My interest in the Civil War began in earnest in elementary school in Atlanta, a city with a strong Civil War association. I also developed a particular attraction to Gone with the Wind—first the movie, then the book. After all, Tara was the fictional plantation just outside Atlanta, and GWTW author and Pulitzer Prize winner Margaret Mitchell lived and worked (and later tragically died) in Atlanta. Additionally, on the property of the Atlanta Zoo was the Cyclorama, a large 360-degree painting depicting the Battle of Atlanta in astonishing detail. Twenty miles to the northwest, there was Kennesaw Mountain where the Confederate army attempted to slow the inexorable Union army campaign that had Atlanta in its sights. So, Atlanta had the battlefields, the paintings, and the historical markers from the real, and Gone with the Wind from the imagined.
As a teenager, my mother was among the estimated 300,000 fascinated onlookers who, on Friday, December 15, 1939, stood in the cold and awaited the arrival of Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Olivia de Havilland, and other celebs for the world premiere of GWTW. Twenty years later, the movie returned to the same Loew’s Grand Theater, this time with only a smattering of the original fanfare. It was then that I, as a boy, attended a showing of the film with my mother and grandmother, both of whom seemed to spend much of the movie in tears. The poignant scene of the thousands of Confederate wounded lying in the streets of Atlanta didn’t cause me to join in the crying, but it stayed in my memory as a reminder that war is cruel, ugly, and tragic. More than anything else, that scene is why I remember GWTW the movie.
A bit of irony here: Atlanta’s Loew’s Grand Theater was heavily damaged by fire in 1978, as was much of the same surrounding area in the summer of 1864 during that most unpleasant visit by Union Gen. W. T. Sherman.
Later, I became interested in GWTW the book. I learned about the life of Margaret Mitchell, how she developed the story and characters, and how she handled the remarkable success her novel achieved. In 2014, a Harris Poll found GWTW to be the second favorite book of American readers, second only to the Bible. More than 30 million copies have been printed worldwide. Ms. Mitchell wrote one novel, sold tens of millions of copies, was awarded a Pulitzer, and thereafter lived the life of a celebrity. As a fellow novelist, about the only way in which I can compare myself to Margaret Mitchell is in our common hometown of Atlanta. And while I have recently released a Civil War novel of my own, the chances of That Deadly Space overtaking Gone with the Wind are roughly equivalent to my making the Braves and then winning a major league batting title. But that’s okay. My book’s chances for success are not dependent upon a comparison to GWTW.
With all her accomplishments, however, things didn’t end well for Ms. Mitchell. A speeding automobile struck her as she crossed Peachtree Street at 13th Street in Atlanta with her husband, John Marsh, while on her way to see a movie on the evening of August 11, 1949. She died at Grady Hospital five days later without ever regaining consciousness. Ms. Mitchell was 48 years old at the time of her death.
The Atlanta of Margaret Mitchell’s day is very different from the Atlanta of today. And there are few if any signs of the Atlanta of Margaret Mitchell’s imagination. Still, the connection of Atlanta, Gone with the Wind, and Ms. Mitchell will remain through the ages.