EDITOR’S NOTE: The Georgetown Times features the “Museum Around the Corner” series each Wednesday.
When Margaret Mitchell was contemplating the characters for her new novel, Gone With The Wind, one character stands out in memory by almost everyone. Rhett Butler, the handsome, dashing, suave Southern gentleman, may have been based of George Alfred Trenholm. When biographer Darden Asbury Pyron wrote the life story about the renowned author of Gone With the Wind (Southern Daughter: The Life of Margaret Mitchell) he discovered close ties between real people and the characters in her 1936 epic. It’s believed that Mitchell’s characters were based on members and friends of her extended family and incidents in their lives, although she never admitted it for fear of being sued. One of her major characters—Capt. Rhett Butler—could have been George Alfred Trenholm, a handsome, rugged Charleston entrepreneur and backer of blockade runners.
Trenholm’s life is chronicled in Ethel Nepveux’s book, George Alfred Trenholm and the Company That Went to War, 1861-1865. Mrs. Nepveux, a Charleston historian and Trenholm’s great granddaughter says, “There were numerous resemblances between my great grandfather and Rhett Butler. I read and reread Gone With the Wind and Butler’s comments about blockade runners were exactly like those of George Alfred Trenholm. Mitchell must have researched my great grandfather’s career and used his background and personality to help shape Butler’s character.”
George A. Trenholm was the owner of Annandale Plantation in Georgetown, which brings us to his Georgetown connection. Not only that, Ethel Nepveux, his great granddaughter, grew up on Prince Street. Her father, Alfred George Trenholm, was a photographer around the turn of the 20th century and is the source of the Morgan-Trenholm collection at the Georgetown Digital Library.
The life of George A. Trenholm is filled with excitement and danger. Born in Charleston in 1807, he became a successful businessman in the firm of John Fraser and Company. They had offices in Charleston, New York and Liverpool, England. While he became wealthy before the War Between the States, his wealth increased as his 60 commercial ships ran the Union blockade. The ships carried cotton, tobacco and turpentine to England, and brought back coal, iron, salt, guns and ammunition. Estimates by March 1863, showed that Trenholm’s company had made $9,000,000 by blockade running. His company — now called Fraser, Trenholm and Company — became the Confederate government’s overseas banker. The office in Liverpool arranged cotton sales and financed its own fleet. The U.S. consul in Liverpool, Thomas Dudley, estimated Trenholm’s fleet imported $4.5 million of cotton into Great Britain.
In 1863, Trenholm purchased Annandale from Andrew Johnstone, who moved to Flatrock, NC and is the subject of a previous story in this column describing his murder there. Trenholm deeded the Annandale and Beneventum plantations to William Miles Hazzard, his son-in-law, shortly after the war’s end, trying to protect them from potential confiscation by the United States government. Trenholm had six rice plantations to manage in Georgetown County, South Carolina alone, having bought many in 1863 before assuming his public role.
He was formally appointed Secretary of the Treasury of the Confederate States of America on July 18, 1864. During the war’s final days, Trenholm arranged for the Confederate treasury, archives, and bullion owned by it and Richmond banks, to be transported from the imperiled capital into North Carolina by train. The bullion and specie was later estimated to be worth between a quarter to a half million dollars. The last published account of it reported $86,000 in specie hidden in the false bottom of a carriage and entrusted to James A. Semple, a Naval paymaster and son-in-law of ex-President John Tyler. He was supposed to take it to Liverpool to pay Confederate accounts. What happened to the money that left Richmond in various forms cannot be accounted for and legends of buried treasure abound.
Some clues that attached Rhett Butler to George A. Trenholm are presented in a book by Dr. Edward Lee Spence, 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 is a short period. Another “coincidence” is found in the 1962 discovery of a blockade runner known as the Georgiana. Rhett Butler’s runner was called the Georgia. Dr. Spence found the wreckage just off Isle of Palms, and the cargo matches items spoken by Rhett Butler in the movie. It seems that sewing pins and buttons were sorely missed during the War, and boxes of those two items were found in the wreckage of the Georgiana.
George Alfred Trenholm died in Charleston on December 9, 1876, and was buried in Magnolia Cemetery.
The Georgetown County Museum is closed during this pandemic and we need your support more than ever. We are solely supported by memberships, sales in the Rice Truck Gift Shop, donations and fundraisers. By becoming a member, you will help maintain the Museum and support the continuation of these articles. Call us to have a membership form mailed to you, or go to our website to join or donate online. (www.georgetowncountymuseum.com).