Discussed at some length in the novel, Sherman campaign to take Atlanta was very real. The battles at New Hope Church and Kennesaw Mountain brought Union forces closer and closer to Atlanta. Wounded soldiers pored into an already overcrowded town. Medical supplies were gone, leaving doctors with very few methods of treating the injured. The scene in the movie where Scarlett is standing in the middle of town surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of sick and dying soldiers is an accurate representation of the number of casualties flooding Atlanta. The railroad station in Atlanta was Sherman’s main target. Destroying the depot would cut the supply lines to the Confederate Army; destroying the factories would decimate the manufacturing capabilities of the Confederacy.
Julia Fisher, a Native of Northern Georgia explains the situation in some detail. Situated in the Deep South, Georgia was unscathed by the fighting until Sherman’s campaign in May of 1864. Supplies were definitely scarce, but the safety of the state as a whole and of Atlanta had never been a concern. After two months of intense fighting, Atlanta fell. The depot and the warehouses were burned. Homes were pillaged and anything of value walked out of Atlanta on the backs of the men who conquered it.
The evacuation of Atlanta was swift and furious, leaving the city of ten thousand virtually uninhabited, save a few stubborn souls who refused to leave their homes and the soldiers too ill to move. Scarlett, never stubborn in the face of mortal danger, fled south with her sister-in-law, Melanie Wilkes, wife to Scarlett’s only love, Ashley. After a twenty mile journey from Atlanta to Tara, Scarlett finds her mother dead from typhoid, her sisters gravely ill. The Union army had burned the crops and the neighboring plantation houses. Scarlett’s home, Tara, had been used as a headquarters for the soldiers and was spared. The candles and livestock had been taken, leaving the O’Hara family with very little except what they had been able to hide before the army came. Only three of the former slaves remained. Leaving Scarlett, three sick women and three slaves to manage a plantation previously worked by over one hundred men. Mrs. Mary Bethel, a Virginian, writes of her slaves leaving in droves as well. Only four of her household slaves remained with her in December of 1865
Two weeks later a Yankee deserter wanders into the house looking for things to steal. When he notices and approaches Scarlett she shoots him to protect herself and her family. She and Melanie go through his things, finding stolen treasures and money. Scarlett buries him in the yard, knowing she will be in a great deal of trouble if it is ever discovered that she murdered an officer.
That there were deserters from the army is of little doubt. By some statistics, as many as 12% of the Confederate army deserted by the end of 1864 - at least 104,000 men. The Union army lost roughly 200,000 men, accounting for over 9% of their total fighting force. The deserters wandered aimlessly, taking what they found. Women were raped, heirlooms stolen, food destroyed and taken. That Scarlett would meet one of these 300,000 deserters is not unlikely. That he could be killed and not missed by his commanding officer is equally plausible.
A few weeks later, the Union army returns to Atlanta, traveling the same path it had before. According to accounts of Sherman’s troop movements, this is untrue. After his march to the sea, Sherman moved north up the coastline through Columbia and Charleston, South Carolina. It is hard to imagine that the very same troops who burned and looted Tara in the summer would return in the fall, especially given that those troops would have been on the way to the Carolinas. Other troops may have traveled the route Sherman took while on missions to other areas.
With the end of the war the following April, Scarlett visits her neighbors to find them in no better shape than she does. A few weeks later, a neighbor comes by to tell the girls at Tara of her wedding. She is marrying the overseer of her father’s plantation, a union that the young woman would never have considered before the war. Marrying beneath themselves came to be the plight of Southern women left widowed or unmarried by the war. With over 620,000 Confederate soldiers dead, the pool of marriageable men was very short, causing women to turn to men who would have previously been socially unacceptable. Scarlett’s sister Suellen marries a "Cracker," an uneducated small-time farmer when Scarlett marries Suellen’s fiancée to pay the taxes on Tara.