Discovery of the “real” Rhett Butler
by Dr. E. Lee Spence
This article is about George Alfred Trenholm and my discovery and research proving he was the historical figure behind Margaret Mitchell’s fictional Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind. Why literary scholars and other historians hadn’t seen the link previously still mystifies me, but the editors of Life magazine said I had “overwhelming evidence” and my discovery made international news. The following is a slightly edited and updated version of the first chapter of my book Treasures of the Confederate Coast: the real Rhett Butler & Other Revelations (Narwhal Press, © copyright 1995). All rights reserved.
One day I plan to write and produce a documentary using Trenholm’s beautiful mansions, plantations and shipwrecks to better reveal the facts behind GWTW and the “real Rhett Butler.”
George Alfred Trenholm, Blockade Runner & Banker
George Trenholm was tall, brave, and handsome. He was a relatively obscure shipping and banking magnate from Charleston, South Carolina, who served as Treasurer of the Confederacy during the last year of the Civil War. Today, few people are aware that he ever lived. Even fewer know he was the mastermind behind the Confederacy’s successful blockade running efforts or understand that his sense of daring, his clear thinking, and his business and political philosophies helped shape the course of the Civil War.
Realizing the symbiotic relationship that must exist between business and government during any war, Trenholm saw money to be made in both the tearing down and the building up of a nation. His wealth and power grew even as the South withered and died. By the War’s end he was undoubtedly the richest and most influential man in the South.
More than any government agency, private company, or individual, Trenholm had kept the South’s crumbling war machine financed, fed and clothed, but the question lingers whether he did it for grand ideals or for personal gain. I suspect it was for a mixture of both.
Trenholm acted as the South’s banking and shipping agent, smuggling cotton and gold out of the country to buy up medicines and munitions in Europe for the war effort here in America. Getting the Yankees to sell weapons that would be used against their own people, he even bought and shipped guns out of New York.
But he also speculated heavily in luxuries and merchandise, which he sold at outrageous prices. He threw lavish feasts when the rest of the populace was starving. At a time when rats were being sold in the Richmond market place, he flaunted his wealth by sending guests home with baskets of fine foods and expensive imported wines. Almost to add insult, his servants were dressed finer than his guests. There was little money to be made in shipping uniforms and army shoes, and while thousands of Southern soldiers marched barefoot to battle in tattered rags, Trenholm’s steamers routinely used valuable cargo space to ship in silk slippers, brocades, and other non-essential luxuries to sell to the wealthy.
Surpassing any other Southern patriot, he purchased today’s equivalent of over a billion dollars in Confederate bonds enabling the South to keep fighting. He financed privateers and Confederate cruisers, which tied up Yankee vessels that might otherwise have been attacking and capturing his fleet of blockade runners. He put up the huge reward that encouraged the crew of the tiny Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley. Although the Hunley was ultimately successful, none of her crew lived to collect it.
At the start of the Civil War, Trenholm put money down on a fleet of armed ships, which could have been used to blockade the North. But the Confederate government, didn’t come up with the balance and the ships were never bought or it would have probably brought a quick end to the War, and have meant victory for the South. He suggested sound financial policies, which if implemented might have saved the South from the crippling inflation that devalued their money and destroyed their credit. He advised policies on international trade, which (unfortunately for the South) weren’t listened to by other officials. He financed propaganda efforts in an effort to win England’s support.
Trenholm contributed heavily to charities, indiscriminately helping both blacks and whites. He gave money for the relief of crippled soldiers making no distinction between Southerners and Northerners. He liberally donated to schools, hospitals, churches, and orphanages. He seemed the ideal citizen.
But, what were Trenholm’s true motives? Was he really a patriot, or was it simply good business? On the surface, he did many fine things, but everything directly or indirectly enhanced his own personal prestige, power and money making abilities.
Using a network of employees and secret agents, Trenholm bribed officials on two continents, socialized with Yankee carpetbaggers, and charmed everyone from “fast” young Southern widows to old preachers, who were continually in his debt for the largess he showed.
Trenholm’s companies had been on the verge of bankruptcy at the outbreak of hostilities, but by the end of the Civil War he controlled over sixty first class steamers and his amazingly successful, blockade running ventures had earned today’s equivalent of billions of dollars in gold, making him both fabulously wealthy and enormously powerful.
There is also evidence to show that he made off with and buried the gold of the Confederate Treasury. Was the money owed to him? Did he do it to save it for rebuilding the South? No one knows.
Trenholm survived the war, but, like certain other powerful Southerners, he was imprisoned for treason. However, the same power that got him into trouble got him out. He used his influence, which even extended into the United States Army and the White House, to get out of prison and secure a pardon. The pardon was an especially neat trick since he never officially asked for it, nor did he have to admit that he had ever done anything wrong.
|Trenholm’s Pardon was signed by President Johnson.
Photo by Lee Spence.
During the post war years, Trenholm fought the Federal government in lengthy lawsuits. The government claimed Trenholm and his partners had illegally converted today’s equivalent of billions of dollars in Confederate assets. He disingeniously claimed he was bankrupt, saying he had lost everything in the War.
