Shipwrecks: Past & Present

The Real Rhett Butler Revealed

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The Real Rhett Butler Revealed

Internationally known shipwreck expert, Dr. E. Lee Spence, of Charleston, South Carolina, believes he has discovered the true identity of Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind.

In his book, Treasures of the Confederate Coast: The Real Rhett Butler and Other Revelations, Spence reveals what the editor’s of Life magazine called overwhelming evidence that shipping and banking magnate George Trenholm was the historical basis for Margaret Mitchell’s romantic sea captain in her Pulitzer prize winning novel. Mitchell had falsely claimed Rhett was pure fiction.

Although they never published the story, Life paid Spence for the opportunity to use his research, under a contract that said they did not have to pay anything if they examined it and did not agree his identification of the real Rhett Butler was correct.

According to Spence’s research, Trenholm had been on the verge of bankruptcy at the outbreak of hostilities, yet by the end of the Civil War he controlled over sixty large steamers and numerous sailing ships. His amazingly successful, blockade running ventures had earned him today’s equivalent of well over one billion dollars in gold, making him both fabulously wealthy and enormously powerful. His ships sailed out of the ports of Charleston, Wilmington, Savannah, and believe it or not New York.

scarlettContemporaries described Trenholm as tall, brave and handsome, with the “sweetest smile of any man.” Confederate president Jeff Davis praised his bravery.

According to Spence, Trenholm’s life was far more interesting than his fictionalized counterpart, who’s exploits were tamed down because Mitchell was afraid of being sued.

Rhett said there was money to be made in both the building up and the tearing down of a country. Even after years of research, Spence is unsure whether Trenholm was a patriotic hero or a scoundrel who helped lead his country to ruin while his companies were raking in hundreds of millions in profits.

The weapons Trenholm and Rhett shipped through the blockade were badly needed and much appreciated by the South. However, both men also speculated heavily in luxuries and other nonmilitary cargoes which used up valuable cargo space that many felt should have been filled exclusively with war supplies. Both then sold their contraband goods at outrageous prices.Like Rhett Trenholm had a much loved daughter who died. Trenholm named his finest steamer Georgiana after that daughter.

Rhett routinely insulted the guests at Scarlett’s lavish parties. Trenholm threw huge feasts while the rest of the populace was starving. At a time when rats were being sold as food in the Richmond market place, Trenholm flaunted his wealth by sending guests home with baskets of imported delicacies. His servants were dressed finer than his guests (which included President Davis). Rhett told Scarlett he would rather eat a juicy rat than some of the food in Atlanta, and talked of returning to Richmond where fine food could be had for those who could afford it. Among those who frequented Trenholm’s palatial home in Richmond was fellow Charlestonian Edmund Rhett who could make a woman feel she was being undressed by his eyes. The Rhetts and the Trenholms were related by marriage.

All of Atlanta believed Rhett had made off with the gold of the Confederate Treasury. Quite a feat if he was just the captain of a ship. However he wasn’t. By the end of the Civil War, Trenholm was not only the South’s most successful blockade runner, he was Treasurer of the Confederacy. When the government gold and the jewels entrusted to the Treasury by banks and private citizens disappeared, many believed Trenholm had stolen it.

After the Civil War, both men were arrested and threatened with execution. Both had much younger women visit them in jail and both tried to comfort them as the women shed tears over their proposed fate. Both women were from good families and were widows of Confederate officers. Each had reputations for being “fast” but were still received in society. In fact when Trenholm’s lady friend was introduced to the famed novelist Lord Thackery at a party he insulted her by saying that he had been looking forward to meeting her because he had heard she was the “fastest” lady received in society. She returned the insult by saying that they had both been misinformed because she had been told he was a gentleman.

Both Rhett and Trenholm had purchased guns and ammunition from Yankee merchants who knew they would be used against their own people. It was Rhett’s threat of exposing those who had sold him such goods that secured his freedom. Although in jail for high treason, Trenholm’s connections in the North were so strong that several Yankee generals petitioned for his pardon.

After getting out of jail, Rhett asked Scarlett why she had not waited to marry him. He then told her he had a fortune in the bank. He claimed he didn’t steal it and explained his arrangement with the Confederate government. It allowed him to ship government cotton to Liverpool, sell it, deposit the money in English banks, and then use the credit to buy war supplies to ship back through the blockade. Only Trenholm could have made such a claim, as it was an exclusive contract.

The Federal government seized over a hundred parcels of real estate from Trenholm alleging he had converted today’s equivalent of billions of dollars in Confederate assets. The confiscated property ranged from waterfront docks to vast plantations. Rhett complained to Scarlett of the impossibility of hiding real estate from the government.

Immediately after the Civil War, both men socialized with Yankee carpetbaggers and were called scalawags, but both eventually were accepted by the Democrats and successfully fought to end Republican reconstruction rule of the South.

Rhett’s large contributions to charities were made strictly for social advancement. Trenholm contributed heavily to numerous charities, indiscriminately helping blacks and whites, Southerners and Yankees. He donated to hospitals, churches, and orphanages. Trenholm’s benevolence enhanced his personal prestige, his political power, and his commercial ventures. We can only guess at Trenholm’s motives.

Both Rhett and Trenholm were Charlestonians and attended the Episcopal church. Both lost daughters they loved. Both were branded as speculators and profiteers, and both owned hotels and invested in railroads associated with scandal.

Many of Trenholm’s magnificent antebellum plantations, and stately commercial buildings still stand. His opulent Charleston mansion, Ashley Hall, with its beautiful flying staircase, is now a private school for girls. Just as in the book, Trenholm’s home surpassed that of the Governor.

It seemed odd in the book, but Rhett became a banker after the Civil War. Trenholm’s bank still stands on the corner of East Bay and Broad Street in Charleston. In fact he became known as the absolute master of Southern banking.

realrhettbookAfter years of research, Spence discovered several of Trenholm’s ships that were wrecked while attempting to run the blockade into Charleston. Spence has already recovered millions of valuable artifacts. He is now searching for the Confederate gold that Trenholm (and of course Rhett) were accused of stealing. Spence believes the bulk of the missing gold (along with a vast fortune in jewels) still exists and can be found. Some treasures are hidden on land others in the water.

Besides revealing the numerous secrets of the Real Rhett Butler in the first chapter of his book, Spence gives information on hundreds of ships wrecked on the Confederate coast. There are also chapters on Spence’s discovery of the Hunley (first submarine in history to sink a ship), and Spence’s discovery of Trenholm’s steamer Georgiana, described as the “Mystery Ship of the Confederacy.” The shipwreck list section of Spence’s heavily illustrated, 524 page book is documented with over 2,500 individual reference notes.

Autographed copies available on Amazon: Treasures of the Confederate Coast: The Real Rhett Butler & Other Revelations.

Scarlett photo courtesy of Flickr user Soaptree.


  1. CRBS  March 29, 2013

    Keep the information coming.


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