By the beginning of summer 1863, a series of battle victories for the Confederacy has led to optimism in the South. But in July, news arrives in Atlanta that there has been heavy fighting near a small town called Gettysburg in Pennsylvania. The women of the town gather at the newspaper office to await news of their loved ones. Among them are Scarlett and Melanie, who are both awaiting news of Ashley. Rhett rides up, bringing casualty lists that he has obtained from headquarters, and distributes them to the women. Scarlett, Melanie and Pittypat find that Ashley has survived, but many families have lost someone. Dr and Mrs. Meades eldest son, Darcy, is one of the dead. The Meades younger son, Phil, tries to cheer his mother up by saying that he will join the army and kill the Yankees, but Mrs. Meade desperately clutches his arm and says, “No!”
Scarlett is shocked to see that Brent and Stuart Tarleton, and their brother Thomas, have all been killed. Their only other brother, Boyd, was killed in the first year of the war. Rhett sympathizes with Scarlett, and says that the Confederate leader General Lee must have lost the battle. He adds that more casualty lists will arrive tomorrow, and Scarlett realizes that Ashley may still be killed.
At the Meades house, Melanie tells Scarlett that she longs to have a son with Ashley. Scarlett critically thinks that Melanie does not have the figure to bear children: her hips are extremely narrow and her breasts are flat.
The Confederacy loses the battle at Gettysburg. Near Christmas time, Ashley comes home on leave. Now Major Ashley Wilkes, he is suntanned and leaner than he was, and Scarlett finds him even more thrilling than before. She eagerly looks forward to finding a minute to be alone with him, but to her annoyance, India, Honey and Melanie follow him about constantly. As Ashley tours the house saying his farewells, Scarlett finally gets her moment alone with him. She gives him a going-away present, a yellow silk sash she has made from a shawl that Rhett had given her. She confesses to him that she would do anything for him, and he takes the opportunity to ask her to look after Melanie if he should be killed. He tells her that he believes the Yankees will win the war, and that he has only been talking optimistically to his family about the Confederate cause to prevent them being frightened. He adds that the Confederate army is so short of supplies that some of his men are barefooted in the snow. The Yankees, though, are buying soldiers from Europe by the thousands.
Scarlett promises to look after Melanie, and asks him to kiss her. As Scarlett pulls him close, he kisses her passionately for an instant, but then suddenly tenses and detaches her arms from his neck. She tells him that she has always loved him, and only married Charles to hurt him. She asks him to admit that he loves her. His face betraying a mixture of love for Scarlett, shame, and despair, Ashley can only wish her goodbye. He leaves.
At the beginning of 1864, nearly all of Tennessee is held by the Yankees. The people of the South have come to distrust their leaders, and some of the state governors, including Governor Brown of Georgia, are refusing to send state militia troops and arms out of their borders. Confederate money has fallen in value again and prices have soared. Atlanta ladies are lining their old dresses with rags and newspaper to keep out the wind. The North is holding the South in a state of siege. Few ships are able to slip past the blockade. The South can neither sell nor buy goods. Gerald, unable to get his cotton to England, wonders how he will feed his family and slaves through the winter.
As food and clothing grow scarcer and more expensive, the public outcry against the speculators becomes ever more venomous. Rhett has sold his boats because blockading has become too dangerous, and is now openly speculating in food.
Despite the hardships, Scarlett is happy because she knows that Ashley loves her. But in March, Scarlett is devastated to learn that Melanie is pregnant. The following day, a letter arrives saying that Ashley is missing, believed captured.
One day, Melanie faints while waiting at the telegraph office waiting for news of Ashley. Rhett brings her home and promises that he will try to find out what has happened to Ashley. Rhett discovers that Ashley is at Rock Island prison camp in Illinois. Conditions are known to be especially harsh there. Rhett reveals that the Yankees are recruiting men to fight the Native Americans from among the Confederate prisoners. If Ashley had taken the oath of allegiance to the Yankees, he would have been released and sent West. But Ashley refused. Scarlett says she cannot understand why he did not take the oath and then desert and come home, but Melanie angrily insists that Ashley would never do such a thing. Scarlett asks Rhett if he would have done this, and Rhett agrees that he would. When Scarlett asks why Ashley did not, Rhett replies contemptuously that he is too much of a gentleman.
Analysis of Chapters 14-16
As the war continues, the Souths lack of self-sufficiency brings it close to crisis point. Lacking a manufacturing base and prevented by the blockades from selling its cotton abroad, it rapidly declines from extraordinary wealth into abject poverty. Unlike the North, which is wealthy enough to buy soldiers from Europe, the South cannot replace the men it has lost. Rhetts words at the Wilkes barbecue – that all the South has is cotton and arrogance – have proved to be true.
His abandoning blockade-running in favor of speculating in food reinforces Rhetts status as a social pariah. The public outcry against speculators becomes increasingly venomous. The South is portrayed in this novel as a victim of unscrupulous speculators and profiteers, though Mitchell clearly shows the naivety of the Souths leaders in not considering the regions economic vulnerability before seceding from the industrializing North and then taking it into a disastrous war. Conspicuously absent from this picture of the South as victim, however, is any moral critique of the Souths almost total reliance on a slave economy at a time when slavery was viewed as unacceptable over much of the United States and by every other advanced nation.
There is great irony in Scarletts continuing attachment to Ashley in spite of her obvious similarity to Rhett. She passionately tells Ashley that she still loves him, and his looks and actions suggest that he returns her love. But when Rhett reveals that Ashley could have bought his freedom by betraying the Confederacy, Scarlett echoes Rhetts New Southern attitude: both would take the path of self-interest. Melanie, on the other hand, like Ashley, is of the Old South and could never contemplate such a dishonorable action. We see clearly that Ashley was correct in saying that he and Melanie are alike and understand each other; and we are frustrated that Scarlett does not see that she is far better suited to Rhett than to Ashley.
In addition, there is something unattractively dishonest about Ashley, in love and in war. The fact that he fights in a war that he does not believe in, may, as Melanie claims, be construed as noble; but the fact that he fails to marry the woman he cares most deeply about (Scarlett), yet kisses her behind his wifes back and then sneaks off guiltily without quite managing to confess his love, is decidedly ignoble. He comes across as unworthy of both women and compares unfavorably to the brutally honest Rhett.
In extracting a promise from Scarlett that she will look after Melanie, Ashley unwittingly forces her to consider someone elses welfare other than her own. Naturally, Scarlett only agrees to look after Melanie, whom she dislikes and resents, because she loves Ashley. But it could be said that Scarletts love for Ashley is itself the beginning of her journey beyond narrow self-interest.