It was only after researching and discovering the wreck of the blockade running steamer Georgiana that I first realized Trenholm was the historical basis for the dashing Rhett Butler in Margaret Mitchell’s award winning novel, Gone With The Wind. However, the importance of that bit of historical insight into the literary world initially escaped me. It was a full twenty years later, that I finally learned through a chance conversation with Dr. Robert R. Nielsen Sr., that Mitchell had gone to the grave claiming her novel was pure fiction and saying that there was no real Rhett Butler. Without even trying, I had discovered a truth that had eluded historians, literary critics, and the general public for over five decades. It was a truth that even Margaret Mitchell had unwittingly acknowledged when she wrote New York Timesbook reviewer Donald Adams: “And when you come right down to it, if you go back to original sources for background you have to go back to original sources for characters.” The truth was not only that was Rhett real, so were virtually all of her characters!
With Nielsen’s assistance, I quickly began researching Margaret Mitchell and all of her characters in Gone With The Wind. Our quest took us from South Carolina and Georgia, to Washington, New York, New Orleans, and even California.
|Margaret Mitchell 1900-1949. World-Telegram photo by Ed Palumbo|
We read thousands of pages of material including contemporary diaries, letters, newspapers, court records, wills, deeds, and government documents. We visited Trenholm’s many homes and plantations. We read his wife’s diary and his letters from prison. We had in-depth conversations with Margaret Mitchell’s extended family and with the descendants of George Trenholm. I even located Trenholm’s “little black book” that gave descriptions of Reconstruction legislators noting not only their appearance, but whether or not they “took money.” In many cases we were retracing the very steps taken by Mitchell who admitted to Stephen Vincent Benét – “Do you know, you’re the only reviewer who has picked up the diaries and memoirs out of my back ground?” She later wrote Ruth Tallman and stated “The historical background of War and Reconstruction are as accurate as I could possibly make them after ten years of reading thousands of books, documents, letters, diaries, old newspapers and interviewing people who had lived through those terrible times.” Oddly enough, while Mitchell frequently claimed (and I believe truthfully) that she had been extremely thorough in her research, in an article she wrote for the Atlanta Junior League Magazine she claimed (and I believe falsely) “I never referred to a history or a reference book until my book was sold.”
|Some of the thousands of captured Confederate documents relating to Trenholm’s blockade running
enterprises that are now housed in the National Archives and the Library of Congress. Photo by Lee Spence.
Together, Nielsen and I were able to identify the historical figures behind virtually every major character in Gone With The Wind. In most cases Mitchell had combined several people to come up with one, more compact character, but normally one person made up the essence or core of each character. In our estimation, over 90 percent of Rhett was based on Trenholm, with the remainder being Trenholm’s son, Fred, and Mitchell’s first husband, Red Upshaw. To Gilbert Goven, who reviewed Gone With The Wind for the Chattanooga Times, Mitchell admitted “My characters were just composites,” she just neglected to say who were the people who made up those composites.
Sometimes little more than the names of characters were changed. Frequently the changes were a variation or an alliteration of the original name. For instance, the real Scarlett’s father was Philip Fitzgerald, not Gerald O’Hara. Her mother was Eleanor not Ellen. Eleanor, like Ellen, did bear six children, and one was named Kate, while Scarlett’s “real” name in the book was Katie Scarlett. In a letter she wrote on July 11, 1936, Mitchell herself stated: “practically all the incidents in the book are true. Of course, they didn’t all happen to the same person and a few of them didn’t happen in Atlanta.” Despite the fact that Philip and Eleanor Fitzgerald were Mitchell’s great grandparents and she drew on many aspects of their lives, Mitchell would later claim “I haven’t much use for writers who use their own relatives for copy.”
More importantly, while doing our research, we learned a wealth of new information about Trenholm, gathering enough evidence that, if we ever needed to, we could prove in court that Rhett was indeed based on Trenholm. We also found that Mitchell played down Trenholm’s tremendous wealth and awesome power to make Rhett seem more believable to a public who only remembered the South’s extreme poverty after the war. In a letter to Mrs. Julia Collier Harris, Mitchell stated “I had to tone down so much, that I had taken from actual incidents just to make them sound barely credible.”
We concluded that Margaret Mitchell had first kept her characters’ true identities secret to protect the privacy and reputations of certain people who were still alive when her book was first published, and to avoid possible lawsuits for libel. In fact even before the June, 1936, release of her book, Mitchell wrote that she was a “little frightened because, while I had written nothing that was not true, nothing that I could not prove and much that I had heard, as a child, from eye witnesses of that era, I feared some of it might not sit well upon Southerners.” On July 7, 1936, she wrote, “In the matter of Captain Butler I am caught between cross fires. Some of the Northern critics I’ve read have said he wasn’t true to life. Down here, folks find him so true to life that I may yet have a lawsuit on my hands.” The next day Mitchell wrote “I may have a law suit on my hands yet for using the grandfather of certain people who must be nameless.” Of course she added “And I never heard of their damned grandfather.” It is well known that prior to publication Mitchell went through her entire book changing names. Mitchell later stated that she tried to choose Southern names but intentionally avoided using “actual names” of people who had lived around Atlanta, and later wrote “I did not wish to embarrass anyone now living or make it appear as though I were writing about their kindred, long dead.” In the same letter she added: “Alas, I went to such infinite pains not to embarrass anyone.”
