By May 1864, General Sherman's Yankee army is in Georgia and only a hundred miles from Atlanta. Atlanta is vital to the Confederate cause because it manufactures most of the weapons and ammunition for the army and most of the cotton and wool goods, and because it is at the center of a railroad hub.
Rhett returns from one of his trips and calls at Aunt Pittypat's house. Since he intervened in getting news of Ashley for Melanie, Melanie has taken him under her protection and has announced publicly that he will always be welcome in her home, no matter what others may say.
Aunt Pittypat and her guests enjoy a feast of her last rooster and some bonbons brought by Rhett. The talk turns to the war. Dr Meade states that Atlanta has nothing to fear, for General Johnston's army is "standing in the mountains like an iron rampart" and will push the Yankees back into Tennessee without much trouble. Rhett points out that General Sherman, leader of the Yankees, has over a hundred thousand men, but General Johnston has only forty thousand, including former deserters. Mrs. Meade indignantly says that there are no deserters in the Confederate army. This, of course, is untrue, as there are those deserters who do not wish to go back into the army and those who do not intend to desert permanently but who have temporarily returned home to plough the land and ensure that their families do not starve. Dr Meade insists that numerical differences between the armies are unimportant as "One Confederate is worth a dozen Yankees." Rhett questions whether this is still true, as the Confederate army is short of ammunition, clothes and food.
Wounded soldiers and refugees fleeing the Yankee advance pour into Atlanta. Everyone in Atlanta keeps faith in the invincibility of the Confederate army, but General Johnston badly needs more men and Governor Brown of Georgia refuses to send the state militia.
One day, Scarlett, sick of her nursing duties, escapes from the hospital and meets Rhett driving his carriage. She is impressed by how well dressed he is, while everyone else is dressed in rags. She asks him to drive her anywhere at all. Rhett teases her about her hypocrisy and lack of commitment to the Cause. He reports rumors that the militia and Home Guards are to be sent to reinforce General Johnston.
Rhett and Scarlett meet a group of black slaves marching along the road. They include Big Sam, the foreman at Tara. Big Sam tells Scarlett that all the strongest slaves have been commandeered to dig trenches for the Confederate troops to fight the Yankees. General Randall, who is leading the group of slaves, points out that without these trenches, another retreat by the Confederates could bring the fighting into Atlanta.
Rhett drives on and bets Scarlett a box of bonbons against a kiss that the Yankees will be in Atlanta within a month. She says she would "just as soon kiss a pig," but Rhett predicts, "Some day, I will kiss you and you will like it." He tells her that he has never followed up on the kiss on the cheek he gave her on the day he bought her the bonnet because he is waiting for her to grow up and forget Ashley. She is so angry that she demands to get down from the carriage and flounces off.
The fighting is so close to Atlanta that the sounds of battle can be heard. The state militia and Home Guard (consisting of old men and young boys) are sent to help General Johnston defend the town. Uncle Henry Hamilton, Grandpa Merriwether, and Ashley's father, John Wilkes, are among the old men who go off to fight, and Dr Meade's son, Phil, is among the boys. Gerald cannot go, as he has a stiff knee and is considered unfit for service.
The Yankee forces outnumber the Confederates and a steady stream of wounded men pour into Atlanta. Aunt Pittypat's house, as one of the first houses along the route, becomes a makeshift hospital, with Pittypat, Melanie, Scarlett and Prissy nursing the wounded.
Soon, Atlanta is under siege and Yankee shells kill people in their homes and rip roofs off buildings. The Yankees now control the railroad from Atlanta to Tennessee. Only one railroad, to Macon and Jonesboro, five miles from Tara, is still open. The exodus of women, children and old people to Macon begins. Aunt Pittypat goes to Macon with Uncle Peter and Cookie, but Melanie's pregnancy is too advanced for her to leave. Melanie begs Scarlett to stay with her, reminding her of her promise to Ashley to look after her. Scarlett agrees because she cannot bear to go back on her promise to Ashley. She wants to go home to Tara, and suggests that Melanie accompany her. But Dr Meade, worried that Melanie's slight frame is unfitted for childbirth, will not allow her to be moved.
