In 1861, on the eve of the American Civil War, Scarlett O’Hara lives at Tara, her family’s cotton plantation in Georgia, with her parents and two sisters and their many slaves. Scarlett learns that Ashley Wilkes, whom she secretly loves, is to be married to his cousin, Melanie Hamilton, and the engagement is to be announced the next day at a barbecue at Ashley’s home, the nearby plantation Twelve Oaks. At the Twelve Oaks party, Scarlett makes an advance on Ashley, but instead catches the attention of another guest, Rhett Butler. The barbecue is disrupted by news of the declaration of war, and the men rush to enlist. In a bid to arouse jealousy in Ashley, Scarlett marries Melanie’s younger brother Charles before he leaves to fight. Following Charles’s death while serving in the Confederate Army, Scarlett’s mother sends her to the Hamilton home in Atlanta, where she creates a scene by attending a charity bazaar in her mourning attire and waltzing with Rhett, now a blockade runner for the Confederacy.
The tide of war turns against the Confederacy after the Battle of Gettysburg, in which many of the men of Scarlett’s town are killed. Eight months later, as the city is besieged by the Union Army in the Atlanta Campaign, Melanie gives birth with Scarlett’s aid, and Rhett helps them flee the city. Once out of the city, Rhett chooses to go off to fight, leaving Scarlett to make her own way back to Tara. Upon her return home, Scarlett finds Tara deserted, except for her father, her sisters, and two former slaves: Mammy and Pork. Scarlett learns that her mother has just died of typhoid fever and her father has become senile. With Tara pillaged by Union troops and the fields untended, Scarlett vows she will do anything for the survival of her family and herself.
As the O’Haras work in the cotton fields, Scarlett’s father attempts to chase away a scalawag from his land, but is thrown from his horse and killed. With the defeat of the Confederacy, Ashley also returns, but finds he is of little help at Tara. When Scarlett begs him to run away with her, he confesses his desire for her and kisses her passionately, but says he cannot leave Melanie. Unable to pay the Reconstructionist taxes imposed on Tara, Scarlett dupes her younger sister Suellen’s fiancé, the middle-aged and wealthy general store owner Frank Kennedy, into marrying her, by saying Suellen got tired of waiting and married another suitor. Frank, Ashley, Rhett and several other accomplices make a night raid on a shanty town after Scarlett is attacked while driving through it alone, resulting in Frank’s death. With Frank’s funeral barely over, Rhett proposes to Scarlett and she accepts.
Rhett and Scarlett have a daughter whom Rhett names Bonnie Blue, but Scarlett, still pining for Ashley and chagrined at the perceived ruin of her figure, lets Rhett know that she wants no more children and that they will no longer share a bed. One day at Frank’s mill, Scarlett and Ashley are seen embracing by Ashley’s sister, India, and harboring an intense dislike of Scarlett she eagerly spreads rumors. Later that evening, Rhett, having heard the rumors, forces Scarlett to attend a birthday party for Ashley. Incapable of believing anything bad of her, Melanie stands by Scarlett’s side so that all know that she believes the gossip to be false. After returning home from the party, Scarlett finds Rhett downstairs drunk, and they argue about Ashley. Rhett kisses Scarlett against her will, stating his intent to have sex with her that night, and carries the struggling Scarlett to the bedroom.
The next day, Rhett apologizes for his behavior and offers Scarlett a divorce, which she rejects, saying that it would be a disgrace. When Rhett returns from an extended trip to London, Scarlett informs him that she is pregnant, but an argument ensues which results in her falling down a flight of stairs and suffering a miscarriage. As she is recovering, tragedy strikes when Bonnie dies while attempting to jump a fence with her pony. Scarlett and Rhett visit Melanie, who has suffered complications arising from a new pregnancy, on her deathbed. As Scarlett consoles Ashley, Rhett prepares to leave Atlanta. Having realized that it was him she truly loved all along, and not Ashley, Scarlett pleads with Rhett to stay, but Rhett rebuffs her and walks away into the morning fog, leaving her in tears on the staircase. A distraught Scarlett resolves to return home to Tara, believing that one day she will get Rhett back.