The secrecy was apparently continued, even after their and her deaths, to protect theGone With The Wind copyright, which has been described as the most defended copyright in history. Our discovery of the true facts behind the characters places much of Mitchell’s story squarely in public domain. Mitchell definitely was aware of this weakness in her copyright. In defense of her own book against a charge of plagiarism made by Susan Lawrence Davis, Mitchell wrote “I wanted to show that all the historical facts I used were matters of public record long before (Miss Davis’) book was published.” After Mitchell’s death her husband had thousands of pages of her research notes, letters, and manuscript destroyed. I believe it was a calculated effort to hide the truth, and thus protect the copyright, once and for all.
Trenholm and Rhett had brilliant minds and could converse passionately on any subject, especially politics and economics.
Both men had similar beliefs on the lack of preparedness on the part of the South and on the monetary aspects of war, and both expounded on using immigrants to fight the war.
Mitchell was obviously aware that Rhett was a Charleston surname since gossip about Rhett Butler was passed on by another GWTW character, Caro Rhett, who was also from Charleston.
In particular, the name Rhett appears to have been taken from Edmund Rhett who was an immediate relative of Trenholm’s close friend and political ally, Robert Barnwell Rhett. One of the Rhetts even married a Trenholm.
In Mary Boykin Chesnut’s book A Diary from Dixie, Boykin mentions attending a tea with “the Trenholms” and Edmond Rhett. She wrote: “Edmond Rhett has very fine eyes and makes fearful play with them. He sits silent and motionless, with his hands on his knees, his head bent forward, and his eyes fixed upon you. I could think of nothing like it but a setter and a covey of partridges.”
Rhett Butler’s demeanor was described in Gone With The Wind as follows: “He looked, and was, a man of lusty and unashamed appetites. He had an air of utter assurance, of displeasing insolence about him, and there was a twinkle of malice in his bold eyes as he stared at Scarlett.” Scarlett “felt that she should be insulted by such a look.”
Since Mrs. Chesnut’s book was originally published in 1905, and Mitchell herself said she had read “thousands of books” and memoirs about the Civil War, there is little question that she read this book and knew about both Trenholm and Edmund Rhett.
Mitchell characterized Rhett as a tall man, and wrote of his “lazy grace,” “lithe Indian-like gait,” and “too graceful” ways and repeatedly mentioned his distinctive smile.
Trenholm’s son-in-law described Trenholm as “a tall and very handsome man.” Trenholm’s pastor, the Reverend Dr. A. Toomer Porter, described Trenholm as “tall and handsome; graceful in his manners” with the “sweetest smile of any man.” Another man said Trenholm “was graceful and forceful in debate” while still another eulogized him saying “He was rarely gifted; strikingly handsome in feature, dignified and imposing in presence, with an irresistible charm and grace of manner, of brilliant conversational powers, and possessed of a winning and persuasive eloquence.”
Both men lived extravagantly, dressed in the latest styles, and bought expensive clothes as gifts for others.
Both Trenholm and Rhett had respectable brothers in Charleston. Rhett’s brother had his “Saint Cecilia Balls and his everlasting rice fields.” Trenholm’s close friends James L. Pettegrew, Wade Hampton, and R. Barnwell Rhett served as officials in the St. Cecilia Society, and at least one of Trenholm’s sons was a rice planter after the war.
Neither man’s wealth shielded them from personal tragedy, and both lost children that they mourned. The steamer Georgiana was named for the child Trenholm lost.
|The author with artifacts he recovered from the wreck of the Georgiana. 1970 photo by Jo Pinkard.|
Rhett abused alcohol and there is evidence that Trenholm both drank alcohol and abused morphine.
Rhett owned four blockade-runners at a time when individual ships were commonly set up as separate companies. Rhett’s ships made numerous successful trips through the blockade earning him a fortune.
Trenholm’s three blockade running companies were the most successful in the South. Together, Trenholm’s companies owned or controlled over sixty steamers. Research indicates that, during the course of the war, Trenholm’s companies made over $60,000,000 face value in gold. If you figure that gold was officially $20 per ounce in the 1860’s versus over $1,500 per ounce today, Trenholm’s companies made over four and a half billion dollars in today’s money. The real buying power would have been even higher.
At the start of the War, both men bought and shipped goods directly out of New York, but were forced to use Liverpool as the main purchase point for supplies when their operations were discovered and shut down. They also used Nassau as a base for the transshipment of their contraband goods.