Scarlett, Melanie, Prissy and Wade are left in Atlanta. As shells fall on the town, Scarlett and Melanie are terrified. Melanie has been told not to walk and is confined to her bed, and Scarlett has to stay with her. Scarlett worries about how they can fetch a doctor if Melanie goes into labor when shells are falling, but Prissy tells her not to worry, as she knows all about midwifery. Wade's constant fear irritates Scarlett, but she cannot send him home to Tara because the Yankees could capture the train.
One night, Uncle Henry Hamilton calls and tells Scarlett that John Wilkes has been killed. He feels unable to tell Melanie and asks Scarlett to do it.
Scarlett receives a letter from Gerald saying that Carreen has typhoid and that Scarlett must not come home because of the risk of infection. That night, Scarlett sits on the front porch and thinks of the dead Tarleton brothers. She knows that life will never be the same again. As she thinks of the missing Ashley, she bursts into tears.
Rhett arrives. He is curious to know why Scarlett should stay in town to look after a woman she cannot stand, but soon realizes that she is staying because of loyalty to Ashley. As Rhett expresses his delight at finding Scarlett alone, Scarlett eagerly anticipates a declaration of love. She wants to use it to torment him and get even with him for years of sarcastic remarks. However, as he kisses her palm, she is surprised by the "treacherous warm tide of feeling" that passes through her. He asks her if she could love him; she replies, only if he mended his ways. He says he has no intention of mending them. He adds that it is fortunate that she does not love him, because he does not love her, though he does like her, "for the elasticity of your conscience, for the selfishness which you seldom trouble to hide, and for the shrewd practicality in you which, I fear, you get from some not too remote Irish-peasant ancestor," and that he has the same qualities. He says, "I have wanted you since the first time I laid eyes on you." and that he has waited longer for her than for any other woman. Scarlett, confused, asks if he is asking her to marry him, but he tells her again that he is not a marrying man. He wants her to be his mistress. Her vanity punctured, Scarlett furiously asks, "What would I get out of that except a passel of brats?" Rhett laughs at her practical nature. She orders him to leave and storms upstairs.
Analysis of Chapters 17-19
These chapters build suspense by describing how the Yankee army is getting closer to Atlanta. Scarlett, for whom the war was once just a boring topic of discussion in genteel drawing rooms, finds herself increasingly caught up in the unpleasant reality of the fighting. Many of her former admirers are dead or among the wounded who are pouring into the town, her elderly friends and relatives have gone off to fight, and she realizes that life in the South will never be the same again.
The horror stories that circulate among the characters in this novel accusing the Yankee forces of burning towns and raping and dismembering civilians, arise from the policy of General Ulysses S. Grant, commander of the Union (Yankee) forces. Grant sent General William Sherman to Georgia and the Carolinas in 1864 to bring down this last Confederate stronghold. Sherman felt it was his duty not only to defeat the Confederate army but also to destroy the South beyond any hope of economic recovery. His forces burned crops, plantations and houses, confiscated food and livestock, and destroyed transport systems. Sherman succeeded in his aim, conquering Atlanta and delivering the deathblow to the South.
As the war intensifies, so does the relationship between Rhett and Scarlett. As Rhett points out, they are alike in their lack of patriotic feeling, their practicality, their fundamental selfishness and their "elasticity of conscience." But only Rhett is honest enough to admit to such qualities. When he draws Scarlett's attention to the same qualities within her, her response is invariably fury. She is angry too when he points out that Ashley and Scarlett's actions in carrying on their suppressed love affair have been dishonorable and unfair to Melanie. Rhett delights in those rare instances when Scarlett tells the truth in spite of herself, as when she dismisses his proposal that she should become his mistress on the grounds that she would get nothing out of the arrangement but "a passel of brats." But Ellen's teachings of ladylike behavior quickly regain supremacy and she pretends to feel insulted, when, in fact, she only feels punctured vanity as a result of Rhett's failure to propose marriage. In fact, Scarlett's fury at Rhett springs from his ability to see through her pretenses to her real motives. This means that she cannot control and bully him, as she does other men.
Scarlett's response to Rhett is reflected in Southern society's response to him. People feel upset when he voices unwelcome truths, such as pointing out how undermanned the Confederate army is compared with the Yankee army, and correcting Mrs. Meade's absurd claim that there are no deserters on the Confederate side. Refusing to look within and see the sense in what he says, both Scarlett and the wider society find it more convenient to maintain their pretense of virtue and invincibility - and to label Rhett a scoundrel.