Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

The Burning of Columbia: February 17, 1865

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on February 17, 2015


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.



11 Responses

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  1. OhioGuy said, on February 17, 2015 at 11:54 pm

    Several entries in my ancestors’ regimental history relate to men of the 78th OVI as well as other union soliders trying to stop the fires and rescue civilians from the blaze. I will try to post these here in the next day or two.

  2. Paul Ferrill said, on February 18, 2015 at 7:03 am

    You might want to check out A City Laid Waste by William Gilmore Simms. He was a resident of the city and has many eye witness accounts. Also

    • Andy Hall said, on February 18, 2015 at 7:39 am

      I will. However, I’m sure you noticed that Craig’s first post draws heavily on Simms’ account. It’s all part of the big picture.

  3. Jarret Ruminski said, on February 18, 2015 at 2:08 pm

    Reminds me of an old graduate school adage: had Sherman burned as much of Georgia and South Carolina as did retreating Confederates, he would have caused some real damage. There’s some truth to that 😉

    • OhioGuy said, on February 21, 2015 at 10:19 am

      Modern scholarship by historians such as Lee Kennett and Mark Grimsley has documented that in Georgia the destruction was pretty measured and was confined in large part to those things that could aid the Confederate military — railroads, public buildings, crops, etc. Yes, Wheeler’s Confederate cavalry may indeed have done more damage than Sherman in Georgia. Private residences were by and large not touched by Sherman’s army. I have personally driven the route of the 17th Corps on the March to the Sea and can attest to the large number of extant antebellum homes in the region. These same scholars paint a different picture, however, in South Carolina — the Mother of Secession. Here military discipline did breakdown in several instances and there were numerous acts of wanton destruction. Interestingly, as noted in the 78th Ohio regimental history, discipline was restored as soon as the North Carolina border was reached.

      Here’s a link to a talk given by Professor Grimsley at General Charles H. Grosvenor Civil War Round Table meeting in Athens, Ohio, about 18 months ago that’s germane to this topic:

  4. Foxessa said, on February 18, 2015 at 2:37 pm

    Well, Simms was in Columbia presumably because Charleston had been occupied by the Union — and also was fired by retreating secessionists. His house, with his enormous library of Revolutionary War documents was among the casualties. He was a staunch secessionist and supporter of slavery. His success as a novelist had allowed him to join the ranks of South Carolina’s Planter Class, i.e. those who made secession and the war in the first place. One hardly thinks he has presented an entirely factual and unbiased report in his articles.

    On the other hand, South Carolina was heart and soul of the secession and war. South Carolina had been supporting the shooting and killing mess in Missouri and Kansas since the 1850’s with arms, money and men. The Union forces were aware of this. (Just as they were aware of the role of Jeff Davis’s state in making the war.) Whether or not the retreating secessionists fired either Charleston or Columbia initially, the Union army wasn’t going to risk a whole lot putting out the fires.

    Among the things I’ve learned in my history scholarship is the number one thing one does in terms of propaganda to get and keep your own people fighting the enemy, is to drumbeat the enemy throwing babies on swords, killing pregnant women, mistreating women giving birth and raping all the rest. It doesn’t matter what era of history, or what part of the globe. More than not, these reports are, if not entirely false, highly exaggerated. I call it the Baby on the Hun Sword device. Whole populations of babies were wiped out by the Germans’ swords before the U.S. people were convinced the U.S. should get involved.

  5. Neon Confederate said, on February 19, 2015 at 4:11 pm

    Another mans suffering is always amusing to someone. It certainly was to Sherman. When you have a war and occupation combined wooden buildings it is rather pointless to argue a fire was arson, or just plain a fire. The tete de tete between Flaggers and the”All Rebels were traitors that supported slavery haters” is interesting
    To Quote Samuel Johnson on the Irish they are very truthful people they never speak well of one another.

  6. OhioGuy said, on February 21, 2015 at 9:45 am

    Ok, here as promised, are a few excerpts from the regimental history of the 78th Ohio Veteran Volunteer Infantry relating to the burning of Columbia. The full history can be accessed here: I’m going to divide this into several posts. This first one deals with the route to Columbia after having left Orangeburg:

    “All unoccupied buildings were burnt; many fine mansions, the abodes of wealth, grandeur and happiness, were deserted by their occupants, and stood lonely, inviting the hand of some plundering soldier to apply the torch. On the 16th the Corps encamped on the bank of the Congaree, opposite Columbia, which gave rise to heavy skirmishing. They left all their heavy works on this side of the river. The city presented a beautiful appearance. The next day the rebels evacuated the place, having burned all the bridges. That afternoon and night the Fifteenth and Seventeenth Corps crossed and occupied the city. There was concentrated much of the wealth of the State; the stores and much of the costly furniture of Charleston were brought here for security. The people conducted themselves with becoming demeanor, and treated the soldiers with much courtesy and respect; but very imprudently, yet meant in kindness, set out their wines and liquors to them.”

  7. OhioGuy said, on February 21, 2015 at 9:48 am

    This next excerpt deals with conjecture and observations related to how the fire might have started:

    “The citizens little thought their beautiful city would next morning be a mass of smoking ruins. There were many things conspiring for the destruction of the city. In the afternoon a furious storm of wind arose and blew continuously with the violence of a hurricane till late at night. All the encampments caught fire and drove the men from the woods. The rebels put fire to cotton and to their commissary, which soon communicated the flames to adjacent buildings. Soon others were set on fire, the wind carrying the flames with unconquerable rapidity. Escaped prisoners and drunken soldiers soon began to apply the torch all over the city, and by midnight it was an ocean of flames. Six regiments were quickly sent to aid the citizens and guard every house, and soldiers from all regiments worked faithfully in rescuing people from burning houses and carrying the sick to safe places.”

  8. OhioGuy said, on February 21, 2015 at 9:52 am

    This excerpt deals with observations of heroism during the blaze as well as feelings in the aftermath of the destruction:

    “One of the Seventy-Eighth entered a burning building, and carried in his arms a considerable distance a woman, and with her a child three days old. Many such incidents occurred. One poor mother, in her confusion and terror, forgot her children, who were asleep up stairs. The fire spread so rapidly that almost immediately all entrance was cut off. The frantic mother called to her children from the street, and the screams of the children and calls to mother could be distinctly heard. In a few minutes the flames, in their mad rage, seemed to draw the building from its foundation, and it was consumed with almost the rapidity of an explosion; here and there could be seen persons jumping from the second stories. The faithfulness of the guard saved many from perishing. We have heard of the sacking and burning of cities, but to be a spectator to it beggars all description. It is grand, sublime and terrible. The next morning when riding through the ruins of the city, all was quiet and still as death; broken furniture and charred fragments covered the streets, and burnt walls stood black, shattered and lonely. I could not restrain the dropping tear of pain and regret. In the parks and in the suburbs of the city, women were sitting and guarding a few things saved and carried there by the arm of some kind hearted soldier. Major Mills, of the Seventy-Eighth, carried upon his horse women and children outside the burning part of the city, until nearly morning.”

  9. OhioGuy said, on February 21, 2015 at 9:58 am

    Finally, here are the author’s thoughts as the regiment prepared to leave the city. The author was Thomas Stevenson, the chaplain of the regiment. The 78th OVVI was part of the U.S. 17th Corps. Its chain of command was through Frank Blair to O. O. Howard to W.T. Sherman. Here are Stevenson’s a parting thoughts:

    “The next day soldiers seemed not cheerful; their hearts went back in sympathy with the suffering people. All condemned and regretted the city had been burnt, but whom to blame they scarcely knew. It was burnt in a mysterious manner. Some how it was burnt, none could tell, and no one intended or thought of such a thing the evening before. Thus the city where the first ordinance of secession was passed had received a retribution severe, if not righteous; terrible, if not just.”

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