Why would the Union forces burn down the plantations in "Gone with the Wind"?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Margaret Mitchell's work displays the rather horrific effects of total war, the policy advocated by Grant and Sherman towards the South in the closing stages of the Civil War.  This involved showing little mercy to the enemy and sought to make a statement about the South's desire to secede in the first place.  Sherman understood it as involving a "scorched earth" policy where all of the South would burn.  This included plantations as well as the city of Atlanta.  The burning down of the plantations was a symbolic act, and Mitchell does not miss a chance to depict it as such.  The burning of the plantations represented the ultimate blow to Southern pride, and also helped to reduce the South to a position where unconditional surrender was the only option.  Mitchell's work shows the Union forces burning down the plantations to reflect a "death" of the Southern way of life.  The condition that Scarlett used to live in and used to believe in is now literally in flames, causing her to redefine herself just as the South was forced to redefine itself.  This Union forces burning down plantations in the South was an integral part of this redefinition.