Meet the Real Scarlett O’Hara!

by Richard L. Thornton, Architect and City Planner

This woman’s plantation and life were the inspiration for Margaret Mitchell’s eternal novel, “Gone with the Wind.” As the popular belle on a plantation in North Georgia (and like Scarlett O’Hara) she wore a dress with a 16 inch waste line. She was an eyewitness to the horrors of the American Civil War and General William Sherman’s infamous March to the Sea. Like Scarlett O’Hara, she became wealthy after the Civil War by renting convict laborers, who were little more than slaves.

Rebecca Felton

Several decades later , she became the first woman to serve in the United States Senate. The most famous lines spoken by the fictional Scarlett O’Hara, were first stated by the real Scarlett O’Hara, seven decades before the publication of Gone with the Wind. Her plantation, burned by arsonists in 1998, bore little resemblance to the Tara portrayed in the movie, but the events that occurred on and around it, closely match the plot of the novel, from beginning to end.   The real Scarlett O’Hara’s name?

Senator Rebecca Latimer Felton

There is much more to this novella . . . created by the lives of real people. For almost two decades, the people behind the progressive movement in the Southeast met in the log house built by Cherokee Pincipal Chief Charles Hicks in 1817. It was situated on a hilltop terrace, which 1500 year earlier had been used as a sacred worship site by the Swift Creek People, ancestors of the Creek Indians. Also, throughout the early 20th century, industrialist Henry Ford secretly rendezvoused with his paramour at this log house. Their upstairs getaway is still called the Berry-Ford Bedroom.

The log house, built by Cherokee Chief Charles Hicks
Autographed first edition of Gone With the Wind
Margaret Mitchell

Life is indeed a box of chocolates . . . Into the tapestry of life are written strange patterns that cannot be logically explained by individual woofs and warps. Yes, above you see a photo of the first edition of Gone With the Wind, autographed by Margaret Mitchell at a meeting of the Northside Atlanta Womens Club in May 1936.  I inherited it at age 17 from my Great-Aunt Lucille, who was a friend of Margaret Mitchell. I finally came to the conclusion that it was ridiculous for me to continue holding the valuable heirloom it in a safe or a safety deposit box, when what really needed was to replace my fixer-upper house’s heating and cooling system, plus finish many other repairs to the interior.  It is to be auctioned off on October 4th, 2019 at a famous auction house.  In a way, this is a passage rite.

One of the two former ferries, named after Scarlett O’Hara, that sailed between Copenhagen, Denmark and Landskron, Sweden

That was just the beginning of a strange confluence with the personalities and scenes of Gone With the Wind.  Twenty-four hours after graduating from Georgia Tech, I was looking beyond the bow of the ferry Dana (Danish Girl) Scarlett, as it steered into the port of Landskrona, Sweden.  The two ships, Dana Scarlett and Svea Scarlett were named in honor of Scarlett O’Hara.  Their predecessors had carried many thousands of Danes and German occupation troops to Sweden, so they could watch the movie, Gone With the Wind.  In my mid-twenties I lived in Midtown Atlanta, two blocks away from where Margaret Mitchell had lived in her mid-twenties, while writing her famous novel.  In the late 1990s, I was the architect for the restoration of Rebecca Felton’s home, the 1870 courthouse where her husband became a nationally famous orator, plus the Roselawn Mansion, home of the famous evangelist, Sam Jones and the collection of Rebecca’s personal belongings.   

During that period, I also lived near the Corra Harris Farm, where the plot of Gone With the Wind was hatched, plus assisted with its restoration. Finally, I designed an office building on the site where Rebecca had maintained a saw mill, run by convict labor.  Are we seeing a pattern here?

The plantation home of William and Rebecca Felton

CARTERSVILLE, GA – Today, the site of the Felton Plantation is a non-descript sea of rental storage buildings and speculative office buildings.  A century ago, however, it was the home of one of the most successful leaders of the political efforts to obtain the right of women to vote and be employed in professional position.  Fortunately, just before the structures were destroyed by arsonists, architectural as-built drawings were prepared in anticipation of the plantation becoming a major monument of the women’s rights movement.  These two dimensional drawings were developed into a three dimensional computer model that will enable future generations to better understand the world that Rebecca Felton lived in.

