Pulitzer Prize-winning author Margaret Mitchell flatly denied that Rhett Butler, the dashing adventurer in her blockbuster novel Gone with the Wind, was based on her ex-husband. Worried about the potential of being sued for libel, she had gone through her entire manuscript changing names and later insisted that her story was pure fiction and that none of her characters were real people.
But Columbia historian and underwater archaeologist Dr. Edward Lee Spence says he disagrees and can prove it. After extensive research that included shipwreck salvage, Lee revealed that Rhett Butler’s character was a highly romanticized portrait of distinguished South Carolina patriot George Alfred Trenholm (1807-1876), who was Treasurer of the Confederacy and a profiteer. Lee’s findings were reinforced by conversations with Charleston educator Dr. Robert R. Nielsen and Atlanta historian Dr. Franklin M. Garrett. The literary discovery quickly became international news.
The evidence is presented in 21 pages of Lee’s book, Treasures of the Confederate Coast: The Real Rhett Butler & Other Revelations. To begin with, Trenholm and Rhett Butler were intrepid, tall and handsome men, both Charleston-born. They were considered two of the richest men in the South and amassed fortunes during the Civil War through blockade running – the risky business of transporting munitions, medicines and merchandise through the Federal blockade in fast cargo ships. Lee says both men had brilliant minds and similar political views. At the war’s end, both were accused of making off with the Confederacy’s missing gold and were jailed for a short period.
They received pardons through similar circumstances. Personal tragedy touched both of their lives by the loss of a child. Lee also thinks it is highly likely that Margaret Mitchell read Mary Boykin Chestnut’s 1905 book, A Dairy From Dixie, which mentions afternoon tea with the Trenholms and Edmond Rhett. A Life magazine editor scrutinized the entirety of Spence’s data and decided it was “overwhelming evidence.” As it turns out, even Margaret Mitchell’s descendants believe it is true. Lee is working on a book to tell the full story.
Diving into History
Every young man dreams of adventure, pirates and buried treasure. The romance of history has had an equally strong pull on Lee, beginning when he was a boy living in France. At 12 years old, he aspired to become an underwater archeologist after reading La Monde du Silence (The Silent World) by oceanographer Jacques-Yves Cousteau. Lee studied shipwrecks at the American school library and was particularly fascinated by the S.S. Georgiana, a powerful Confederate cruiser. Shrouded in a cloak of mystery and intrigue, the ship was lost off the Isle of Palms on its maiden voyage in 1863.
When young Lee’s family relocated to Charleston, he literally searched high and low for the Georgiana. He examined coastal areas from the air under the ploy of being a student pilot. Lee remembers, “Many hours were spent flying nauseatingly tight circles over the shallow waters off the Isle of Palms.” Then, in a single day in 1966, he located the wrecks of the S.S. Norseman, the S.W. Constance Decimer and the S.S. Georgiana, with the remains of the S.W. Mary Bowers resting on top.
Fraser & Company of Charleston owned the Georgiana’s contraband cargo. George Trenholm ran the shipping business and named the steamer after his deceased child. Lee reports that, at the time of loss, the worth of the combined cargoes of the stacked ships was over $1 million. In 1967, the first South Carolina salvage license for shipwrecks was granted to Lee’s company, Shipwrecks Inc. (Underwater Antiquities Act).
The artifacts Lee recovered included everything from medicines to cannons. But he was most intrigued by the boxes of buttons and brass-sewing pins found near the forward cargo hatch. Buttons and pins were scarce during the Civil War, and Lee says, “The pins would have been hoarded like precious jewels.”
Rhett Butler smuggled sewing pins through the blockade in Gone with the Wind. Lee says he treasures the Georgiana’s cache of sewing pins more than portholes or brass valves because they once belonged to the real Rhett Butler.
Dr. Spence keeps notebooks cataloging the details and locations of his discoveries.
Lee also dreamed of finding the H.L. Hunley, the first submarine in the world to sink a ship. He writes that in 1970 he located the wreck by chance during a recreational fishing trip. When diving to locate a fishing trap, he found it snagged to a crusted iron ledge, which he says he immediately recognized as the Hunley. “It was the research I had done that made me recognize it.” Serendipity was at play, but Lee was uniquely prepared to seize the moment.
To prove his claim in the days before GPS, Lee plotted the location using only a handheld compass and a sextant. His map to the wreck’s location appears in his book and has been a matter of public record since 1978 when the Hunley was officially placed on the National Register of Historic Places based on his discovery. His mapped location was within the length of the salvage barge later used to raise the wreck.
A well-known adventure fiction writer also claimed its discovery and many people have given him the credit. But he never actually dove on the Hunley, and his dive team didn’t even visit the site until after Lee’s map had been published. Lee offers a large collection of evidence to validate his claim including a Civil Admiralty Case filed on July 8, 1980 in Federal District Court. In 1995, Lee donated his rights to the submarine to the state of South Carolina at the Hunley Commission’s request. Today the sub’s value is estimated at over $40 million.
In his book, Lee shares insight on the poignant story of the Hunley. In the twilight hours of February 16, 1864, Lt. George Dixon and his eight-man crew deployed the sub, referred to as “the iron coffin.” Their mission was to sink the sloop-of-war USS Housatonic in the Charleston Harbor to break the Naval blockade. Shipping magnate George Trenholm had a vested interest in the new “secret weapon” since he helped finance the mission. While the mission was a success and the Housatonic destroyed, so was the Hunley. Opening a window to the past, Lee weaves a compelling and plausible narrative in his book of how events might have unfolded that night. He theorizes about the crew’s final moments in the sub before it sank to its cold watery grave.
Lee Spence’s archeological investigation of salvaged shipwrecks offers information about the historic past, including engineering methods and events. Many shipwrecks serve as time capsules, preserving priceless artifacts that humanize tragedy and help bring lost crews and passengers back to life. As a pioneer in underwater archaeology, Lee’s intellectual curiosity, archival research and professional work ethic are attributes he has drawn upon to discover and document hundreds of shipwrecks, many of great significance. Author of numerous books, he has been the focus of countless periodicals, including The New York Times and People magazine. His work has been praised by many, including Captain Jacque Cousteau and editors of National Geographic Magazine. Lee is President of Sea Research Society, a non-profit organization to promote scientific and educational endeavors in any of the marine sciences or marine histories.
Mustard, Murder & Mayhem!
Like any respectable book or real-life hero, Lee isn’t afraid to take a gamble, whether diving into the ocean for treasure or into provisions liberally doused with fiery hot sauce. In addition to salvage operations, Lee produces and sells a trio of spicy-hot condiments though Shipwrecks, Inc., in partnership with his wife Lauren and mother-in-law Loretta McEntire. The packaging for Murder Mustard™, Honey Fire Mustard™ and Musket VHP Sauce™ is embellished with entertaining tongue-in-cheek quotes and action shots of Lee. A jar of Murder Mustard reads, “Captain Trenholm™ says, Just a taste can cure any dog of begging!” Honey Fire Mustard boasts, “Captain Trenholm says, It’s like the perfect lady, sweet as honey, but hot as fire!” And a bottle of Musket Sauce warns, “Ersatz Warning: This has real vodka! So, don’t shoot your mouth off!”
Scarlett O’Hara would probably say, “Great balls of fire!”
The Hunley was raised on August 7, 2000 and secured at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center in Charleston. It was conserved and explored, and the crew was removed the following year and interred with full military honors at Charleston’s Magnolia Cemetery. For more information on the H.L. Hunley and other ships mentioned in this story, visit www.searesearchsociety.com.
For more information on the condiments, visit www.facebook.com/pages/Murder-Mustard/64823083281.