At the end of August, the thirty-day Yankee bombardment of Atlanta suddenly ceases. The townspeople, deprived of any news, hope that this means the Yankees are retreating. But eventually, news arrives that the Yankees are trying to gain control of the railroad at Jonesboro, just five miles from Tara. Scarletts terror increases when she receives a letter from Gerald saying that Carreen has taken a turn for the worse and that Ellen and Suellen also have typhoid. He relays Ellens instructions that she must not return to Tara and expose herself and Wade to infection. Gerald adds that the Yankees have not got to Tara.
Scarlett desperately wants to go home, but she cannot leave Melanie because of her promise to Ashley. On the first of September, she awakes to the noise of cannon coming from the south, where Tara lies. She is terrified for the safety of Ellen and Tara, and for the first time, the full horror of the war is brought home to her.
Melanie is very sick. She tells Scarlett that she loves her and apologizes for keeping her in Atlanta and away from her home. She asks Scarlett to look after her baby if she dies. If it is a boy, she wants her to be brought up to be like Ashley, and if it is a girl, she wants her to be like Scarlett. Scarlett, feeling contemptuous towards Melanie because of her ignorance of Scarletts love for Ashley, reluctantly promises. Melanie says that she has been having contractions since dawn and that the baby will come today.
Scarlett sends Prissy to fetch Mrs. Meade to help with the delivery of Melanies baby. Prissy returns with the news that Mrs. Meade has left to fetch her son, Phil, who has been shot. Scarlett suggests that Prissy try Mrs. Merriwether, but Prissy has already discovered that her house is locked and she is not at home. Scarlett tells Prissy to fetch Mrs. Elsing. After an hour, Prissy returns and says that Mrs. Elsing is at the hospital. By now, Melanies pains are increasing. Scarlett sends Prissy to the hospital with a note for Dr Meade asking him to come. Hours pass. Finally, Prissy returns and says that Dr Meade was not at the hospital, and none of the other doctors would listen to her, as they were busy taking care of the wounded soldiers from Jonesboro. Dr Meade is at the depot, tending more wounded men, but Prissy is too frightened to go there because people are dying.
Scarlett sets off for the depot to fetch Dr Meade. The streets are full of wounded soldiers and refugees. An officer tells her that the Confederates are in full retreat and that the Yankees will soon be in Atlanta. Scarlett sees Mrs. Elsing with her black slave, driving her carriage at full speed out of the town.
Scarlett arrives at the depot and is stunned by the sight of hundreds of wounded men. She finds Dr Meade and asks him to come and help Melanie. He is incredulous that she could even ask, and says he cannot leave. He suggests that she ask Mrs. Meade. Scarlett realizes that he does not know that his son has been wounded. She realizes that her quest is hopeless and goes home, reflecting that she has never had to do anything for herself since there had always been friends, neighbors or slaves to look after her.
Scarlett arrives home to a frightened Prissy, who tells her that things are not going well with Melanie. When Scarlett tells her that nobody can come to help and that Prissy will have to manage by herself, Prissy admits that she knows nothing about midwifery. For the first time in her life, Scarlett strikes a slave, slapping Prissy across the cheek. Scarlett realizes that she will have to deliver the baby herself.
As Melanie struggles in labor, Scarlett sends Prissy to fetch Dr or Mrs. Meade once more, but she returns alone with the news that Phil Meade is dead, the doctor is out and Mrs. Meade is frantically trying to bury her son before the Yankees arrive. Melanie, alarmed, tells Scarlett that she must leave and take Wade, but Scarlett will not break her promise to Ashley.
After a long labor, Melanie has her baby and survives the ordeal. Prissy proves worse than useless and Scarlett angrily wonders why the Yankees want to free the slaves. Scarlett is sweaty and exhausted and goes outside to sit on the step. Some Confederate soldiers walk past. One of them tells Scarlett that they are retreating and that the Yankees are coming. Scarlett wonders to whom she can turn for help and thinks of Rhett. She sends Prissy to the Atlanta Hotel, where he is living, to ask him to come and bring a horse and carriage to take them away to Tara.
Analysis of Chapters 20-22
Scarletts promise to look after Melanies baby if Melanie should die in childbirth is the second promise she makes beyond her own self-interest, the first being her promise to Ashley to look after Melanie if he should be killed. Though these promises may seem generous and self-sacrificing to others, in reality, Scarlett only makes them because of her love for Ashley. In her hope that she will win Ashley, even at the expense of Melanies life, Scarlett is still being selfish. However, love for any other person contains a selfless element as it inspires the lover to consider someone elses needs before their own, and in this respect, Scarletts love for Ashley does prompt selfless behavior.
The other element that forces Scarlett into self-sacrificing behavior is the war. Because no doctor or other helper is available, and Prissy has lied about her experience with midwifery, Scarlett is left with no alternative but to perform a small act of heroism in delivering Melanies baby herself. This is the beginning of Scarletts journey towards self-sufficiency, and foreshadows the much more daunting tasks that she will have to perform in the future.
The nature of Scarletts promises to Ashley and Melanie is significant. In promising Ashley to look after Melanie, and in promising Melanie to look after the baby, the assumption is that both are unable to look after themselves. Both represent the Old South, which has been brought to its knees by the victorious Yankee forces. Ashley and Melanies recognition of Scarletts strength relative to their own parallels the Souths recognition that the values that will survive the war are those of the entrepreneurial, opportunistic North. As it turns out, Scarlett will end up looking after the entire Wilkes family, so her burden grows from Melanie, to Melanie and the baby, to Melanie, the baby and Ashley.
Prissys disastrous lying to Scarlett about her experience with midwifery foreshadows a theme that will be developed further: what Mitchell sees as the betrayal by some slaves of their white owners after liberation. Mitchell wrote Gone With the Wind from the same perspective as a Southern slave-owner, and clearly shares Scarletts exasperation with the Norths plan to liberate slaves such as Prissy (“And the Yankees wanted to free the negroes! Well, the Yankees were welcome to them.” – Chapter 22). Mitchells (and Scarletts) stance on slavery and black people is not quite as predictable as may first appear, however, and there are qualifications around her portrayal of the issue, as we shall see in later chapters.