Our cast of real life characters include:

Corra Harris was the inspiration for Belle Watling, the owner of an Atlanta brothel and friend of Rhett Butler.  The weekend retreats at her Pine Log, GA home allowed people such as Martha Berry and Henry Ford to “be themselves” away from the public’s eye.

Corra Harris

Corra May (White) Harris (March 17, 1869-February 9, 1935), journalist and author, was born in Elbert County, Georgia, the oldest child of Tinsley Rucker White and Mary (Mathews) White. Corra grew up at the family plantation home, “Farm Hill.” She was educated at home by her mother, at a local field school, and at the Elberton Female Academy. At the age of fifteen, Corra went to live with her uncle, who was then principal of Old Salem School in Banks County, Georgia. There’ she met Lundy Harris, a Methodist clergyman and educator.

Rev. Lundy Harris

Lundy, the descendant of a long line of Methodist preachers and circuit riders, was born in McDonough, Georgia in 1858, and had received both his B.A. and M.A. degrees from Emory College in 1876. Corra and Lundy became engaged, and, after Corra completed her education and taught school briefly, she and Lundy were married on February 8, 1887. Their honeymoon was spent journeying to the Redwine Circuit in Hart County, Georgia, where Lundy was to be circuit rider. On December 24, 1887, their first child, a daughter named Faith, was born; Faith was the only one of the Harris children to survive beyond infancy.

Lundy Harris served in a Methodist church in Decatur, Georgia with Bishop Atticus Greene Haygood during the year following the baby’s birth. In 1888, President Warren Candler appointed Lundy professor of Greek at Emory College in Oxford, Georgia. The Harris family remained at Oxford for ten years. Corra devoted most of her time during this period to her home and family. Two sons were born, but both died shortly after birth. In 1898 Lundy, suffering from nervous illness and, subsequently, a complete breakdown, left Emory. The family finally settled with close relatives in Rockmart, Georgia, and Lundy taught at the Rockmart Institute.

An editorial in the New York Independent Magazine drew Corra’s reply in May, 1899. At the request of the editors, she became a regular contributor of articles, editorials, and book reviews, sometimes dealing with controversial topics. Meanwhile, Lundy was appointed assistant secretary of his church’s Board of Education, and the family moved to Nashville, Tennessee in 1902. Corra continued to write, collaborating with Paul Elmer More to publish The Jessica Letters, first as a serial in 1903 and then as a book in 1904. This was followed in 1909 by A Circuit Rider’s Wife, a novel partially based on Corra Harris’s own life.

Having never fully recovered from his earlier illness at Oxford, Lundy Harris died in 1910 in Georgia. Corra bought a farm near Rydal, Georgia, close to the place where her husband had died. She named her new home “In the Valley,” and there her literary career began in earnest. She wrote serials, novels, articles, short stories, newspaper columns, autobiographies, and a travelogue; she served as a war correspondent in 1914 for The Saturday Evening Post; she also contributed to Ladies’ Home Journal, Harper’s, Pictorial Review, and many other periodicals. In the 1930’s, she wrote a tri-weekly “Candlelit Column” for the Atlanta Journal.

In 1931, Corra’s health began to fail and her literary career to wane. She continued to travel and to write with the help of her two young local companions, Bettie and Trannie Raines. Corra Harris died at Emory Hospital on Saturday, February 9, 1935 following a heart attack. Biographical information about Corra Harris was found in Who Was Who in America (volume 2); in Corra Harris, Lady of Purpose by John E. Talmadge (Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1968.

Lundy would finally desert his family to be found in Texas, living in a fantasy world of his own. Repeated nervous breakdowns finally led to his suicide in 1910 via ludnum. His body was found in a ditch near the Corra Harris Farm.

Most women would have withered away as they beheld their future “in the mountains, pulling a creaking buggy over impossible roads, serving malnourished, isolated people in tiny churches, for a salary of $245 per year,”

Martha Berry

Martha McChesney Berry: She was born in 1866 on an extremely prosperous plantation on the Oostanaula River near Rome, GA. Her father became very wealthy from owning several steamboats in Rome.  She used the wealth inherited from her father to start a free school for poor mountain children. It evolved into Berry College. B.C. has the largest college campus in the world (38,000 acres) and is now rated the top small college in the Southeast.  As the “social liberal” among Corra Harris’s regular guests, this true Southern Belle is obviously the inspiration for Melanie Wilkes.