Both Trenholm and Rhett speculated heavily on cotton. They bought it up at cheap prices and made great profits on it. Besides shipping munitions and medicines, both profiteered by shipping luxuries like satins, tea, and china through the blockade. Both imported buttons, pins, and thread.
Rhett was said to be the “head of a combine worth more than a million dollars” that bought the cargoes of other boats as soon as they reached the docks and held them for a rise in prices.
Remember that although these men were helping the South by bringing in war supplies, they were still profiting from the destruction of their own country. Speculators and profiteers were looked down upon by polite society and were routinely attacked in contemporary gossip, political speeches and newspaper editorials as unpatriotic.
Rhett was always slipping away on some secret venture. Trenholm was not only engaged in the highly secret business of blockade running, the head of the Confederate Secret Service actually operated out of Trenholm’s Liverpool offices, and the money to pay the Confederate secret agents in Europe was funneled through Trenholm’s companies.
Both were acutely aware that the Confederate government’s printing press productions had fueled inflation. Trenholm’s becoming Treasurer was partly an effort to help control inflation, which was eroding his fortune just like everyone else’s.
By the end of the war, Trenholm was undoubtedly the richest man in the South, and probably in all of America. Although he had invested heavily in the war effort, less than a third of his fabulous earnings had been used to purchase Confederate bonds.
The fictional Rhett’s wartime and post wartime wealth exceeded that of any other character mentioned in the book. Obviously, he had not put everything into Confederate paper money or government bonds, which had become worthless on the defeat of the South.
Mitchell even wrote that Rhett and Scarlett’s mansion was bigger than the Governor’s.
Trenholm’s servants in Richmond were said to dress better than his guests (a frequent guest was President Jefferson Davis). In Charleston, Trenholm’s mansion was so large and beautiful that it surpassed that of the Governor. That magnificent home, Ashley Hall, still stands and now houses a private girl’s school. Over a hundred years later, the intricately carved, flying spiral staircase remains one of the most beautiful ever built.
At one point Rhett says he would “as soon eat a nice juicy rat” as some of the food at the hotel in Atlanta, and tells Scarlett “I shall have to go back to Richmond. They have good food there, if you have the money to pay for it.”
Trenholm’s house in Richmond was known for the extravagant meals, despite the fact that the city was under siege and rats were being sold in the Richmond market place to the poorer folk. Trenholm’s guests were given baskets of food to take with them when they left.
Both Trenholm and Rhett would have been expected to travel in beautiful closed carriages, but both fled with their women in open wagons before invading Federal forces. In both cases, when neither a carriage nor an ambulance was available, a mattress had been arranged in the back of an open wagon for the comfort of a person who was too sick to travel sitting up.
Both men joined the Confederacy shortly after the fall of Atlanta. Rhett joined the cavalry and Trenholm accepted a position on President Jefferson Davis’ cabinet. Both men’s last minute “patriotic” acts gave them a firm basis to claim to their fellow Southerners that they had indeed been loyal and had risked everything, even their lives, to support “the Cause.” Naturally, this would have helped cool some of the ill feelings and jealousies many people would have felt towards them for their speculating and profiteering activities.
The idea of Rhett serving as a non-commissioned officer in the Confederate artillery certainly didn’t fit his character as portrayed in the book, but to have had him serve as Treasurer, or in any other cabinet level post, would have made Rhett’s real identity too obvious, however one of Trenholm’s sons served as an officer in the Trenholm Light Battery (an artillery unit), which was entirely equipped by Trenholm.
Ashley Wilkes told Scarlett there was “only one person, Rhett Butler, • • • who has money.” Aunt Pittypat said he had “pockets full of money, when all the rest of us didn’t know where our next meal was coming from.” Trenholm’s wife wrote in her diary that they had to barter for food with bolts of cloth, because all the Trenholm’s had were twenty dollar gold pieces, which no one could change.
Like Rhett in Gone With The Wind, Trenholm was thrown imprisoned at the end of the war under threat of death. Both refused to admit to Federal officials that they had any of the Confederate Treasury’s money, and they both used their connections to obtain pardons without ever having to admit guilt, or actually pay a bribe.
|Trenholm’s record of who took money. Photo by Lee Spence.|
When teary-eyed Scarlett, who had made a dress from her curtains, visited Rhett in jail she was just hoping to get his gold. Trenholm had a beautiful young lady visit him in jail and he did entrust her with an entire suitcase filled with gold. Both women were recently widowed and from good families, but had “fast” reputations. The usually “gay and debonair” young lady, who visited Trenholm, sat on the dirty straw at his feet, “softly crying,” while he tried to comfort her. A witness later wrote that one would have thought she was the person in jail under a threat of execution instead of the other way around.
