The event remains a controversial issue in South Carolina history. Former Confederates and their sympathizers held the event as a prime example of Northern depravations and cruelty inflicted on Southerners. Even after more than a century, the burning of Columbia still served occasionally as a rallying point for some white South Carolinians against “Yankees” and the Federal government.
(February 17–18, 1865). On the morning of February 16, 1865, General William T. Sherman’s Union army, 58,000 strong, stood poised to capture the South Carolina capital. When the Federal force resumed its northward march four days later, one-third of the city lay in ashes, giving rise to one of the Civil War’s persistent controversies: Who burned Columbia?
Confused by Sherman’s tactics, Confederate general P. G. T. Beauregard scattered his meager forces in an arc stretching from Charleston through Columbia to Augusta, Georgia, resulting in an inadequate defense for all cities. In early February, after concentrating his divided columns along a railroad from Windsor to Midway, Sherman marched virtually unopposed on Columbia.
Columbia was in chaos when Mayor Thomas J. Goodwyn surrendered the city at midmorning on Thursday, February 17. The previous night mobs of straggling soldiers and townspeople had plundered businesses and warehouses abandoned during the failed Confederate evacuation. Stacks of ragged cotton bales, ordered by General Wade Hampton to be rolled out of warehouses with the intention of burning them to keep them out of Union hands, lined the streets. Driven by a strong wind, loose cotton blew over the ground and snagged on buildings and trees, giving the city the appearance of a snowstorm.
Local whites and blacks exacerbated the tumult by offering wine and whiskey to Union troops filing into Columbia. Soldiers steadily dropped out of line, and during the afternoon straggling troops, with alcohol in their hands, accumulated. To allay growing concerns, Union general Oliver O. Howard ordered extensive stocks of alcohol destroyed.
Fires also complicated the evacuation and capture of Columbia. The Congaree River bridge was still smoldering before dawn on February 17 when cotton fires illuminated the city. Hours later the South Carolina Railroad depot exploded and burned, and as their last act, retreating Confederate troops set fire to the Charlotte Railroad depot. Both stations were still burning about 11:00 A.M. when occupying Union troops reported cotton fires on Richardson (now Main) Street near the town hall. About 1:00 P.M. a blaze flared up at the jail, and during the afternoon at least six fires, mostly in cotton stacked in the streets, broke out at downtown locations. Near 8:00 P.M. another fire began in the center of town.
At approximately 5:00 P.M., as drunkenness increased and security deteriorated, Howard ordered in fresh troops to arrest disorderly soldiers. The troops arrived about 8:00 P.M. and found Richardson Street in flames. This last of a series of unexplained fires was the conflagration that burned Columbia. Nourished by wooden buildings with common walls and a strong wind that wafted burning shingles into the air, the fire spread rapidly. Howard, most of the other Union generals, and the local fire companies soon began fighting the fire, but their efforts failed and the flames quickly raged out of control. Sherman arrived on the scene about 11:00 P.M.
As the fire spread, a riot unfolded in the streets of Columbia, during which some Union soldiers engaged in frightful misconduct. Gangs of troops taunted citizens, stole or destroyed property, and plundered burning houses. Other soldiers accosted citizens in the streets and sometimes took their possessions by brute force. Still others engaged in incendiarism, the most notorious of their crimes. Dr. Robert W. Gibbes, an antiquarian and naturalist, left a detailed account of arson when drunken soldiers burned his home. Accounts of Union soldiers fighting fires and protecting people and property also exist.
About 3:00 A.M. the wind and the fire subsided. Simultaneously, a fresh brigade of troops entered Columbia and suppressed the riot. In the process, 2 soldiers were killed and 30 wounded; 370 soldiers and civilians were arrested. That no citizens died during the fire was small consolation. When Columbians looked around the next morning, they saw massive devastation. About one-third of the town had burned, totaling 458 buildings, of which 265 were residences.
Smoke still lingered over the South Carolina capital when the war of words began over “Who burned Columbia?” Hampton proclaimed Sherman a barbarian, and South Carolinians began gathering evidence against the Northern commander and his troops. Testimony gathered over several years pronounced Sherman guilty, though eyewitness accounts of specific acts of violence and incendiarism were few. In 1873 a claims commission investigating the events in Columbia assessed no blame.
Though traumatic for all inhabitants, the tragic events of the burning of Columbia were an accident of war, the fault of no single individual. The event remains a controversial issue in South Carolina history. Former Confederates and their sympathizers held the event as a prime example of Northern depravations and cruelty inflicted on Southerners. Even after more than a century, the burning of Columbia still served occasionally as a rallying point for some white South Carolinians against “Yankees” and the Federal government.
Lucas, Marion Brunson. Sherman and the Burning of Columbia. 1976. Reprint, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2000.
Marszalek, John F. Sherman: A Soldier’s Passion for Order. New York: Free Press, 1993.