The Burning of Columbia: February 17, 1865
This evening, February 17, marks the sesquicentennial of the fire that destroyed much of Columbia, South Carolina. It was, and remains, a hotly-debated issue as to who was responsible. I haven’t studied this event in detail, but I would like to point to posts by my fellow bloggers that take a closer look at the events in Columbia, and are worth your time.
This post from 2013, by my colleague Al Mackey, examines a variety of contemporary sources and points actions of the Confederate military authorities that contributed heavily to the destruction that followed, including bales of cotton stacked in the streets and set ablaze before Federal soldiers entered the city, and by looters at the railroad depot who set off a huge explosion of powder stored there. Al concludes,
As the best evidence tells us, the destruction of Columbia was a tragic accident. Retreating confederates set cotton on fire, and the burning embers were carried by the wind. Some cotton bales continued to smolder during the day, and the high winds whipped them into a blaze as well that evening, spreading more embers around. Some Union soldiers, drunk on the liquor provided them by well-meaning but mistaken civilians, set fires themselves, but the record shows that more Union soldiers tried to stop the fires but were unable to do so.
As many of you know, over at To the Sound of the Guns, Craig Swain has been sesquiblogging Sherman’s March to the Sea and up into South Carolina. In this post, he begins to lay out the evidence that some of the myths about the burning of Columbia simply aren’t true. Craig’s style is less confrontational than Al’s, but he reaches a similar conclusion about conditions in the city — that long before the first of Sherman’s troops entered the city, the scene there was one of chaos, violence and looting:
Even before the first “bummer” entered, a wave of lawlessness, looting, robbery, vandalism, and destruction was sweeping through the city. That wave may have arrived because the Federals were at the gates, but it was not composed of Federal troops. Lastly, Confederate authorities did little, and could do little, to counter the violence in Columbia. Their focus was withdrawing supplies, materials, and manpower from Columbia, not keeping order in the streets. The citizens of Columbia, while maybe not as a whole at least in part, responded to the Federal arrival by inviting celebration, and to some degree more rioting. Lastly, there is every indication that the Federal commanders attempted to bring the city in order. However, I do think everyone from Sherman down to [U.S. Colonel George] Stone underestimated the amount of lawlessness within Columbia on the 17th. The majority of the troops were posted well outside the city, leaving only one brigade to deal with the problems. And that in some ways enabled the disaster to come.
Craig follows up with an account from Federal troops from Missouri, describing the scene as they entered Columbia on the evening of the 17th:
Many of the men wandered up to Columbia, which place was on fire and burning up house after house; long lines of cotton bales had been strung through the main street, cut open and fired by the Confederates when they left; there were probably several thousand bales thus fired in the middle of the streets. The wind was blowing quite strongly, and great tufts of the blazing cotton were hurled here and there among the wooden buildings. It was at this time that some of our First Missouri Engineers, who had their homes and families despoiled in the region of Rolla, Missouri, gathered in bunches of this burning cotton and flung it down in various houses, as a slight revenge on the Confederates for their cruelty.
As Craig says, “we cannot disconnect the burning of Lawrence, Kansas from that of Columbia, South Carolina.” Reprisal begets reprisal; retaliation begets retaliation. We’ve seen this before.
The over-arching lesson in both Al’s and Craig’s essays is that the events in Columbia are a whole lot more complicated, and responsibility for what happened a whole lot more widespread, than many people choose to believe. But history tends to be like that.
The chaos witnessed in Columbia would be repeated in other southern cities as the Confederacy collapsed, including (on a smaller scale) in Texas, in Hempstead, Galveston, and Houston, among other places. Those events, that I’ll discuss another time, reflected a similar breakdown of law and order, by civilians and soldiers alike. Those events don’t get a lot of attention in the way people remember the war here. No mythology has built up around them, I suspect, because they were entirely indigenous in nature, and Uncle Billy wasn’t around to get blamed for them.