I can write short posts. Or at least that's my goal for today, to deliver a short and concise post, quite in contrast with my usual rambling. So, cutting to the chase, our Rhett quote for this week is:
"'They died to the last man at Thermopylae, didn't they, Doctor?' Rhett asked, and his lips twitched with suppressed laughter."--Gone with the Wind, Chapter XVII
At the beginning of Part Three in the book, where this line is uttered, Margaret Mitchell describes Sherman's troops advance into Georgia in the late spring of 1864. In November of 1863, the Union army won the Battle for Chattanooga, which opened their way to Georgia (Chattanooga, Tennessee was one of the dozen places that claimed the honor to be the "Gateway to the South"). They would be opposed by the Army of Tennessee, under the command of Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, fondly nicknamed Old Joe, and the series of battles that ensued would eventually lead to Atlanta's siege and fall.
|General Joseph E. Johnson|
Doctor Meade's reference, picked up by Rhett, is quite obviously one to the Battle of Thermopylae fought by Leonidas' Spartans against the invading Persian army, that greatly outnumbered them. The Spartans resisted for a few days at the mountain pass of Thermopylae, but eventually, as Rhett so graciously points out, they were killed to the last man.
"'Our men have fought without shoes before and without food and won victories. And they will fight again and win! I tell you General Johnston cannot be dislodged! The mountain fastnesses have always been the refuge and the strong forts of invaded peoples from ancient times. Think of--think of Thermopylae!'Scarlett thought hard but Thermopylae meant nothing to her.'They died to the last man at Thermopylae, didn't they, Doctor?' Rhett asked, and his lips twitched with suppressed laughter.'Are you being insulting, young man?''Doctor! I beg of you! You misunderstood me! I merely asked for information. My memory of ancient history is poor.'"--Gone with the Wind, Chapter XVII
There are many things to admire in the scene above. First of all, of course, Rhett's wit and skillful use of ancient history, which allows him to point out the self-defeating character and the irony of Doctor Meade's analogy. But, as usual with Margaret Mitchell's scenes, there is more than one layer to this.
With historical hindsight, there is actually one resemblance between the two battles. Unlike Leonidas, Old Joe retreated from Rocky Face Ridge, but in both cases the reason why the mountain position was not impregnable, as it should have been, was that the enemy outflanked the resisting armies. Under cover of night, both Sherman and Xerxes, the Persian king (who had been alerted to the existence of a mountain path by a traitor), managed to get their troops behind the enemy lines, avoiding the deadly frontal attack. For Leonidas that spelled the end of his life and the beginning of a heroic and military legend like few others in history.
The Battle of Thermopylae is perhaps one of the most often quoted events in ancient history, but it is a particularly nice touch that Doctor Meade, as a Southerner, chose this particular battle. Not only because Sparta, who was ruled by a strict honor code, could to an extent appeal to the Southern ideals of chivalry, but also because this was a battle the Greeks fought against their invaders, which emphasizes the way Doctor Meade and his fellowmen saw their own war--as a war of Northern aggression. By contrast, Sherman referred to Etowah, the river he crossed in his Spring Campaign as "the Rubicon of Georgia," which, alluding to the famous river Caesar crossed in his march against his own capital, stresses the idea of it being a civil war.
Oh, and that thing about me writing short posts? Obviously a lie. Maybe next time.