The defeated Confederate army abandons Atlanta and retreats south, leaving the city to the Yankees. Scarlett goes to the depot to find Dr. Meade and encounters a seemingly endless trail of dead and dying soldiers. Dr. Meade cannot leave them to help Melanie, and everyone else is evacuating the city. Melanie goes into labor, and Prissy admits to Scarlett that she lied when she claimed to know how to deliver a baby. For the first time in her life, Scarlett strikes a slave, slapping Prissy across the face. Scarlett hurries to try to help Melanie.
After a long, painful labor, Melanie gives birth to a boy. Atlanta is nearly deserted, but Scarlett sends Prissy to find Rhett and tell him to come help them escape to Tara.
Confederate soldiers confiscate Rhett’s horse and carriage, but he steals an old horse and cart and drives away with the women, Wade, and the baby. The retreating Confederate army has torched Atlanta’s foundries and storehouses to keep the Yankees from looting them. Scarlett feels unutterably grateful for Rhett’s strength and protection as they ride through the blazing streets. At last they make it out of Atlanta, and Scarlett repeats her desire to go to Tara. Rhett says that to do so would be suicidal, as the woods near Tara are full of Yankees. To Scarlett’s shock, Rhett announces that he is abandoning her to join the Confederate army. He kisses Scarlett passionately, overwhelming her with unfamiliar feelings. Her fury at his announcement quickly returns, though, and she slaps him. He walks away, and Scarlett takes the reins.
The next morning, Scarlett finds herself in pain after a long night of driving and sleeping in the woods. Melanie seems near death, and Scarlett whips the sickly horse back onto the road. Scarlett longs for the comfort of her mother and Tara. They pass the neighboring manors, all empty and burned, but find Tara still standing. Gerald greets Scarlett with the news that Ellen died the previous day. Scarlett’s sisters are still sick with typhoid fever. Gerald seems like a helpless old man, so Scarlett takes charge. Gerald tells her that the Yankees used Tara as a headquarters and have ravaged the plantation, stripping it of food. Dilcey recently gave birth, so she nurses Melanie’s child. Mammy seems to lack strength and confidence without Ellen, and Dilcey tells Scarlett that the Yankees have burned all the cotton and that Ellen died crying the name “Philippe.” Scarlett drinks some whiskey and sinks into despair. She remembers her proud family history and thinks of her ancestors who overcame hardships and won fortunes. Feeling strengthened by their example, Scarlett falls into a peaceful, drunken sleep.
Scarlett wakes in the morning with a headache. She realizes that Gerald, who seemed merely weary the previous night, is suffering from dementia and does not understand that Ellen is dead. Scarlett goes to Twelve Oaks to search for food and finds old turnips and cabbages. As she eyes the torched remains of the once-great plantation, she resolves to look forward rather than backward and vows to herself, “I’m never going to be hungry again.” The war soon fades from Scarlett’s mind as she devotes herself to feeding the hungry mouths at Tara, tending to the three sick girls, and struggling to stay afloat. Scarlett hardens and grows sharp-tongued under the strain and worry of being in charge, but she gains strength from her deep connection to Tara and her passion to hold on to the land.
Scarlett’s whiskey-induced flashback to her ancestors’ struggles illustrates the power of the human will to overcome even the most severe adversity. Mitchell’s flashback technique, though less than subtle, reminds us that Scarlett’s situation is not unique and that she must fall back on the human capacity to meet unthinkable challenges. Other characters also exhibit strength of will and help guide Scarlett’s actions. As a child, Old Miss Fontaine witnessed the scalping of her entire family and survived. She recognizes the survival instinct in Scarlett and gives Scarlett advice based upon her own experiences. Rhett was thrown out of his house without a penny, but he manages to amass great wealth. Melanie gives birth almost unaided but never relinquishes her optimism. She exhibits incredible strength by doing hard work despite her physical weakness. Scarlett, Rhett, and Melanie could not be more different from one another, but they all possess wells of strength, and Mitchell celebrates their ability to survive the most difficult ordeals.
When Rhett abandons Scarlett to join the Confederate Army, it marks a turning point for both of them. Rhett’s steadfastly anti-Southern exterior begins to crack, revealing that he may turn out to be a hero not just for the New South but for the Old South as well. Rhett’s brash anti-South rhetoric loses strength until finally he decides to join the Confederate army. Never the shining knight, however, Rhett performs his patriotic duty while leaving Scarlett in the dust to save herself and the lives of four others. Scarlett has only a horse, a carriage, and her own wits, and she has never driven a carriage before. However, she grits her teeth and maneuvers safely past soldiers of both camps who would gladly rob her of her horse. The long ride is harrowing, but Scarlett has changed so much that she can handle the difficulty. When she arrives at Tara, she finds herself caring for her demented father and the bewildered Mammy.
Scarlett would gladly give up her new responsibility and collapse into the arms of her mother, but Ellen has died. Scarlett cannot put down the burden that she never meant to pick up. In order to persevere, she adopts a mantra that returns throughout the novel: “I’ll think about it tomorrow.” Scarlett uses this phrase to explain and justify her decisions. She convinces herself that she must act without thinking about her actions or her plight. This mantra becomes her survival mechanism. When she feels she must do something unethical, she repeats her mantra and does what she must in order to protect Tara, her own life, and the lives of those people in her care. Ignoring her conscience comes easily to Scarlett. She routinely ignores her moral twinges when, for example, she reads Ashley’s letter to Melanie. Still, the acts she must now commit are not naughty but ruthless, and she often finds herself repeating her mantra during her difficult days at Tara.
Gerald’s dementia results from the loss of Ellen, whom he loved dearly. His dementia symbolizes the inability of the Old South to recover and adjust after the Civil War. Gerald cannot run his plantation, comprehend the new order of things, or accept the loss of his wife and his way of life. He embodies the helpless state of the postwar South. Like many of his peers, he must rely on others to take care of him and make decisions for him. Scarlett takes loving charge of him, but other men in Gerald’s position find themselves at the mercy of opportunists from the North. Men like Gerald, who have known only the easy, good life of the Old South, find themselves bereft after the Civil War.