Atlanta’s Rhett Butler
On the occasion of the 75th anniversary this June 30 of the publication of Gone With The Wind, it is time we reopen a non-provable and ultimately useless argument “Who was the real Rhett Butler?” My proposition is as follows: “Richard Peters, the man responsible for our city’s name, is Atlanta’s Rhett Butler” or to be more precise “Richard Peters would have been a logical person for Margaret Mitchell to use as a model for the historically accurate elements of the character of Rhett Butler.” This theory must compete with the argument also presented below by shipwreck salvager. E. Lee Spence, who announced in 1989 and published in his 1995 book that the historical basis of Rhett Butler was George Alfred Trenholm of the Charleston firm of Fraser, Trenholm & Co.
Richard Peters biography — his attitude toward the war, his involvement in establishing a blockade running enterprise out of Atlanta and post war attitudes toward the occupying forces illustrates that the historical basis of the Rhett Butler — to be distinguished from the obviously romantic literary aspects of his character — is founded in fact and reflects well upon Margaret Mitchell’s research and the appropriate historical context from which she drew her characters.
Margaret Mitchell went to great lengths to say that her characters were not based on individuals and to ensure that no Atlanta or Clayton County family names were included in the book.1 The speculation with respect to Rhett Butler has generally centered on whether certain aspects of the personality of Rhett were based on her first husband Red Upshaw (a sometimes bootlegger). One biographer links the character of Rhett Butler to her mother: “With general consistency, Margaret Mitchell disassociated real people from her fictional characters. In a notable exception, however, Mitchell identified Rhett Butler with May Belle Mitchell’s voice and vision.”2
Richard Peters (1810-1889) hailed from a prominent Philadelphia family. His grandfather, Judge Richard Peters (1744-1828), a friend and contemporary of Washington and Jefferson, owned an estate called Belmont outside of Philadelphia, which is today incorporated into the Olmstead influenced Fairmount Park.3 Judge Peters was one of the most important founders of the Episcopal Church in America after the Revolution.4 Judge Peters was also interested in agricultural innovation and livestock propagation and improvement, an interest his grandson later also pursued passionately. Richard Peters father, Ralph, was a serial failure in business and farming and through neglect lost to taxes the 1,000 acres that Judge Peters left Richard in trust for his education.5 Richard therefore trained to be a civil engineer with the help of relatives at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia and, after working for 5 years as a civil engineer on Pennsylvania railroad construction, met Edgar Thompson in November 1834. Thompson, the chief engineer chosen to build the Georgia Railroad from Augusta to Atlanta, asked Peters to join him as an assistant engineer in February 1835. Peters became Thompson’s principal assistant and, in 1837, he was promoted to Superintendent and General Agent. The economic depression of 1840-1844 slowed construction but permitted Peters and other Augusta shareholders to buy control of the Georgia Railroad in 1842. On September 14, 1845 Peters was on the first passenger train as it pulled into Atlanta.6 Peters disliked the name Marthasville and asked Thompson to suggest a better name. Thompson coined Atlanta. Because of Peters we did not celebrate the 1996 Marthasville Olympics.
Once the Georgia Railroad was complete, Peters resigned as Superintendent, bought its stagecoach subsidiary that operated to Montgomery and subsequently established the first telegraph company to serve Atlanta. Peters also brought the Episcopal Church to Atlanta founding St. Philips Church in 1846. In 1850 Peters, along with L.P. Grant and John F. Mims, erected the largest flour mill in the South.7 To provide firewood for its large steam engine, Peters bought 400 acres of pineland just north of the city limits for $5 an acre. That purchase became the basis for his future wealth. As Peters later said “Few make fortunes by good judgment or hard work. Something they never foresaw takes place in their favor. Now here am I. I bought 400 acres of land merely to get wood from it, and it is in the heart of Atlanta.”8 The land today is land lots 49 and 80 –North Avenue to 8th street — with West Peachtree Street being lot line dividing the two tracts. He also bought 2,000 acres near Calhoun Georgia because it reminded him of Chester County Pennsylvania. At that farm with the help of 16 slaves he conducted agricultural experiments in crops and livestock and promoted scientific agriculture. He is particularly notable for his introduction of Chinese Sugar cane- in French “Sorgho Sucre”- hence sorghum and he was among the first to make syrup from sorghum in this country.9
In politics Peters was a Whig who supported John Bell of the Constitutionalist Party in 1860 (the Atlanta vote was 1,070 Bell, 825 Breckinridge and 335 Douglas).10 Peters, though a minor slaveholder, like many in Atlanta, opposed secession. As he stated later: “Very few of the Southern people were conscious of the power of the North. They had been kept in perfect ignorance by politicians and were not aware that the whole civilized world opposed slavery, more especially the English nation.”11
Once the war began Peters, 50, offered his services as a civilian transportation agent and sold his steam engine for $12,000 in Confederate bonds. The engine was removed to the Confederate powder works in Augusta, which because it produced the vast majority of the Confederacy’s gunpowder, became its most important industrial complex.