|Old Charleston Jail where Trenholm was first imprisoned. Photo by Lee Spence.|
On the day Scarlett first met Rhett in Gone With The Wind, Scarlett became infuriated with Rhett and said “Sir, you are no gentleman.” Rhett replied “and you Miss, are no lady.” The exchange was most certainly based on a meeting between the same young lady, the widow Mrs. Henry King, who visited Trenholm in jail and the famous novelist, Thackery. Contemporary accounts state that Thackery, upon being introduced to her, said he had been so looking forward to meeting her because she was “the fastest lady received in society.” The young lady replied: “I also heard that you were a gentleman – we have both been misinformed.” The idea that this was Mitchell’s source (for Rhett and Scarlett’s rude exchange) is supported by the fact that, only twelve pages earlier, the normally uncritical Melanie Wilkes had mentioned Thackery by name, saying: “I fear he is not the gentleman.” Five pages before that Mitchell wrote “Fast was the only word for Scarlett.” Quite a coincidence for a book of over 1,000 pages. Incidentally, in her book Road to Tara: The Life of Margaret Mitchell, Anne Edwards noted that Scarlett “seemed to owe a lot to Thackery’s Becky Sharp.” Mitchell claimed to Stephen Vincent Benét that she had “never read Thackery” until 1935.
Scarlett’s Aunt Pittypat “had a theory, largely shared by Atlanta, that Rhett had managed to get away with the mythical millions of the Confederate treasury.” The natural question would then be – how could a “mere” blockade runner captain have gotten his hands on the Treasury Department gold to have stolen it? The answer is easy. By the end of the war, Trenholm was not only the most important figure in blockade running, he was serving as the official Treasurer of the Confederacy.
It was Trenholm who actually ordered the government silver and gold and other treasures placed in the government’s care by private citizens placed on the train to ship it out of Richmond in the final days before the fall of the Confederacy. Much of the government silver has been accounted for, but the disposition of the government gold and private treasure has never been adequately explained, and remains the subject of much speculation. Naturally some people would have believed that Trenholm, having been Treasurer and the man ultimately in charge, simply stole it.
After getting out of jail, Rhett said nothing more about the missing Treasury Department gold, but he did admit to Scarlett that he had a fortune in a bank in Liverpool.
Rhett told Scarlett that part of it “came from Confederate cotton which (he) managed to run through the blockade and sell in Liverpool at sky high prices. The cotton was given (to Rhett) in good faith to buy leather and rifles and machinery with. And it was taken by (him) in good faith to buy the same. (Rhett’s) orders were to leave the gold in English banks, under (his) own name, in order that (his) credit would be good.” It was actually that conversation between Rhett and Scarlett that proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that George Trenholm was the historical basis for Rhett Butler.
What Rhett described was exactly the arrangements that had been authorized between Trenholm’s companies and the Confederate government. In fact, it was an exclusive arrangement and out of all of the thousands of people and hundreds of companies engaged in blockade running during the Civil War, only Trenholm and his companies actually had the kind of deal outlined by Rhett in that conversation.
A report from Confederate Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin stated that the government owned cotton had been sold and “the proceeds accruing to the War Departments placed in the hands of Messrs. Fraser, Trenholm & Co.” it went on to add “All agents of the War and Navy Departments will be ordered at once to deliver over to Messrs. Fraser, Trenholm & Co. all bonds, cotton certificates in their hands, and will be prohibited from selling or pledging such bonds, certificates, or securities in any manner. Such sale or pledge shall only be made when made at all by Messrs. Fraser, Trenholm & Co. in England.”
It is also interesting to note that when Rhett said he had “close to half a million” dollars in his account in Liverpool, it was the same amount that had been “placed to the credit of Fraser, Trenholm in Liverpool” at the start of the War.
Like Rhett, Trenholm was hauled before numerous boards of inquiry attempting to locate missing Confederate funds. The suit against Trenholm involved “several hundreds of millions of dollars.” Eventually, the Federal government confiscated over a hundred separate parcels of real estate from Trenholm. Officially, the courts took it for unpaid duties on goods run through the blockade, while also claiming that the real estate had been bought with funds received from the sale of products and ships belonging to the Confederate government. The confiscated properties ranged from gorgeous mansions, commercial warehouses, wharves, much of the Charleston waterfront, stately banks and hotels (including the Planter’s Inn, which is the present day Dock Street Theater), to entire plantations totaling many thousands of acres. In Gone With The Wind, Rhett had expressed his fears to Scarlett about the Yankees confiscating property saying: “You can’t hide real estate very easily.”
|The building that now houses Charleston’s famous Dock Street
Theater was once owned by Trenholm. Photo by Lee Spence.
Rhett bought his mother and sister a house on Charleston’s famous Battery, but hid the fact that he had paid for it. Although not supported by any deed in the Charleston courthouse, there is both historical and archeological evidence to show that Trenholm’s family lived, at least briefly, at 51 East Battery in Charleston after the War.
I personally believe Trenholm, like Rhett, felt morally justified in fighting to hang on to whatever funds he had in his possession. Rhett says in the book, “Half the money is honestly mine • • • Whom shall I give the money to? The Yankee government? I should so hate for people to think me a thief.”
