The people who have brains and courage come through and the ones who haven’t are winnowed out.
Will returns from a trip to Jonesboro with terrible news: the Scalawags and carpetbaggers have raised the taxes on Tara. Scarlett does not have enough money to pay the taxes, so she goes to ask Ashley for advice. He says he cannot help her. With self-loathing, he tells Scarlett he cannot bear to face reality; he misses the Old South. Scarlett tells Ashley that she still loves him and suddenly asks him to escape with her. They kiss passionately, and Ashley tells Scarlett that he loves her but cannot leave Melanie, for he loves his honor more than he loves Scarlett. Placing a clump of Tara’s red clay in Scarlett’s hands, Ashley tells Scarlett that he knows she loves Tara even more than she loves him. Scarlett remembers her passion for Tara and walks back to the house, vowing never to throw herself at Ashley again.
Jonas Wilkerson, the former overseer of Tara who now works for the Freedmen’s Bureau, and Emmie Slattery arrive at Tara dressed in opulent finery. Wilkerson announces his intention to buy the plantation for Emmie, and Scarlett realizes that he is the man responsible for raising the taxes on Tara to drive the O’Haras away. She curses the visitors and orders them to leave. Wilkerson snidely tells Scarlett that she is no longer high and mighty. Scarlett spits at him as he drives away in his fancy carriage. Desperate, Scarlett decides to go to Atlanta to try to marry Rhett Butler. The thought of marriage to Rhett repulses her, but she has heard of his vast funds, which he reportedly stole from the Confederate treasury. Scarlett cannot seduce Rhett looking ragged and poor, but there is no money for a new dress, so she makes one out of Ellen’s fine green velvet curtains. She decides that if Rhett does not want to marry her, she will offer to become his mistress if he will save Tara. Mammy agrees to help make the dress, on the condition that Scarlett let her act as chaperone.
Scarlett and Mammy arrive to find Atlanta burned nearly beyond recognition. The streets teem with blue-coated Yankee soldiers and freed slaves. At Aunt Pittypat’s house, Scarlett hears of the downfall of nearly all the prominent families in Atlanta. Rhett Butler has been sent to jail for allegedly killing a black man who insulted a white woman. Scarlett is so surprised that she scarcely hears Aunt Pittypat ask her whether the newly formed Ku Klux Klan is active around Tara.
The next morning, Scarlett visits Rhett in prison. She pretends to be well off and tries to seduce him. She nearly succeeds, but he notices the calluses on her overworked hands and guesses her true reasons for coming to see him. He refuses her blunt offer to be his mistress and tells her that he even if he wanted to give her money, the Yankees would trace any draft he wrote and confiscate all his wealth. Rhett tells her mockingly that she can attend his hanging, and she leaves filled with bitterness and shame.
After the Civil War ends, the events of the novel take place during the era of Reconstruction. Reconstruction was the transitional period during which the Southern states were rebuilt under a new government and new laws. When the war ended, the Northern-controlled Congress refused to grant seats to newly elected congressmen from the South and took full control of the Reconstruction process. The South felt shamed and helpless, forced to live under what it perceived as foreign rule by the North. For Scarlett and her friends, Reconstruction proves more painful than the war itself. During the war, even the most painful losses in battle are made bearable by the spirit of rebellion. After the war, however, defeat sours everyone. The South can no longer take pride or comfort in its spirit of rebellion.
Three types of people dominate the novel’s portrayal of Reconstruction: Republican officials, Northerners in a South that was solidly Democratic; Scalawags, Southerners who traitorously supported the Republican Party after the war; and carpetbaggers, Northerners who came to the South after the war in search of power and profit. The old hierarchy turned upside down when Congress denied the right to vote to many Southerners who participated in the war and quickly granted suffrage to black men. The Republican governments in the South, led by Scalawags and carpetbaggers, rode roughshod over the once-mighty plantation owners and aristocrats of the South. Scarlett’s friends resent the power of the Freedmen’s Bureau, the federal agency designed to protect the interests of freed slaves, whom the Southerners view as ignorant and incompetent. Scarlett herself confronts the power of the government when her old employee Jonas Wilkerson, employed at the local Freedman’s Bureau, easily manipulates the tax code to increase the taxes on Tara illegally in the hope of obtaining the plantation for himself.
Mitchell suggests that there are two choices for Southerners living under Reconstruction: they can cling to their gentility and pride and do as they are told, or they can fight back. Ashley, too moral to behave with the necessary cunning, clings to his old Southern gentlemanly ways. Scarlett, on the other hand, is prepared to abandon all the social ideals from before the war in order to save Tara. Before the fall of Atlanta she throws Rhett out of her house for proposing that she become his mistress, disgusted by his affront to her honor. Now, however, she rides to Atlanta willing to become his mistress in exchange for the three hundred dollars she needs, prioritizing matters of survival over matters of honor. Like all other Southerners, Scarlett suffers her share of shame and helplessness in the postwar years.
Scarlett changes after her last proclamation of love to Ashley. He rebuffs her once again, and finally she leaves behind the last of her spoiled, coquettish ways. She cannot understand Ashley’s self-loathing and passivity or his unwillingness to act on his love for her. She finally comprehends, however, that his integrity will always prevent him from leaving Melanie. Scarlett realizes that “[t]he words, hospitality and loyalty and honor, meant more to him than she did,” and that passion and flirtation will not win him. For the first time, she imagines herself in Ashley’s position and realizes that it pains him that they cannot act on their attraction. After her conversation with Ashley, Scarlett makes Tara the driving force in her life, which complements her resolution never to throw herself at Ashley again. She has abandoned all trace of her foolish girlhood and has become a woman on a mission.