Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Quotable Rhett Butler: Mrs. Bixby and Her Sons

This week, our Quotable Rhett Butler features the entry that originally gave me the idea for the series. Another line that I ignored for a long time, I actually remember the moment I googled for this one, and my slight dismay at finding it historically inaccurate.  Here it is:
"'Mr. Lincoln, the merciful and just, who cries large tears over Mrs. Bixby's five boys, hasn't any tears to shed about the thousands of Yankees dying at Andersonville,' said Rhett, his mouth twisting."
--Gone with the Wind, Chapter XVI 
You can find this line at the end of Part Two in the book, when Rhett brings Melanie news about her missing husband. There are two main things to address in the quote above (besides the obvious anti-Lincoln feeling, of course).  

First of all, the allusion to the Bixby letter. Lydia Bixby was a widow from Boston who had allegedly lost her five sons in the Civil War (it will turn out three of them actually survived). At the urge of the Massachusetts governor, Lincoln sent her a condolence letter. Four days later, the letter would be published by The Boston Evening Transcript and become quite  famous. Here's what it said:
Executive Mansion,
Washington, Nov. 21, 1864.

Dear Madam,--

I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle. I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save. I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.

Yours, very sincerely and respectfully,
A. Lincoln

Can you see the problem there? November 1864. At the time this letter was written, Rhett was fighting in the Confederate Army and Scarlett starving at Tara. When Rhett utters this line, in April of 1864 most probably, only one of the Bixby sons was missing from the Union army--because he deserted.

The second interesting aspect of this quote is the reference to the prisoner exchange system or, rather, lack thereof.  Rhett is explaining to Melanie why her husband can't be exchanged out of prison and the blame for that fact is placed squarely on Lincoln. (An interesting tidbit: when that system was still working, Ashley, as a major, would have been worth eight privates. Ashley, worth eight men, I lived to see that day. I've yet to figure out what the status of blockade runners was.)

The prisoner exchange system between the Union and the Confederacy had collapsed in the summer of 1863, and though it was indeed suspended by the Lincoln administration, the Confederacy was largely to blame. The South would not recognize black Union soldiers as free men, and acted accordingly. They were sent back into slavery, which for the North was a clear violation of the initial deal. The exchange system was never reestablished, which, as the war progressed, proved to be to the Union's advantage, as the need for new troops was far greater in the South. 

The results of this were horrible--there is no other word no describe them. We will cover the Rock Island Prison in a post soon enough. In the meantime, you can google for the famous Andersonville Prison that Rhett refers to, but we must warn you, just in case you haven't seen them before, that the images are extremely unsettling.


  1. When I read the play, The Andersonville Trial, way back in middle school, I wondered how the Union could blame the Confederates for the miserable conditions (lack of food, medicine, shelter) when the Union armies of Sherman and Sheridan plundered the civilian populations, conducting scorched earth campaigns. The utter inhumanity of the war makes the lingering bitterness in MMs generation understandable. After all, she heard the accounts firsthand from family members.

    I wish I could find the citation, but blockade runners were very valuable (as we know)! ;)

  2. Well, when it comes to war prisons on both sides, I tend to simply label them under "atrocities of war". It's what the war produces, regardless of how rich/poor a state is. So I wouldn't go as far as to say that what happened there was just the result of the Confederacy going through its crisis. It explains part of it, but not all of it. I think there was also a sort of "Zimbardo effect" going on. It's a certain frame of mind that allows things to get that far.

    On a different note, I have no idea whether Rhett's captain title was just b/c he ran his boats or whether blockade runners had navy titles. If the latter is true (though I somehow doubt it), then Rhett was worth more than Ashley. And if the latter is not true, well, Rhett is still worth more than Ashley :P

  3. Great post! I love how Rhett spreads his wisdom around in the book and makes Scarlett's (and mine) head spin at times. Digging deeper into each quote is a great idea and I am sure it will teach us all a thing or two.

    But what are you saying? That MM was a lousy researcher (unlike you ladies)? Or was she not above a bit of anti-Union propaganda? Or is it supposed to be Rhett that was influenced by the Confederate propaganda machine? The last thing I have a hard time believing since I picture him reading papers from both sides of the frontlines and listening keenly to the opinions of people on either side.