During the war he invested in land and livestock, including Angora goats (which he removed to south Georgia before the Yankees arrived) and, more germane to our topic, created and operated a Blockade running syndicate out of Atlanta. Blockade running companies were the venture capital opportunities of the era. According to Yankee sympathizer Amherst Stone “Almost everybody [in Atlanta] who had any money was anxious to go into a blockade company.”12 Peters first invested in the Fulton County Import & Export Company, formed in 1863 by Jonathan Norcross, which went out of business when its ship was destroyed at the mouth of the Suwannee River on December 20, 1863.13 In May 1864 Peters in association with two partners, and the Crenshaw Brothers of Richmond, created another company which ultimately owned 10 ships and operated out of Wilmington, North Carolina until the port was closed when the Yankees captured Fort Fisher on January, 15 1865. Just before the fall of Atlanta in September 1864, Peters and his family moved to Augusta and he continued arranging for cotton to be shipped to Wilmington. His ships brought in large quantities of beef and other war materiel to this crucial supply source for the Army of Northern Virginia. His firm grossed approximately $3,000,000 but netted only enough to return his investors the amount in greenbacks they had invested in gold.14 Peters, ever the entrepreneur, enjoyed blockading stating that the business “was hazardous but very interesting and exciting. Had the port of Wilmington remained open a few months longer we would have probably made a very large fortune.”15
In 1989 a wreck salvager E. Lee Spence made the wire services by announcing that he had discovered that Rhett Butler was based on George Trenholm who was the well known owner of the Frazier Trenholm & Company, an antebellum import export business that became the largest blockade running company and that served in many ways as an extension of the Confederate government. His 1995 book- The Real Rhett Butler & other Revelations claims “Well over ninety percent of Rhett was based on Trenholm, with the remainder being Trenholm’s son Fred and Mitchell’s first husband, Red Upshaw.”16
His arguments are essentially as follows: First obviously, both Butler and Trenholm were from Charleston and were engaged in blockade running, though Trenholm on a much larger scale and with an existing antebellum shipping business. Trenholm was the most well known blockade runner of the war. Both made fortunes, were jailed and accused after the war of holding the fabled confederate gold. Both bribed officials, socialized with carpetbaggers, were pardoned and both had shipped goods including arms out of New York City at the outset of the war. Rhett Butler owned four blockade runners and controlled a “combine worth $1,000,000.”17 Trenholm’s three companies owned over 60 ships and made tens of millions of dollars. Spence states “unlike the average Southerner, both men attended the Episcopal Church…both contributed heavily to church causes.”18 He wraps up his analysis with correspondence from Atlanta’s historian Franklin Garrett. When Franklin Garrett, who Spence apparently met at ceremonies commemorating the 50th anniversary of the release of the film, read a pre publication copy of the book, he wrote a rather diplomatic letter stating: “Margaret Mitchell would never admit that any of her characters in Gone With the Wind were based upon real people but I must say that George Trenholm would have been a logical basis for Rhett Butler.”19
I don’t pretend to claim that Richard Peters was Rhett Butler — but I stand by my proposition that he was “Atlanta’s Rhett Butler” and at least as logical a candidate as Trenholm.
Both Butler and Peters operated blockade running operations of about the same scale. Peter’s group had 10 boats at its peak and Butler 4.20 Both Peters and Trenholm were over 50 at the outset of the war while Butler was 35 (the age of Peters when he completed the railroad to Atlanta) and neither Peters nor Trenholm personally ran the blockade. All three were Episcopalians. All three received pardons and used connections in the North to their advantage. All three had extensive dealing with the reconstruction governments and Peters was the leader of the cooperationists in Atlanta. Both Butler and Peters opposed secession. As Atlanta unionist Alexander Wilson wrote to President Johnson regarding Peters: Richard Peters was a “rich man, who, though no politician gave freely of his money to fight against secession while it did good, but[who] seemingly went over to the enemy after Georgia seceded, and blowed for Jeff’s crowd.” Peters was now “humble penitent, and a worthy & sensible man.”21
When Congress imposed radical reconstruction in March 1867 with the Military Reconstruction Act and established the Third Military District of Georgia, Florida and Alabama, it was Peters who secured General John Pope’s goodwill by arranging a reception and banquet on his arrival in Atlanta, in useful contrast with his reception elsewhere. Peters was also the leading force on the Atlanta City Council when it conditionally approved in 1867 a proposal of James Dunning, one of Atlanta’s “Secret Yankees” during the war, of the donation of 10 acres of land for the construction of a monument to Lincoln in East Atlanta near Oakland cemetery. Peters’ biographer, Royce Shingleton, argues that the conditions Peters set -$750,000 to $1,000,000 to be raised in private funds to erect a 145 foot tower of Georgia marble- were intended to ensure the project’s ultimate failure. Needless to say the Atlanta City Council’s 6-4 vote approving the monument provoked a firestorm. Peters’ cooperationist attitude, however, would not hurt his efforts the next year to relocate the Capital from Milledgeville to Atlanta. Peters like Butler was the target of public abuse for his willingness to deal with Reconstruction authorities, though Butler would later in Reconstruction become a prominent Democrat in a vain attempt to improve his social standing. Peters arranged another fabulous welcome for General George G. Meade, who succeeded Pope in January 1868 as Military Governor. Meade became a member of St. Philip’s Church and raised $5000 from friends in the north to repair its war damage. The new constitution which Meade submitted to the voters for ratification in April 1868 contained in Article 10 the relocation of the Capital to Atlanta. The Constitution was approved by a vote of 88,123 to 69,750.22
Butler also socialized with the military officials, if more often at Belle Watling’s than at St Philip’s, and used his connections to his advantage. Both Peters and Butler were outsiders to a large extent being educated in the North – Peters in Philadelphia and Butler at West Point. Both realized the superior nature of the resources of the North and were intent on preserving and prospering financially during and after the war. Peters’ primary motivation was preservation: “I never altered my opinion of the ultimate result, but tried to shape my course so as to save our property when the crash came.”23 This differs from Butler’s motivation only in slight degree: “Blockading is a business with me and I’m making money out of it. When I stop making money out of it, I’ll quit.”24 And of course, both were communicants at St. Philip’s Church.25
Margaret Mitchell would probably have been aware of both Peters and Trenholm given her extensive period research. I have no idea if she based Rhett in part on either one. All I am suggesting is that for a historical precedent she didn’t need to go to Charleston to find Atlanta’s Rhett Butler.