Henry Ford

Henry James Ford: He was born in 1863 near Detroit, Michigan.  Ford was a lifetime friend, benefactor, confidante and paramour of Martha Berry. Yes, that’s the same Henry Ford, who built autos. Corra Harris maintained a bedroom for them, upstairs in her rural farm house, when Henry was visiting Georgia.  While publicly a conservative Republican and opposed to the right of women to vote, Ford’s wealth donated to Rebecca and Martha, personally funded the Women’s Suffrage Movement in the South. This is a little known fact.  Henry Ford’s personality was part of the inspiration for the character of Rhett Butler.

William Felton

William Harrell Felton (June 19, 1823 – September 24, 1909) was an American attorney, medical doctor, politician, Confederate Army surgeon, private school teacher and Methodist minister. Felton was elected to three terms of office to the United States House of Representatives as an Independent, where he served as a sharp critic of both the Bourbons (Conservative Democrats) and Radical Republicans.

He was born on June 19, 1823, near Lexington, Georgia. Felton studied at the University of Georgia in Athens, from which he graduated in 1843.  He then studied at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta for a year before spending the next seven years in Cartersville, Georgia practicing medicine, teaching, and farming. In 1851, he was elected as a member of the Georgia House of Representatives, representing Cass County (now called Bartow County).

Both Dr. Felton and his wife were against secession. Throughout all of most of the war, he treated without pay thousands of wounded Confederate and Union soldiers, who were deposited beside the railroad tracts near their plantation. However, after Atlanta fell and it was obvious that the South had lost the war, Felton did enter the Confederate Army as an officer and surgeon then fought till the end of the war. If one recalls the plot of the book, Gone with the Wind, Rhett Butler also entered the Confederate Army after Sherman was marching to Savannah and the South had clearly lost the war.

During Reconstruction, Felton and his wife built and taught at a school near their home.  Two months after the Battle of Atlanta, Sherman’s troops had burned all public and commercial buildings in Bartow County as an act of terrorism.  There were no Confederate troops in the vicinity and Atlanta had already been destroyed. 

At the end of Reconstruction, he decided to re-enter politics as an independent Populist.  In the many speeches given along side his wife near the new Bartow County Courthouse, Felton declared that farmers and factory workers were being exploited by a corrupt and wasteful governments throughout the re-united nation. He advocated that Georgia’s common people should “hurl the public plunderers from office” and instead elect those who were representatives of “the whole people.”  Rebecca Felton caused several scandals by joining her husband on the platform and even speaking on his behalf.

Felton ran for re-election in 1876 and 1878 and one both times.  He lost the 1880 election with his supporters charging that voting “irregularities” had certainly taken place in Rome and possibly in Marietta, Georgia.  Despite these protestations, Felton did not choose to contest the result of the 1880 election, instead returning to his farm and his ministerial work

In 1884 Felton once again won election to the Georgia House of Representatives, where he served until 1890.  About this time, he was beginning to have symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease, which was not understood by doctors at that time. Felton died on September 24, 1909 of Parkinson’s Disease and was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in Cartersville, Georgia

Rebecca’s experiences during the Civil War almost exactly match those of Scarlett

Rebecca Felton

As a teenager, Rebecca Latimer was the epitome of a Southern Belle.  Beautiful, high spirited, intelligent . . . her 16 inch waist line was the inspiration for Scarlett O’Hara’s 16 inch waist.  Rebecca rejected all suitors when she was 18, and went off to college.  The fact that she waited till age 23 to marry, would have been almost scandalous in the Ante Bellum Era.

The life of Rebecca Felton closely paralleled that of Scarlett’s O’Hara, .except that William and Rebecca Felton’s marriage was a strong one. They were in as much love when he died as when they married. William and Rebecca initially opposed Secession, as did most of the people in northwest Georgia.   The Felton’s were horrified when their children came home from school, wearing “Secesh” ribbons. The people in their county even raised a militia to guard Federal property from Confederate soldiers, but they quickly changed uniform colors, when President Lincoln ordered the invasion of the South.  