  4. Ah, my friend, head-on as we like it :P

    MM being a lousy researcher? God no. We here are "Google researchers"; internet made this amazingly easy for us. To get that much information just by searching your library--well, it takes far greater researching skills and far more time. And honest mistakes aside (mistakes that are bound to happen), there is always a chance one of her sources got it wrong.

    Which brings me to the second point. Of course MM was not above a bit of anti-Union propaganda. For one, this *is* a heavily biased book. Like Iris said, it is explainable that bitterness lingered for generations, and MM was raised in that environment, that was her primary source as it were. Secondly, as she was trying to make it period accurate, I don't think objectivity would have been the way to go. It's nothing to fault her for, but I do have to state my beliefs as well. It's the bloggy thing to do :P

    Also, you mentioned Rhett reading the newspapers of the other side. His bitter tone from above seems to indicate he was in one of his Confederate moods. Regardless, this decision to cease the prisoner exchange was not well received in the Union either. They shared Rhett's opinion that the government didn't care for its soldiers. And I doubt that the majority cared that much if the South sent the black soldiers back into slavery or not.

  5. Wait--I'm confused. Ashley eventually became a major, which is higher in rank than Captain, right?

    I always wondered where Rhett's "Captain" came from. Since he got booted from West Point, I don't imagine it came from his time there. I don't recall him being referred to as "Captain" when he was introduced around at the barbeque, so I'm guessing the title came later.

  6. @ bluesneak What I meant was that if Rhett's title came from the Navy (that is, if blockade runners had titles) then his Captain is higher than Ashley's Major, because Navy titles are different that Army titles, at least in modern days they are. A Navy Captain is the equivalent of a Colonel in terrestrial forces, and I think the exchange system was devised mostly for the latter.

    It's very possible that during the war he was called Captain just because he was the commander of a ship, and not because he held any rank. But would that continue after the war as well?

  7. Here ladies is a link that discusses the compensation for the crew of a blockade runner with the information listed below it.


    As for the compensation of those who did the work, it may be interesting to give the schedule of rates of pay, on board a first-class vessel, when the business was at its height. The figures are given by "A. Roberts," one of the most famous of the noms de guerre in the contraband trade of Nassau. The rates are for a single trip from Nassau to Wilmington and back. Half the amount was given as a bounty at the beginning of the voyage, and half at its successful completion. The amounts are as follows:

    Captain £1,000
    Chief Officer 250
    Second and Third Officer 150
    Chief Engineer 500
    Crew and firemen (about) 50
    Pilot 750

    Besides the money received, officers were able to stow away little cargoes of their own, and so to make on each trip a private speculation; and an occasional cotton-bale was brought out for a friend, by way of making a handsome present. In fact, the blockade-running captains, after six months of employment, could afford to retire with a snug competency for the rest of their life.
    The merchants who withdrew early from the business acquired considerable fortunes; but those who kept on until the end met with heavy losses. Any speculation that brings sudden and excessive profits is likely to be overdone; and large amounts of capital were sunk in the last months of the war. At the close, the thriving business of Nassau and Bermuda suddenly collapsed, and they reverted to their former condition of stagnation; while the mercantile enterprise of Liverpool was directed to other and more legitimate channels.

    FROM ME:
    The most famous American captain of a blockade runner was John Wilkenson. He wrote a book about his exploits. I think MM used that as the basis for Rhett's blockade adventures.

    I'm still working on that profile, but you can call me Rita from St. Lou

  8. @ Anon aka Rita from St. Lou. Very cool link; thanks! Bookmarked it and all. It would be interesting to try to approximate in a post how much Rhett earned from the blockade running, besides the half million he mentions to Scarlett. He did retire early, so he was clearly among the advantaged ones.

    We have The Narrative of a Blockade-Runner (and The Navy In The Civil War too, I think), but I have been too lazy to start reading so far. I think I'll start with Wilkinson then, if you say you find him a likely source of inspiration for MM.

    PS: This didn't work for everyone, but it might save you the trouble of creating a profile: choose the option Comment as Name/URL and just fill in the Name field. You shouldn't need any URL and your name will show up like mine does now.

  9. @Rita from St. Lou- Fascinating! Thanks for sharing and good luck setting up that profile. :)


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...