The Federal government never located the missing government owned gold or any of the privately owned treasures that had been entrusted to the Confederate Treasury Department for safe-keeping. Dr. Nielsen and I feel some of it may have been buried by Trenholm, who had planned to dig it up once Federal Reconstruction of the South had ended. Unfortunately, Trenholm died within days of the ousting of the Reconstruction governor in South Carolina. A thorough search of the Trenholm properties confiscated by the courts might one day reveal the “millions of dollars in gold belonging to the Confederate government” that Rhett was believed to have “hid out somewhere.”
|Trenholm’s son William obtained a patent for a device to
find sunken treasure. Perhaps his father’s missing gold?
James D. Bulloch, who headed the Confederate Secret Service in Europe, actually worked out of Trenholm’s Liverpool offices. Mitchell mentions him in her book, saying that Scarlett’s husband had contempt for Rhett “for holding on to the Confederate gold, when honest men like Admiral Bulloch” had turned in thousands of dollars to the Federal treasury. For her to have known that Bulloch turned in the gold in his charge, she could not have failed to have known that Trenholm had not turned over any of the Confederate funds in his care, yet she never mentions Trenholm by name, despite the fact that he was the most important figure in blockade running and the Treasurer of the Confederacy. The only reason Mitchell didn’t mention Trenholm is that much of the book was about him. He was the real Rhett Butler. She had painted his actions and character in a bad light and she didn’t want to be criticized or sued for libel by his family.
No one who has read Mitchell’s novel or seen the movie would question Rhett’s bravery, and apparently Trenholm was equally courageous. Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America, actually said of Trenholm, “No consideration of personal danger, ever caused him to swerve from the path of duty.”
Rhett told Scarlett that his family always referred to his grandfather as a “sea captain,” but that he was really a drunken pirate and an embarrassment to his family. However, Rhett’s grandfather “made enough money” to leave Rhett’s father quite wealthy.
Trenholm family legend suggests that Trenholm’s father, whose family had lived in Santo Domingo before that country’s revolution was a “sea captain” who returned to Santo Domingo in 1803 to marry a girl, found her already married, wedded her younger sister, and took his bride to Charleston to live.
Throughout history sea faring people suddenly left without home or country because of political upheaval have turned to piracy as a way to extract revenge or to get together enough quick money to start a new life in another land. Many who fled Santo Domingo did exactly that, but whether Trenholm’s father ever resorted to piracy is not known, but rumors to that effect would have been natural.
Mitchell was certainly aware of the of the revolution in Santo Domingo, as she had Scarlett’s mother’s family fleeing it to settle in the South.
Although banking would seem out of character for most sea faring men, both men owned stocks in banks and became bankers after the war, earning respect and friends as they loaned people money. A financial wizard, Trenholm was considered the “master of Southern banking.”
Rhett was severely criticized for his socializing with scalawags and carpetbaggers. Although, Trenholm has been politely described as “one of the few respected white men in the state who could get along with the Reconstruction legislators,” there is no question that many people resented his working and socializing with them. Trenholm was a “civic leader – a real joiner.” Rhett told Scarlett that he would even join “their damned Klan” if that was what it took to be accepted.
Trenholm “understood that wealth acquired through the necessities of a suffering nation, is • • • a trust fund” and used much of his money to help the Confederacy during and after the war.
At one point in Gone With The Wind, Rhett reminded Scarlett of her accusation that: “it was dishonest • • • to keep the Confederate gold,” and said he had come to agree with her and that the Confederate gold was “being spent to get the Confederates back into power.” Scarlett first thought that his “pious talk” and post war financial support of the Democrats meant that he had changed, but she quickly realized that he was doing it just for appearances.
Despite questions one might naturally have had about their true loyalties and motives, both the fictional Rhett and the real life Trenholm supported the Democrats and openly fought corruption in Reconstruction politics, and both men donated heavily to charity, and thereby reestablished their credibility with the upper crust of polite Southern society.
Trenholm’s bequests to schools, orphanages, hospitals and churches were similar to the charitable contributions attributed to Rhett who said: “I’ll contribute to their damned charities and I’ll go to their damned churches.” Unlike the average Southerner, both attended the Episcopal Church. Both donated heavily to church causes, but, hopefully, Trenholm’s motives were more sincere than those attributed to Rhett, and I personally believe they were. Trenholm, both during and after the War, gave generously to both blacks and whites, Southerners and Northerners.
During Reconstruction, Trenholm served on the Board of Directors of the Blue Ridge Railroad, and work, started before the war, was resumed “only to have its assets stolen by corrupt officials.” Trenholm blasted the Reconstruction Governor, Sheriff, and Attorney General saying: “the entire system is one of self sustaining and self protecting corruption.” He accused the men of stealing public money and arranging terms between them in respect to the coveted opportunities of plunder.
Rhett held the Reconstruction officials in contempt and “had no hesitation about stripping them verbally, even under his own roof,” and would say things like “Well, Bill, I see you have a new span of horses. Been selling a few thousand more bonds for nonexistent railroads?”
Mitchell also wrote “completely surrounding the state capitol was a host of promoters, speculators, seekers after contracts and others hoping to profit from the orgy of spending, and many were growing shamelessly rich. They had no difficulty at all in obtaining the state’s money for building railroads that were never built.”