William didn’t join the army because of his political beliefs, but he did all he could, as a doctor, to help the thousands of wounded soldiers who were deposited beside the railroad tracks near their home, after big battles to the north. That is how William Felton became the inspiration for Doctor Meade in the horrific scenes wounded Confederate soldiers during the Battle of Atlanta.

When the fighting moved into Northwest Georgia in the summer of 1864, the Felton’s fled with their entire household to Macon, GA. Rebecca heard that both her mother and sister were critically ill with the measles . . . contracted from the invading Northern troops. She first tried to reach her family by train, but a bridge had been blown up.

Rebecca drove a mule wagon over a hundred miles through the devastation or Sherman’s March to the Sea in an attempt to reach her family.  In the Old South , plantation class women would have never considered driving a wagon or traveling alone.  While in the mule wagon, she was attacked by Yankee cavalry, but a troop of Southern cavalry came to her rescue and drove off the invaders.  This event exactly matches the plot of “Gone with the Wind.”

By the time Rebecca reached her family, her mother and sister were dead. Again, that is exactly like the plot of “Gone With the Wind She then returned to Macon. All of her family  and slaves fled to “a refuge” in deep Southeast Georgia. They almost starved to death. Rebecca’s firstborn son, along with many of their farm hands, died of measles. She almost died of measles,  too (just like in the movie) but eventually recovered.

William and Rebecca together drove the mule wagon 250 miles northward to Cartersville, to see if anything was left standing on their farm.  All of Bartow County was a visage of hell. Sherman had ordered most buildings burned a full four months after there were any Confederate regiments in the area.  These were pure acts of terrorism, and Sherman openly admitted it.  

As Rebecca and her family crested the hill on the road leading to the house, Rebecca stood up to see that their farm was wrecked, but the house was standing.  She the uttered those famous words, “I swear by God that I will NEVER be poor again!”  Of course, Scarlett said the same thing in the novel.

During the extreme poverty of Reconstruction, William and Rebecca started a school,  since the Yankees had burned all of the public and private school buildings around Cartersville, except one that had a Masonic emblem on it.  William was elected to Congress. Rebecca began buying up all of the land around their farm: eventually another 2500 acres. She used rented convict labor to run a saw mill and iron mine   Does that sound like “Gone With the Wind?”  Rebecca became very wealthy from her business activities, while William became nationally known as a progressive congressman and public speaker.

There is a section in “Gone With the Wind” when Scarlett is assaulted in a Shanty town.  Both Corra Harris and Rebecca were terrified of being assaulted by black men, although there is no record of either of them being harmed in any way by any black person.  It is believed that Corra may have fabricated the story of being assaulted that Margaret Mitchell dutifully recorded in her novel.

William Felton’s political career and health waned in the 1890s. He died in 1909 from Parkinson’s Disease.   By then, however, the couple had become extremely wealthy from her businesses.   Rebecca devoted much of her time to two political causes, the Temperance Movement and the Women’s  Suffrage Movement.  She considered the two causes efforts interrelated because widespread alcoholism in the Southeast after the Civil War had kept the region in a dungeon of poverty and despair, while archaic laws kept women in political chains that prevented them from applying their talents to solving America’s problems. Ironically,  although much of Felton’s early wealth came from leasing convict laborers, she led the effort to have the practice outlawed in Georgia in 1908.   For 20 years Felton also wrote a popular syndicated “advice” column for newspapers, called  “The Country Home,”   

Shortly, after the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, giving women the write to vote,  at the age of 87, Felton was appointed to fill in the term of a Georgia senator, who had died,  until  a special election could be held.  Although the Senate was in session only the last 24 hours of her term, she was sworn in as the first female to serve in the U.S. Senate and was invited to make a significant speech to Congress.  Rebecca Latimer Felton died in 1930 at the age of 95.  “Gone with the Wind” was published six years later.

“Fiddle-dee-dee . . . tomorrow is another day! “

Rear view of Felton Plantation

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