Civil War Medicine on Film: Gone with the Wind (1939)

This is the first part of a series entitled “Civil War Medicine on Film,” a look into the ways medical care is depicted in Civil War films. Check out the link to the whole series here.

Based off of Margaret Mitchell’s acclaimed Civil War romance novel about Georgia belle Scarlett O’Hara and her journey through love and war, the 1939 epic film Gone with the Wind is still considered to be one of the greatest films ever made. For us Civil War historians, the film acts as a lens into the contemporary interpretations of the Civil War and the American South. Beyond just the “Midnight and Magnolias” view of the South with Uncle Tom-like slaves and Confederate cavaliers, Gone with the Wind also has an interesting depiction of Civil War medicine, relying on the myths of medical care during the war to drive the hospital scenes.

 

The clip shown above depicts Scarlett O’Hara on the lookout throughout Atlanta for Dr. Meade, the local physician, to assist her in delivering Melanie Wilkes’ child; however, as this was during the 1864 Atlanta Campaign, as Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s Military District of the Mississippi was advancing towards the railroad hub at Atlanta. As she walks through the once-bustling city, Scarlett sees thousands of wounded and dying Confederate soldiers from General Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of Tennessee. Soldiers with bloodied bandages are without beds, blankets, or pillows, moaning for help; worn Confederate troops assist the ambulance corps with loading dying patients into ambulances; and hardly any surgeons tending to their wounds or operating on them. After witnessing the horrors of the open field hospitals throughout Atlanta, Scarlett finds Dr. Meade in a church, once again seeing hundreds of wounded troops. Surprisingly, many of the scenes depicted in the film are accurate, but there are some aspects of the film that succumb to the common myths regarding medicine.

Scarlett O’Hara is shown observing the plethora of wounded soldiers in the hospital with Dr. Meade. (Courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

First, let us start out with the accuracies in Gone with the Wind. The thousands of wounded Confederates from the Army of Tennessee needing care was true. Under the guidance of Samuel Stout, the Army of Tennessee’s Medical Corps was spread out throughout the South, tending to the thousands of wounded from Chattanooga and the Atlanta Campaign. By this point in the war, the summer of 1864, Stout’s hospitals were highly mobile, moving through Georgia as Sherman’s army was advancing towards Atlanta.[1] This can be seen in the clip of volunteer stretcher-bearers loading the wounded into ambulances as Scarlett walks by. Additionally, in the same screenshot, wounded troops lay by railroad tracks, which can be both an accuracy and inaccuracy. Although the likelihood of placing the wounded on the tracks was slim during the war, it can at least show that these hospitals were mobile, ready to evacuate at a moment’s notice. Not shown in the clip above, Dr. Meade has to amputate a leg with the assistance of Scarlett. With no chloroform to ease the pain, the soldier cries out in agony as his poor limb is sawed off. Amputating without anesthetics is a common theme shown in Civil War films, but in the Confederate medical service, there were shortages due to the blockade.

The thousands of wounded soldiers scattered across the dirty streets of Atlanta while Scarlett searches for Dr. Meade. (Courtesy of Metro Goldwyn-Mayer)

Now, we will take a look at the myths perpetuated in the film. The greatest myth was that the thousands of wounded troops were scattered on the ground under the hot sun without tents, beds, blankets, or pillows. Though Frank Freemon, author of Gangrene and Glory, agrees that “the continuing influx of sick and wounded translated into a continuous need for more of everything: more doctors, more hospitals, more beds, more bedding, more food,” it can be said that Gone with the Wind overemphasizes this.[2] According to historian Robert Davis, Atlanta was overflowing with wounded, forcing surgeons to use tents to place the wounded in. It can be said that some were forced to lay exposed to the elements, but not the thousands depicted in the film.[3] There were also hardly any surgeons seen tending the wounded until Scarlett enters the hospital in the church where she sees Dr. Meade. This exact myth is busted through the accounts of nurses and surgeons working in Atlanta in 1864. Nurse Kate Cumming wrote in May 1864 that one of the Atlanta hospitals, “was in perfect order. It is one of the nicest hospitals in which I have ever been. It was filled with badly wounded men, as I am told is the case with every hospital in Atlanta.”[4]

In conclusion, Gone with the Wind and its hospital scenes were fairly accurate, but they overemphasized the theme of medical care in Civil War Atlanta. The struggles of caring for the wounded where there was very limited space and supplies were clearly shown, but this was exaggerated to show that every wounded soldier was without beds or care. Though viewers will get a glimpse at the difficulties Atlanta and the Army of Tennessee dealt with in 1864, they will have to read more to get the fuller picture.


Sources:

1. Glenna R. Shroeder-Lein, “Confederate Hospitals,” Georgia Encyclopedia, June 6, 2017, http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/confederate-hospitals.

2. Frank Freemon, Gangrene and Glory: Medical Care During the American Civil War (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 153. 

3. Robert Scott Davis, Civil War Atlanta (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2011), ebook.

4. Kate Cumming, A Journal of Hospital Life in the Confederate Army of Tennessee (Louisville, KY: John P. Morton & Co., 1866), 129.

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