The Crime Wave of 1865 as depicted in Gone with the Wind

Many things in Gone with the Wind (1939) have an overt allusion to the Lost Cause ideology.  Consequently, pinpointing something disconnected from this concept becomes something of a masterful game.  Indeed, Gone with the Wind seems to have borrowed much from the intricate memories of Southern histories written post-American Civil War.  Seeing the war in terms of a ‘War of Northern Aggression’, the movie becomes as one critic put it, “an over inflated example of the usual false movie approach to history.”[1]  However, one scene in particular was not so ‘over inflated’, that being when a band of highwaymen attacks Scarlett O’Hara.  This results in one of the most important scenes in the movie and underscores the significance of the Crime Wave of 1865.

Believing the film to have sensationalized crime incidents following the Civil War is to diminish the real impact of the hole left in law and order following the war, and underplays the role of women in the Crime Wave of 1865.  One observer immediately after the war said, “crimes had changed from fraud to violence”.[2]  Women in particular played an important role in the violence and their populace in the local prisons shot up during and after the conflict.  Historian Lisa Frank writes, “Many Georgia women grew desperate by the war’s midpoint.  This desperation led to the widespread looting of stores and raids on warehouses by groups of destitute women, often driven by hunger.”[3]  O’Hara’s hunger pains come to mind quickly.

The role of women in the Crime Wave of 1865 is correlated to the war itself.  Historian Edith Abbott notes that during the Civil War there were four stages in crime:  a decrease in male prisoners during the war, an increase of female prisoners, an increase of children prisoners, and an increase of male prisoners following the war with the number of female prisoners not having a stark drop off.[4]  Frank points out, “In April 1863, for example, sixty-five women, some armed with pistols and knives, moved down Broad Street in Columbus, looting several stores before police were able to restore order.”[5]  Indeed, O’Hara’s harrowing run in with the highwaymen mirrored the void left in law and order as much in the South as in the North.

Found in: Edith Abbott, “The Civil War and Crime Wave of 1865-1870, Social Service Review 1, no. 2 (June, 1927): 217.

In the North, the Crime Wave of 1865 became so devastating that one Milwaukee newspaper declared, “Milwaukee was swept by a wave of crime in 1865, following the close of the Civil War.  So acute did the situation become that the common council ordered the renting of two additional police station houses for the detention of prisoners.”[6]  Additional police did come, in the form of military tribunals.  Keeping in mind that many of these prisoners in the North following the war were soldiers[7], one organization dedicated to studying this phenomenon noted, “During this turbulent time of reconstruction, swift justice was meted out through the use of military commissions.”[8]  Furthermore, the abolition of the South left a void in crime control as Historian Christopher Adamson notes, “With the abolition of slavery, alternative forms of race control had to be found and race control naturally became a major aim in crime control.”[9]  Focusing attention on these slaves and less on bands of highwaymen, highlight the issues of the Crime Wave of 1865.

The Crime Wave of 1865 was widespread and the attacking marauders in Gone with the Wind would be found as much in the South as in the North.  As a result, the attack on O’Hara seems less fiction and more fact and highlights an important phenomenon occurring after the Civil War.  What seems ridiculous fiction is that Big Sam drives off the attacking men to save O’Hara who just so happens to be in the area with a fondness for his former master.  Do not let this diminish the important statement made by this scene, that the restoration of law and order following the Civil War did not come swiftly or easily.

[1] Lincoln Kirstein, Film Magazine, quoted in Bruce Chadwick, The Reel Civil War: Mythmaking in American Film (New York: Knopf, 2001), 189.

[2] The Executive Committee of the Prison Association of New York, 1865, quoted in  Edith Abbott, “The Civil War and Crime Wave of 1865-1870,” Social Service Review 1, no. 2 (June, 1927): 223.

[3] Lisa Tendrich Frank, “Women During the Civil War,” The New Georgia Encyclopedia, (accessed June 14, 2012).

[4] Edith Abbott, “The Civil War and Crime Wave of 1865-1870,” Social Service Review 1, no. 2 (June, 1927): 215-216.

[5] Lisa Tendrich Frank, “Women During the Civil War,” The New Georgia Encyclopedia, (accessed June 14, 2012).

[6] Edward T. Kaveny, “Crime Wave Here in 1865 Became so Alarming as to Cause Petitions or Additional Police and Jails,”Milwaukee Sentinel, December 27, 1923.

[7] Frank Sanborn, Massachusetts State Board of Charities, 1872, quoted in Edith Abbott, “The Civil War and Crime Wave of 1865-1870,” Social Service Review 1, no. 2 (June, 1927): 215.

[8] Tobin T. Buhk, True Crime in the Civil War: Cases of Murder, Treason, Counterfeiting, Massacre, Plunder, & Abuse (Mechanicsburg, PA.: Stackpole Books, 2012), 221.

[9] Christopher R. Adamson, “Punishment After Slavery: Southern State Penal Systems, 1865-1890,” Social Problems 30, no. 5 (June, 1983): 558.

  1. elewis417 said:

    Did women participate in crime to meet their needs or was it for some vendictive purpose? I believe that any increase in women being caught and prosecuted for their crimes reflects dire straits. I also believe that the increase in women in jail occurred because most men were dead. The data is bias and skewed, therefore insignificant.

  2. drobnicker said:

    It is no wonder crime rose given the termoil that the nation was in after the Civil War.It seems there would not have been a trustworthy law enforcement with vigilantes and the KKK. About this same time western expansionism was develpoping with little law enforcement in those areas as well.That reminds me of the typical western movie where lawlessness was usually the theme. As for the women, not only the crime increased but behavior for survival. Women’s suffrage continued as well as organizations such as the Women’s Christian Temperance movement.Unlike the stereotypical southern bell, (excluding Scarlet), women became stronger sources of banding together, perhaps a little militant for their causes, as some men were trying to figure out their wounded masculinity identification scars left from the war.

  3. So often in history especially prior to the 1900s women are left out and their roles are assumed; they raised the children and kept house. It makes sense that with fewer men many of which died and many others that moved out West that there was a sudden single/widowed population of women who had to adapt to their new environment. This concept of women stealing and looting makes me wonder too, if the rate of prostitution also increased? To me it seems the pair would go hand in hand, just curious…

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