Rhett Butler and Jamie Westendorf

Rhett Butler’s aloofness and braggadocio in David O. Selznick’s Gone With the Wind could not be portrayed better than Clark Gable does it. He is one of the few characters whose reason is not lost to emotion during the drumbeat leading to secession. Butler is the only character who is real with himself and his fellow Georgians about the South’s prospects for victory in war with the North. A cultural exile from Charleston, South Carolina, Butler seems to be a man of mystery to Wilkes’ and their guests. While he is important as the one who lays the foundation of the Lost Cause in the film, detailing the industrial and demographic advantages of the Union, he is the only important character who does not believe wholeheartedly from the outset in the Cause. Instead, Butler claims that he only follows one cause, and that is profit. The man spends the beginning of the war as a blockade runner, making a fortune for himself that he kept in London.

A fellow “blockade runner” comes alive in Chapter Three of Tony Horwitz’s book Confederates in the Attic. Jamie Westendorf is a real-life character, a native Charlestonian, and, according to Horwitz, “even by Charleston standards… a bonafide eccentric.”[1] Reaffirming Butler’s motives from Gone With the Wind, Westendorf claimed that “those captains did it for the Cause, and that cause was money.”[2] Westendorf had a ship as well, named after an ancestor’s blockade runner based in Charleston. He seemed to exhibit the same free spirit and clear-eyed outlook on the Civil War as Rhett Butler. A plumber, chef, and amateur treasure hunter, Westendorf acknowledged that blockade running seldom turned out well, often resulting in “prison[,] downward mobility [and] an early grave.”[3]

After making his fortune smuggling goods in and out of the South, and after narrowly escaping the carnage of fallen Atlanta, Butler inexplicably leaves to join the Confederate Army. Though his initial predictions about the futility of the war seemed to be proving accurate, he goes to fight for the Cause that already seems lost. Jamie Westendorf seems like the type of contrarian who may have denied the power of the Cause, but would support it to spite his enemies.

[1]Tony Horwitz, Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War (New York: Pantheon, 1998), 58.

[2]Horwitz, 58.

[3] Horwitz, 59-62.

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4 comments
  1. 10ectim said:

    I have only read a few chapters of “Confederates in the Attic” and so far I have been outraged. The book is extremely insulting to me as a southerner. I grew up in the South and have never come into contact with the kind of nuts the author seems to find everywhere he goes. Maybe he’ll change my mind as I continue reading.

  2. Amanda Hlavacek said:

    I also looked at the issue of blockade runners and found it fascinating. The men who smuggled the goods (luxury items, medical supplies, arms and ammunition, etc) all felt that they were contributing something to the Cause. I don’t know why Rhett felt he had to go and fight, but maybe he recognized that the Confederacy was faltering and maybe there would be something he could do to help.

  3. bktitus17 said:

    Would you say that Rhett Butler solely joined for the “lost cause?” I feel like in the film, especially when he tells Scarlett that he is joining the fight, it is because of all the death and destruction around him of his fellow comrades and cities.  Maybe the “lost cause” needs to be defined a little more.  Does it mean the struggle of the Confederacy to long live after the war is over or a personal euphemism used to convince oneself of a stupid action?

  4. magaliq said:

    It could be Rhett Butler realized that there actually was something worth fighting for. For the southerners, they believed enough in their cause to fight for it, right or wrong. We have many soldiers of our own fighting for some unseen cause.

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