Trenholm died on December 9, 1876, within days of realizing his goal of removing the Republican “carpet bag governor” from the South Carolina state house. The timing of Trenholm’s death may explain why Margaret Mitchell ended her book within pages of the ousting of the Republican governor in Georgia, and why she was unable, or unwilling, to write a sequel.
Suspecting that the star crossed love between Rhett and Scarlett was loosely based on Trenholm’s son’s ardent, but unsuccessful, multi-continent pursuit of a “tormenting” and “much too pretty” young lady named Ruby Senac, I contacted Ruby’s second cousin Regina Rapier to pump her for information. Regina had never met Ruby, but their lives had over lapped and her father had known Ruby quite well. After getting as much information as I could, and after telling her that I knew that Georgia had a population of over four million of people and that I understood the monumental odds against it, I asked her if she had ever known anyone who had known Mitchell. I was stunned to learn that she was not only Ruby Senac’s cousin, but Margaret Mitchell’s cousin as well. According to Regina Rapier, her father had even helped Mitchell with her research. When I subsequently remarked to Regina Rapier that many of the family stories she was telling me were similar to events in Gone With The Wind, she said “Well, Margaret took it straight out of the family.”
Young Ruby Senac was the daughter of a man who worked directly under Trenholm, and she eventually became the wife of still another man, Henry Hotz, who worked closely with Trenholm. That man was aboard Trenholm’s yacht, the Deerhound, when it rescued Admiral Semmes and the crew of the sinking Confederate cruiser Alabama off the coast of France.
Ruby was also the cousin of Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen R. Mallory, who served with Trenholm on President Jeff Davis’ cabinet. Ruby lived until well after Mitchell had begun her book.
Rapier said that most of the other events in Scarlett’s life were based on the life of Mary Ann Fitzgerald who was Mitchell’s grandmother and Rapier’s aunt. Margaret Mitchell’s mother (Maybelle) had been living with Mary Ann Fitzgerald when Margaret was born and Regina Rapier had grown up in Mary Ann Fitzgerald’s farm-house, which Regina described as “the real Tara.” Mary Ann lived to see the book published.
Maybelle Fitzgerald’s given name was used for the daughter of one of the grand old dames of Atlanta in the book. The fictional Maybelle Merriwether’s boyfriend and eventual husband, René Picard, had belonged to a Zouave unit and was described as of French heritage from a wealthy and influential family and as a “little monkey of a man.” Picard was based on a tiny, French speaking, Zouave who went by the name of Colonel Zarvona. Zarvona was also from a wealthy and influential family and had been captured while trying to hi-jack a Federal schooner with the help of the aforementioned Ruby Senac’s father. In the book, the reader first meets Picard while he was collecting donations of money and jewelry, including both Melanie’s and Scarlett’s wedding rings, at the hospital ball in Atlanta. In real life, Zarvona had been paroled from a northern prison because of his health, but convalesced in Paris, where Ruby Senac and her family were then living. Zarvona undoubtedly participated in the grand balls thrown to help raise money for the beleaguered Confederates.
The incident of the jewelry and wedding rings may have come from the memoirs of Trenholm’s close friend and pastor, Dr. A. Toomer Porter. Dr. Porter’s school was on the verge of bankruptcy and from his congregation he had collected three hundred and twenty-eight dollars, two or three watches, several diamond rings, breast pins, and “even a wedding ring.” The wedding ring and other jewelry was returned to the owners, and Trenholm signed for the balance of the debt, just as Melanie’s ring had been purchased and returned by Rhett.
Among Dr. Porter’s parishioners was the aforementioned widow Mrs. Henry King who had visited Trenholm in jail, but whether it was her wedding ring, I have yet to determine. Dr. Porter’s memoirs also mention the ladies of his parish cutting up curtains for skirts, just as Scarlett had done prior to visit to Rhett in jail.
Although Scarlett and Rhett’s daughter in Gone With The Wind was nicknamed Bonnie for her eyes which were “blue as the bonnie blue flag,” the book explains that she was actually named Eugenie Victoria “for two queens.” Family legend, as related by Regina Rapier, has Ruby and her mother meeting two queens (Empress Eugenie, Queen of France; and Empress Victoria, Queen of England). Ruby and her family, along with one of Trenholm’s sons, ran through the blockade at Wilmington in a steamer named Eugenie, which had also been named for Empress Eugenie. While in Paris the Senacs attended the grand balls thrown by Empress Eugenie.
Upon their safe-arrival in Great Britain Ruby Senac’s father and Trenholm’s son immediately went to meet with Trenholm’s partner. The man’s elegant new house had a single star carved over the portico of a first floor window. The star represented the “Bonnie Blue Flag that bears a single star!”
Scarlett’s first child was a son named for General Wade Hampton who was said to have been the much-admired commanding officer of her late husband. General Hampton was not only a close friend of Trenholm’s, Trenholm’s son ran Hampton Plantation after the War and Trenholm helped get Hampton elected governor of South Carolina.
