The Secret History of Gone With The Wind . . . Episode Three
It has long been assumed that the success of Gone With The Wind, both as a book and a movie, was due to the genius of its author, Margaret Mitchell. There is no doubt that Margaret Mitchell was a talented writer, but a little known fact is that the plot of the book came straight from the lives of real people . . . most of them, very famous on their own account. She would have never come in contact with these people had not a strange, unpredictable chain of events begun over 2,000 years ago at the northern tip of Bartow County, GA in the valley below the Pine Log Mountains.
Two thousand years ago, an advanced indigenous people arrived here from the south. On a flat topped hill, they established a ceremonial enclosure and royal compound. In the valley below they built a town with several mounds. In 1817, Cherokee Chief Charles Hicks, the father of the Cherokee Renaissance, established his farm in that ceremonial enclosure. Over a century ago, nationally famous author, Corra Harris, bought that farm to be near the ghost of her husband. For the next 18 years, Harris gathered together progressive leaders of the New South for weekend retreats at that farm . . . first to promote the right of women to vote and then to promote the right of women to work in professions. A cub reporter with the Atlanta Journal, Margaret Mitchell, tagged along with her bosses to most of those retreats.
Cast of characters in Episodes Three, Four and Five
Corra May White Harris: She was born in 1869 on a not-too-prosperous small plantation in Elbert County, Georgia in the hamlet of Ruckersville . . . which was primarily a mixed-blood Creek Indian community. As an escape from a miserable marriage to a mentally ill alcoholic and opiate addict, she began sending a series of controversial, but well-crafted “blogs” to a New York newspaper. One of her first blogs supported the lynching of African-American men, who raped Southern white women. This in fact, was her emotional revenge after discovering that her husband, while a professor a Emory College, had a long time affair with a rural black woman. She went on to become the first woman writer in the South to achieve national prominence.
In 1910, Corra became nationally famous when her semi-biographical novel about her experiences as a Methodist minister’s wife in the Georgia Mountains was serialized by the Saturday Evening Post. In 1911, Corra published a novel about a heroine of the Women’s Suffrage Movement, “The Co-Citizens,” which was loosely based on Rebecca Felton’s life.
Corra was the inspiration for Belle Watling, the owner of an Atlanta brothel and friend of Rhett Butler. She had a platonic relationship with Henry Ford. The weekend retreats at her Pine Log, GA home allowed people such as Martha Berry and Henry Ford to “be themselves” away from the public’s eye.
Rev. Lundy Harris: He was born in McDonough, GA in 1858, from a long line of Methodist ministers. He graduated from Emory College (now university) in 1879. Fluent in Classical Greek and Hebrew, Harris was always known as a brilliant scholar, but a “hell and brimstone” preacher. In addition, to “serving time” as a Methodist Circuit Rider preacher in the North Georgia Piedmont and Mountains, he also was a a professor at Emory and Young Harris College, plus an official of the Southern Methodist Episcopal Church.
Harris had problems with bouts of depression, plus addiction to alcohol and laudanum, a opiate derivative. As years went by the bipolar behavior worsened into severe mental illness. He died in 1910 from a deadly overdose of alcohol and opiates at the foot of the flat topped hill in Pine Log, Georgia, where Native peoples, many centuries before, had constructed a sacred enclosure.
Margaret Mitchell’s description of an insane, alcoholic Gerald O’Hara after the Civil War is based on Corra Harris’s description of Lundy Harris during his bouts with depression and alcoholism.
Dr./Rev./ Congressman William Harrell Felton: He was born near Lexington, GA in 1823. Felton was a Populist renaissance man, who went to the mountains of NW Georgia in 1847 to build up a 1000 acre plantation. Prior to the Civil War, he became a licensed surgeon AND an ordained Methodist minister. During the Civil War, he treated Confederate wounded laying on the ground beside the Western and Atlantic Railroad, just north of Cartersville.
During Reconstruction, he was elected to Congress as an Independent. He became nationally known both as a public speaker and proponent of economic opportunity for the “little man.” He was the first United States congressman to publicly speak for women’s right to vote. He was a brilliant, handsome man, who was inept at practical matters, such as running a plantation or business records. Felton was dependent on Rebecca Felton (Scarlett) to make business decisions for him.
Dr. Felton was the inspiration of both the characters Ashley Wilkes and Dr. Meade, who attended to the sea of wounded at the Atlanta rail depot. The astonishing thing is how closely, British actor, Lesley Howard, resembled William Felton. Was this intentional?
Rebecca Latimer Felton: She was born in 1835 on a modest plantation southeast of Atlanta. After graduating from college in 1852, she became William Felton’s second wife in 1854. This was in an era when most Southern women had no education beyond the age of 15. As her husband’s political career blossomed, she provoked several scandals for being at his side during political campaigns, and also speaking to the public. As a young bride, she took control of her husband’s business affairs and saved their plantation from bankruptcy. Later she went on to be nationally known for her work to provide universal public education, eliminate saloons, give women the right to vote, and open up career opportunities for women.
At the same time that she was promoting civil rights for some, Rebecca used rented convict laborers to run her saw mill and iron mine, just as Scarlett O’Hara did in the novel. Also . . . just like Scarlett . . . as a young Southern Belle, Rebecca had a 16″ waist. Rebecca was the REAL Scarlett O’Hara.
Martha McChesney Berry: She was born in 1866 on an extremely prosperous plantation on the Oostanaula River near Rome, GA. Her father became very wealthy from owning several steamboats in Rome. She used the wealth inherited from her father to start a free school for poor mountain children. It evolved into Berry College. Berry College has the largest college campus in the world (38,000 acres) and is now rated the top small college in the Southeast. Industrialist Henry Ford paid the tab for much of Berry College’s mid-20th century development . . . but there is much more to the story than that. It is probably the reason that despite being a beautiful, intelligent Southern Belle, Martha never married.
As the “social liberal” among Corra Harris’s regular guests, this true Southern Belle, who loved people of all colors and economic backgrounds, is obviously the inspiration for Melanie Wilkes.
Henry James Ford: He was born in 1863 near Detroit, Michigan. Ford was a lifetime friend, benefactor, confidante and paramour of Martha Berry. Yes, that’s the same Henry Ford, who built autos. Corra Harris maintained a bedroom for them, upstairs in her rural farm house, when Henry was visiting Georgia. It is still called the Berry-Ford Bedroom. Apparently, Berry and Ford maintained this secret intimate relationship their entire lives. Publicly, they were merely friends. On several occasions, Berry was invited by Mrs. Ford to their Michigan estate. Or perhaps . . . Mrs. Ford just didn’t care.
There was another irony in Henry Ford’s secret life. Publicly, he was bitterly opposed to tobacco smoking and forbade it among his workers. However, ALL of the women, who came to Corra Harris’s farm . . . including his paramour . . . smoked.
While publicly a conservative Republican and opposed to the right of women to vote, Ford’s wealth donated secretly to Rebecca and Martha, personally funded the Women’s Suffrage Movement in the South. This is a little known fact.
Henry Ford’s personality was much of the inspiration for the character of Rhett Butler. The only difference was, of course, Rhett was a Southerner.
Margaret Munnerlyn Mitchell: She was born in 1900 in Atlanta, GA to an upper class family, who could afford to send her to a private academy and Smith College. During the 1920s, she was a young reporter for the Atlanta Journal. She was usually invited along when the intelligentsia of Atlanta spent the weekends at Corra Harris’s Farm. She would sit in the background, enthralled, as Rebecca Felton, Martha Berry and Corra Harris told stories of the Old South and the Reconstruction Era.
Margaret intentionally made the O’Hara family Irish Catholics, to honor her grandparents, who emigrated from Ireland during the Great Potato Famine. It is a little known fact that the only ports open to Irish immigrants during much of the Potato Famine were Savannah and Charleston. Savannah now annually sponsors the world’s third largest St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
Prologue – The real Tara
Today, the site of the Felton Plantation is a nondescript sea of rental storage buildings and speculative office buildings. The home was burned by arsonists in 1998, who were angry that the home was to be a museum dedicated to women’s rights. A century ago, however, it was the home of one of the most successful leaders of the political efforts to obtain the right of women to vote and be employed in professional position.
Civic leaders in Cartersville planned to restore the Felton Plantation as a museum dedicated to the Women’s Civil Rights Movement. After all, it was William Felton, who FIRST promoted the right of women to vote.
Fortunately, just before the structures were destroyed, architectural as-built drawings were prepared in anticipation of the plantation becoming a major monument of the women’s rights movement. In 2012, these two dimensional drawings were developed into a virtual reality computer model that will enable future generations to better understand the world that Rebecca lived in.
Act One – The Civil War in Georgia
As a teenager, Rebecca was the epitome of a Southern Belle. Beautiful, high spirited, intelligent . . . her 16 inch waist line was the inspiration for Scarlett O’Hara’s 16 inch waist. Rebecca rejected all suitors when she was 18, and went off to college. The fact that she waited till age 23 to marry, would have been almost scandalous in the Ante Bellum Era.
The life of Rebecca Felton closely paralleled that of Scarlett’s O’Hara, except that William and Rebecca Felton’s marriage was a strong one. They were in as much love when he died as when they married. William and Rebecca initially opposed Secession, as did most of the people in northwest Georgia. The Felton’s were horrified when their children came home from school, wearing “Secesh” ribbons. The people in their county even raised a militia to guard the United States Mint in Dahlonega, GA from Confederate soldiers, but they quickly changed uniform colors, when President Lincoln ordered the invasion of the South.
William didn’t join the army because of his political beliefs, but he did all he could, as a doctor, to help the thousands of wounded soldiers who were deposited beside the railroad tracks near their home, after big battles to the north. That is how William Felton became the inspiration for Doctor Meade in the horrific scenes wounded Confederate soldiers during the Battle of Atlanta.
When the fighting moved into Northwest Georgia in the summer of 1864, the Felton’s fled with their entire household to Macon, GA. Rebecca heard that both her mother and sister were critically ill with the measles . . .contracted from the invading Northern troops during Sherman’s March to the Sea. She first tried to reach her family by train, but a bridge had been blown up by Union Cavalry.
Rebecca drove a mule wagon over a hundred miles through the devastation of Sherman’s March to the Sea in an attempt to reach her family. In the Old South , plantation class women would have never considered driving a wagon or traveling alone. While in the mule wagon, she was attacked by Yankee cavalry, but a troop of Southern cavalry came to her rescue and drove off the invaders. This event exactly matches the plot of “Gone with the Wind.”
By the time Rebecca reached her family, her mother and sister were dead. Again, that is exactly like the plot of “Gone With the Wind.” She then returned to Macon. All of her family and slaves fled to “a refuge” in deep Southeast Georgia. They almost starved to death. Rebecca’s firstborn son, along with many of their farm hands, died of measles. She almost died of measles, too (just like in the movie, GWTW, but eventually recovered.
William and Rebecca together drove the mule wagon 250 miles northward to Cartersville, to see if anything was left standing on their farm. All of Bartow County was a visage of hell. Sherman had ordered most buildings burned a full four months after there were any Confederate regiments in the area. These pure acts of terrorism, and Sherman openly admitted it.
As Rebecca and her family crested the hill on the road leading to the house, Rebecca stood up to see that their farm was wrecked, but the house was standing. She the uttered those famous words, “I swear by God that I will NEVER be poor again!” Of course, Scarlett said the same words in the novel and movie.
Act Two – The South after the Civil War
During the extreme poverty of Reconstruction, William and Rebecca started a school, since the Yankees had burned all of the public and private school buildings around Cartersville . . . except one that had a Masonic emblem on it. William ran for Congress in outrage when the “Old South Democrats” immediately took control of Georgia after Reconstruction ended. He called these Plantation Democrats . . . the Bourbons.
Rebecca began buying up all of the land around their farm: eventually another 2500 acres. She used rented convict labor to run a saw mill and iron mine Does that sound like “Gone With the Wind?” Rebecca became very wealthy from her business activities, while William became nationally known as a progressive congressman and public speaker.
There is a section in “Gone With the Wind” when Scarlett is assaulted in a Shanty town. Both Corra Harris and Rebecca were terrified of being assaulted by black men, although there is no record of either of them being harmed in any way by any black person. It is believed that Corra may have fabricated the story of being assaulted by a black man, which Margaret Mitchell dutifully recorded in her novel.
William Felton’s political career and health waned in the 1890s. He died in 1909 from Parkinson’s Disease. By then, however, the couple had become extremely wealthy from her businesses. She was an astute businesswoman like Scarlett O’Hara . . . but also, like Scarlett, her wealth was created on the backs of rented convict laborers, who were treated far worse than any African-American slave before the Civil War.
Rebecca devoted much of her time to two political causes, the Temperance Movement and the Women’s Suffrage Movement. She considered the two causes interrelated because widespread alcoholism in the Southeast after the Civil War had kept the region in a dungeon of poverty and despair, while archaic laws kept women in political chains that prevented them from applying their talents to solving America’s problems. Ironically, although much of Felton’s early wealth came from leasing convict laborers, she led the effort to have the practice outlawed in Georgia in 1908. For 20 years Felton also wrote a popular syndicated “advice” column for newspapers, called “The Country Home,”
Shortly, after the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, giving women the write to vote, At the age of 87, Felton was appointed to fill in the term of a Georgia senator, who had died, until a special election could be held. Although the Senate was in session only the last 24 hours of her term, she was sworn in as the first female to serve in the U.S. Senate and was invited to make a significant speech to Congress. Rebecca Latimer Felton died in 1930 at the age of 95. “Gone with the Wind” was published six years later.
“Fiddle-dee-dee . . . tomorrow is another day! “
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