THE CIVIL WAR'S REAL Rhett Butler: GEORGE ALFRED TRENHOLM

By Coppock, Mike | Sea Classics, April 2010 | Go to article overview

THE CIVIL WAR'S REAL Rhett Butler: GEORGE ALFRED TRENHOLM


Coppock, Mike, Sea Classics


The inspiration for author Margaret Mitchell's timeless hero in Gone With The Wind was every bit the dashing adventurer portrayed by Clark Gable in 1939' s blockbuster film

When ruggedly handsome entrepreneur Rhett Butler uttered the never to be forgotten farewell, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn," he coined not only the most famous romantic goodbye in American fiction but made his scheming wife, Scarlett CHara, instantly the most popular heroine ofthe Twentieth Century.

Such were the powerful characterizations drawn by author Margaret Mitchell that her fictional characters sparked an entire generation's interest in America's tumultuous Civil War with her Pulitzer Prize winning 1938 novel Gone With The Wind. Yet the old saying that truth is always more celebrated than fiction was never more profound than the fact that this milestone novel's leading love interest, Rhett Butler, was based more on truth than fiction - that the adventurous life led by Civil War Confederate profiteer and patriot George Trenholm was indeed the thinly disguised inspiration for Mitchell's classic über hero Rhett Butler.

How the novel came to be is in itself an amazing story. While working for the Atlanta Journal, reporter Margaret Mitchell had broken her ankle and found herself bedridden and bored. Addicted to Southern history, she had her newlymarried second husband go back and forth from the library toting books to her bedside until he was tired ofthe activity. Finally, he reportedly told his new wife that if she wanted to read, she was going to have to write her own book.

Thus Margaret Mitchell began putting Gone With The Wind to paper.

Her problem was she needed a rogue - and a successful rogue at that - to counterpoint her heroine Scarlett O'Hara. Then she remembered an individual she had earlier read about, a man who not only was a successful blockade runner, but ended up owning a fleet of blockade running ships and may have made off with the Confederate treasury - George Trenholm of Charleston, South Carolina.

Trenholm's well-documented real life exploits were soon transformed by Mitchell's writing skills into Rhett Butler - a dashing rogue who was handsome enough to play himself in the classic David O. Selznick film that soon captivated authences worldwide.

Trenholm's father died when he was very young. His father's passing forced him to quit school and seek employment. Hired by John Fraser and Company, cotton exporters who owned their own ships, likeably aggressive Trenholm gradually worked himself upward in company management. By 1853, at age 47, he had become the firm's senior partner and principal owner.

"King Cotton," the South's major export, had made Trenholm a highlyrespected entrepreneur with his wellmanicured fingers in several lucrative pies. By the time the Civil War commenced, Trenholm was possibly already the wealthiest man in the South - owning plantations, hotels, shipping firms, commercial real estate, warehouses, and cotton gins. Yet, hard as it is to imagine, the war and the Union Naval blockade, soon made Trenholm even wealthier.

At the start ofthe war, the South shipped 78$ of its cotton crop to Britain where five million Englishmen were employed in the all-important textile industry. Nothing equivalent existed in the North's trade with Britain. The British Empire desperately needed the South's cotton and it was in England's best interest to see that the Confederacy won its bid for independence from the United States.

Britain did intervene in the American Civil War and very forcefully at that.

A million men eventually served in the Confederate Army needing a million rifles, several million rounds of ammunition, and up to two billion calories daily in food for its fighting men. How could a region with little manufacturing and cash crops rather than food support a million men in the field? Great Britain was the answer and Trenholm's fleet of fast, modern blockade runners was the means. …

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