for income nor import goods for consumption. Blockade-runners like Rhett become invaluable as a way of getting and selling goods. As the blockade tightens, the entire South suffers from a shortage of goods and skyrocketing prices.
Those people who control resources—government contractors and blockade-runners like Rhett—soon win the public’s ire by profiting from the scarcity of goods. The people who control the goods can control the prices. Because goods are so scarce, demand rises, and people like Rhett can push prices to astronomical heights, sometimes even holding onto goods instead of selling them right away so that prices go up still more. Southerners initially bless the blockade-runners for procuring goods, but as they begin to understand the reality of price-fixing, their praise turns to hatred. The profiteering of the blockade-runners marks the beginning of the South’s helplessness, which continues with the postwar descent of the carpetbaggers, Northerners who go down South to profit under Reconstruction-era policies.
Some critics fault Mitchell’s novel for focusing entirely on the upper classes, glorifying Southern culture and glossing over its faults. Mitchell paints a picture of a South victimized by greed and selfishness. For example, she portrays the plantation owners as helpless in the face of the profiteer’s opportunism. She condemns hypocritical government contractors and the Southerners who stay in the local militia instead of going into battle farther north. Other inhabitants of the South seem to exist in a harmless, happy world. Mitchell suggests that their only sin is naiveté. However, portraying wealthy Southerners as victims of profiteering ignores the history of how the plantation owners accumulated the wealth of which they soon found themselves stripped. Gerald, a self-made man, gets his plantation through a poker game, but his success, like the success of every plantation owner in the South, depends upon the exploitation of slaves and the crowding out of poor whites like the Slatterys. Neither the plantation owners nor Mitchell acknowledge the fact that most rich Southerners succeed by oppressing people. Consistent with the sentiments of her time and class, Mitchell acknowledges only the wrongs committed against the upper class.