In Gone With The Wind, Scarlett’s mother Ellen had wanted to marry her wild cousin Philippe Robillard, but the family was opposed to it, not so much because he was her cousin but because he was a gambler. Upon Philippe’s death in a barroom brawl, Ellen married Gerald O’Hara, winning her family’s approval only by threatening to join the convent (run by the Sisters of Lady of Mercy) at Charleston. Based on conversations with Regina Rapier and other information, I have no doubt that portion of Ellen’s story was taken from the life of Mitchell’s cousin Martha Holliday, who’s family had opposed her marrying her wild cousin “Doc” Holliday who had become a professional gambler. Instead of marrying, Martha eventually became a nun (Sister Melanie) with the Sister’s of Mercy in Atlanta. According to one source, after reading the book, Sister Melanie “was apoplectic. She was fit to be tied. She was one furious lady of the cloth.”
Through Regina Rapier, Nielsen and I secured genealogies of various branches of Mitchell’s and Rapier’s families (including some of the Fitzgeralds and Hollidays mentioned earlier). Armed with all of the other research we had done, it was easy to spot many of the characters in the book among their family tree. “Old Dr. Fontaine” born in the 1700’s and “young Dr. Fontaine” were clearly based on Dr. Michael Fitzgerald, who lived from 1780 to 1864, and his son Dr. Michael Fitzgerald, Jr., who lived from 1811 to 1866.
Despite Mitchell’s frequent statements that none of her characters were based on real people, she actually admitted to one corespondent that the little black maid Prissy was modeled after Cammie, a small skittish black girl, who was three years younger than Mitchell and at 15 years of age served as the Mitchell’s house girl. Margaret wrote: “when Scarlett slapped her, it was really Margaret Mitchell yielding to an overwhelming urge…”
After I had released news of my discovery of the real Rhett’s true identity, I was invited as an official guest to several of the ceremonies commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the movie Gone With The Wind.
From fellow guest, distinguished Atlanta historian Dr. Franklin M. Garrett, I learned that Trenholm Street in Atlanta is a mere nine blocks from Mitchell Street. Quite a coincidence considering that Atlanta consists of over one thousand four hundred and forty miles of streets and roads, each mile multiplied by many blocks. Both streets were apparently named long before Mitchell was even born, but their proximity may have fascinated Mitchell who, even as a child, loved history and often said that she felt more at home in the stories of the past than in her own century.
In 1939, Dr. Garrett, who was already one of Atlanta’s leading historians, believed he had identified some of the Atlanta homes of Mitchell’s characters, but the more famous Mitchell quickly stifled his research with her emphatic claim that her “characters were completely fictional and so were their homes.” Regardless of Mitchell’s protestations, I personally believe Dr. Garrett’s instincts as a historian were correct. Had Dr. Garrett not been a true Southern gentleman, I believe he would continued his research, proved his theory, and exposed the facts behind Gone With The Wind many years ago.
Both of Mitchell’s nephews, who were the main heirs to her estate, attended several of these functions. After pointing out that I was “in effect calling his aunt a liar,” I reminded one nephew that I had “also proved that she was a superb historian.” I asked him what he thought of it. His answer was “I like it.” I was glad.
The other nephew had not only been familiar with Trenholm all along, he told me that all of the checks for the government supplies purchased in England had been written on the Liverpool account of Fraser, Trenholm and Company, and in doing so it became obvious that he, like many others in the Mitchell and Trenholm families, had known the truth all along, George Trenholm was the “real Rhett Butler,” and virtually everything else in it was based on real life and real people as well.
In fact, I believe that it was exactly because there was so much more truth than fiction in Gone With The Wind, that Mitchell once wrote: “I never thought of selling my book, I didn’t think anybody would be interested in reading about the War between the States, unless maybe a few schools or colleges could use it for a reference book …”
Other researchers have noted many similarities between certain characters’ personalities and those of persons that Mitchell actually knew. I agree with most of their conclusions. However, no published writers made the required leap back in time to find the Civil War people used by Mitchell for the true core of her major characters. No one ever suggested in the many books written on Mitchell and Gone With The Wind that they even suspected George Alfred Trenholm to be “the real Rhett Butler.”
For over fifty years, millions of people read, saw and loved Gone With The Wind, but never understood its true roots. I too would have missed the truth had it not been for the tiny brass sewing pins (which I now think of as “Scarlett’s pins”) that I salvaged from the Georgiana. And, even after realizing Rhett was based on Trenholm, I would never have even known I had made an important discovery and would probably have gone to my grave with that knowledge had it not been for my aforementioned chance conversation with Dr. Nielsen.
“Common pins became so scarce that they were hoarded like precious jewels” – The Siege of Charleston 1861-1865, by Milby Burton (former curator of the Charleston Museum)
“the loss of a sewing needle became a household calamity.” — Women of the Confederacy by Mary Chestnut
For Christmas, Scarlett gave Ashley the “whole precious pack of needles Rhett had brought her from Nassau” “at the risk of his life” — Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell