One day a Yankee cavalryman rides up to Tara and enters the house with his pistol drawn, looking for loot. Scarlett shoots him point-blank with Charles’s pistol. As he falls down dead, she sees Melanie at the top of the stairs carrying Charles’s sword. For the first time, Scarlett feels admiration for Melanie. They discover money in the Yankee’s pockets. Though shocked by the thought that she has killed, Scarlett feels justified in defending Tara and happy to have the Yankee’s precious money and horse.
Scarlett visits the nearby Fontaine plantation and finds the women eager to share their meager supplies. Scarlett tells her troubles to Old Miss Fontaine, who warns Scarlett to save something to fear lest she become too cold and hardened. To Scarlett’s chagrin, Old Miss Fontaine says that at one point in her life she picked cotton to support her father and she never considered herself white trash for doing so. Scarlett returns to Tara and takes up the work of picking cotton, which she considers humiliating “slave work.” Only Dilcey helps her. Mammy and Pork insist that, as house workers, they will not perform field hand labor. Melanie is still too weak for laboring. Still, now that she has food, money, and a horse, Scarlett believes the worst is over.
In mid-November the family learns that the Yankee army is again marching toward Tara. Terrified of losing the food and the house, Scarlett sends everyone into the swamp to hide with the animals and the food. She keeps Melanie’s baby with her. Scarlett refuses to abandon Tara and meets the Yankees at the front door. A swarm of soldiers pours in around her, destroying everything they do not steal. One soldier tries to take Wade’s grandfather’s sword, which is now Wade’s birthright, but Scarlett persuades the Yankee sergeant to stop him. The enraged soldier runs into the kitchen and sets the place on fire as the Yankees stream out of the house. With great effort, Scarlett and Melanie succeed in putting out the fire. Scarlett’s contempt for Melanie once again gives way to grudging admiration.
Around Christmastime, a man named Frank Kennedy and a few Confederate soldiers visit Tara, looking for food for the army. Frank tells Scarlett and Melanie that General Sherman has burned Atlanta to the ground, although Aunt Pittypat’s house escaped the destruction. Frank confides in Scarlett that the end is near, and he finally becomes engaged to Scarlett’s sister Suellen after years of courtship.
By April the war is over, and Scarlett, relieved rather than dejected, makes plans to plant cotton for next year’s market. The roads are safe once again, and neighbors help each other get back on their feet.
Streams of returning Confederate soldiers begin passing through Tara, and Scarlett grudgingly offers them hospitality, sharing Tara and her food with them. A soldier named Will Benteen, a working-class Georgian with a wooden leg, stays on to help with the plantation. He is a godsend, quietly and competently assisting with the land. He falls in love with Scarlett’s sister Carreen, whose devotion to her prayer books and memories of Brent Tarleton prevent her from noticing Will’s attentions. One day, Uncle Peter, a slave, comes from Aunt Pittypat’s house with a letter from Ashley. Ashley is alive and walking home from Illinois. Anxious weeks pass, and Ashley finally arrives. Melanie runs down the front path to meet him and Scarlett starts to run after her, but Will grabs her skirt to stop her. He gently reminds her that Ashley is Melanie’s husband.
Scarlett must adapt quickly to keep pace with the quick changes facing the South. Starvation, the chaos of the war, and the lack of help transform Scarlett from a spoiled coquette into a hardened woman. She stoops to levels she could never have imagined in her old life. Although she adapts, however, Scarlett does not really change. She simply gives free reign to the tendencies once considered shamefully unladylike. In some ways, Scarlett has always had a personality ideally suited to disaster. Her old cunning and selfishness now serve her well, and by developing traits she always possessed she becomes completely self-sufficient and competent. Because Scarlett has never held to the standards of the old times, she has no trouble dropping them now. She is determined to “change with changing ways,” as Old Miss Fontaine puts it. Scarlett and Rhett stand out among the novel’s Southern characters for their chameleon-like ability to adapt to a new set of conventions.
During the hard months at Tara, Melanie becomes mentally stronger, and we start to see her as an alternative heroine to Scarlett. Melanie retains her kind heart, timidity, and physical frailty, but she gains a quiet, fiery determination. She helps Scarlett put out the fire set by the Yankee, and, in one of the novel’s most memorable scenes, tries to defend Tara against the Yankee thief by wielding a sword too heavy for her to lift. Melanie is just as brave as Scarlett, enduring the same hardships and exhibiting the same steely determination to survive, but Melanie’s bravery is untarnished by the selfishness and ruthlessness that drive Scarlett. Melanie’s belief in helping others and in maintaining Southern values motivates her heroic actions. Mitchell suggests that Melanie possesses a more worthy breed of heroism than Scarlett does, but she also suggests that because Melanie lacks Scarlett’s nastiness she will not survive the new order. Like Ashley, Melanie represents the Old South, a South that cannot survive in the post–Civil War era. The weakening of Melanie’s body parallels the weakening of the South. As Melanie becomes sick during pregnancy in Atlanta, Atlanta becomes sick. As Melanie totters around Tara, Atlanta struggles to stay alive. Despite their struggles, however, both Melanie and the South maintain their pride and gentility.
Mitchell’s use of derogatory terms for specific ethnic or socioeconomic groups causes many readers discomfort. Throughout the novel, white characters and black house slaves refers to field hands as “darkies,” “niggers,” and “free-issue trash.” Poor whites are labeled “white trash” and “crackers.” Many of these racist and classist terms, offensive though they may be, were part of the common language of the time period in which the novel is set. Mitchell researched her novel meticulously, and in order to paint a true-to-life picture, she used the idiom of the Old South. However, while historical accuracy can explain some characters’ use of this language, historical accuracy does not compel the house slave Pork to talk of “trashy niggers.” Pork uses this language solely to denounce other black people. Surely a self-hating individual such as Pork could have existed in the Civil War South, but Mitchell fails to depict such an individual’s more numerous counterparts, who hated the torture they suffered at the hands of white oppressors, and who longed to regain their dignity.
The slaves depicted in Gone with the Wind, especially the freed slaves, are stereotypes rather than real people. Historically, some slaves remained loyal to their white owners after the Civil War, but many of them left to find the freedom they had long been denied. Mitchell thus paints an unrealistic picture when she writes that not a single house servant deserts Tara. Mitchell buys in to the white party line of the Civil War era, which held that slaves loved and needed their masters. In this novel slaves profess overwhelming and unrealistic loyalty to white families. For instance, in Chapter XVII, Big Sam digs trenches with pride because he thinks he is helping gentle white people to hide. Mitchell makes Big Sam not only loyal to his slave-owners but also naïve and childish, and therefore in need of white guidance and support. Mitchell also stereotypes slaves as dishonest, having Prissy, for example, lie about having experience delivering babies. Gone with the Wind contains multiple derogatory descriptions of blacks; it perpetuates negative stereotypes rather than investigating the black position in the South at the time of the Civil War.